Author meets Reviewer: Emma Viskic meets Paul Burke

Article published on April 5, 2018.

Emma Viskic’s first novel, Resurrection Bay, made a big splash when it was published and has since gone on to win several prestigious awards in her native Australia. The international impact has been no less dramatic. The Pushkin Vertigo paperback will be released on 12th April. Viskic is a strong new voice in crime fiction and her debut is genuinely original with a central character, Caleb Zelic, you will find it hard not to like. The second novel in the series, And Fire Came Down, will be published in August. Paul Burke found Resurrection Bay a thoroughly absorbing read and he wanted to know more.

Paul Burke: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into novel writing? Was it always an ambition of yours?

Emma Viskic: I grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, on the edges of the bush. Money was limited, and we lived a long way from the library, so whenever I ran out of books I wrote my own stories. I wrote all through my school years, but it never really occurred to me that I could be an author. I began playing the clarinet when I was twelve and went on to become a professional musician. I loved playing the clarinet, but I really missed writing. Eventually I got so sick of myself I decided to write a book. That first attempt was terrible, but it got me hooked on writing again. After that, I won a couple of short story competitions, which really gave me the boost I needed to start writing Resurrection Bay.

PB: Resurrection Bay has proved a massive success, it must have taken over your life? It’s been a big hit with readers and critics and is a multi award winning novel, life must be a bit of a whirlwind now?

EV: I wrote in secret for years, so I’m still a bit stunned that anyone’s read my work, let alone enjoyed it. It’s wonderful knowing that readers have taken Caleb Zelic into their hearts. He’s quite real to me, so I feel very protective of him, despite the terrible things I put him through.

PB: It struck me that as you are a classical musician you probably have a heightened relationship with sound. Caleb Zelic in Resurrection Bay is profoundly deaf, was that a matter of choice or did the character come to you that way? 

EV: I came very close to not writing a deaf character. Both because of my relationship to sound, but also because of the responsibilities and difficulties that go with writing from outside your own experience. But the idea for Caleb’s character had been simmering away for so long, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He’s partly inspired by a profoundly deaf girl I knew in childhood, but also by my grandparents, who were Croatian immigrants. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Croatian, so communication and identity have been pretty consistent themes in my life and writing.

PB: Is there any crossover between music and writing for you?

EV: Music shapes the way I think. The detailed work of writing is very like classical music. It’s about rhythm and pace, subtleties of tone. I read my work aloud the same way I practise the clarinet, playing and replaying phrases, testing an emphasis here, a pause there. My years of playing also taught me that everything improves with practice. Which is incredibly reassuring to remember when I’m writing a first draft.

PB: Back to Caleb, it’s great to see a character where disability doesn’t delineate them. Cal’s deafness is a part of him but it’s not what defines him. It’s his personality that make him likeable, makes him the dogged detective he becomes. Was it important for you for him to be seen that way? 

EV: Absolutely. Caleb’s deafness is an important part of who he is, but it isn’t all he is. He’s been deaf since he was young, so it’s a part of his life, not a tragedy. It makes him very observant, and a bit of an outsider, but in some ways he’s more affected by people’s reactions to his deafness, than his deafness itself.

PB: Researching Resurrection Bay must have meant exploring the issue of deafness, learning Auslan and dealing with people’s attitudes. That must have been eye opening? 

EV: It’s been an incredible journey and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way. One of the first things I learnt was the enormous difference between being culturally Deaf, and being physically deaf. There’s a strong Deaf culture in Australia and I was tempted to make Caleb part of it, but, as I’m a crime writer, I have to be cruel to my characters, so I made him quite isolated instead. As well as learning Auslan, I also tried to learn to lipread. And the emphasis really is on the word ‘tried’. I spent a lot of time going out and about in the world with my ears blocked, but I never learnt to lipread well.

PB: Is it fair to say a theme of the novel is belonging? In a sense that seems to be what Cal is searching for. Kat and Cal both face issues of racism and prejudice. Family and friendship, trust and betrayal, matter to Cal maybe more than he realises. 

EV: The idea of belonging is central to Resurrection Bay. In a lot of ways Caleb is searching for the same sense of belonging that his ex-wife, Kat, has. Kat is Indigenous (Koori) – partly because I have Koori family who are an important part of my life, but also because her background acts as a balance to Caleb’s deafness. Deaf and Indigenous people have similar histories, in that they’ve traditionally been treated as second-class citizens and denied the right to their own language and culture. Kat and Caleb are at times outsiders in their own country, but they both deal with this in very different ways.

PB: I thought the way that you introduced Caleb Zelic was clever. We get a sense of the man because he is confronted with the death of his friend; his fear and shock, his hyper sensitivity to his other senses and surroundings, his empathy for the children and his confusion in the early police interview. Along the way we find out that Cal is capable of violence when pushed to it. Did you set out to create a unique sort of detective in Caleb?

EV: I did, but mainly in that I wanted to write a fully-rounded character, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a real human being. Caleb’s deafness does set him apart, but it also has the very handy effect of magnifying both his personality traits, and those of the people around him.

PB: Thrillers are often a trade off between character and plot, but you seem to have pulled off a very rounded read. Do the two go together naturally for you? 

EV: I’m happy you think so! Getting that balance right is crucial to me. Plot is important, but in the end, I’m writing about people, not events. I think of the plot as the engine driving the story – it takes me to a lot of thrilling places, but it’s the characters in the car that makes the journey worthwhile.

PB: What do you most enjoy about writing? Do you like researching for your novels?

EV: I love research. So much so that I’ve been know to do a bit of procrastisearching, which is a word I just made up to describe why my precious writing time sometimes disappears. For this reason, I always turn the WiFi off before I start writing. My favourite part of writing is creating characters. I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s lives, and writing lets me slip in and out of characters’ heads every day.

PB: Maybe it’s my ignorance (Anglo-centricity) but we don’t tend to see a lot of break through Australian crime fiction. I still think of Morris West and Tom Keneally when I think of the big guns. Is there a scene out there, new authors we should be looking out for? 

EV: There’s a very vibrant literary scene in Australia, but unfortunately a lot of novels don’t make their way to the UK. The most obvious recent break-out talent is Jane Harper, who won last year’s CWA Gold Dagger for The Dry. I’d also recommend JM Green’s wise-cracking Stella Hardy series, about a social worker with a love for social justice, wine and good food (not necessarily in that order), and Mark Brandi’s Wimmera, a dark and thoughtful literary crime novel about small towns and secrets.

PB: Who are you reading at the moment? Is there an author you would recommend?

EV: I’ve just started See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt and am loving it. It’s a creepy, beautifully written novel about the infamous nineteenth century axe murderer, Lizzy Borden.

PB: Yours is a very different kind of Melbourne to the image we usually see: the Australian Open, cultural city, beautiful weather, clean streets. Is there still plenty of untapped material out there?

EV: I don’t want Tourism Australia to put a hit out on me, so I’m going to begin by saying yes, Melbourne has great festivals, food, culture and sport. But we’ve also got underworld violence, a methamphetamine crisis and rapidly growing social inequality and homelessness. With a city of nearly four million people, it doesn’t take much scratching to find some pretty dark material.

PB: Your new novel, And Fire Came Down, will be published in August, can you tell us a little bit about it?

EV: And Fire Came Down is very much about the aftermath of trauma, and, without giving too many spoilers, part of that trauma relates directly to the events in Resurrection Bay. The novel begins seven months later and Caleb is struggling. His best mate is dead, his beloved ex-wife, Kat, is avoiding him and a heatwave is suffocating the state. When a young woman is killed after pleading for Caleb’s help in sign language, he’s determined to find out who she was. As he delves deeper into the case he uncovers secrets that could ruin any chance of reuniting with Kat and even threaten his life, but, driven by his demons, he pushes on.

PB: Can you reassure us that Caleb Zelic is going to have a long and fruitful career? 

EV: I’m halfway through writing the third Caleb Zelic novel at the moment, and have plans for at least one more. My intention was always to write a short, intense series. At the moment I’m thinking of it as a quartet of closely linked novels.

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782273912 pbk Apr 2018

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