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Interview: Craig Sisterson talks about Southern Cross Crime

A Nelsonian currently living in London, Craig Sisterson is a former lawyer and magazine editor who in recent years has been working as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in a few countries while being a stay-at-home Dad.

A renowned crime fiction critic, Craig has interviewed hundreds of authors and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at literary festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the McIlvanney Prize in Scotland, the Ned Kelly Awards in Australia, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of the Rotorua Noir festival. Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film and TV of Australia and New Zealand, is his first book.

Tell us a little about Southern Cross Crime:

Basically, it’s a readers’ guide to the modern era (past 25 years) of Australian and New Zealand crime writing, primarily focused on books but also including screen stories. It’s a non-fiction book about fictional stories, showcasing around 300 authors, films, and TV shows. It’s written in an accessible, magazine style rather than being an academic study or encyclopaedia sort of tome, and is designed for mystery lovers and other keen readers to be able to dip in and out of or read right through to learn more about our antipodean crime writers and the tales they’ve told.

I guess one way to think of it is like a Lonely Planet, Frommer’s or Rough Guide equivalent, just looking at an area of the literary world rather than a city or country.

Southern Cross Crime is divided into sections, such as ‘Mean Streets’ which looks at crime fiction set in our biggest cities like Sydney, Auckland, and Melbourne, and ‘In the Wop-Wops’, which looks at rural and small-town crime novels. Each author covered gets a wee section that’s part bio, part synopsis and part review of one or more of their novels. In addition, there’s a final section to the book, ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which includes larger chapters on 13 leading figures of Australian and New Zealand crime writing. These chapters are like profile pieces in a magazine.

Hopefully, booklovers out there will enjoy learning a bit more about some of our Australian and New Zealand storytellers – there’s a few fun facts and stories salted in – as well as discovering some new books and authors to add to their TBR lists.

What inspired you to write this book?

Over here in the UK there’s an interesting series of Pocket Essential guides to various aspects of the crime fiction world – Nordic Noir, European Noir, Brit Noir, American Noir, etc. I’ve always spoken up for the world-class talent of Australian and New Zealand storytellers – whether they were getting global recognition or not – and with the recent success of books like The Dry, and more and more Australian and New Zealand crime writers getting picked up by overseas publishers or becoming more readily available for northern hemisphere readers, I just felt the time was right for a similar guide to Australian and New Zealand crime writing. I knew the author of the ‘Noir’ series, Barry Forshaw (a legendary UK crime critic), so approached him about whether he thought there might be space in the series for a book on Australian and New Zealand crime. Not only was Barry very supportive of the idea, he personally introduced me to his publisher and editor, and helped get the ball rolling.

In hindsight, writing this book feels like a natural culmination of some of the things I’ve been doing the past dozen years or so, from simply including New Zealand crime writers in my review columns and features for the likes of the Herald on Sunday, Weekend Herald, Listener, and other publications in Aotearoa and abroad, to establishing the Ngaio Marsh Awards in 2010, the annual Mystery in the Library series of events in 2015, and helping make the Rotorua Noir festival happen in 2019.

I guess in a way I’ve been discovering and advocating for quality storytelling in the crime and thriller field for quite a while now, and this is another step on that journey.

What research was involved?

Good question. Some of the research was just revisiting things I’d already done over the past decade or so – New Zealand and Australian crime novels I’d reviewed, books I’d read but not reviewed, authors I’d interviewed, etc. I’d always been pretty cognisant of considering and covering local books – not just big-name overseas bestsellers etc – so that included a couple of hundred books and dozens of authors right there. Looking at the notes I’d kept and things I’d already written was a starting point. Then I wanted Southern Cross Crime to be as comprehensive but also as diverse and inclusive as possible, so I researched lots of other authors and books.

We made a decision to focus on the ‘modern era’ of Australian and New Zealand crime writing, from the mid-1990s onwards (giving us a nice quarter-century time span beginning around the time the first Ned Kelly Awards were given out – funnily enough the inaugural Best Novel prize was actually shared by an Australian author, Barry Maitland, and Kiwi author Paul Thomas, writer of the Ihaka series). So I looked to fill in the gaps in my knowledge from that period, as well as looking deeper into the past in terms of context and the growth or evolution of our local antipodean genre.

It was really interesting finding out more about Australian and New Zealand crime writing: authors who were popular and acclaimed but have now fallen out of print, the types of career swerve some storytellers have made, the various backgrounds, and the wide array of styles and settings. There’s a lot of really cool stuff. I went down the rabbit hole more than a few times, then had to decide what to include or leave out.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Haphazard may be the best word. My mother says I’ve always been a bit of an ‘all or nothing’ person, and candidly that’s how I approached most of my deadlines at university and in various workplaces. I used to tell myself I needed to the deadline pressure to focus and do my best work, leading to me writing 6,000-word legal essays the night before they were due, etc. But you can’t write a book that way. It’s going to take a lot more than a night (or even several nights) of high-intensity work. So I did try to get myself going with some sort of regular writing routine – though in truth that was very up and down and in the end I wrote the bulk of the book in the final few weeks before it was due to the publishers. Having done all the research and decision making about inclusions well ahead of time. For those last few weeks I set myself up a timesheet breaking up the day and week, and would record how many entries and words I got written in various two-hour blocks throughout the days and weeks. For example, I’d wake up early and try to get at least a couple of entries done before my five-year-old daughter woke up, then get her breakfast and walk her to school, then try to get several sets of entries done in various two-hour blocks before I had to pick her up from school, and more after she went to bed. That kinda worked well, in the end. Seeing the number of entries and total words grow, and the names getting crossed off on my master list, was a visual reminder of regular progress being made. Though there were plenty of write-off days and hiccups along the way.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Well, given an early page includes lyric from ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight Oil and another from ‘Welcome Home’ by Dave Dobbyn, we’d probably have to include those two tracks among any soundtrack. I did actually listen to a lot of Australian and New Zealand music during the writing of the book, just to put me in the mood and get me in the zone, since I was typing about antipodean stuff in cold and grey London.

So you’d probably want to throw on plenty of Shihad and AC/DC when you want a faster tempo (I’m a rock kid from way back), and a good dose of the likes of Crowded House, The Feelers, and Bic Runga for some easier but great listening. There’s so much great Kiwi music, so I never ran out of choices or got bored.

Sometimes I wanted music that gave me the feel of home but that I wouldn’t find myself drawn to sing along to, so I ended up listening to quite a lot of music in Te Reo – sometimes Alien Weaponry, and many other times I had Maisey Rika on repeat. Beautiful stuff. Both are world-class, though very different in style of course.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

I just revelled in the opportunity to showcase some of our wonderful Australian and New Zealand storytellers, and revisit some great novels, TV shows, and films. I remember saying years ago that it’s funny that in some areas of life, such as certain sports, we not only accept that people from our part of the world can be the best in the world – we expect them to be. Yet in others there’s still this cultural cringe or presumption that overseas versions are better. Australia and New Zealand have so many talented storytellers, across all genres and styles. The world is waking up to that, and hopefully we locals will also become better over time at acknowledging it too, like we have with New Zealand music in recent decades, or film, or other fields.

It was a real privilege to get to write Southern Cross Crime for a London publisher who thought there was value in showcasing our antipodean crime writing. I hope readers all over the world, but particularly those back home, will enjoy it and be inspired to give some more of our local authors a go. There’s plenty of choice.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Maybe it’s the Dad thing, or being half a world away from most of my family and old friends, but I didn’t really celebrate in any grand way. It was a weekday when I submitted the manuscript, and I knew there might still be plenty of work ahead in terms of editing etc, so it just felt like a step in the process. I was riding solo with our daughter, so we had fish ’n’ chips together on the lounge floor, then read stories.

I was thinking the book’s publication and actual launch in London would be more of a grand celebration, but these strange COVID-19 lockdown times we’re living in has put paid to that, along with many of the book festivals where I would have been celebrating with friends in the crime writing community. It’s all been a bit surreal.

What is your favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Oooh… tough question. I might step away from the crime genre here and say The Cost of These Dreams by Wright Thompson. It’s a superb collection of long-form sportswriting from one of the very best in the business. I’ve been a big fan of Wright Thompson’s profiles and long features for ESPN over many years, and this book collects together some exceptional pieces. When I first left legal practice, the first features I wrote for a newspaper were actually sports features, not author interviews, and I’ve always loved those ‘outside the lines’ types of long features which dig into the human aspects of sports rather than the results or who wins the championships.

If you’re a fan of great sportswriting or long-form journalism, I highly recommend The Cost of These Dreams. It sits on my shelf alongside other all-time classics like The Silent Season of a Hero by Gay Talese and Beyond The Game by Gary Smith.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

In terms of books? In terms of life it’s just moseying through this unusual period, and keeping our daughter healthy and home schooled, while trying not to drop too many balls on other fronts. But in terms of books, I have a couple of other projects in the early works. Before I moved to London a few years ago I was in the research and interviewing stage for a sports biography that means a great deal to me. I had to put that on hiatus, while occasionally chipping away – I’d certainly like to complete that sometime in the not-too-distant future, though I’ll need more trips back to Australia and New Zealand to give it the full justice the subject and their family deserve.

I have a couple of other crime fiction related non-fiction book ideas too, one of which I’ve discussed with a London publisher who is keen. So depending on how things shake out, I may be honing my haphazard book writing process again very soon.

Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film and TV of Australia and New Zealand by Craig Sisterson (Oldcastle Books) is out now in ebook and audio download.

The paperback will now be available in late September.


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