P M Newton’s newest crime novel, Beams Falling, has been a favourite with challenge participants, having been reviewed eight times so far this year. It’s the eagerly anticipated sequel to Newton’s acclaimed debut novel The Old School. The Old School won both the Sisters in Crime Davitt Award and the Asher Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Indie Award for Debut Fiction as well as the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. If Beams Falling doesn’t attract similar acclaim, there’s something wrong with the state of Australian crime fiction. Both novels draw on Newton’s long career as a police officer, feature Vietnamese-Australian detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly and are set in a fraught time for Australian policing: Sydney in the 1990s.
Newton kindly agreed to answer the following questions for AWW.
Q. One of the central questions of Beams Falling for the central character, Nhu “Ned” Kelly, is “Why be a cop?”, a question she confronts and resolves while recovering from PTSD. Have you ever suffered from PTSD? If so, could you tell us about it? If not, how difficult was this aspect of the book to write?
After 13 years in The Job I was burnt out, depressed and fed up but I did not have PTSD and I am very aware of my good fortune to have avoided it. I researched the topic, I read memoirs, clinical texts, reports, advice from health services, and texts about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There’s a lot information and coverage about soldiers at the moment, but I specifically researched it in respect of how it affects police. I spoke with a counsellor about how you help people who are hyper-vigilant and paranoid to overcome those behaviours when their job is essentially unsafe and the people they deal with untrustworthy. I wrote a lot about the people in Ned’s therapy group much of which didn’t end up making it into the final version – so I know them and the tales of their individual traumas very well and was able to look at different answers to that question.
Q. You have mentioned one of your literary heroes is Sethe from Tony Morrison’s Beloved, a survivor of terrible trauma, citing “her courage to live on” as the reason for your admiration. You have also stated that your “worst job” was “running a court matter involving a young victim that, unlike a TV show but exactly like real life, ended badly with no justice, no satisfaction and no resolution.” Assuming that is the kind of courage you’ve attempted to depict in Beams Falling – the courage to live on when things may end without either justice or resolution – do you see any tensions in this portrayal of a hero-protagonist’s journey and contemporary popular expectations of fictional heroes? If so, would you care to elaborate? If not, how can the two be reconciled in your view?
I have always had problems with ‘happily ever after’ as the end of a story. Perhaps I was an especially melancholy child but those lines at the end of a story always left me deeply unsatisfied, asking, ‘But how? How do you live happily ever after?’ I guess my idea of romance cleaves more to Anna Karenina, which explored what happens to ‘happily ever after’ when society, culture, religion and emotions all conspire against you. The hero’s journey has a lot to answer for, I reckon! It’s why so many Hollywood blockbuster movies feel like the same movie, remade again and again and again. Why there’s no tension in serials where you know the protagonists are safe from harm, where no matter the lengths they are put to, there will be no lasting impact.
As a craft issue, I don’t want readers to be able to guess the arc of my story from the start, not from half way, not even right up to the end.
Beams Falling is very concerned with ideas of courage and bravery. Bravery, to my mind, only exists when there is fear. If you are not scared then your actions may be mad, reckless, motivated by revenge, but I don’t know that they are brave. And bravery can mean simple acts, getting up every day, going on, doing your job, being kind to strangers, when you have been broken apart. The courage of refugee communities in going on with their lives is a case in point. But this is courage that does not come without a cost, as some of the stories in Alice Pung’s collection Growing Up Asian in Australia testify. My characters are often muddling through, they are works in progress, like we are.
Q. You have stated that, “To me, a test of a great crime novel is that you couldn’t imagine the events happening anywhere else, at any other time.” You’ve also expressed concern over a possible growing lack of diversity in our reading, and the potential loss of local stories as our reading habits are shaped by e-reading and ties to particular internet platforms. Elsewhere you’ve expressed reservations about the “kill all the women and make ‘em suffer” aspect of popular crime writing, and what you’ve described as the “blockbuster mentality” in writing and publishing. What tensions, if any, do you see between the desire to write books of “literary merit” – books of significant cultural and personal value – and being a commercial success? Do you wrestle with the idea of author as entertainer versus author as artist? (This may be just another way of asking the previous question!)
I’ve worked out that you can only write the book you care about. It’s hard work (for me anyway) writing a book. So I go in knowing it’s going to take time, and that unless I’m really committed to the characters, to the story, to the way I want to tell it, then it’s pointless. Because writing it is only the beginning, then there’s the re-writing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want my books to find lots of readers – that’s why I write. I want to be read. And books that find lots of readers will also find commercial success. That means that you will have a happy publisher, you will have happy booksellers, you will have a bank account that allows you to pay a bill without checking the balance first. None of these things are bad things.
I believe that most writers write the story they care about and believe in. Some of those stories capture the zeitgeist. I don’t think anyone knows why, and even if they could work out the formula, I don’t think you could write that formula and make it work unless it really mattered to you on a story level. Romance is a good example. People often sneer that it’s so formulaic anyone could write it. They can’t. Readers can tell.
The move that the genre of crime fiction is taking into graphic depictions of extreme violence, usually perpetrated towards women, does disturb me. I’m uncomfortable with the connection being made that it is somehow more ‘realistic’ when the real situation of violence against women is not serial killers but husbands, boyfriends, fathers and sons. At the other extreme I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of finding consolation in crime fiction.
Q. It’s years since I read any Graham Greene, but I had a sense while I was reading Beams Falling that you are similarly delving into morally ambiguous territory, and I wasn’t surprised to read that you consider Greene’s book The Quiet American as a pivotal influence. Can you say what it is about The Quiet American that strikes you, and what about the book, if anything, has influenced your writing in general or Beams Falling in particular?
The Quiet American was a book that purportedly contained more of Greene’s reportage than any other. His use of real events, the real time and place and moment of big social, political and emotional shifts is just inspired. To tell these momentous events through the deceptively small story of a love affair and a crime was a risk that worked magnificently. It’s a work to look up to, to aspire to.
Structurally it is so elegant. It’s not until you finish the book that you realise that it actually started right at the moment the crime was being committed, and that the narrator was culpable. Very slowly you realise you are witnessing a confession.
Greene’s world, his characters live in a morally ambiguous space. They don’t always behave well, but they behave in ways that are real, and emotionally true. He manages to treat the subject of the big choices people make about big issues like taking sides in a civil war, and the subject of what to do when your lover abandons you with equal weight.
Such a great book. I need to read it again.
Ha! No, I hadn’t thought of that. But I like it. I was always struck by those lines and by that story in The Maltese Falcon. I’m sure it came from Hammett’s own experience as a Pinkerton agent – it has that tang of truth to it. I see the sufferers of PTSD as people who’ve been living with the beams falling, and getting well means trying to learn to trust that they may have stopped falling.
Q. I note that you have great command of figurative language, rarely use cliche, use a lot of strong verbs, and often write in fragments or part sentences when in the deep point of view of your character (suggesting almost a stream of consciousness). To what extent does style come naturally to you, or how much of it can be attributed to rewriting and editing? Do you agree that one of the major differences between good and poor writing is the time spent crafting? How difficult is this part of the writing process for you? Who, if anyone, taught you your craft?
Thank you. I do think a lot about language, I rewrite, although some lines, like the opening line, came early and stayed. Because crime fiction does have a plot that needs servicing, I’m often thinking of ways to convey a piece of ‘information’ in a way that almost blindsides the reader rather than as a bald set of facts. Like the writer Chuck Wendig says, ‘Plot is Soylent Green, it’s made of people.’ I find it sometimes takes a few drafts before some of the minor characters start to feel like people for me, until that happens, I worry that the plot doesn’t haven’t enough Soylent Green.
I think about language, I want it to tell a story that allows people to read it, feel it, smell it, love it, hate it, take that leap into the character’s skin, into their head.
I started writing about travel and music before I attempted fiction. Maybe having to describe places and people and the emotional spaces that music opens up meant I struggled early with writing more than just facts. I was fortunate to have access to excellent tutors at UTS, writers who were writing very differently to me, but who exposed me to a lot of authors and gave me good technical advice: my tutors included Julia Leigh, Mandy Sayer, Jean Bedford, Catherine Cole, and I read widely. Discovering the technique of Free Indirect Speech opened up how to take the reader into my character’s head, without announcing it with a bunch of clumsy tags, and reading Peter Temple’s pared back punctuation and dialogue in The Broken Shore was like getting permission to write cops speaking the way I remembered it.
Q. You’ve been very generous in giving a shout to other female Australian crime writers, including Angela Savage, Malla Nunn and Sulari Gentill. You’ve also mentioned having read Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy (which could possibly be described as “literary crime”). Is there anyone else you’ve come across you’d like to mention – including writers outside the crime genre?
I really admire Anita Heiss for claiming a space in contemporary women’s fiction – a genre that reaches a lot of readers – and she is reaching them with her thoroughly contemporary Aboriginal female characters; which, I am sure, confound the expectations and projections of many of those readers in a wonderful way. Melissa Lucashenko’s novel, Mullumbimby was a love song to place told in a funny, passionate and totally unique voice that made me aware of how much tension I projected onto certain events in the narrative. Attica Locke is writing layered novels that use crime fiction to tell stories about place and history and race in America. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is another novel to read and re-read, to smell and feel the lush rotting landscape of the Caribbean and the tragedy of Jane Eyre’s ‘Mad Woman in the Attic’ – there are scenes in that book that never leave me. Stunning.
Q. What were the circumstances that led you to leave the police force? How hard was it for you to resign? Do you regret it? What do you miss? What don’t you miss? Was gaining your own “courage to live on” part of your decision to follow a different path?
I left because I just couldn’t imagine myself in that job in ten years, twenty years, thirty years down the road. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, the culture of drinking was still strong, and the work was grinding me down. I did finally realise I’d had enough of meeting people for the first time on the worst day of their life. When I started reading about Buddhism and read the description of the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth, death, it bore more than a passing resemblance to The Job. The never-ending parade of jobs, reports of crime, investigations, arrests, court matters, more reports of fresh crimes, like a conveyor belt.
You miss a memory of the fun, the comradeship, the jokes, but like most memories those are rather tinged with nostalgia. I don’t miss the stress. I don’t miss the unhappiness, of workmates, of victims, of criminals.
I’m not sure it was courage in the end. I think I was more afraid of staying because of how deeply unhappy I’d become than I was of leaving without any clear idea of what was going to come next.
Q. One other question I wanted to ask – which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere – was your decision to write from the point of view of a half-Vietnamese protagonist in Beams Falling. Could you tell me how that came about, what challenges and advantages it presented, and whether we’ll be in for more of Nhu’s story? And finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
Re Ned being Vietnamese/Australian – that’s who she was when she turned up. It’s the best and worst explanation, because it’s true, she arrived to solve this crime I’d set myself, and she walked on as a senior detective in the Homicide Squad, she was already in her late 30s and she was fully formed. She was Vietnamese/Australian, her parents were victims of an unsolved murder and her nickname was Ned. When I worked out I had the right character in the wrong story I rewound back to the beginning of her career and unpacked her backstory. I didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning, so I didn’t know enough to realize it was a risky thing to do to be writing her and once I did it was too late. I knew her and wanted to tell her story.
It means I know where she’s going, so yes, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell more of her story through the 1990s. I think she’s a perfect character to talk about what happened to us as a nation when we started giving people like Pauline Hanson a serious platform. I don’t think we’ve recovered.
A huge thank you to P M Newton for her generosity in replying to these questions. If you haven’t yet read any of her work – whether you’re interested in crime or a cultural portrait of a time – you’re in for a treat.
About me: I’m an aspiring psychological suspense writer, interested in social justice and mental health issues. One of my novels – a romance – has been accepted for publication by Escape Publishing and will be published under the pseudonym, Lizzy Chandler. I blog at Devoted Eclectic and have recently set up a new Lizzy Chandler site. With the help of the AWW team, especially Shelleyrae of Book’D Out, I founded AWW to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women.
NB. Interviews and Q&As referred to in these questions include:
Beams Falling was published by Penguin Books Australia in February 2014 under the Viking imprint.