Author and academic Dr David Whish-Wilson discusses his award-winning short story The Cook, the evolution of crime writing, and Australia’s surprising, felonious link to colonial California.
What I like about writing is the fun of not knowing where a story is going. I’ll usually start with a character or a setting and let things unfold naturally. For The Cook, it started with a setting. My family and I go camping at a place called Walga Rock in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. The area is not widely depicted in fiction. I was pleased with the chance to capture in words the unique names and geology and quality of light of this lesser-known landscape.
The father and son in the story have strong family ties to Walga Rock and when one commits a violent crime the pair instinctively flees to its shelter. This ancient landform is a stoic figure: it’s a protector and a holder of tradition for the characters, like it is for the local Wadjarri people. However, the solid earth is balanced out by the ever-changing natural environment. Out here the bush can nourish life, but it can also conceal and obliterate it.
I believe the Australian bush truly lends itself to crime fiction. In the bush, danger is easily hidden: you may be centimetres from a poisonous snake and never realise. It acts as its own disguise. To a genre preoccupied with the unseen and the elusive, this camouflaging environment is near irresistible. The bush particularly suits characters who are interested in not being known, like the father and son in The Cook. Places and characters that are more than they appear on the surface can be great devices for exploring what’s really happening behind closed doors.
Human deviance has always fascinated people. Stories about crime, violence and corruption appeal to wide audiences and often stand the test of time (think the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Truman Capote). In the past, however, critics broadly consigned the popular genre – with its unsavoury subject matter – to the cultural ghetto. Crime fiction has only gained traction as a valid form of literature in the last fifteen to twenty years, thanks to the gradual crumbling of what constitutes ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’. Excellent writers like Richard Price and television series like Breaking Bad and The Wire simply tell compelling stories about life. Their narratives just happen to centre on unlawful activity.
Currently I’m researching for a novel the rather dubious activities of Australian ex-convicts during the Californian gold rush. Those who tried and failed to strike it rich ended up forming some of San Francisco’s earliest criminal gangs. Australia’s convict diaspora seemed to flourish in a country that reinforced individualism and a distrust in government. By contrast, Britain’s colonial penal system valued surveillance and harsh punishment, which helped form a very different culture. I’m interested in this idea of how environments act upon us, how we change our behaviour under authority and adapt to survive.