“The problem with Garry Disher is he’s too reliable,” he says about himself. “There’s a book every year. They know what they’re getting. If I was a 20-year-old transgender kid with my first novel, they could sell me.”
He has some doubts about the new wave of rural Aussie crime sweeping the international awards scene and bestseller charts. For a start, it’s not new: he and the late Peter Temple and Jock Serong were doing the same kind of thing years ago. And though he praises the debut novels of writers such as Hammer and Jane Harper, he thinks the “small town with a dark secret” format could become a cliche. “They are flavour of the month and they will have their day.”
While he thinks crime fiction is better written and more widely accepted than when he started out, he still believes there’s “a bit of snobbery” at writers’ festivals, where he might be invited to appear on a panel with other crime novelists – but not in a session with other kinds of writers. This is all said without resentment. He speaks in the same quiet, calm voice he uses throughout our interview. Disher is not excitable, at least not on the surface. The excitement is reserved for his stories.
Even there, it’s a slow burn. Many crime novels these days start with horrible violence. Peace starts with a small grass fire, a lost dog and some stolen copper. All in a day’s work for Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known as Hirsch, a modern-day knight errant patrolling a vast area of farmland in his four-wheel-drive. Gradually we get to know him and the characters he deals with, and at the same time the mood darkens, the plot thickens and eventually ignites. Hirsch is a patient, thorough soul who has to suffer fools gladly, but he also draws on deep reserves of defiance and courage. “At one level he’s an alter ego,” Disher says. “I like his view on life.”
The dry, stony hills, the winding sunken roads, the rundown isolated farmhouses – it’s the mid-north of South Australia, sheep and wheat country, a world that Disher knows well and returns to again and again, both in his fiction and in real life. It’s also the setting for Bitter Wash Road, the prequel to Peace, and his literary novel The Sunken Road, which Text has just reissued.
This is the novel he’s most proud of, though it was “pretty much overlooked” when it first came out in 1996. “It’s experimental, unlike anything else I’ve written. I tell the main character’s life story over and over again, around different themes, until hidden secrets come to the surface at the end. I was trying to suggest the meandering nature of memories.”
His own memories go back to his parents’ farm, where he was born and lived until his late teens. His father died earlier this year, just before he turned 98; Disher still has a brother and sister in the area and visits every Christmas. “I feel instantly at home when I go there. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
Growing up on a farm was a good environment for a budding writer. The house was full of books, his father used to make up bedtime stories that always ended on a cliffhanger, and young Garry didn’t see his friends much out of school, so he spent a lot of time reading the adventures of Horatio Hornblower or Biggles or the Famous Five. When he went back to the farm in later years, he enjoyed helping his dad with the sheep or mending fences. “But what I really liked was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and sister and aunt and listening to the gossip, because it was about people.”
Disher studied at Adelaide University and later wrote a Masters thesis on Australian history at Monash University. At the same time he was writing short stories and having them published in literary magazines. The best thing that happened to him, he says, was winning a creative writing scholarship to Stanford University in California. A fellow student gave him a critique he set out to fix: “Your writing suffers from sensory deprivation.”
Approaches, a 1981 short story collection, was his first book. By then he’d realised he wouldn’t make a living writing short stories: “I knew it would be wise for me to try different things.” These included a series of history textbooks; literary fiction, beginning with his 1987 novel Steal Away; books for children and young adults and non-fiction. The textbooks were a good discipline: he wrote every morning six days a week, a habit he’s kept up.
At first he subsidised his writing with teaching jobs, but in 1988 he became a full-time writer: “My income plummeted, and I did struggle for many years. There were a couple of fortunate things: writing residencies, and my novel The Divine Wind going on the year 12 reading list. That kept me alive for four years.”
He’d always loved crime fiction and decided to try his hand at it with his first Wyatt novel, Kickback, in 1991. After that he wrote a Wyatt book every year for five years, then brought his antihero back by popular demand in 2010, 2015 and 2018.
“He’s very buttoned-down,” he says of his favourite career criminal. “A lot of interest for me in these books is not Wyatt himself, it’s getting into the minds of the minor characters. Whenever I learn too much about Wyatt, the magic leaks away.” In the beginning he tried to write the novels in the first person, “but I felt a chill coming off the page”.
He began a second crime series after he moved to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula in the early 1990s, when three young women had been murdered by the man who became known as the Frankston Serial Killer. “I went into a deli in Hastings and listened to the women talking about dealing with these crimes, how they could no longer let their daughters catch the bus to netball practice, and I had a powerful sense of a community under strain.”
Disher’s response was The Dragon Man, a 1999 police procedural featuring Inspector Hal Challis and Detective Ellen Destry, a duo based on the peninsula who went on to fight crime in six more books. Influenced by John Harvey’s Inspector Resnick novels, set in Nottingham in England, Disher made the most of his regional setting, the contrast of rich and poor inhabitants and the complex professional and personal lives of his ensemble cast.
One thing he discovered early on was he couldn’t write crime fiction in the same spontaneous way he wrote literary fiction: “I needed to keep ahead of the reader with carefully placed surprises.” So for his crime fiction, he spends a couple of months planning, “always asking myself: will the reader buy this? Will my character do this? I trust my instincts, I listen to the little voice in my head”. He works just as hard on matters of style and tone and character as in his literary novels: “I see myself as writing a novel that happens to be about crime.”
Disher may produce a book a year, but some ideas take much longer. He was haunted by a newspaper article about a three-year-old girl in the early 20th century who was sold by her parents to a travelling tinker. He wrote three pages, but could get no further. “I couldn’t write it until I knew her better.” Fifteen years later, he knew that girl well enough to write his dark 2017 literary novel Her.
Peace is published by Text Publishing, $29.99.