by Walter Mason
Greetings! And welcome to the first post from Southerly’s first day of live blogging at the Tom Keneally Centre at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts.
My first guest today was the crime writer P M Newton. We sat down in some comfy seats and talked writing, crime and sci-fi – all things that P M Newton is expert in.
I first discovered her after I read her fantastic first novel “The Old School,” a gritty and very Australian book set in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown in the late 1980s. What intrigued me about the book was its engagement with issues of social justice, and I soon hunted the author down on Twitter and established a friendship.
Early in 2014 P M Newton is releasing her second book featuring her Vietnamese-Australian detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly, “Beams Falling.” The title is a reference to “The Maltese Falcon,” a book that appears in Newton’s novel. Oh, and did I mention that Newton is herself an ex NSW Police Officer who worked in Bankstown and Cabramatta during the years she writes about?
P M’s fiction features people who have been damaged, and who move among damaged communities. The new book is set in Cabramatta during its worst years, years that Newton knew intimately from her experience working there as a police officer. Her character, an Asian female police officer working in a sexist and racist world, is, in the new book, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She is interested in the dynamics of new migrant communities and the struggles they face, and how they are represented in the media.
Having just released my own second book, I am very aware of how much of a torment writing can be the second time around. I asked P M Newton if the writing of her new book was any kind of trial: “It’s a longer process than I had expected. When you write your first book you are doing it all on your own. With the second book I had to give it over to someone else when I knew it really wasn’t ready, and start having editorial input much earlier. I think I’m a writer who needs a lot of time.”
As this new book is set in Cabramatta, P M gave me one of the earlier drafts to check over, so I know now that I was one of those primary nitpickers who made her so nervous. But Newton is a careful writer who sets a great deal of store by multiple drafts and getting things totally right. When I asked her what advice she’d give to a new crime novelist she said: “If they are only on the first draft I tell them, ‘Oh well, now the work begins’. If you are serious about your writing you’d want it to be read, and be read professionally, not just by friends. Find professional people at the writers’ centres etc. A cover letter showing you had your MS professionally edited really stands out on a slush pile.”
P M is a tremendous reader (hint: she moonlights as a librarian!), and I asked her to pick a book from the shelves at the Tom Keneally Centre that really stood out. After a moment’s perusal, she pounced upon an edition of Doris Lessing’s “The Sentimental Agents.” Doris Lessing, of course, just passed away last night, and Newton has been a huge fan of hers since she was at school. “She created an entirely different world. She’s basically writing about human history, but she’s doing it from the point of view of aliens,” explains P M. “This book particularly stayed in my memory. I was only talking on Twitter the other day about literary science fiction, and this series was mentioned. I think it’s time for a re-read.”
P M Newton is a fascinating author whose commitment to social justice and encyclopaedic knowledge of genre fiction makes enriches her writing and her life. This year she has risen to prominence as something of a critic of depictions of women in crime fiction, and has written a couple of essays on the subject.
I look forward to her new book, and to her continued analysis of the social forces that inform crime writing and fuel crime readers.