Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Kerry Greenwood, a major crime fiction writer in her native Australia, has also gained an enthusiastic following in the U.S. for her mysteries set in the 1920s and starring the fabulously wealthy, always fashionable Phryne Fisher. After a false start with another U.S. publisher, the Phryne (pronounced Fry-knee, rhymes with briny) novels have been published in quick succession by Poisoned Pen Press, complete with the dazzling original covers from the Allan & Unwin editions in Australia. The latest is Murder in the Dark, released this month. Next is Murder on a Midsummer Night, out this summer. PPP also publishes Kerry’s new contemporary series featuring Corinna Chapman.
Kerry was born in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, and lives there today. Although she had always aspired to be a writer, she earned a law degree from Melbourne University and continues to work one day a week for Victorian Legal Aid. She lives with three cats (Attilla, Belladonna, and Ashe), a collection of 7,000 books, and a registered wizard. In her spare time she has jumped out of planes in an attempt to cure her fear of heights, but only succeeded in giving herself a fear of jumping out of planes. She says she can detect bookshops from blocks away, and the size of her book collection lends credence to the claim.
Q. How did your arrangement with Poisoned Pen Press come about? Had you ever been published in the US before PPP picked up your books?
A. In the dim and distant past, i.e. 1991, Ballantine picked up the first two Phryne books, renamed Cocaine Blues [to] Death by Misadventure and they failed to sell. Then PPP contacted my Aus publisher and this time I caught the public taste, it appears. Thank you, public!
Q. Your covers are gorgeous – and so are the gowns Phryne wears. Who designs the gowns and who creates the covers?
A. My mother and I design the gowns and the amazing Beth Norling does the pictures. She sketches first then does a pastel. They are wonderful and so very actually 1928.
Q. Phryne seems ideally suited to her time. Why did you choose the 1920s? Could you write a character like Phryne in a 21st century setting?
A. Not really. Phryne is the product of the losses of the Great War, the sudden elevation of women because there were few men, and she is bold but not impossible for that period. It's not as easy as it used to be to be bold in the 21st century...
I picked 1928 initially because I did a thesis length essay on the 1928 strike for Legal History, and I over-researched it, interviewed all the old men who were on the wharf, read all the newspapers, fell in love with original research. My father was a wharfie so I could and did get into the Waterside Workers Federation archives. So when I was looking for a historical period I naturally thought of 1928.
Q. Does Phryne have qualities, or attitudes, that you consider distinctly Australian? Or would she be equally at home in 1920s America or Britain?
A. That is a really good question. I suppose her Aus qualities are a certain contempt for authority and perhaps her appetite for a good time. But she would fit in wherever she was - or rather, stand out. In England at the time she would be a Bright Young Thing and considered outrageous enough not to be invited to certain events - she would not get to meet the King, for example. In the USA at the time she would be overbold - and no one then would accept a Chinese lover, though it would have been worse if Lin was black. In fact, it would be illegal.
Q. Like many mystery heroines, Phryne is larger than life, an idealized woman. Is she someone you’d like to have as a friend? Other than lots of money, does she have anything that you wish you had?
A. Oh, that total uninterest in what anyone else thinks - I would love to have that. Her style. Her taste. Her hats! I would be delighted if she was my friend. In fact, she is. She sits on the corner of my desk and tells me stories.
Q. Tell us about the life of a writer in Australia. Are literary agents vital there, as they are in the US? Is it possible to find a publisher and have a writing career without an agent? I also wonder if you feel the same pressure American writers feel to get out in public, do bookstore signings, interviews, everything you possibly can to sell books. How much promotion do you do for your books?
A. I had an agent when I began, and I think an agent is a good thing, but not essential, in Australia. I used to do a great deal of publicity, tours, signings, radio and TV etc. When I was younger I thought it was great fun. Then I got older and menopause ran over me like a big black truck and I got too sick and exhausted to do any but the main interviews. My publisher does not press me to do more than I think is wise, because they want me to continue to write books...
Q. What attracted you to the mystery genre? What can you do in a mystery that you couldn’t do in mainstream fiction?
A. You can provide a story which everyone wants to read right through to the end. The trouble with lit fiction is that post-modernism has disjuncted (is that a word? It ought to be) or perhaps I mean dislocated the narrative, so you can't read it in bed. Mysteries are one of the few forms of fiction left that demand a story, and I am a story teller. I am in good company. Dickens, for a start.
Q. Have you ever studied writing, or have you learned on the job, so to speak? Do you believe formal instruction in writing gives an author an advantage?
A. Never studied writing, just wrote a lot of books, and when I was a child I used to read dictionaries and cornflakes packets and everything I could get my hands on. I did do a university degree in arts, though, including English, which sharpens the mind and broadens the horizons. I read, for example, Mrs. Gaskell, whom otherwise I might not have met. A writing class can teach grammar and spelling and sentence construction and they are all good things, because without them the story is not told in its most effective form. Depends on the person...
Q. You’re incredibly prolific. How long does it take you to write a book? Are you already thinking about the next one as you write? Do you take a break between books or just dive into a new one right away? Do you write every day?
A. I can only think of one book at a time and I think and research for about three months and then I write the book when it demands to be written. In its extreme form, a novel takes three weeks with no time out for sleep and a staggering intake of coffee. Now that I am supervised firmly by my cat Belladonna, who hits the caps lock when I have been typing for more than three hours, a novel takes a couple of months. And what you see is what you get. I have no drafts. I just describe what I can see in front of my eyes, like a film. Insane, I know, but it works and now, after fifty novels, I trust it.
Q. Would you tell us a bit about your new series? This doesn’t mean the end of Phryne, does it?
A. No, Phryne continues. The new series is a cosy set in the present about Corinna Chapman, who is the same size as me (fat) and is a baker in the city of Melbourne. She has several cats, a lover called Daniel, and she lives in an eccentric apartment house called Insula. Unlike Phyrne, Corinna is not a hero. She makes mistakes. She gets things wrong. She's refreshing to write about...
Q. What current crime fiction writers do you admire?
A. Love that Janet Ivanovich. Read Kathy Reichs (though I prefer the character in Bones, perhaps because she gets to work with David Boreanz). Admire Susan Wittig Albert, Donna Leon, Tony Hillerman.
Q. I read somewhere that you have a collection of more than 7,000 books. I’m unspeakably envious, but at the same time I want to ask the same question people asked the woman who gave birth to octuplets: Did you plan this, or did it just happen? What’s in your collection? Have you read all of them? If you wanted a particular book, could you find it easily?
A. They accreted, like a coral reef. Gradually. I haven't moved house for a long time, which may explain it. I know where everything is because the poetry is all in one place, as is the history, the male and female biogs, the detective stories, the science fiction, the research books. I have certainly read all of them, the collection is the books I read and decided I wanted to read again. Every now and again I have a huge purge, give away armloads, and when I look back I still have just as many books and no space in the shelves... there may be something magical in this.
Q. You have many fans in the United States. Do you think you’ll ever come over for a visit and meet some of them?
A. At the moment I have an affliction of the middle ear which makes it impossible for me to fly long distances. If this gets better or someone offers me a cruise, I would love to come to America.
Visit the author's website at www.phrynefisher.com