More thoughts from below the equator – an interview with Dorothy Johnston (part two)

white towerLast time, Dorothy gave us her insights into the labyrinthine nature of suspense/mystery and the cultural/historical influences that bear on writers of the genre in Australia. In this second part, I’m asking her about the specifics of her own writing.

For no obvious reason, after reading The White Tower, I found myself wondering about your attitude to the paranormal. Perhaps it’s the way you linked real and virtual worlds in the book. What are your thoughts about ‘alternative realities’?
In a way this is a prophetic question because the book I’m working on now is about the murder of a Henry Handel Richardson scholar who believed he could make contact with her spirit. One of the suspects is a psychic medium. In my daily life, I have no time for ‘alternative realities’, but when I sit down to write, I find that I enjoy exploring them.

I was struck by your use of apparently insignificant detail in the narrative. For me, it enhanced the reality of your fiction. I assume that’s a deliberate choice. Am I right?

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘apparently insignificant detail’. Some details are there to mislead, or to make more plausible what turns out to be a false path. There’s a lot of detail devoted to making Canberra a solid, material place, in the tradition of mystery and crime writers for whom their settings are, in themselves, important characters.

By details, I meant things like when Sandra is staring out of a window at ‘a square of grass’ and you write ‘A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string’. It’s maybe part of making the setting live, like Stendhal with his ‘petits faits vrais’. Anyway, here’s a boring question – ignore it if you like. Sandra Mahoney comes across as a fairly complex character and some of the complexities arise from the fact that, as well as an investigator, she also has a well chronicled home life, especially in sequences when she reflects on nursing her baby. Has she borrowed some of your own experiences in these areas?

Despite appearances and stereotypes, motherhood is not such a bad training for criminal investigation. I gave Sandra, partly as a reaction against the cerebral pull of cyber-detection, a weight of domestic life that, as you suggest, is not without its complications. The fact that I’ve made her a mother whose parental responsibilities aren’t brushed aside, or handed over to a nanny, or simply dropped from the narrative as the plot thickens means, for some critics, that she can’t at the same time be a credible investigator. She is the antithesis of the loner stereotype beloved by the genre.

I once wrote an essay titled ‘Female Sleuths and Family Matters – can genre and literary fiction coalesce?’ in which I attempted to argue the case that one doesn’t need to forego an in-depth exploration of family life in order to write a detective story. At the time I published the essay, I believed the combination was possible; now I’m not so sure. But I don’t regret the experiment because it taught me a lot.

Sandra’s children both are and are not mine.

She’s a great, rounded character. But then, so are the others you introduce in your narrative. You make some of them share impulses and motives and yet they’re all distinct individuals. Have you got a particular approach to creating them?

No particular approach. My children were a ‘given’, whom I then proceeded to take liberties with. Ivan is based on a Polish boyfriend from my early twenties, but I doubt he’d recognize himself in the character. Characters just come to me, much as I expect they do to you.

Yes, it sounds a familiar process. There’s also the fact that
much of what we know of them comes as much from the conversations they have as from Sandra’s assessments of them. You seem to like dialogues. When you write them, do you have a specific purpose (i.e. that you want someone to reveal something inadvertently – about themselves or someone else, or supply some other clue or snippet of information necessary to the plot)? Or is it the power of the characters that drives them?
I don’t think I’m very good at dialogue. I re-write it heaps of times. I’m more comfortable with descriptive narrative, and with implication – what remains unsaid. I’m well aware that convincing dialogue is necessary for good mystery novels, so I keep working at it.

Well, take it from me, your hard work gets good results. But, turning to the comfort you feel with your narrative, does it ever take turns which surprise you?

Of course. I don’t write plans, so I don’t have pre-conceived ideas about where a narrative is heading. So I’m not ‘surprised’ in the sense of expectations being overturned. But my characters frequently surprise me.

That’s definitely a feeling we share. Now, I’m hoping your answers will have piqued the curiosity of readers so, if someone unfamiliar with your works decided to try one, which one would you recommend and why?
I’d recommend One for the Master or The House at Number 10 because I think these two novels contain my best writing. Also several short stories: ‘Two Wrecks’, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’ and ‘An Artist’s Story’.

On the subject of what you call your ‘best writing’, it seems that a critic found one of your books ‘too literary’. I find that a truly bizarre comment but would be interested to know your own reaction to it? Did you know what parts of the text made him say such a thing? Was your aim to ‘be literary’? Or was he expressing the annoying assumption that genre fiction is and/or ought to be qualitatively inferior?

One reviewer of The Trojan Dog wrote that I came to the genre with a pedigree. He meant literary pedigree, and that it did not fit me at all well for my new incarnation. I felt like writing back and saying that he’d made me feel like a poodle being told it couldn’t join the mongrels’ club. And that I’d always thought of myself as a mongrel. Genre classifications – and ‘literary’ is now considered to be one of these, though it is a qualitative assessment, not a genre – might be useful to marketing people and I accept that they can be useful to readers too. In my view, though, they are highly problematic.
… and that was where we stopped. I must confess, though, that I found Dorothy’s answers so thought-provoking that I’d liked to have asked her even more. So far, I’ve only read one of her Sandra Mahoney quartet but I’ll be reading the rest.

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