A Crime Novel with no Murder Scene: A Q&A with Anna Westbrook

Feminist, prize-winning poet, director of the Red Rattler theatre in Marrickville and now début novelist Anna Westbrook tells us about the shifting social sands of Sydney’s most eccentric suburb in the 1940’s. Dark Fires Shall Burn is based on the real-life cold case of a young girl who was killed in Newtown. Anna tells us about her chilling research, literary influences, dodging rotten tomatoes thrown at her by historians, and why she decided to leave out the paramount event in any crime book – the murder scene. A top review for Dark Fires Shall Burn appears in our May issue.

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Can you tell us about the real-life unsolved crime that Dark Fires Shall Burn is based on?

Dark Fires Shall Burn is based on the murder of 11-year-old schoolgirl Joan Norma Ginn, whose body was found on June 12, 1946, in what is now Camperdown Memorial Park but was then a disused cemetery. Although many people were interviewed, crank letters received, and three people confessed, the crime was never solved.

How did you come across this story, and why did it snag your interest? Did you know immediately you wanted to write a book based on this murder?

I was in a café flicking through a Pictorial History of Newtown when I read about Joan’s murder. It was fascinating to me that the park that I lived nearby – and frequented nearly every day – was hitherto this catalyst event one of Australia’s first colonial burial grounds. I had no idea that it was this crime that sparked council action to relocate the headstones into a much smaller area around St. Stephen’s church. The remainder of the land was converted into a park yet they left most of the peoples’ remains were they lay, unmarked. Something snagged in me about how long public memorial lasts – before your bones become anonymous – and it hitched to the terribleness of this unresolved and unpunished murder, coming at a time when Sydney was already grieving and traumatised by the recent end of the Second World War. I could not stop turning the idea over in my mind, almost obsessively or at least, as though possessed by it. And that was the beginning of the book.

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Why did you omit the actual murder scene from your novel?

Omitting the murder scene was a considered decision for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think that depictions of violence against the bodies of women and girls appear far too regularly in literature and other media as simply a plot device; opening shot is a camera pan over the mutilated body of a woman, ad nauseam. I wanted the reader to establish a depth of feeling for the character inspired by Joan, before she is murdered and to, hopefully, be affected by her death. Secondly, the scene in which the character’s body is discovered was particularly personally difficult to write, in terms of having to envision and sit with such horror for days and revisit it countless times to edit. The book renders a picture of a deeply embedded culture of violence against women as intrinsic to damaged and dysfunctional masculinity, and I believe that I did not need to portray her rape and murder in detail which would seem, frankly, gratuitous, and add nothing to the story.

… depictions of violence against the bodies of women and girls appear far too regularly in literature and other media as simply a plot device; opening shot is a camera pan over the mutilated body of a woman, ad nauseam.”

How did you go about imagining Sydney’s Newtown in the 1940s? How has it changed?

Writing about Newtown, the Bondi area and Darlinghurst, and the city in general in the 1940s was exciting and terrifying. I am not a historian and never studied history. My training was in gender and cultural studies, and so my constant anxiety was: Am I doing this right? Are the historians going to throw tomatoes at me? I wanted the texture of the city to come alive via nailing the idiom and slang, the fashion, and the pop culture references; what music characters listened to, films they would have seen, books read etc. I looked at lots of archival photographs to try to imagine the Newtown of the period and, thankfully, most of it is still there. Unlike other Sydney suburbs where there’s relentless, hideous development, photos of King St. in the 1940s are instantly recognisable.

WESTBROOK-Anna.pngWas it difficult to write an adult book – with such violent themes – in which the main characters are quite young?

Originally the draft centred around the teenaged character of Templeton Luckett, but then I realised that I also wanted to write the story of a girl who had been the best friend of the murdered child, so I found myself writing this younger character who has had the way she views the world profoundly and irredeemably changed. I have always been interested in that moment in coming-of-age narratives where the young person realises that adults are fallible and don’t have all the answers. As a community, Newtown experienced grief and fury about the murder, but also it had the perspective that – like all crimes – it eventually fades out of everyday consciousness. I wanted to imagine those feelings magnified to the extreme by someone who was a peer of this dead girl; a character who lacks the contextual framework of age and experience to just ‘move on’. Templeton too, has his own journey, fraught with betrayals and violence, but he has love in those dark moments too.

What discoveries did you make about Sydney in the 1940s during your research and writing of the book? Was it a time of accelerating social progression or post-war conservatism?

Sydney in the 1940s was in a state of social flux. There was a tug-of-war between progressivism and conservatism, as is seemingly ever the case in this city. The presence of the American forces in the country, coupled with Curtin’s pronouncement: “Australia looks to America”, signalled a shift in the way the nation thought about its character as no longer just a British colonial outpost. Australia felt ‘abandoned’ by Britain, to a degree, after the fall of Singapore, and severely threatened by the bombing of Darwin. A new generation of men went off to war, and women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers, dramatically changing gender roles and giving women opportunities. The notorious figures of Sydney’s early 20th Century underbelly culture – the Tilly Devines and Kate Leighs – were on the fade, yet many creative crooks sprang up in their place to make a buck off the US servicemen (as well as their fellow Australians). This was still the era of the ‘six o’clock swill’ laws, that weren’t repealed in NSW until 1955, and many Sydney-siders felt embarrassed by the parochialism of the city, particularly in front of visiting foreigners. Yet (as always) there were bohemian enclaves were you could pretty much do and procure anything you fancied.

Violence against women stems from misogyny, and Australian masculinity of the era was desperately phobic of anything considered effeminate or feminising.”

How are feminist and queer issues presented and explored in Dark Fires Shall Burn?

My novel is about the murder of a girl and its impact on a small group of affected characters in the Newtown neighbourhood. Violence against women stems from misogyny, and Australian masculinity of the era was desperately phobic of anything considered effeminate or feminising. Templeton, one of the main characters, is an androgynous teenage boy, and one of the most emotive scenes in the book is one in which he is captured by a group of men who bash him and shave off his long hair. There has always been a hidden history of homosexuality since the beginning of the colonial occupation of Australia, (to the point where Sydney was described in the early 19th Century as a “Sodom in the South Pacific”!) WW2 made same-sex desire and actual sexual contact much more accessible to many people, even though it remained mostly clandestine. Furthermore, the influence of US pop culture, particularly the nightclub scene, was of inestimable consequence. I am a feminist. I like writing strong female characters, as well as deeply flawed female characters – and they can be both at once – which, to me, is feminist writing because it depicts women against stereotypes; as plural and intersectional human beings.

Did any particular authors, books, music or movies influence the writing of Dark Fires Shall Burn?

Yes – innumerably. That part of the research was a lot of fun. Music features heavily in the novel as I believe that was something really special. You didn’t have the proliferation or choice that you have now, and so buying a record was something expensive that you would take care of and listen to until you’d memorised the words. Al Dexter, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, The Andrews Sisters; I spoke to my grandmother about what music was popular, and what films she went to see (sometimes over and over again). She turned seventeen in 1946. The early Disney movies are referred to, because they’re things the young characters would have most likely seen, as is National Velvet. Influential books include Peter Doyle’s City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us, Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, Delia Falconer’s Sydney, the poetry of Kenneth Slessor and Dorothy Hewett, Gary Wotherspoon’s work on Sydney’s queer history, and even the Reader’s Digest Australia’s Yesterdays.

Has your work in theatre and poetry had an impact on the novel at all?

I have published some poetry and I think that my love of poetry is reflected in the writing style whilst being careful not to sacrifice pace. I think poetics lends an ability to sharpen metaphor and create strong imagery in prose. The title of the book is drawn from Dorothy Hewett’s poem ‘The Dark Fires’, an excerpt of which features as the epigraph. In terms of theatre, I think Dark Fires Shall Burn would work very well as a play, and an adaptation is something I have been considering.

What will you be discussing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year?

I am looking forward to appearing on two panels at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016: ‘Underbelly of Sydney’ on May 19, and ‘Murder in the Making’ on May 21, in some absolutely stellar company.

Dark Fires Shall Burn is out May 2 from Scribe, rrp $32.99.

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