Journalist turned award-winning crime writer CHRIS HAMMER has racked up bestsellers since his superb debut Scrublands in 2018. While visiting the UK he chatted with Good Reading’s own foreign correspondent, CRAIG SISTERSON, at the famed Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
What was the inspiration behind your new crime novel The Tilt?
It’s a follow-up to Treasure & Dirt. My original intention was that the book would be a stand-alone, but the characters grew, and I had to bring them back. The Tilt is a story very much centred on the detective Nell Buchanan. She’s one of the ‘point-of-view’ characters in Treasure & Dirt, but here, there are murders in or near her old hometown, and as she digs into them, she begins to suspect members of her own family are complicit in the killings.
Can you tell us about the Cadell Tilt?
Yeah, so people may have heard of the Barmah Choke, which is a very shallow part of the Murray River, but it’s caused by the Cadell Tilt, which is this big uplift of land. And it kind of dams the Murray River, and splits it up, so the Murray splits into a delta, then joins up again. But because of the damming of the Murray, there’s this huge Red River Gum Forest, called the Barmah-Millewa Forest, and it’s a really beautiful place. In a drought – which I’ve seen it in – it’s very dry and kind of desolate, but in its natural state, it’s a forest nine months of the year and a wetlands three months of the year. And that’s what it’s been recently. I was down there, and you can go kayaking through the forest. It’s absolutely brilliant. So, in the book we’ve got different timelines: sometimes the forest is full of water, and sometimes the forest is kind of drought-stricken and dried out.
How important to you is place and the people in your novels?
Every book has to be located somewhere – but it’s far more important than that. What you’re really doing is building a world and inviting people in. There are books where it’s really obvious that’s happened, like Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but even if you’re writing a book that’s set in a well-known city like Sydney, London, or New York, you can have it geographically accurate and still put a whole different atmosphere on it.
The New York of The Great Gatsby is different to the New York of The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is different to the New York of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sex and the City. It’s the same city, but you’re reimagining it.
I love reading books that are immersive, and a lot of that’s got to do with the books that create a different kind of world. That’s what you’re doing with setting in a good crime book. I’m a big fan say, of Ann Cleeves and her ‘Shetland’ books. The landscapes there shape the characters, shape the plot, and informs the motivation of both the good guys and the bad guys. When you’re writing, the setting actually feeds back into the words you’re choosing, almost subliminally. I think character and setting often trump plot: you don’t want to have a lousy plot, but if you get it all working together – setting, character, plot, pacing etc – what you get, is the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
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