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Books

Remembering Peter Temple

By Michael Heyward
The acclaimed Australian crime writer had a deep appreciation for the folly of things

Email was invented entirely for the benefit of Peter Temple. He knew this and he made full use of the fact. From the time that we began publishing him, in 2003, every day was spiced with the possibility that Temple was likely to email, possibly repeatedly. If he did, the day became more entertaining or terrifying or both. His emails were often shaped like cattle prods. He emailed when he needed something, when he was bored, when he wanted to annoy me or to make me laugh.

Like Jack Irish, Temple had a knack for debt collecting. He was a master at sending reminders about the folding stuff.

Dear M: Concerning the money, how long is ASAP? So far, it’s a week. Of course, the matter could be lost inside the large bureaucracy you now command. Exactly how big is the Text Accounts Department? Best, Peter

If that didn’t work, there were other equally inventive approaches:

Dear M: Please send me a test email. Try to say something interesting (such as why your cheque hasn’t arrived). Best, Peter

And then there was the nuclear threat:

Dear M: We need to talk. Or would you prefer Orange? Best, Peter

I always preferred Agent Orange, a fop with a nose for cash and expensive booze who could never be reached on the phone and who inevitably emailed from a prone position on a superyacht moored somewhere off the coast of Mustique while being served margaritas by the improbably named Nurse Flagstaff. Orange was an unusual literary agent. He had only one client, and he liked to resolve matters, as he said, “at Sans Culotte over a few morsels and a bottle or two of a decent Romanée-Conti”. He was full of fabulous bullshit. He once chastised me for asking to read the new Peter Temple novel we were negotiating over:

My dear Michael, I must confess to be flabbergasted at your wish to see an actual manuscript. I have not seen an actual manuscript since I sold Scotty’s Tender Is the Night to Scribner’s. Complete waste of time, reading manuscripts. Yours, Orange

Nonetheless, Orange was certain his client was, as he claimed, “an authentic genius and more versatile than Mata Hari”. He was so much fun to talk to that I would string the negotiation out as long as possible, even when Orange was sulking, which he frequently did:

My dear Michael, I trust you will not be offended if I say that my client is beginning to wonder if you have any staff left, and, more importantly, any money. Yours in disappointment, Orange

For a man so languid, Orange was most alive to the fact that his author was in constant danger of being poached by rival publishers:

My dear Michael, As your intelligence service will no doubt have reported to you, Peter has been importuned by two publishers suggesting quote fresh starts unquote. One of these rascals had the impertinence to say that my client was a proven publishing harlot and the only matter for discussion was price … As always, we send our warmest salutations and look forward to a frank exchange of lies. Yours, Orange

But Orange was not entirely without principles. It would have been a breach of faith for him to accept an opening offer:

My dear Michael, You find me in the last minutes before the flight to Mustique. Here the leaves have lost their grip, the ice is in the air, and I feel a strong sense of the ending of days. I have put your offer to my client and, my word, didn’t we chuckle. I look forward to a much-improved second proposal. For some reason, other publishers think a new Temple is worth more. Yours, Orange

And Orange disapproved of Temple negotiating directly with me, something we did by accident from time to time:

My dear Michael, My client informs me that he has committed the sin of speaking directly to you on matters contractual. The silly man is engaged in self-flagellation even as I dictate this to my amanuensis. I cannot, of course, accept your ludicrous offer … But now it is time for the dip off one’s beach, followed by the pre-prandial jug of gin and lime, the light repast of grilled manta ray, and the nap-nap. Yours in boundless admiration, Orange

After the deal was done, while Orange resumed his comatose condition, we could find other ways to entertain ourselves. When Stieg Larsson was selling squillions of copies, Peter and I wrote to each other for a while in fake Swedish. That went on for days. Then I asked him to write a novel in which a Swedish detective is lost in the Australian desert. I told him it would be an instant bestseller. Peter sent me the opening page of the novel I had commissioned:

The sun was staring from the sky like a monstrous eye when Lars crossed the burning sand to the vehicle. He could not meet the savage gaze of the dog on the back. It appeared to be a cross between a pitbull and an Irish wolfhound and was tied to the rollbar with rusty barbed wire. It was chewing on the leg of a kangaroo. The kangaroo was making small sounds.

 

‘Where ya flamin goin, ya bastard?’ said the driver. He was a huge man, wearing only a Speedo bathing costume. His entire body except for his head was covered with brown hair like coir. On his upper lip was tattooed F U C K.

 

‘Darwin,’ said Lars. ‘I am going across the great Aussie outback to Darwin.’

 

‘Fucken Darwin,’ said the man. ‘Fuck all in fucken Darwin, mate. Where ya fucken from, ya bastard?’

 

‘I am from Sweden,’ said Lars. ‘I am Lars Holmsakort, a private investigator from Sweden.’

 

‘Fucken Sweden, hey,’ said the man. ‘Fucken IKEA. Rootin this fucken sheila on the fucken table, the fucken legs fall off. Fuck fucken IKEA.’

This remained one of Peter’s unwritten books. After the publication of his first novel Bad Debts in 1996, his output was extraordinary. It is a formidable achievement to write one novel that can stay in print but Peter began his career brilliantly and then got better until his magisterial last book, Truth, which came out in 2009. It was his ninth novel in thirteen years. He had by then become the first Australian writer to win the UK’s Gold Dagger and the first crime writer to win the Miles Franklin.

Peter wanted to write a sequel to Truth but the book eluded him. He became an even more merciless critic of his own work. He worried that he had run out of things to say. He would write a draft, reread it, report to me how awful it was, and throw it away. He wrote half of the fifth Jack Irish novel but abandoned it. It would have been entirely unacceptable for him to submit a novel to his publisher which in his view might require editing. He loathed editing. “No more fucking editing,” he told me. He started late and he finished early. His failure to produce another novel after Truth was the price he was prepared to pay for writing books that mattered so much.

If he was himself tormented by the prospect of a new manuscript, it was always more entertaining to torment his publisher too. He would email me to say that a manuscript was on the way only to send a message the next day headed “False Dawn”. He and his wife, Anita Rose-Innes, are part of a walking group that convenes annually in order to conduct experiments in the different ways that alcohol and exercise can be combined in remote locations. While we stomped off into the bush to cure our hangovers, Peter stayed at base camp, never too far away from the form guide, pencil in hand, shuffling a sheaf of manuscript pages, which he would assure me were the basis of his new and long overdue book. If he was feeling particularly heartless he would wait until I had staggered back into camp to read me a paragraph. Those adventures are now cherished memories.

Temple wrote again and again about men who have been pummelled by life. He wrote fiction to explore how humour, carpentry, horse racing and other forms of diversion might make the sadness bearable. His best characters are survivors who are staring down their grief and rage. This is what connects Jack Irish, who listens to Mahler and sips tea from bone china, with a character like the swaggie Rebb from The Broken Shore, a man who would otherwise be invisible in our society. Peter gave us a character, Jack Irish, to rival Boney and Cliff Hardy and he charted a path through the corrupt corners of Melbourne. But this is only half the story. He had an incomparable ear for speech. He brought the sensibility of a poet to the demands of the novel. He heard us and he saw us. When we sold his novels to FSG in the US, his editor asked him to write glossaries to unlock the Australian idioms in them. Peter relished this assignment. Defining “sanger” he wrote, “Sandwiches. Someone who fancied a chicken sausage sandwich could ask for a chook snag sanger”. Trackies, he wrote, are “tracksuits, two-piece garments once worn only by people engaged in athletic pursuits, now worn by people who wish they had.”

After he won the Miles Franklin, and had been given the award at a dinner in Sydney, the Text contingent flew back to Melbourne together. Our sales and marketing director, Kirsty Wilson, always a great champion of Peter’s work, let the flight crew know that the winner of the Miles was on board. As we began our descent, the captain announced this over the PA, and offered his congratulations. The entire plane burst into cheering and applause. It was a wonderful moment. Peter pretended to be horrified but got off the plane with a secret half-smile, his response to the folly of things, which is how I remember him.

 

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at an event to honour Peter Temple at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

Michael Heyward

Michael Heyward is the publisher at Text Publishing.

Peter Temple. Photograph by Candy Bryce

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