Want to avoid regret? Write a crime novel. An interview with Aussie writer Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette, author of Ghost Money.

Andrew Nette, whose story “Homeland” appeared in Noir Nation 2, has a fascination with crime as it appears in fiction and film, as well as obscure pulp novels and Asia. His first novel, Ghost Money, a gritty crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-1990s was published in 2012 by Snubnose Press. He is a founder of Crime Factory Publications, a small press specializing in crime fiction, and helps edit its online magazine Crime Factory. He lives in Melbourne with his partner and fellow crime writer, Angela Savage. He took time away from his busy schedule to talk with Noir Nation about his work, getting published, and the Asian crime scene..

Interview with Andrew Nette

Noir Nation: At what point did you know you were a writer? What was the process of discovery like?

Nette: That’s an interesting question. I’ve often thought about at what point you can call yourself a writer. Is it when you’ve written your first short story, your first book, or is the simple the desire to be so enough to make it the case?

For me it was a very slow process.

I started writing the book that eventually became Ghost Money in 1996 when I worked for several months in Cambodia as a wire service journalist. I’d first been to Cambodia in 1992 and the place fascinated me from the first moment. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside, the incredible tragic history.

I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. I more or less shelved the idea for a decade, then one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes. I thought: “This book has been inside me for years, I’ve just got to make time to write it, otherwise I’ll always regret it”.

That’s probably the point at which I started to think of myself as a writer.

In early 2008, my partner and I quit our jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two year old. I freelanced as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and finished the first draft of my manuscript. When we returned to Australia, I started writing a blog and contributing short stories to various publications.

Noir Nation: We are big fans of your publisher, Snubnose Press. It has become the coin of the crime fiction realm. How did they come to publish Ghost Money?

Nette: The Snubnose Press thing is a real testament to the power of social media to help writers connect with potential publishers.

Ghost Money had been shortlisted for two awards, including the quite prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Out of that, I also got an agent. He sent it to a number of local publishers. About five pride swallowing months of submission hell later, it seemed none of the local publishers were interested. I am not quite sure why as they all gave different reasons for why the book wasn’t for them.

Anyway, at some point during this process I’d left a comment on the blog of a US writer friend. He’d had one book published and it had done quite well, had written a second but no one would pick it up. The post was about his frustration with the process. I’d left a comment on his post with a potted history of my own situation and said “don’t give up, keep trying,” or words to that affect. A couple of days later Brian Lindenmuth, Snubnose Press editor, sent me a direct e-mail asking me to consider submitting Ghost Money to him. He’d seen my blog comment and found me through my own site, Pulp Curry. I knew Snubnose Press, liked what I’d heard about them, and sent the manuscript off thinking nothing would come. Eventually, Brian got back to me and said he’d like to publish it. The rest is history.

By the time Brian had made an offer, I’d also had some interest from a small Melbourne genre publisher. I decided to go with Snubnose. I dug the writers they were publishing and was intrigued with the idea of having my book come out digitally in the US. It was also clear that Brian “got” Ghost Money.

Noir Nation: We were delighted to meet Quinlan again, the private detective hero of Ghost Money. We first saw him in a long short story of yours called “Homeland” that we published in Noir Nation No. 2. In both works, he is searching for someone. In “Homeland” it was a missing prostitute, in Ghost Money a missing businessman. Will that be his MO in future books? Searching for missing persons? If so, why that and not, say, investigating insurance fraud or cheating wives?

Nette: There is something about the nature of missing persons’ cases I find interesting. Sure, a lot of people go missing due to foul play, but there are also people who disappear because they want to, for whatever reason. The idea of removing oneself, of not wanting to be found, fascinates me. I’m also interested in what happens to the people they leave behind. What is their reaction?

Making Quinlan’s specialty missing persons is chance to explore all of this. It opens up a lot of plot possibilities. In particular, it’s a chance to mess with the unusual reasons people why people might go missing, what happens to them, and with traditional notions of who wants to find them. This is something I definitely want to explore in subsequent Quinlan stories.

Noir Nation: How did you come to create Quinlan?

Nette: As I said earlier, the kernel of the plot of Ghost Money, an Australian businessman missing in the chaos that was Cambodia in the mid-nineties, came to me long ago. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me to make my main character, the man employed to find him, Vietnamese Australian. It seemed a good way to explore some of the themes relating Australia’s complex relationship with Asia. Also, for various historical reasons, the Vietnamese are intensely disliked by many Cambodians. This was something I wanted to use to inject an even greater sense of tension into Ghost Money.

Noir Nation: How are you marketing Ghost Money? Are there any special secrets you’d like to share? Any back doors in the online marketing Matrix? Just between us?

Nette: In many respects I’ve marketed Ghost Money the way that a lot of other writers market their material. I have a reasonably significant following on Facebook on Twitter, and my blog, Pulp Curry, has been up and running for a while now and gets quite a lot of traffic. If I did anything different, and I don’t really think I have, it might be that I’ve been building up my social media platforms for a while now, and, parallel with these, interest in the book, long before it was published.

Noir Nation: Do you socialize with other noir writers? If so, does it help your creativity? Or hinder it?

Nette: More’s the pity, there’s not a huge noir fiction scene in Australia. We also lack the vibrant culture of short story magazines and websites that exist in the US, outlets like Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory and Noir Nation, to name a few. I am firmly convinced that this is a real weakness of the Australian crime-writing scene.

While I was still trying to get Ghost Money published, I became friends with the two Melbourne editors of Crime Factory, Cameron Ashley and Liam Jose. They are both great guys and great writers and I owe a huge debt to both of them. Their friendship and support where pretty important in getting me to preserver with trying to get the book out there. They were also pivotal in exposing me to the noir and hard-boiled scene in the US in particular, something I’ve found really enriching.

So yes, hanging out with other like-minded writers has been very good for my creativity and it has been a good source of support. That said, it’s important to get out and not socialize just with people who write the same kind of stuff that you do. As difficult as it is, having your work subjected to the critical blow torch of people who don’t know you and your from Adam is vital, not only to improving your craft but in building up the thick skin that is essential to being a writer.

Noir Nation: You are a regular attendee at crime fiction conferences both in Asia and in the United States. Other than helping writers and their readers build a sense of community, what practical benefits do conferences offer them?

I would not say that I am a regular attendee of writing festivals. I’ve been to a few in Australia and often found them to be lackluster events. Let’s be honest, most festivals are about selling books. In Australia, at least, that often means that one or two writers are invited as representatives of the entire crime genre and they’re often asked the same basic questions. If I have to go to one more event where the crime writers in question are asked, “what is the attraction of dark crime fiction?” I’ll run screaming from the room.

One event that’s been held on the semi-regular basis in my hometown of Melbourne, that has been good, is the Crime and Justice Festival. It’s a crime specific festival, there is much more depth and diversity to the proceedings.

Noir Con will be the first literary event I have ever attended in the US and I’m really looking forward to it.

Noir Nation: Tell us about the Asia noir market. Where has it been? Where is it at? Where is it going?

Nette: If you’d asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would have replied by saying “what Asian noir market?” Very few foreigner writers have been writing dark crime fiction set Asia. The novels featuring the Bangkok-based PI Vincent Calvino by Christopher G. Moore are obviously an exception. Another is Martin Limon, whose novels featuring a couple of US army investigators in seventies Seoul, are excellent.

But with the exception of the crime fiction scene in Japan and, possibly, India, there has not been a lot of good noir crime writing set in Asia, especially by locals. I suspect one of the reasons behind this is that life itself is already pretty noir, for want of a better way of putting it, for a lot of people living in Asia. In Cambodia, for instance, corruption, land grabbing and even murder are all carried out with shocking impunity by local elites. Hence, there’s not a lot of interest on the part of the locals in reading crime fiction. They can just pick up a newspaper and read about it.

In other places, like China, it’s a case of crime fiction and authoritarian governments not mixing. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction because it is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party. There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China. The best known of these is Qui Xialong, whose character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

The situation is starting to change. A lot more Asian based crime writing is starting to emerge out of Thailand and I’ve noticed at least two crime novels, other than Ghost Money, set in Cambodia. A new small press focusing on crime fiction in Asia called Crime Wave Press was recently established in Hong Kong. It has already published interesting crime fiction set in Cambodia, Nepal and the Philippines. I’ve started reading the novel set in the Philippines, Dead Sea, and so far I’m impressed.

One upcoming project I am very excited about is Phnom Penh Noir, edited by Christopher G Moore, who I mentioned previously. It’s an anthology of noir fiction set in Cambodia. I’ve got a story in it and the other contributors include Cambodian authors. It’ll be fascinating to see what their take on ‘noir’ is.

Hopefully, this is just the start. I long for the day that readers stop being obsessed about Nordic crime and crime stories set in Asia get their due. There’s so much going on in Asia, I’d love to see crime writers tackle it.

Noir Nation: What do you think the future holds for eBooks? For print?

Nette: The short answer is that I have absolutely no idea. I don’t think anyone really does. Hopefully, they both have a future. Like a lot of people, I am tremendously excited by the possibilities in e-books to give an audience to crime fiction that would not otherwise get picked up by mainstream print publishers. At the same time, clearly there is some poor material being released digitally. Without trying to sound trite, I hope that both formats prosper and learn from each other. I’d love to see the digital crime fiction market tighten up a bit and print publishers become more adventurous in terms of what they publish and how they market their product. Whether either of things will happen is anyone’s guess.

Noir Nation: Tell us about your literary influences.

Nette: There is so much good stuff out there at the moment it’s hard to know where to start. But if you’re asking who has influenced the way I write and how I think about my writing, James Ellroy would be my first pick. His LA Quintet has had a tremendous impact on me. I’ve read each one two or three times. David Peace is another. What are now known as his Red Riding series, 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 are brilliant. I’m a huge fan of the Parker, the professional thief character created by Donald Westlake AKA Richard Stark. Peace and Ellroy excel at creating dense, multi-layered and interconnected stories. Westlake writes cool, stripped-back stories. He’s really influenced in me in terms of how I write action and any kind of procedure, like robberies and such. While I could go on at length about many other writers, one more I’d like to single out is Megan Abbott. She has the ability to write such tremendous prose and I love the way she is able to write about political issues like gender relations without sounding the remotely didactic or preachy. She inspires me to write better.

Noir Nation: What are you working on next?

Nette: As much as I like writing him, I’ve decided to take a break from Quinlan. My next book will feature a character called Gary Chance. He’s an ex-Australian army truck driver turned criminal who has featured in a number of my short stories. It’s a heist story, set in Queensland, Thailand and my hometown, Melbourne, with a major Segway into Afghanistan. Enough said. Crime Factory, the magazine I help edit, has set itself up as a publishing house and we have just put out our second book. It’s called Hard Labour and it’s an anthology of Australian noir and hardboiled short fiction. We’ve got some interesting projects in the pipeline for 2013. I’ve also got a ton of short story ideas, just got to find the time to do them.

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