Questions and Answers
You will ask about stuff … and a surprising number of you are interested in finding out about the same stuff. So, here are some of the most common questions (with answers).
Q: How do you feel about Smoke and Mirrors winning the National Year of Reading competition for the ACT?
A: I resisted the temptation to smooch the PM today (14 Feb 2012) when I collected this award, only because she IS the leader of our nation and shouldn't have to suffer over-familiar greetings from the "no longer attractive". That didn't mean I was anything less than chuffed, especially as the authors short listed for this award are all class acts. I was additionally pleased to receive the award because each of my books has sold less than its predecessors - who said that the reading public isn't discerning? - and any occurrence that increases my sales (and thereby increases the prospect of me getting another book published) is to be welcomed.
Various people have received honourable mentions on previous occasions when Smoke and Mirrors has picked up awards. I remain grateful to them but am also thankful for the efforts of Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey and Stieg Larsson ... because, if they didn't sell truckloads of books for my publisher, writers of the desperately aspiring sort (like me) wouldn't make it into print.
( ...and by the way, the PM delivered a terrific speeech at the National Year of Reading 2012 event, in addition to being charming and - if I may say so - surprisingly smooch-worthy.)
Q: Is a fourth Bradman Chen novel on the way?
A: A number of ideas have been floating around since Rip Off was completed but Australian publishing is in a parlous state, so I'm not sure that the people at Pan MacMillan will welcome another Chen effort. Watch this space.
Q: What's Rip Off about?
A: Rip Off sees our hero attempting, in a sometimes half-hearted way, to solve the murders of a series of fraudsters and conmen. Murders take place in Perth and Adelaide before also happening in the east ... but the first half of the book is mostly set in Adelaide and the second half unfolds in Canberra and Sydney. The story is a product of my fascination with rip off artists (including those from the big end of town) and with the peculiar willingness of their victims to leave vengeance to our profoundly flawed system of criminal justice. (Steal someone's letter box and they'll chase you down the street for as long as their legs will carry them; steal their life savings or their superannuation and they'll meekly trust the courts to secure retribution, stoically accepting inadequate punishments when sentencing is completed.) Rip Off also allows me to have fun with the idea of "killer as hero". It's probably as much a "why dunnit?" as a "who dunnit?".
Q: On what page in Rip Off is the sex scene?
A: Sigh! There might not be one this time around. You'll have to read the book and see. Alternatively, "stop it or you'll almost certainly go blind."
Q: Isn't it foolhardy to call a crime novel which breaks with a number of genre customs Rip Off?
A: It's true that a good number of the later murders in Rip Off are barely described; it's what the victims did in life that is more important to the story than the precise details of their deaths. It's also true that forensics addicts won't, as usual, find much that will satisfy. It's true, too, that there are, once again, scenes that don't do much to progress the plot. There are even scenes in which jests and high drama are combined, apparently the ultimate "no no". Notwithstanding these breaks with contemporary crime fiction custom, I think the book will satisfy. Rip Off aint no rip off. If nothing else, it contains some splendid jests.
Q: Where did you learn about the various sorts of frauds and cons that feature in Rip Off?
A: For a few years I clipped the daily papers. The results were astounding and instructive..
Q: Aren't you worried that people will imitate the murders in Rip Off and take to knocking off accused con artists?
A: I suspect that every crime writer worries about the possibility of grisly fiction becoming horrific fact. A scene that I wrote for Smoke and Mirrors has never seen the light of day for this very reason. That said, if email traffic is anything to go by, my typical reader aint of the gun totin' vigilante kind, so I'm not especially worried. Besides, Brad runs some pretty good arguments against self-help justice.
Q: What's with the prostate jokes and the Movember reference in Rip Off?
A mate of mine in his early 60s died a few years ago from cancer that began in his prostate. This form of cancer kills as many Australian men as breast cancer kills Australian women. Anything I can do to remind men that we have "our own cancer" and that in middle age we ought to be regularly submitting to "the finger" and to PSA testing is worthwhile. Sometimes a subtle reminder is all that's needed to save a life.
Q: What's your problem with taxi drivers, lawyers and entrepreneurs?
A: No problem. There are people in each of these vocations who are doing the right thing .... and all power to them. And may I say that any learned friend who demonstrated enterpreneurial zeal by driving a taxi in an Australian city would be held in the very warmest regard at Casa Robertson.
Q. You imply (above) that there is a serial killer or killers on the loose in Rip Off. It's a bit desperate, isn't it, three books into a series, to be relying on a serial killer?
A: Point taken but I'm not relying on a killing spree to increase the tension. In fact, for most of the book additional deaths increase public support for the reaper(s) and merely add to Brad's frustration. I didn't rely on serial killings because I ran out of ideas but because they were fundmantal to a story in which Chen pursues an individual or individuals increasingly admired by the public.
Q: Will Brad Chen always be so battered?
A: It's true that he’s a man who’s copped a lot of biff over the years and I did feel a bit guilty about adding to his physical problems in Dead Set and Smoke and Mirrors . I have, accordingly, taken pity on him in Rip Off. Nothing too brutal happens to him. In any event, we all need to recall that Brad is an ex-Rugby League star and that the injury lists of most footy greats are nothing less than awe inspiring. Brad isn’t immune to pain but, unlike most of us, he is used to dealing with it.
Q: Why a Chinese detective?
A: The cliché was, of course, a tempting one to take on but what attracted me most to the idea of a Chinese Australian copper was the difference between what readers see when they encounter Chen and what they actually get.
Q: To what extent are you Bradman Chen?
A: This question always makes me laugh. Chen is a handsome, battered, ex-footy star with a prodigious memory, an obsessive interest in Australian political history and a decidedly strange collection of friends. He is clever and brave, if a bit flawed. He has a high tolerance of pain and is a fifth-generation Chinese-Australian.
Apart from also being a bit flawed and battered, I have none of these attributes, except a strange collection of friends and in interest in Australian political history.
Q: Would you like to be Bradman Chen?
A: Most certainly not. I envy the “interesting” nature of his work and some of his attributes but, no, I don’t want to be him. After all these years, I’m, finally, used to being me.
Q: What do you write with and on?
A: (This question always surprises me. Think about it; do you really believe that the answer to this question will help you complete your own detective story?) My day job requires me to sit at a computer screen for long stretches, so the last thing I want to do at night and on the weekends is swap screens and keyboards. As a consequence, I write initial drafts with pen and paper. I write with Uniball Signo pens into notebooks and then onto very good quality paper - outrageously expensive stuff - before dictating the text into electronic form using Dragon voice recognition software. (The idea is to make the business of getting it down as easy as possibly for me, physically). Once this stage is reached, I’m at the screen day and night.
Q: Do you plan the books?
A: I have a rough plan when I start plus some completed (key) scenes, along with bits ‘n pieces of dialogue. But then I let things go where they will. The plan becomes a kind of safety net, in case I write myself into a cul de sac.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A: “Talk to people who’ve written more books than I have?” “Talk to people who’ve made a living from writing?” No, I’d probably say “you need to get on with it.” It probably also helps to write in a genre that you know something about.
The only writing book I’ve relied on (and that I recommend without reservation) is Lawrence Block’s “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit”. However, If you want good advice on the business of being a writer in Australia – everything from “what to do when you work’s been rejected” to “what constitutes success?” – get a copy of Ian Irvine’s article, “The Truth About Publishing”. I read this remarkable piece in three parts (abridged by Jodi De Vantier, Queensland Writers Centre) in the ACT Writers Centre magazine. It contains sobering, highly practical information of the sort I wish I’d read years ago. Highly recommended.
Q: What’s your response to reviews?
A: Apart from anguished sobs and bloodcurdling threats of vengeance? So many books are released each year; getting any sort of notice – good or bad – is something to be thankful for. I’m grateful for good reviews and especially grateful for ones that register my better jests, that recognise themes and that identify political trivia. As for the “qualified” or “less than enthusiastic” reviews, I haven’t (yet) had many of them and I try to be philosophical about their existence. After all, not everyone has a sense of humour (despite the protestations of humourless people to the contrary) and not everyone shares my sense of humour. Consequently, not everyone gets the Chen books. The important thing is to enjoy the good feedback and not be too troubled by the bad.
Q: What’s with the loopy scenes in each of the books – the altercation with the nurse in Dead Set, the reading of the journalist’s blog in Smoke and Mirrors and some of the taxi driver scenes in Rip Off?
A: I don’t know. Some times I wonder where this weird stuff comes from, myself. Part way through the writing of each book something zippo just happens …. and my view is that there’s no point in fighting it.
Q: How come it took you so many years to get into print?
A: I was busy. I studied part-time for 17 years in a row. A couple of decades just disappeared. Before that I lacked the necessary self-confidence. But, hey, Chandler also wasn't in print until he was fifty, so I'm not embarassed by a late start.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: Fiction. Something other than a Chen novel. And that's all I'm saying . I was seriously crook in the second half of 2011, had ghastly surgery and lost my mojo. However, I am writing again, in dribs and drabs. Maybe it will result in something publishable. Maybe not. If not, there are plenty of things to work on. Before disaster struck last year I was playing with a book on Australian ploitical history - yep, non-fiction - but whether it will ever be completed .... well, who knows? There are six chapters of a black comedy sitting on my work table, along with a part-sketched pilot for a TV series on Australian politics and the outline of a book on horse racing. There's a part-plotted Chen novel set on Coochiemudlo Island in Queensland, too. I find having too many ideas a curse, instead of a blessing ... and to reshape a George Bernard Shaw aphorism, "work is the curse of the writing classes."
Q: What do Australian authors earn from their books?
A: In short, ten per cent of the retail price is the norm ie somewhere between $2-00 and $3-40 per copy. For a work of (possibly) popular fiction Aussie authors usually get an advance on these royalties of between $8,000 and $10,000 (4 to 5 thousand books worth of cash) from which tax, agents' fees and expenses of various sorts are then deducted). Few of us sell enough copies to ever get a follow-up cheque. If you know an Australian author who is a full-time writer, it's a fair bet they're supported by a generous spouse or by Centrelink. Sad but true.
No, I won’t tell you what music I’ve been listening to. (How Chen aficionados became interested in my musical tastes, I don’t know, although someone reckons it was at the ACT Writers Festival a few years back.) Anyway, what has it got to do with writing? Nothing. That’s right. So, stop asking.
No, I don’t consult sex-education manuals before I write those (mandatory) scenes. At any rate, if my recall of female physiology is patchy, I just look at Video Hits with the sound turned down, trying not to get too excited, and it all comes back to me.
Yes, I am obsessive ... but rarely compulsive. My CD collection is alphabetically ordered and my library is subject arranged and then alpha ordered. I read book series in the order in which the individual volumes were written. I begin every day with a list. Don't other people live like this?.
With reference to Smoke and Mirrors, no, I don’t have fantasies about assertive women. Nowadays most of my fantasies are about pastry and part-time employment.
No, I won't read your manuscript and comment on it. I work full-time and write part-time. I don't have time to scratch. You are right, though, to ask someone you don't know to read your work. Ask your local writers' centre if they can recommend a manuscript assessment service which has a track record of asessing books in your genre.