Australian authors of espionage fiction 

It’s amazing what you find when you start digging. But, geez, you have to dig. 

A while ago I’d thought there weren’t that many Australian authors writing espionage fiction, but as it turns out that’s not the case. They can just be a little hard to find, often because they’ve been lumped into the more generic ‘thriller’ or crime categories, or because they’re not strictly genre writers so when they do write an espionage novel it’s not as recognizable an event. 

There’s also not a single point of truth about Australian writers in the spy genre as far as I can tell. For example, the fabulous Australian Crime Writers don’t keep a list of espionage writers as a stand-alone category and you’re left to, for example, trawl through entries in the Ned Kelly Awards or author bios to find them. Likewise with Damien Gay’s otherwise awesome Australian Crime Fiction Database, espionage writers are not currently tagged or searchable there, so distinguishing them from crime or thriller writers can be difficult and time-consuming. The exception is the splendid AustCrime site, and my thanks to Karen for pointing out the work done on tagging writers there. 

So, they’re out there, if hard to find, and while some are not necessarily writing about the Australian intelligence community, preferring instead to pitch their narratives to a global audience more interested in US or UK agencies and plots, there’s a wealth of intelligence-related writing from Australian authors that’s worth giving a go. And it is pleasing to see some writers locating more of their plotting in an Australian context. 

For example, I just finished Safe Haven by Sandy McCutcheon (well known to me as a journalist but not as a spy writer), and prior to that Due Preparations for the Plauge by Janette Turner Hospital – both, incidentally, as audiobooks from Bolinda, and both not genre writers. 

   

 

Neither had an Australian intelligence community focus, but both of these books represent the best in espionage writing in my opinion, being literary, thoughtful and well-researched, with complex plotting and characters. 

One of the things I like about Mark Abernethy‘s and Chris Allen‘s work is the use of Australian agencies, characters and settings. It’s refreshing after a long time reading UK and US writers to have such recognizably antipodean stories. For the same reason I’m looking forward to starting on Greg Barron‘s work soon, and reading Deborah Burrows’s A Time of Secrets, which is based in WW2 Melbourne. 

One of the most interesting discoveries I made recently was about Ric Throssell‘s espionage writing – though he doesn’t rate a mention on the pages I mention above, which is curious. I now have a couple of his books to read and given his personal and family background expect them to be quite something. 

  
I’m still on the hunt for more Australian women writers in the genre. It’s been hard to find many so far in my experience – though the Sisters in Crime Australia site is a great start – so if you’re reading this and have any tips then please let me know! 

A little bit of secret service on the high seas

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. The title of this post comes from a line in it. I don’t recall seeing the term ‘secret service’ in earlier fiction, so it piqued my interest.

Published in 1903, it’s known as one the first spy novels. That, of course, makes it instantly appealing* to an intelligence and fiction (and intelligent fiction) geek like me.

However, one of the interesting things about it is that the writer constantly acknowledges both the existing tradecraft of espionage (it is, after all, an old profession), as well as it’s presence in schlock fiction of the day (I think he uses the term ‘penny dreadfuls’). Even at this time, for example, he writes in hilarious terms of a spy having a Kodak camera embedded in his tie pin. That’s pretty advanced, dare I say it, almost Bond-like stuff for the early 1900s. No wonder Childers was so influential on writers who came after him in this new genre.

Incidentally, I tangentially wrote about my reading of Stella Rimington’s books recently, and while reading about Childers’ book, I was surprised to discover she’d set it for the ABC Book Club when she was a guest. Small world**.

More tangentially, one of Stella’s books I read recently was based in Ireland and featured protagonists who escaped on a yacht. Listening to Childers’ book (spoiler: there’s a lot of yachts), and reading that he eventually ran guns himself into Ireland on a yacht (for which he was executed) makes me realize his influence is probably still being exerted on contemporary spy authors***. And I guess this post is more evidence in support of that assertion.

For these and other reasons, it strikes me as a fascinating**** and strange book, The Riddle of the Sands, even if you’re not a spy geek.

Although there are a lot of yachts. A lot. And a lot of time on yachts. And I do have limited tolerance for the vast descriptions of knots, currents and jibs. So, at this point, no guarantee that I’ll finish it*****.

—————

* It wasn’t appealing. It was boring.
** It really feels like a small world when you’re trapped on those endless yachting adventures. Just saying.
*** Not in terms of narrative pace, though, I hope.
**** See *
***** Didn’t. Couldn’t. Shame that.

Write what you know? Or, no.

I’ve just finished Present Danger by Stella Rimington, another cracking good (but, let’s face it, not particularly complex) read.

I’ve always been interested in people who write fiction in an area that’s closely related to their professional lives. And you don’t get much closer for a spy fiction author than having been Director-General of MI5. Indeed, it brings to mind that oft-repeated advice to ‘write what you know’.

I do wonder, though, whether in cases like this it’s just a bit too easy to translate your professional experiences into fiction…which then means the work lacks a certain spark, the kind of spark that someone writing about something foreign to them often seems to produce.

Extending this a bit, perhaps this is what underlies a friend of mine’s loathing of genre in general. After all, while the confines of genre don’t make it easier to write a work, they certainly give you a structure that’s otherwise missing.

But this wasn’t meant to be about genre. It’s about writing what you know.

Does that lead to the death of creativity? Is it in fact the worst advice a writer can give, or get?

Or is ‘what you know’ simply the logical starting point of any writer, no matter how abstract the work then becomes (David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest I am looking directly at you)?

Discuss.

Art is community, or, a love note to POV Magazine

I love POV Magazine. It seems to be a mutual love affair (after all, they called me a hero recently – unless that was meant in some kind of post-ironic hipster way), which is always the nicest kind, don’t you think?

PoV_poster1

Like many poets and writers, I’ve shopped my work around to a vast number of people and places, hoping for publication to artistically validate that solitary and abstract thing you do with words that you’re sure will probably never make sense to anyone else. So, it’s a great feeling when someone likes your work and wants to include it in their publication. That’s happened to me a few times, and I get a kick out of it on each and every occasion. I’ve even been lucky enough to feature in a number of POV Magazine’s issues, which has been just great.

But, more importantly, POV Magazine has brought me a great deal of joy in its short life, and has brought to my attention a number of very talented artists who continue to interest me both inside and outside the POV Magazine pages.

They are writers, poets, photographers, surreal tweeters, painters, musicians, digital wizards, and much more.

PoV_poster3

This brings me the point of this post (other than just generally taking the opportunity to share my love of POV Magazine with the two or three of you out there who might read this) – that is, art is community.

That’s right: art is community. Some of us may say, and may well, create art just for our own pleasure, but I’d argue that the creative urge doesn’t really reside abstractly in asocial beings. We need an audience for art to make sense, even if the audience itself is quite abstract.

In this way, the founders and editors of POV Magazine – Chris Pilkington (@SgtPilko) and Benjamin Turner (@benturner83) – have done a sterling job of connecting people all over the world in a brand new community, of forming a new audience, of inspiring artists to create and submit their work for that audience. These good chaps have turned me on to people I may never have come across elsewhere, if it wasn’t for their efforts and their cool as fuck magazine.

So, thank you and thank you to them. Also, I should say, I really like their own contributions (Chris’s drumming, Ben’s photos…need I say more?).

Whether it is the sublime photography of Daniel D. Moses (@danieldmoses) and James Maher (@jamesmaherphoto), or the great poetry of Jack Leaf Willetts (@JLeafWilletts), in Issue 1, whether it is the powerful writing of Emma Seymour (@Emseymour) and boozy story-telling of Joe Clifford (@joeclifford23) in Issue 2, whether it is the surreal humour of @SupermanTweets in lots of issues, or the many written contributions of Kyrsten Bean (@KyrstenBean), whether it is the wild wedding photography of Emma Case (@EmmaCase) in Issue 6, it doesn’t matter, I love it all.

I hope everyone keeps at it, and keeps making these art communities and audiences, again and again, and over and over.

PoV_poster2

whatever they sing

This blog is called whatever they sing, in homage to a favourite poem from a favourite poet.

The poet is E. E. Cummings. This is the relevant part of the aforementioned (untitled) poem:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

There probably won’t be many blog posts. On the whole, the poetry and fiction parts of the site will be the most dynamic, and the Brush Pass Books page where my nascent book-selling business is located.