Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Ned Kelly Changed My Life by Sarah Byrne

Sarah (EC) Byrne is a lawyer, musician and crime fiction aficionada based in Canberra, the Capital of Australia. She is currently Public Advocate for the Australian Capital Territory, but has also held such roles as General Counsel for the Australian Medical Association and General Counsel for the Commonwealth Department of Finance & Administration. Sarah is also the vocalist for the Spectrum Big Band and for quartet Frequently Asked Questions, and can be found singing jazz at assorted venues in Canberra and surrounds when not reading or writing about crime fiction. Fortunately, her mathematician partner not only plays bass and tuba in the same ensembles, he also writes pantomimes and works of a similar ilk, and is thus in no position to complain.

by Sarah Byrne

When Kaye offered me the opportunity to contribute a column to Meanderings & Muses, my first reaction (after being really chuffed!) was that obviously, I should write about Australian Crime Fiction.  Some fellow Aussies and I had recently put on a very successful panel on the subject at the Hawaii Left Coast Crime, and it seemed a great opportunity to pitch Australian crime fiction to the rest of the world. (We gave away about 50 books at that panel; we gave away Australian food, too - the Tim Tams were very popular; the Vegemite somewhat less so...)

I nearly changed my mind, a dozen times.  For one thing, it *is* possible to have too much of a good thing (see aforementioned Tim Tams and Vegemite).  Occasionally I have bouts of immersing myself in OzCrime to the point that I almost never want to see it again.  But that's a problem of not being discriminating in my reading - I pick up anything Australian, and then blame Australia if not all of it is good.  Which is bizarre, because I've read some appalling UK and US crime fiction, but I don't give up on the whole country. 

The second reason was the exact opposite - am I doing Australian crime fiction a disservice by separating it our from the rest of the genre? Are we not standing on our own two feet yet, without needing to spruik our Australian-ness to the world? Is Australian-ness even relevant - many contemporary Australian writers are not particularly dependent on having an Australian cast to their writing - PD Martin's excellent books feature an Australian protagonist but are set in the US; Barry Maitland sets his works in London; Kathryn Fox's novels feature Australian cities, but would work just as well set in Chicago or Manchester.

Something that kept me away from Australian crime fiction for longer than it should was a fear that it would all declare its Australian-ness by featuring the Australian tropes I like the least - the arid wasteland of Russell Drysdale's paintings, the outbackwardness of "Wake in Fright" and the ocker boorishness of "Crocodile Dundee".  I confess I find Arthur Upfield's "Bony" books boring to the point of unreadability, and for a long time that's all we really had.  It wasn't until I was further into my reading career that I discovered that one of the first mystery novels, and the best-seller of the 19th century, Fergus Hume's "Mystery of a Hansom Cab", was written and set in Melbourne, and that the first Edgar went to Australian Charlotte Jay (Geraldine Halls) for "Beat Not the Bones", also set in Australia.

There's always been a tendency in Australia toward what we call the "cultural cringe".  I'm not even sure that term exists in other countries.  AA Phillips invented it back in the 1940s or 50s to explain the phenomenon whereby Australians tend to feel that anything imported is better than the homegrown (though Leonard Hume has argued somewhat uncharitably that this also gives unsuccessful artists/writer/musicians etc an easy way to avoid being responsible for their own failure). It only applies to The Yartz, of course - don't try challenging an Australian on the prowess of our sporting teams or beauty of our beaches, etc.  And our most famous building is, after all, an Opera House.  But it's also true that some great Australian artists and academics - Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Barry Humphries - were sadly unrecognised in their own country and have only achieved fame and fortune by taking their talents overseas.

I woke up this morning to the news that Peter Temple had just won the Miles Franklin award for his new book "Truth".  This is two years after "The Broken Shore" won him the Silver Dagger in the UK.  Those of us who love crime fiction have been pushing Temple's work on others for years, but it seems to be only now that he has won international recognition that mainstream Australian readers - the ones who won't hesitate to pick up the new Ian Rankin or (heaven help us) James Patterson - are willing to consider actually reading him.

Perhaps it's merely a population thing - with a country of only 20 million people, perhaps our writers, like our actors, have to seek audiences abroad for the recognition they deserve.

In any event, thinking this through I realised that Australian Crime Fiction had changed my life, and for that alone it deserves my attention.

It all started back in 2000 or so, that year of fresh starts and new resolutions.  Gayle Lovett, the proprietor of a wonderful, local independent crime-fiction specialising bookshop Gaslight , mentioned my name to the equally wonderful David Honeybone, who was setting up the late lamented Crime Factory magazine. (Sadly, there no longer remains even a web remnant of this excellent publication, but the good news is that it has now been revived as an on-line 'zine by a new team of entrepreneurs, and is looking pretty healthy.)

After contributing a few articles and reviews etc, David invited me to join the judging panel for the Ned Kelly Awards for Australian crime writing.  I'm not sure if the system remains the same now, but at that time, the publishing market here was sufficiently small to render a shortlist unnecessary.  Which means that the judges read everything submitted to us,  We didn't get a lot of time to read them, either - a huge box was delivered along with an eight week deadline - so the other thing for which I am grateful to the Neds is teaching me about holidays.

As a lawyer from a family of lawyers, I had always viewed workaholism as a virtue; seeing some sort of moral superiority in spending 16 hour days at the office plus the occasional all-nighter, travelling interstate several times a month and feeling twitchy if the mobile phone didn't ring every couple of hours on the weekend, thus proving I was indispensable.  (The armchair psychologists amongst my friends will also tell you that this is why I tend to turn my interests into work - I can't just enjoy jazz, I have to study and perform it; I can't just enjoy books, I have to write articles and buy crates of lit crit). But faced with a box of books and no time to read them, I was forced to a drastic solution - I took a week's leave and booked a flat at the beach, where there would be no distractions. It was literally the first holiday I had taken for eight years, having used leave previously only for family commitments.

That week changed my life. First, I rediscovered my love of crime fiction, and the community around it, and second, I discovered my life outside the office.

The great thing about judging and reviewing (and why I always try to read the Edgar and Anthony nominees) is that it takes you outside your comfort zone.  I read some amazing books that I would never have picked up off the shelf on my own.  I found two of the most extrordinary protagonists it has been my joy to read about.  One was Caroline Shaw's Lenny Aaron, a thoroughly unlikeable yet deeply engaging pet detective - an unhappily celibate lesbian from a deeply dysfunctional family, addicted to prescription drugs, with all the dishonesty and unreliability that entails.  The other was Andrew Masterson's Joe Panther, a Perth drug dealer, who believes he is - or perhaps actually is - Jesus Christ.  The originality of these characters aboslutely blew me away, as did one of the best historical novels, and crime novels, I've ever read, "The Notary", by Catherine Jinks. 

And I rediscovered wonderful writers I had set aside for a bit, such as Peter Temple, Kerry Greenwood and Shane Maloney - three authors not only completely diverse in style, but very Australian in a way that reminds me how much I do love this country.  Maloney's take on Australian politics is urban, quirky and completely hilarious. Greenwood, like Temple, almost needs no introduction, but like Temple has also only really gained the recognition she deserved once overseas readers latched on to her.  She suffers the second disadvantage of not writing hard-boiled fiction, which meant that the lightness of her touch sometimes misled the noir establishment to overlook the depth and quality of her writing.  Her novels about the Hon Phryne Fisher, set in 1930's Melbourne, and her more recent series about zaftig baker Corinna Chapman, set in contemporary Melbourne, are unalloyed pleasure.  The writing has a facility and felicity of phrase that I think is unequalled since Sarah Caudwell, and tiny tributes to PG Wodehouse abound. 

The drawback in not short-listing is that the goodie box also included some absolute dreck, including a couple of self-published novels which should have been rejected even by vanity publlishers - though easily the worst book I read - in that process or EVER - was from a "proper" publishing house that can only have allowed feminist zeal to overcome taste, sensibility and commercial instinct.  I won't name the book, but it was something like 800 pages of closely spaced type about a lesbian separatist collective in Gold Coast hinterland, and it was turgid beyond description or belief.

It was during these interludes, though, that I looked up from my armchair over the view to the beach, or went for a stroll along the jetty, or nipped out for some calamari and cider at the pub next door where I could sit on the balcony and stare out over the water to Montague Island.  And I could not believe it. Anything. I could not believe the colour of the water, or the freshness of the air, or the sheer wonderfulness of not being at the office. Most of all I could not believe that I had not been doing this for all those years behind me.

And without the Ned Kelly box of books, I might never have found out.

I made two resolutions that week which I have stuck to ever since.  The first is to take a holiday every year.  The second is to find time outside of my working life for the things that bring me joy.  And now every year I take a trip to Bouchercon, to find new writers and rediscover old ones, to participate in the wonderful community that exists around crime fiction, and most of all, to not be at the office. 


Julie Hyzy said...

Sarah! So happy to see you here! I loved reading your post - almost as fun as talking with you in person! Thanks, Kaye, for having Sarah here today! Such fun.


Vicki Lane said...

Oh, Sarah! How I've missed your intelligence and your wit on DorothyL. And what a lot of interesting reading I have to look forward to with all these unknown to me names.

Jacqui Horwood said...

Hello Sarah - Theresa van Gessel recommended I read your blog and I'm glad I did. I'm a convenor with Sisters in Crime Victoria and am a huge fan of Australian crime. I'm currently part of the judging panel for the davitt awards for australian women crime writers and can totally symapthise with the amount of reading. and having to read some absolute dreck. keep up the great work!

jenny milchman said...

What an interesting look into the life of a contest judge. I've often wondered how--reading outside one's comfort zone--judgments can be made on what is better or worse. Rejected by even a vanity press--ha, ha, I've read a few of those, and am amazed when they *do* come from mainstream publishers. But of the many gems you mention--thanks. My TBR pile can always use some additions.

Kaye meets the most interesting people!

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Sarah!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I do meet some interesting folks, don't I, Jenny?! including your own cute self!

Sarah - Thank you for coming by, always a treat for me to spend a little time with you. Even virtual time.

And thanks to the rest of you - as always!