Peter Temple has died a few days before his 72nd birthday. My friend, crime writer Shane Maloney, reports that Peter had been diagnosed with a brain tumour six months ago.
I first met Peter in the very early 1980s when he was editor of a new magazine called Australian Society. I wrote one my first articles for him and he was a seriously good editor. He told me that I could write. I never forgot his kindness.
He was always fun to interview; he was an irascible, self-deprecating and intelligent writer. Here is our conversation from 5th October 2009 where he talks, among many things, about solving problems in the manuscript and about his admiration for our mutual editor at Text, Michael Heyward:
Ramona Koval: Peter Temple’s previous book The Broken Shore won a swag of prizes, medals and crime awards. It was also named Australian General Fiction Book of the Year in the Australian Book Industry awards.
His new book Truth has many of the characters from The Broken Shore appearing in cameo roles but the action is embedded in the life and times of Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, and a series of grim murders he’s investigating. There are fires burning across the state, the different branches of the police force are jostling for position, there’s a question of corruption in state politics, a feral media, and of course his life is falling apart too.
Peter Temple joins us form the ABC studio in Ballarat near where he lives. Welcome again to The Book Show, Peter.
Peter Temple: Thank you very much, it’s nice to be here.
Ramona Koval: Do the lives of these guys always have to fall apart?
Peter Temple: I think it’s absolutely important that their lives should collapse at the point in which I arrive on the scene, yes.
Ramona Koval: Because?
Peter Temple: Otherwise it’s just fairly full-on procedural stuff and somewhat lacking in drama. I’ve said this to you before, I’m really interested in people and the only way to get people interesting, as far as I can tell, is to illicit some response to their predicament.
Ramona Koval: But the people you write about are often police and surrounding people, and one of the things that happens in this book is the huge resource of the life of the cop, the idea that the force takes precedence over anything. That is a pressure on people’s lives.
Peter Temple: It’s a pressure on people’s lives not only in things like the police force, it’s a self-inflicted pressure in many ways on all sorts of people. I suppose there are people in the money market who’ll tell you that they worry just as much as any policeman. So he is a policeman and that’s the point of the story, but he’s also a man like many men who has found, for one reason or another, a more or less complete life in his job and, like many men, maybe beginning to regret it when it is too late.
Ramona Koval: There are lots of fathers and children in this book, failed children, failed relationships. Do you think this is what happens, that these men find acceptance and interest and fascination in their work because they don’t know how to be in families together?
Peter Temple: It may cut both ways, it may be that there is a self-selection process at work here across all sorts of occupations in which people who are not emotionally right for family relationships seek in work the kind of relationship they want, but of course at the same time they do enter into family relationships, and so these two things are destined to war with each other all the time. That’s really the case with this imaginary person, but I don’t think it’s an uncommon thing to have people having constantly to decide which part of their life should have priority at one time. I think we all know people who have given the work side of their life priority to the cost of the other side and then at some point regretted it, all these people who retire early and say ‘I want to spend more time with my family’, at the point at which their families have no desire to spend any more time with them.
Ramona Koval: That’s right. Let’s hear from the very beginning of your new novel Truth, Peter Temple, why don’t you read for us.
Peter Temple: All right. It begins this way:
[reading from On the West Gate Bridge behind… to …I bear this cross.]
Ramona Koval: So Cashin gets a look-in there of course, he was very big in the last book The Broken Shore.
Peter Temple: He was big, he was the book last time.
Ramona Koval: And you’re going to introduce little bits about him for those fans who want to know what happened. Do you feel as if you’re writing a symphony here with all the different movements?
Peter Temple: You get that feeling after a while. It’s the problem of writing…it isn’t a sequel it’s a companion piece, somebody cleverly suggested. But yes, the same characters are in both. And it’s difficult to both meet the need to tell people about the earlier book and not bore those who read it and not give too much away for those who haven’t read it. But writing, for me anyway, does have some symphonic problems. This whole book…the problem is finding a score for it, finding a tempo for it, finding a way to do slower passages and quicker ones and unaccompanied piano pieces and a full ensemble going, all of those things. It’s hard to find it, to hear it correctly.
Ramona Koval: And it’s very jazzy in places, especially in…
Peter Temple: I’m delighted to hear you say that.
Ramona Koval: Yes, it is jazzy because there are little trills and there are little reminders of other things. What I thought about the writing here was you’re really playing with consciousness in this book, the way memories interact with perceptions, the way people have conversations where they trigger things, they trigger other thoughts and sentences in each other’s heads but they don’t necessarily express them as sentences. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Peter Temple: Yes, I’m trying to write something that changes its pace all the time and that moves from the exterior world to Villani’s interior world. Because of the way it’s written, which is first person in the third person more or less, it’s a restricted point of view to Villani, I only have Villani’s subconscious, as it were. Then I have an authorial voice but which is also Villani and doesn’t attempt to go beyond him and then I have the voices of all the other people.
So I want to express Villani’s own thoughts and feelings as they occur to all of us in that we’ll be talking about something and watching something outside at the same time and losing concentration on the conversation, or the conversation will trigger a thought in us, so trying to do that but also trying to keep the readers’ attention on the dialogue being conducted. So that itself has a vaguely jazz-like feeling to it. But there are slow passages and quick passages and passages that are…I hesitate to use the word ‘lyrical’ but are slightly more ornate than lots of it.
Ramona Koval: It’s not an easy read. The lingo, the cop talk between the characters, the shorthand that people use, which I’m sure is really, really authentic because people who know each other and have worked with each other for a long time in a system where they have all kinds of shorthand ways of saying things. People in the media do this too when we talk to each other. They’ve spent a long time together but the reader hasn’t necessarily spent that time in that milieu. How did you think about that problem, if it is a problem?
Peter Temple: It is a problem. I’m keen to capture the way people speak, I’m keen to capture the silences and the omissions, as you rightly point out, the things that people don’t need to say to each other because they know each other so well, and also there’s the professional jargon that comes into it. I don’t want to water that stuff down, it annoys me when I read writers who read that. I don’t want to have things explained to me, I don’t want to be treated like a child.
So I’m assuming that the reader will be patient enough to wait to see what things mean. They might not be immediately apparent. Everything will become apparent in due course, you will know what they are talking about, either you will be told later on or it will simply become apparent. It’s the sort of thing one sees in films, and I like that, a brief passing shot of something without any lingering on it, it just moves on, but then later in the film you might return to that very spot and now you will spend longer on it, suddenly the significance is revealed. It is hard going. I don’t see it as hard going when I’m writing it unfortunately…
Ramona Koval: ‘Unfortunately’? What do you mean?
Peter Temple: I wouldn’t change anything, no. I’ve had the opportunity to change things, to make them simpler, to explain things again…if you don’t feel the effort to be worthwhile then clearly I’ve failed, and there’s every chance of that…
Ramona Koval: No, you haven’t failed. But you do have to sit with it as a reader, we have to trust you really.
Peter Temple: You have to trust all writers except I think the most explicit and boring producers of exposition. I’ve never read a writer I liked who didn’t require something of you, even if it’s having to look words up, which some people are loathed to do. I’m being asked for an American glossary again, this time 120 terms for the American edition.
Ramona Koval: You’re being asked…are you going to say yes?
Peter Temple: Yes, I’m going to do it. It’s hard to say no because people are saying they simply do not understand, and at no point will they ever understand. So with great reluctance I’ll do it. But it is that…so if you have the problem of compressed dialogue, compressed elliptical dialogue, and then you add the Australian vernacular to it and then you add some cop talk to it, I suppose I’m expecting a bit much in America. The English don’t seem to have any problems.
Ramona Koval: I’ll just jump now to the dedication. We seem to be talking about editing and different things that you’re being asked to do for different versions, and I notice that one of the dedications is for ‘MH, whose faith has transcended reason’. I’m putting a bet on Michael Heywood, your editor at Text, is that right?
Peter Temple: MH, it is Michael Heywood, yes.
Ramona Koval: Good on me! So ‘faith transcended reason’? Tell me about that.
Peter Temple: Michael has had faith in this book long after I lost faith in it and has allowed me to take a terribly long time to write it, and in the course of which I’ve said many times that I’m giving it away, I don’t want to carry on with it, I’ll give him his paltry advance back. And Michael has just said, ‘It will be good, keep going.’ Or, ‘Take a week off, do something else,’ and he knows I’m incapable of doing anything else or taking a week off. So he’s been a great support to me without letting me ever forget that I owe him the book.
Ramona Koval: At which points did you lose faith in it?
Peter Temple: I thought it was a bad idea, I thought what I was trying to do was a bad idea…
Ramona Koval: Which was what?
Peter Temple: To try and position somebody at the intersection of a number of forces, at places where things meet, where the media and politics and the pressures of work and his family, extended family, all of these things meet in one man in one week, and I got myself up to a point…I suppose about a third of the way in which I thought I really can’t do this, I can carry on doing it but it’s not going to work, and I couldn’t hear the book at all. So I thought I’ve gone off in the wrong direction, I should have tried something a little more conventional, possibly written it in the third person and allowed other points of view to come into it. It’s the problem of this single point of view in which I must filter everything through him. And the book sinks or swims by that, and I thought it was looking at me from the bottom of the pool, small bubbles emerging from its mouth, and I was very disheartened by it, and I’d wasted a lot of time…
Ramona Koval: How long had you spent getting to that position?
Peter Temple: I was about two years into it at that point, two wasted, really lazy, silly years. I could have written five books. I couldn’t actually, rubbish. So I was fairly disheartened by the whole thing, it seemed best just to abandon it.
Ramona Koval: Obviously your editor said, ‘Keep going.’ Did you keep going in the same vein or did you change something or did you lose something?
Peter Temple: No, you have to keep going in the same vein because if you…I’ve done this before, I’ve had these moments in which I’ve decided that I’ll start rewriting it from the beginning, I’ll try and do a rewrite, at which point I begin writing another book. The risk here for me is that at exactly the same point in the new book I will experience exactly the same feelings about it, so I will now have two books at the same point, both rejected. So you have to see this as a sort of polar exploration thing, that is you can’t see the horizon, it’s snowing…
Ramona Koval: You’re snow blind…
Peter Temple: You’re snow blind, the dogs are dead. Just keep putting one foot ahead the other, and sooner or later the blizzard will stop and with luck you’ll see the horizon. And in due course I did, so I’ll always be very grateful to those people who stuck with me along the way. The problem is nobody sees it before…I can’t say, when people say to me, ‘What’s the problem?’ I can’t explain it to them.
Ramona Koval: Why, because you won’t show it to them?
Peter Temple: No, I won’t show it to them, I won’t show it to anybody, nobody sees it. That’s the other problem…I think many writers feel this, when you get after the eighth book or so, this business of living with it, you and it, is fairly tiresome. There is no escape from it. You wake up in the morning thinking about it, go to sleep thinking about it. And so perhaps if you were able to say, ‘Well, have a look at it and see what you think, what am I doing,’ you might be reassured.
Ramona Koval: But you can’t do that?
Peter Temple: No, absolutely not, I’d throw it away before I did that.
Ramona Koval: Why?
Peter Temple: It’s too personal, also I think it’s too bad. I think people will say, ‘Oh God, this is rubbish, you’ll have to start again.’ So I’d rather keep it to myself.
Ramona Koval: You’d rather you beat yourself up than they beat you up.
Peter Temple: Absolutely, if you’re going to be beaten up you might as well do it yourself. I don’t trust other people’s advice so there’s no point in…I trust their judgement when it’s finished, Michael’s judgement in particular. Michael’s judgement is crucial. If he thinks it’s no good I’ll accept that, I’m not going to fight for it. So, fortunately he liked it. He read it on the plane on his eBook.
Ramona Koval: So this thing about the idea of going back to something that you’re finding nauseous, by the sounds of it you just found it nauseous at that time, you just didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and to plod through it…what was the point at which you thought, no, I think this is working? Did you read it up to that point again, or did you just see the numbers of words getting bigger and bigger and did that make you happy?
Peter Temple: No, I don’t go back and read it. I like to see the word count rising, I like to see it reaching book length.
Ramona Koval: Do you do a word count every day?
Peter Temple: Every day? After every line! I can’t wait for the day. It’s awful at the end of the day when you see you’ve written five words. But I’m talking about this as if I’m creating art here, I don’t want to give the wrong impression…but it is as difficult to agonise over rubbish as it is to agonise over art.
Ramona Koval: Now, I bet you do think you’re creating art. Peter, I have to pull you up on that, you do think it’s creating art.
Peter Temple: No, I don’t.
Ramona Koval: Oh come on.
Peter Temple: No, I’ve never thought that, I’ve never flattered myself in any way with that sort of…I’m delighted when people enjoy the stuff but I don’t delude myself about it, not at all. I’m happy with some of it but I know what it is.
Ramona Koval: You’ve often said you don’t have a picture of yourself writing crime novels but you like strong stories. And then I think, well…somebody actually says in this book, ‘Why would anyone want the job…’ he’s talking about being a cop, ‘…trapped in a dream that shifted from one ugly scene to another.’ And I thought, isn’t that a lot of what you’ve been doing in the last few years? You’ve been sitting there creating ugly scenes…I mean, beautifully written ugly scenes with horrible things that happen to people.
Peter Temple: That’s absolutely right, it is…
Ramona Koval: Why would anybody want that job, Peter?
Peter Temple: Because somebody’s got to do it. There’s an audience out there and we’ve got to keep producing this stuff. I don’t know, I’m drawn to it, I’m not saying I don’t like writing, I enjoy writing, I don’t know what else to do, I have no idea what else I’d do, it would be like removing a large part of oneself.
Ramona Koval: But you could write about all kinds of things…
Peter Temple: Pleasant things?
Ramona Koval: Well, not pleasant things but you can write about people that don’t get killed in horrible ways by psychopaths.
Peter Temple: But I don’t dwell on these things, you’ll notice, it’s fairly short and sharp. There’s no pleasure for me in that stuff…
Ramona Koval: It’s in your head, isn’t it, you have to generate it, dredge it up.
Peter Temple: It comes into my head and it goes out of my head again just as quickly and I don’t think about it again, in fact if people remind me of it I often can’t remember it, that’s how bad it is, so there’s a defensive mechanism at work here. But they’re not gory novels…
Ramona Koval: [laughs] I beg to differ! I’m not going to say anything about this book because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody.
Peter Temple: Put it this way, it’s all in there for the cause. I mean, if these people are bad, one must show the bad things they do otherwise how could you believe they were truly bad people? And they are bad.
Ramona Koval: And you believe that there is real badness and real..?
Peter Temple: Absolutely.
Ramona Koval: But not evil? Do you believe in evil?
Peter Temple: I’m getting that way, yes.
Ramona Koval: Why is that? You’re finding religion late in life?
Peter Temple: No, these are consolations that are going to be denied to me, I’m afraid. I don’t know…there seems to me to be an evil that might be independent of religious belief. Every now and again one meets people who are quite clearly evil people, they’re not just bad, they’ve gone past, beyond badness. There seems to be more of them around all the time. But that is presumably age.
Ramona Koval: You’ve actually met people that you consider are evil?
Peter Temple: I have met some of them actually, but no, it’s just every day everything you read…you only have to watch television to see evil people. I’m interested in the way society works, I’m interested in the way…the story is largely about a city, it’s about how a city has changed in the course of one man’s career, say, 25 years of it which takes us from the ’80s onwards, fairly dramatic changes in a city, dramatic changes in the way the police, those people who must stand between the citizenry and bad things, the way they have to deal with them, a general move towards a lawlessness and a disrespect for authority, which I think we see every day.
The idea of policemen being assaulted when attempting to stop or having stopped a car, I don’t think 20 years ago that was on unless you were dealing with crazy people. Now you’re dealing with ordinary citizens out for a night on the town, perhaps stealing a car on the way, but that too itself no longer seems to be a crime. Particularly in Ballart, they’ve stolen my Ute twice, and used it in a ram raid! I had to get rid of it eventually. Having the police ring you up and say, ‘We’ve got a Ute around here registered to you…’
Ramona Koval: I was going to ask you about your relationships with the police…
Peter Temple: We are just good friends.
Ramona Koval: Do you spend time on the beat with people, do you talk a lot..?
Peter Temple: No, I do not, I make this stuff up, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: You must have some good contacts, you must have people…
Peter Temple: I make it all up. Nobody is ever going to admit to speaking to me, never.
Ramona Koval: You used to be a very good journalist I remember, Peter.
Peter Temple: No, you should make this stuff up and try and get it…there’s lots of stuff you can read without actually doing this rubbish about…this Wire stuff about going on the beat with people. Going on the beat with people is incredibly boring unless you set up a few crime scenes along the way. I’m just fascinated in the way they talk. You can find lots of evidence for that, you can read transcripts of police chases. If you go through inquest accounts in which tapes are played, there’s an amazing amount of stuff on the record, you just have to look for it. So you can read interrogations, you can read hours and hours worth of records of interviews, all of those things. It gives you some idea of the way things function. But after that it’s an act of imagination, and I’m very loathe even to suggest that one takes this stuff directly from life, that would defeat the whole enterprise.
Ramona Koval: Have you had some fantastic fan letters from cops saying ‘You got it right’?
Peter Temple: No, I haven’t, I’ve never had that. I’ve talked to cops who’ve said they’ve enjoyed the books, and I think that’s maybe because the cops don’t come out of them badly. But also because sometimes the cops do come out of it badly, and perhaps to them that speaks more strongly than City Homicide where everybody is really good.
Ramona Koval: You don’t believe it.
Peter Temple: No, I don’t believe that at all, nor do the cops believe it too. They’re just people doing a job and some of them are bad and some of them are remarkably good.
Ramona Koval: Peter Temple’s new book is called Truth and it’s published by Text. Peter Temple, it’s always a pleasure talking to you.
Peter Temple: It’s always a pleasure talking to you. I think I’ve now put people off this book completely, so let me assure them that it is full of humour, it’s a good natured piece of work, a laugh on almost every page.
Ramona Koval: There’s a great tradition of writers doing their own reviews, isn’t there, Peter, but most of them are anonymous.
Peter Temple: I’m not guilty! How did you know?
Ramona Koval: Thanks for speaking to us on The Book Show.
Peter Temple: Thank you.