Australian author Adrian Hyland joins us at Scene of the Crime to discuss crime down under. His protagonist is the college-educated, half-aboriginal Emily Tempest, who has, in the series opener, Moonlight Downs (published as Diamond Dove in Australia) returned to her native Outback in Australia after years of traveling the world. Back in her native village, she is drawn into solving the murder of one of the community leaders in a “beguiling first mystery,” as the New York Times Book Review termed the work. The Sydney Morning Herald felt the novel “incorporates geophysical data, race politics and aboriginal spirituality into a seamless, often hilarious stream of narrative.” Hyland, who worked with aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, Australia, for a decade, won Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for this first novel.
Hyland’s second installment, Gunshot Road, just out in the U.S., continues Emily Tempest’s sleuthing career in a blend of outback setting and cultural investigation. Publishers Weekly found this an “outstanding” work and Booklist called it “better than his debut.”
Adrian, it is a real pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime.
The Australia you describe in your novels is one rarely written about. Could you describe your connection to the Australian Outback and the Aboriginal people.
I lived for many years in the isolated desert communities of Central Australia, working with traditional Aboriginal people. I went there straight after I finished university, in the early eighties, and regard this as the most formative experience of both my writing and my life. Everything since then has been an after-shock really.
Family reasons eventually brought my wife and I back to Melbourne, but I do travel back there when I can.
I had the privilege of working with the last generation of elders who had grown up in the pre-contact days – many of the people I knew hadn’t even seen a white man until they were well into their adult years. This gave them a mind-set, a way of seeing the world, which is almost beyond fiction. In my writing I can only try to give the reader a glimpse, pay homage to it.
It’s not just Aboriginal people up there, of course; there are a lot of whites, and a strange lot they tend to be. The outback is where the outcastes, eccentrics and runaways tend to congregate. It’s full of people seeking ‘ a second chance’ – or a hideout. The meeting between these different strata – the black and the white – is a source of endless fascination for me. It’s almost as if we see all of the problems and questions which beset us – technology vs. wisdom, materialism vs. spirituality – laid bare before our eyes.
There are very few novels set in this part of the world; it’s actually been regarded as something of a no-go area for white Australians, something I hope will change. I see my work as a vehicle of communication between cultures, not as yet another European appropriation.
Did you consciously set out to use the Australian Outback as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
The people I was living with certainly thought of the location as a “character” in their dreamings – the character really – and much of that thinking has worked its way into my fiction.
I might illustrate with a brief story. Once I was camped out in the Tanami Desert with a group of elders. I woke up in the middle of the night needing a leak. I wandered down to the creek, and was startled awake when a huge snake suddenly reared up into my torchlight. When I rushed back into camp, one of the old fellers looked up and said:
“Something troubling you, Jupurula?”
“Snake,,” I replied. “Bloody big one.”
He nodded and said casually: “Don’t you worry – take a little bit of time for the country to get to know you.”
Take a little bit of time for the country to get to know you. The polar opposite of how our culture would have seen it and said it. I thought there was enough going on in that sentence – the idea of a living landscape, with a snake as its mouthpiece – to fill a dozen novels.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I try to weave the desert and its music into my language. Perhaps I could illustrate this with a few lines from Gunshot Road? In this early section, my main character, Emily Tempest, is at an initiation ceremony with a group of indigenous women.
I closed my eyes, felt the ragged harmonies flowing through my head.
Pitch dark, but the dawn couldn’t be far off. Hazel on the ground beside me, singing softly. Painted sisters dancing all around us, dust swirling up from bare feet. Cocky feathers catching firelight. Coloured skirts, circles and curves.
It was Young Man’s Time in Bluebush. Boys were being made into men. Here in the women’s camp, we were singing them goodbye.
The men were a couple of hundred yards to the west: a column of ghostly figures weaving in and out of a row of rattling branches. Clapsticks and boomerangs pounded the big bass rolling rhythm of the earth.
Gypsy Watson, our boss, the kirta, struck up another verse of the fire song: ‘Karlu wiraji, karluku…’ The rest of us tagged along behind.
My breasts, cross-hatched with ochre, moved gently as I turned and took a look around.
You couldn’t help but smile. The town mob: fractured and deracinated they might have been, torn apart by idleness and violence, by Hollywood and booze. But moments like these, when people came together, when they tried to recover the core, they gave you hope.
It was the songs that did it: the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.
The resonance of that music is everywhere, even here, on the outskirts of the whitefeller town, out among the rubbish dumps and truck yards. It sings along the wires, it rings off bitumen and steel.
How does your protagonist, Emily Tempest, relate to her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
One of the sub-themes in my work is her slow, tentative blending back into that world.
What has the local reaction been to your books?
I have had some very positive reactions from indigenous people living in other parts of the country, but for the traditional people about whom I was writing, the written word occupies only a very small corner of their imagination. Most of the old people are illiterate, and even for many of the younger ones, art forms like music and painting are more important means of expression. I doubt whether any of them would have even noticed it, much less read it.
When I was back there on a long walking trip into the Tanami Desert recently, somebody mentioned that I’d written a book. “Oh?” was about as wild a reaction as I got, then somebody asked if I could throw another log on the fire.
That doesn’t worry me at all. If there’s a purpose to my work, it’s to bring that fragile, beautiful world of dreams and songs to a wider audience.
That said, there is a definite development of literacy in indigenous education, and important works of literature are beginning to emerge. I would hope that my writing would eventually be recognized as an interaction between that growing consciousness and the wider world.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I read a broad range of literature. I grew up studying classics, so I love Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus. I’ve also lived and studied in China, and would number Cold Mountain and Li He among my favourite writers. I read a lot of poetry: Celan, Trakl, Dickinson, John Kinsella, Coleridge, Miyazawa Kenji.
My favourite crime writer is Chandler: he invented the genre for the modern reader, and I re-read him whenever I’m looking for something to steal. I still admire Arthur Conan Doyle, for the pure craft of the writing. Among other crime writers, I love our two great Australians, Peter Temple and Shane Maloney, as well as James Lee Burke, Ken Bruen, Stuart MacBride, Kate Atkinson and Reginald Hill.
I was saddened by the recent death of J.D.Salinger: always thought For Esme with Love and Squalor one of the greatest short pieces of fiction.
What’s next for Emily?
Still thinking about it, but I’ve got this weird idea for a novel in which Emily heads off to the north-west of China.
Thanks once again, Adrian, for a stimulating discussion. And good luck with Gunshot Road.