Truth, Lies and Fiction
A Q & A with Peter Temple on the subject of his new book, Truth
and review
* by Bob Cornwell

As Peter Temple was unable to get to the UK for this month’s launch, I was delighted to be given the opportunity of putting a few questions to him via e-mail before publication.

Bob Cornwell:
When we last met,* after winning the 2007 CWA Gold Dagger for The Broken Shore, you were already talking about that book as the first part of a possible trilogy. How did you arrive at that idea?

Peter Temple:
It came to me while I was finishing The Broken Shore. Stephen Villani had a bit part and I liked him as a character: knowing, sardonic, much older in his manner than his contemporary Jo
e Cashin. I thought he might deserve his own book and I began thinking about his life and his city, and that became Truth. But I don't know about a third instalment. I need to do something else. Get out more.

The book has been long in the writing. More relaxed deadlines this time around? Did the (I believe) unprecedented award from the Australia Council for the Arts in any way enable you to take what you have called “a longer swing at it”?
I was able to take my time with Truth and for that I’m indebted to the Australia Council's wonderful policy of giving money to all kinds of writers, even those badged as crime writers. Before this taxable gift, I’ve always written under the pressure of bills. Of course it is not in the interests of publishers for writers to escape the lash of need, but mine is patient - not happy but patient.

You normally work from a “feeling” about what you want to do. What was that feeling this time?
Melbourne is a city changing faster than many of its inhabitants like. I wanted to write something that could capture its present and its recent history through the hard eyes of a cop twenty-five years in the job. I did my usual fiddling around, trying to find a score for the story, trying to find a voice for Stephen Villani, trying to avoid exposition as far as possible, losing faith, and giving up on the enterprise from time to time.

You had also clearly decided on the provocative Truth as a title early on in the gestation period. Why was that?
It’s paradoxical that novels are elaborated lies but often speak emotional truths that more-or-less factual stories cannot utter. Truth is in large part about lies public and private so the title spoke to me. (Incidentally, I was astonished to find that no-one had called a novel Truth.)

You have talked about your wish to move on from Joe Cashin at the close of Broken Shore, that readers can only stand so much pain. Now you give us Villani! (I hope I hear laughter at this point...) What was it about Villani that you felt could carry a whole book? And did you feel from the start that you were writing a character study as much as a crime novel?
Joe Cashin is a man who has known a great deal of physical pain and has been transformed by the experience. Villani’s pain is of a different kind. Most of it is self-inflicted and that’s important. I wanted to write something about how character is formed, minute by minute, day by day, incident by incident, from early childhood. There is nothing that bars this kind of thing from being explored in the crime novel. And the kind of turbulence associated with the crime novel – and you will probably agree that Truth is a fairly turbulent story – is suited to looking at Character (in the sense of mental and moral attributes).

Did you find it at all difficult to keep the balance between plot and the personal and professional background? How do you maintain that balance?
Balancing narrative, character development and exposition is a problem for all novels that rely on momentum. Truth is a shark book. If a shark book stops moving for too long, water doesn’t pass through the gills and the book's gone. It sinks. So you have to trust your sense of momentum, trust your sense of how long you can linger on memories, dreams and reflections before you must twist and speed away.

The plotting of Truth, with its four crime strands, two of them in the past, is your most complex yet (and, I think, beautifully brought off). Does this imply something more than the “endless tinkering” we discussed back in 2007?
The book was written at a more leisurely pace, which means more time for tinkering. In my mind I’m still tinkering with it. Actually, I’m still tinkering with all my books. Just saying that makes me so sad.

Politics plays a much more overt role in Truth than in most previous books. How important is politics to you?
I’m a political animal. I grew up in a highly politicised culture and I'm capable of politicising anything. I wanted Truth to be (among other things) about politics – personal and professional and public. The story is about a week in which, for one man, these things intersect. It's about the dangerous ground where they meet.

I find it interesting, for instance, especially given your own journalistic background, that it is radio, rather than newspapers (as in the UK, for instance), that appears to lead in the law and order debate...
I love radio. I shout at the radio all day long. And for the book radio suits my purposes. It's immediate, it’s the human voice. And talkback has a vox pop feeling, the people speaking. Quite fraudulent, of course. So the radio takes on a something of a choric function in the story. (It was in retrospect that I saw that, I should say. And that's probably as it should be.)

Whilst your story is clearly a fictional creation, an early reference by Villani to local villain Tony Mokbel, the regular (and marvellously rendered) bush-fires that, in fact, culminate in Melbourne’s 2009 Black Saturday, suggest a complex Australian reality to which the international reader may not easily relate. Are we missing anything?
I like novels not because I understand all the cultural references (in fact, I like not understanding them), but because there's something about the language, the characters, the setting, the weight of the story. I don’t think readers will like, dislike or be indifferent to Truth because they don’t know who Tony Mokbel is or because they know nothing of the terrible fire history of the state of Victoria in a place called Australia. Truth is an Australian novel, so you either take that or you leave it.

Through the flawed Villani, Truth is probably your most thorough exploration of the texture of male relationships, both professionally and within the family. (As the eldest of three brothers – “boss” manner occasionally evident – I can attest to the truth of Truth.) How far is your own experience reflected in the substance of the book?
I’m not conscious of writing about male relationships. What I’m interested in is the threads that connect people to one another and to the past. And I don’t want to draw a diagram. Does the book reflect my own experience? I suppose that experience is in every book I’ve written. Your childhood filters the air you breathe as an adult, it’s in the breath you expel. But Truth isn’t about my life. It’s all lies. I make the stuff up.

Two points about style: greater use of the vernacular perhaps; the prose and dialogue more pared away than ever. Bearing in mind your enlarged increasingly international audience, a risky policy?
I must point out that there isn’t any more of the Australian vernacular in Truth than in my other books. I'm Australian by rebirth. I write for Australians (although I’m delighted if non-Australians enjoy the books. Anyone really. Martians.) As for the style, I shudder to remember saying to students that style was what remained when you'd got rid of the extraneous matter. I think I pinched that from someone. Anyway, I am by nature a remover of extraneous material, a brushcutter.

You talked about your occasional disagreement with your Australian publisher over your paring down of the prose style. Was the occasional compromise required?
If you trust an editor then you must take the person's concerns seriously. There are very few trustable editors, as there are very few good mechanics. I am at the mercy of two excellent practitioners, Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston [at Text Publishing, Temple’s Australian publishers]. They would have made good jockeys: strong in the upper body, in the habit of walking the track before the race to get a feel for the going. When told by one or both of them that the reader would never make sense of something unless I was more explicit, I sometimes gave way.
................................Reluctantly. They turned out to be right most of the time.

You examine the idea of truth in many ways in the book (at one point playfully including what I might term a ‘Rosebud’ moment). I have described the over-riding theme of the book as dealing with the elusiveness of truth... Am I close?
Very close. In a half-arsed way, in both The Broken Shore and Truth I’m suggesting that the rich and the powerful can make their own reality. And that includes being able to wash away everything that is inconvenient – including crimes.

Has Truth achieved what you set out to do? Why, finally, did you stick to that title?
It was always going to be called Truth, a small, lovely word with immense power. Is it the book I wanted to write? I’m always impossibly ambitious for books and I always fall badly short. From that point of view, it’s another failure. But some people think it's the best thing I’ve done. That’s nice. I’d hate to be going backwards.

Tantalisingly, the final chapter of Truth offers a number of possibilities that might be explored in Book Three. Care to give us a further hint or two? Further to go, do you think, with the style?
For now, I think the world of Cashin and Villani closes with the last scene in Truth. The style is pretty much a work in progress.

Quercus are pushing the J.M. Coetzee comparisons. I’m a crime-reading philistine I know, but should I rush out and read him?
I think everyone should read J.M. Coetzee. He’s one of the great writers of our time and I am not fit to be spoken of in the same breath. Damn flattered though.

How is your relationship with Quercus, now that ex-Chairman Anthony Cheetham has moved to Atlantic Books and their new Corvus imprint. Might you follow?
I like Anthony Cheetham very much and I will always be grateful for his good taste in writers. But I have an excellent relationship with [chief executive] Mark Smith and Jon Riley and others at Quercus. I’m not going anywhere.

Looking back on The Broken Shore and the books before it, how is the balance sheet looking? – I mean in terms of your progress as a writer, not necessarily in financial terms...
The balance sheet says my annual income over 12 years now averages out to that of a second-year accountant. As a writer, I think I've learned a few things. But looking at bits of the earlier books, I think I've also forgotten a few things.

The Broken Shore has been published not only in English-speaking countries, but also elsewhere, particularly in Europe. I have a feeling that your work may present some difficulty to a translator. Any feed back on that?
The Broken Shore has been published in all the main European languages and I’ve had exchanges with the German, French and Italian translators – wonderful people to deal with. I think what they have all found is that they have to decompress my language and in doing this something is lost. The urbane Lorenzo Mattteoli has remarked that sometimes he needs five words in Italian for one of mine. I’m flattered.

You would, I think, regard yourself as an Australian writer. But has South Africa contributed to your work in any way, however small?
I am one of those fortunate people given a home by Australia and I take huge pride in being accepted as an Australian writer. From the South African part of my life, I bring an admiration for those who stood up against apartheid and a contempt for my own lack of fibre. But I am, of course, deeply marked, for good and bad, by my South African life.

The last time we met you had been working on film scripts. Did anything come of that? How was the experience?
A version of my screenplay Valentine's Day was filmed for television in 2008 and they gave me the cheque, honoured. I had the experience and I missed the meaning. I think I should stick to books. Your publisher doesn’t tell you the receptionist thinks you should change the girl to a dog.

Are you still content to work within the genre?
I don’t feel restricted by the genre because I have no idea where the genre boundaries lie. And I don’t give much of a bugger anyway. Writers can either stop you in your tracks or bring tears to your eyes or they can’t. Some of them write books labelled crime fiction.

One of them, praise be, is Peter Temple. Long may he prosper.

My thanks go to Peter Temple for his time over a no doubt inconvenient period, and to Lucy Ramsey of Quercus for the original invitation.

* Bob's review of Truth
* Bob interviewed Peter after winning the 2007 CWA Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger

List of Peter Temple titles available in TW's Shop and TW's Book Address

An Iron Rose (Quercus)
The Broken Shore (Quercus)
A Jack Irish Omnibus: Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point (Quercus)
In the Evil Day (Quercus)
Bad Debts (Quercus)
Black Tide (Quercus)
Dead Point: A Jack Irish Thriller (Quercus)
Shooting Stars (Quercus)
White Dog (Jack Irish Thriller 4) (Quercus)
Truth (Quercus)

TW's Book Address

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TW's Book Address - Broken Shore

TW's Book Address - the Evil Day

TW's Book Address - Jack Irish Omnibus: Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead

TW's Book Address - Debts Point

TW's Book Address - Tide

TW's Book Address - Point: A Jack Irish Thriller

TW's Book Address - Stars

TW's Book Address - Dog (Jack Irish Thriller 4)

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