[Issue 10 / August 2014]
THE CHARM OF CLASSIC NOIR DETECTIVES AND IMPORTANCE OF LITERARY SENSIBILITY IN CRIME WRITING: AN INTERVIEW WITH SALLY BREEN
By Kulpreet Yadav.
Atomic City (Harper Collins Au, 2013) is the second novel by Sally Breen who is the Fiction Editor of ‘The Griffith Review’, Australia’s leading literary print quarterly. This interview was conducted in person at ‘The Arts House’, Singapore during the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators literary event called ‘Bridging Cultures in July 2014.
Kulpreet Yadav: The name Atomic City suggests that this novel is about Atom bombs, about life after a holocaust maybe, but it isn’t? So why this name?
Sally Breen: I’m using the name in a different sense in relation to the setting of the Gold Coast Australia. The city is brightly lit, artificially, in vibrant neon displays and by the searing sun – it is a kind of Las Vegas, a California of the Southern Hemisphere and the book makes much of this atmosphere. There’s a scene where Jade my lead character is holed up in the city’s largest casino with the neon lights rippling over her body – in the morning she likens the sun that comes burning into her room as something atomic. I also had in mind a time of day here where the sun sets in the west and all the high rise buildings on the edge of the sea are lit in a burnished orange glow which reminds me of an atomic blast. In true noir spirit, the Gold Coast is a place where things get burned away in the bright glare – people, morals, rules. It’s been called a sunny place for shady people and so the name seemed to fit.
KY: There are just four characters in the novel: Jade, The Dealer, Harvey and PJ. Why did you choose to walk a tightrope? Isn’t it is easier to entertain readers with a lot of characters in a crime novel because by the time they invest their emotions into one, you could get that character killed?
SB: All my characters are loners by necessity. They’re all scamsters to some degree and so they can’t allow many people to get too close. The remove and loneliness of their lives allows them to be observers, particularly the Dealer – an ex-con who’s built his life on observation – a talent that makes him a good croupier and narrator. I was looking for a character that was influenced heavily by the classic noir detectives but who wasn’t a detective himself. He’s more of an anti-hero, a guy that turns over the cards and commits the crimes. Classic noir detectives were always loners – always removed. The current fashion in commercial crime fiction, television and film is for ensemble casts but I wanted to reinterpret the classic role while staying true to some of the qualities that always intrigued me about it. Chandler’s Marlow and Hammet’s Sam Spade weren’t men who liked to surround themselves with too many people. They preferred to go it alone. In my work, there is some bleed, a blend of the two. The lives of my four ‘loners’ cross over in ways which are pretty destructive for all of them.
KY: The narrative is a mix of first person and third person, and that first person, quite surprisingly, isn’t Jade. How deliberate was this experiment?
SB: Very deliberate. Jade is the central enigma of the story. She’s a woman who in the course of the novel constructs so many different identities for herself, so many different roles that she begins to lose the thread to any kind of consistent reality. To tell the story from inside her head would remove the mystery. The Dealer has to observe her, to try and figure her out just as the reader is trying to figure her out.
KY: Greed and exploitation of the Dealer by Jade is the central theme. I got an impression that the Dealer’s real interest was Jade and not the money she brings. And since his attraction wasn’t sexual too, what was keeping the Dealer on tenterhooks?
SB: You’re right his attraction isn’t sexual initially but in the last third of the book this changes and he gives in quite violently to that attraction and pays for it. In the early stages he recognizes Jade as someone on the take because he’s been there before. Like an addict she triggers the need in him to scam again – he guess rightly that she might be very good at it and he thinks they’ll make a good team. He’s fascinated by her because she doesn’t play by the rules and so he gives in, he wants to see how far they can go. He enjoys the game more than the spoils.
KY: Who are your favourite crime writers? Have you read any of the Indian writers who write genre fiction?
SB: Outside of the research and preparation for this novel I’m actually not a big reader of crime novels or commercial fiction – crime fiction can be very formulaic and this annoys me. I teach fiction for a living so I can see the mechanics of what a writer is doing very quickly. I find it hard to lose myself in the story when the cogs of the machine are so visible. I had to experiment with the crime fiction form in order to keep it interesting for me and hopefully offer something different for readers. This means I don’t tend to like ‘crime’ writers per se but writers who bring a literary sensibility to the form. Raymond Chandler is a master of the classic era though of course some of the work seems cheesy now. Still, I love the style, the finesse and the attitude he brings. Cormac McCarthy has written some incredible books which might be classed as crime. No Country for Old Men is brilliant. Susannah Moore wrote a gutsy feminist reinterpretation of noir with In The Cut and I did really enjoy the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series. I think the Swedish writers are knocking some of the old fashioned machismo out of crime fiction and bringing a more nuanced sensibility to it. Larsson’s work is entertaining but it’s also saying some pretty interesting things about global corruption and misogyny. It’s more of our times. Sadly I haven’t read much Indian crime fiction but I have your book now so that’s a good start!
KY: What are you working on at the moment?
SB: I’m working on a new book The Midnight Zone – named after the point in the ocean where the light absolutely ends. It’s another departure for me, an international work set in four different countries: Australia, France, Vietnam and Indonesia. It tells the story of Sarah an advertising executive in Sydney Australia who in the course of one day decides to leave the company she runs, her partner, the baby inside her and her country. It pits what some people might see as Sarah’s ‘breakdown’ against a major global economic crisis. Each long work I commit to tends to explore something different. I like to keep things interesting and don’t tend to work in the same form twice. That might be a mistake in terms of developing profile or sales but I can’t work any other way.
Founder-editor of Open Road Review, Kulpreet Yadav’s latest novel Catching the Departed, shortlisted by Hachette-DNA in a contest called ‘Hunt for the Next Bestseller’, was launched at The Arts House, Singapore on 18 July 2014. He lives in New Delhi. More at www.kulpreetyadav.in