Barry Maitland’s career spans 25 years of fiction and non-fiction writing. The latest addition to his work is the first of the Harry Belltree Trilogy, which I reviewed here: Crucifixion Creek. The second one, Ash Island, is due out this year.
Harry Belltree’s adventures is the second of his books set in Sydney. His acclaimed Brock and Kolla series, featuring a male-female partnership he says was one of the first in the genre, spans 12 books and is set in England. Barry was born in Scotland, and when his family moved to England it was an English teacher that introduced him to literature.
However, his path led him elsewhere, until an almost-tragedy (read here for more on that) presented a chance for him to begin writing. Here, in this interview, he talks about his writing (interestingly adding how TV has affected his work), Harry Belltree, Jenny and the inspiration for the trilogy.
How have you changed as a crime writer since you first started writing 25 years ago?
There’s no doubt that I’ve changed over time in response to changes in myself and the world around me. For example I believe my writing has been influenced by the development of pace and style in contemporary TV drama. Also, each different form of crime fiction that I’ve tried has changed the way I wrote. The Brock and Kolla series has evolved over 20 years through the developing relationship between the main characters and by changes in the London they work in. When I came to write a stand-alone novel, Bright Air, I found the fact that it wasn’t part of a series liberating, helped by the very different setting in Australia and the change from a police procedural to a mystery thriller. Then Harry Belltree came along, and the structure of a trilogy demanded its own change in approach.
Are there any tropes or aspects of crime fiction that drive you nuts? Or have driven you nuts over your career?
I guess the things that drive you nuts are often the things that give you the most satisfaction in the end when you finally nail them. Like the need to surprise the reader with that stunning twist and final revelation. Another nagging imperative is to avoid cliché, the bane of crime writing.
You’ve described writing crime as coming home – but is there any genre that you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t? Or is always going to be crime for you? Why?
I’ve written other kinds of books, both non-genre fiction and non-fiction, but I do seem to work best in crime. I like the fact that it has an inherent drive and focus. It doesn’t allow you to be too self-indulgent.
It goes way back to an early experience when I first arrived in Australia. I loved being able to walk from home in the centre of Newcastle down to the beach in the harbour mouth with my dog and go for a swim. One day we found four bikies in black leather and tats sitting there. The bloke nearest us had his black helmet beside him on the sand and my lab went straight for it, lifted his leg and peed. I watched in horror, imagining the headline, ‘Dog witnesses owner slaughtered on Horseshoe Beach’. Fortunately the guy had a sense of humour and laughed. But the sense of menace in an idyllic setting stayed with me, and when the police went to war on the bikies recently with Strike Force Raptor, and at the same time New South Wales was being rocked with corruption scandals and property developer scams, I thought it was time I got to work on all this wonderful material.
In the first book, you throw readers head first into Harry’s family life – what was the reason behind that? It struck me that readers know everything there is to know about his private life in the first book – or is it me and I’ve been reading too many of one kind of crime novel, which doles out private information bit by bit in every book?
I did want to establish Harry’s immediate world quickly and then gradually widen the frame to the turmoil beyond. But no, you don’t know all about his family. Not yet.
Jenny, I thought, was the strength behind Harry – it felt like Harry needed her as a bulwark against everything he was up against at work and his own obsession about his parent’s death.
Yes, their relationship is very important. At the same time it is fragile because of her vulnerability because of her blindness and the dark forces circling in on Harry. This comes to a head in the second book, Ash Island, and continues to unfold in the third, Slaughter Park, which is due out next September.
Her blindness doesn’t stop her from moving forward in her life, but Harry isn’t used to it yet (despite all the time that has passed) – tell us what you intended for this disability to bring out in their relationship?
I wanted the reader to really try to imagine what the world is like if you can’t see. How would she do
her make-up, or choose what to wear, or eat a meal? And also to see how this might work out in a close relationship. One of the telling scenes is where Harry comes home from work at night and puts the lights off so that he shares her blindness, and they dance together in the dark.
Why did you choose to do this book with three different POVs, including Kelly a reporter?
In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge says that the choice of point of view is one of the most important decisions the author has to make. It was crucial for the Brock and Kolla books, seen from two POVs, senior male and younger female detectives. I decided to widen it to a third view in the Belltree books, Harry, Jenny and Kelly Pool, the investigative crime reporter. This gave me more flexibility and let us look at Harry and Jenny from ‘outside’.
Will there be additional POVs to Harry and Jenny in the next books?
One more in the third book, that of Detective Inspector Deb Velasco, whom we met right at the beginning of the first book, Crucifixion Creek.
What are the perils of writing a series like this?
Just as Ash Island was about to be published last September, my editor said, ‘You know the problem with a trilogy? The second book – people just want to get on to the third.’ I had thought about that when I was planning it, and it was one of the reasons why I moved the action out of Sydney and up the coast to the Hunter Valley, so that the book has a different, fresh feel to it, a separate identity, although it is carrying the Belltree story forward. In the third book we return to Sydney and the circle is compete. I think some kind of strong structure like that is needed for a trilogy.
What’s next for you this year?
I’m focused at present on the editing stages of Slaughter Park, but I’m also turning over a few ideas for another Brock and Kolla. We’ll see.
Crucifixion Creek is a wonderful addition to Australian crime genre — what do you think of Barry Maitland and Harry Belltree?