Kerry Greenwood is author of the bestselling Phryne Fisher mysteries. When she is not writing, she works part time for Victoria Legal Aid as an advocate in Magistrates’ Courts. Kerry chatted with us recently about her books and the writing process.
Valerie: You have written 29 novels! Describe when you first knew you wanted to be a novelist and what steps did you take to get started?
Kerry: Actually (hem, hem, coughs modestly) it's more like 43 novels and several non fiction books. I like writing books. Now they pay me to do it, which is more luck than one person should have. I knew I wanted to be a writer from the moment I stared entranced at my first sentence ("the world is round and spins in space") in third grade and realised that anyone could read it and learn this important fact even though I wasn't there - the difference, as Kipling noted in the Just So story - between spoken and written words.
I was delighted and for that moment on have not stopped writing. I told stories to my siblings and I read everything I could get my hands on, pillaged Footscray Library and the local op shop, which yielded Everyman editions of things like Herodotus' Histories and Kingsley's The Heroes and hundreds of heavy Victorian three volume novels, The Rosary by Florence Barclay and The Daisy Chain by Charlotte M Yonge. And I read the grandparental wedding present collections of Dickens and Trollope and the Saint and Ray Bradbury and John Buchan and Kipling and also the backs of cereal packets.
Then when I started writing, at sixteen one long summer holiday, sitting mostly in my mother's apricot tree, I wrote a long novel called The Magic Stone and realised that I knew how to write but I didn’t know how to stop writing and If it was a good idea it needed 85,000 words - so I was destined to be a novelist.
Valerie: You obviously have an interest in crime and sleuthing. How much inspiration do you get from your work in the law? Where do you get your "criminal" ideas from?
Kerry: My kind of crime is not fictional crime. I work down among the Magistrates' Courts. I get the people who are no good at it - they fall through colourbond roofs when burgling houses and break their legs, they leave their healthcare card in the lock they are trying to slip, they etch their fingerprints into the panels of a burned car. I am always interested in the reasons why people do things, but my clients don’t usually have reasons.
I asked one pair who had broken the McDonald's window with a rock why they had done it, hoping for a social critique on urban, even Brechtian, alienation, but all they finally came up with was: “The bus was late". Which didn't impress the magistrate, either.
I greatly admire the detective story conventions, especially the Golden Age rules, and I follow them, but they have nothing to do with real life or real crime, about which I am not going to write. There is enough doom in the world already without me adding to it.
I want a story with a happy ending, so I usually have to write it myself. Actually criminal ideas occur to everyone, especially if you are sitting in a vastly over-extended meeting with a maddening person who is going on and on and you know if you protest they will just get worse, and so one thinks of lots of interesting ways to kill them. I, at least, can call this "research".
Valerie: If you could live as one of your characters, which one would it be and why?
Kerry: Phryne Fisher, of course, just for a couple of days - time for a dress fitting, a dance, a nice dinner, a pretty young man. Pure escapism. I couldn't bear to live like her all the time, but for a few days it would be wonderful...
Valerie: Can you describe the writing process for this book?
Kerry:I don't have set hours for writing. What I do is decide, or allow the world to decide, what I shall research for this novel, for instance, the one I have just finished. One plot relates to a missing child lost sometime in about 1864, so i will need 1864 Melbourne, clothes, food, fashion, political situation, maps. Then there is a strain, for some reason, of Allenby's campaign in Palestine in 1918, so I'll need books for that and the loan of Great Uncle Donald's bandolier to lie on my desk to inspire me. And this one appears to be about antique shops so we will look at antique shops then and now and what might be found in them in 1929. I do not know where the ideas comefrom, they just float up, or I find myself presented with the material.
Once I was writing a book about women's magazines and I got the message that I should look at South China Sea pirates, and was at court at the time, so I told my subconscious, all right, if I put my hand on a book on South China Sea pirates in the 20thC in Sunshine library on the way home, I'll do it, otherwise, not. In the library returns tray was a book called The Black Flag, Piracy in the South China Sea in the 20th Century by James Hepburn, so I did it. One cannot ignore things like that.
I know this is not a sensible way to write a book, but it works and I trust it now. When the research reaches a head, I wake up and write the book. Usually takes about three months, gradually gaining impetus until
towards the end I write all night and day until I finish it.
And I only ever have one draft.
My cat Belladonna keeps me company all the time, occasionally tapping the capslock when she feels it is time for me to stand up, stretch, do my hand exercises, go into the kitchen for some more coffee and a few special cat treats for the beautiful feline assistant. This has preserved my wrists from damage for the last few books, since she graced me with her small black furry presence.
Valerie: What would your advice be for aspiring writers who may be struggling with self doubt, discipline and the creative process?
Kerry: Self doubt exhaustion and confusion are part of the process, embrace them, and don't stop writing to examine what you have. The world is full of people trying to perfect chapter one. Even I have to go back and fix chapter one and I once wrote a novel in nine days. Keep writing and don't stop until you have at least 20,000 words. Then you can start playing with it.
And listen to the novel. It wants to be written so it will tell you how to do it. The story wants to be told. Be an instrument and stop trying to push it into a mould. Just write it as it comes...
And if you don’t want to write but feel you should be writing, write a letter to an old friend. Works well and if it doesn’t you still have the letter.
Valerie: What was the last book you read that amazed you?
Kerry: It was a book about the American military's attempt to confect a ninja warrior which was called The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson. I read it with dropping jaw. Real life is MUCH stranger than fiction and no editor would ever let me get away with a plot like that.