STEPHEN M Irwin’s debut novel, supernatural thriller The Dead Path, was published in the UK, the USA, Germany and China. It was named Top Horror Novel in the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List (2011) and won the Book of the Month Club’s First Fiction Award (2010).
Stephen’s second novel, thriller The Broken Ones, was launched in Australia in 2011 to excellent reviews, including being named the Sydney Morning Herald Fiction Pick of the Week. It will be released in the USA by DoubleDay in August 2012, and has also been selected by the Book of the Month Club for its catalogues which service 8 million members.
Stephen’s short stories have won competitions nationally and internationally, with several published in notable anthologies. Stephen is also an award-winning filmmaker, and has written and directed television documentaries and short films. He is currently working with several Australian producers developing feature and television material, including a screen adaptation of The Dead Path.
Stephen lives in Brisbane’s inner-west with his wife and two young children. Find him online atstephenmirwin.com.
Two novels down, and twice you’ve brought some shudders to Brisbane town. What is it about the city that lends itself to a site for nightmare occurrences?
I hope that I’m able to write with a degree of veracity about lots of places, and certainly a bit of my first novel was set in London, and a recent screenplay I worked on had some scenes set in New York and Canada. However, Brisbane is home and I know certain of its suburbs well, some of its hiding places, how it feels through different seasons, where it feels authentic and where it feels like it’s wearing too much makeup. My first two books had to be set somewhere, and while I don’t live or die by the axiom ‘write what you know’, it made sense to set the books in a place that I know. I figured that I was asking the readers to suspend any disbelief they may have in magic and ghosts, so if the setting felt solid, I could buy a bit more latitude to explore the fantastical.
Even if it wasn’t home, though, Brisbane is a great setting because there is more to it than meets the eye. It is a pleasant and friendly place, but it was born essentially as a penal settlement, so it has some unpleasant bones. It is sunny and warm, and its winters are divine, but as we’ve seen in the recent past, it can turn nasty quickly with streets flooding and disaster unfolding in a matter of hours. As a setting, this contrast is appealing, and has worked well for other authors, too (Jeff Lindsay used Miami as a setting for the dark deeds of his killer, Dexter). Just because a house has fresh paint doesn’t mean it’s not haunted; just because a city is sun-drenched and ‘livable’ doesn’t mean horrible things can’t happen there. Let’s face it, the least expected and most horrific crimes are those performed in broad daylight.
What is it you’ve enjoyed most about the transition from writing screenplays to novels?
I think what’s enjoyable is the feeling that the transition continues. I’m still writing screenplays and television material while working on more long-form fiction. Each mode of writing enriches the other. Since writing a couple of novels, I feel I’m now able to bring to my screenplay writing a better understanding of character, because I’ve drilled so much more deeply into characters’ minds and motivations for the books. And for me, screenwriting helped make the novels more enjoyable because I’ve learned something about conventional story structure from screenwriting. Screenwriting has helped broaden my understanding about pacing scenes and building suspense; I learned through experience that a scene that lasts more than a few minutes on screen risks becoming deathly boring, and every scene has to help advance the story. These rules have a place in the kinds of books I write. Very importantly, screenwriting forced me to learn visual shorthand: how to paint a clear picture or mood very economically. In a screenplay of just 100 pages, you can’t devote a whole page describing a room or a person –- you get a sentence for that. The lessons about economical writing have been helpful, because if you know the essence of what you want to say, then it is more enjoyable to dress it up. Putting in is always more fun than taking out.
Another thing that surprises some people is that a significant amount of my screenwork has been comedic. Right now I am working on a comedy feature I’ve been commissioned to write for an Australian producer. I hope that a few sparks of levity have found their way into the novels.
There was a noirish feel to The Broken Ones — is crime writing something you’d like to explore further, or do you find the supernatural an irresistible attraction?
I am a sucker for good crime, in literature, film, and television, and I’ve been a fan of noir since seeing The Third Man in my first year at art college. I’m a dedicated fan of the gurus likeChandler, maestros like Cruz Smith, and seasoned experts like the late, great Robert B Parker. It’s delightful to think that some of my love for crime writing has rubbed off into The Broken Ones, which is ostensibly a detective story. I’m certainly continuing to work on more crime material –- my next novel, while not a police procedural, has strong crime elements, and I’m developing with a talented production company a new crime miniseries. It’s great fun. Chandler knew how to entertain, and he knew that everything had a dark side. ‘It is not a fragrant world.’
As for the supernatural, I can resist it -… but only for so long. My nightmares, when I have them, are inevitably about angry spirits. I think some writers write to exorcise, and it helps when I do.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I really enjoyed The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoff McGeachin. It is set soon after the Second World War in country Victoria. My father was a serviceman in WWII, and no doubt his sensibilities were formed by his time as a young man, and remained with him for me to see and learn from. Geoff captured the spirit of the time beautifully, and had me almost nostalgic for an era I only knew about second hand. Apart from that, it was a great crime story with a smart, wounded protagonist. Right up my alley.
And as a writer of stories with ghosts, I am a huge fan of Karina Machado’s non-fiction books about hauntings: Spirit Sisters and Where Spirits Dwell. The Australian spec fic scene is rich and varied right now, with some huge talents who are getting some well deserved recognition.
What have been some of the biggest changes in the Australian speculative fiction scene in the past two years?
I think the Australian market as a whole is responding to the same changes that the whole publishing world is facing with regard to digital books. While this new form is a phoenix to some and a spectre to others, I am delighted to see that it seems to have sparked a re-emerging interest from writers and readers in the novella. This is a form I’ve loved since adolescence when I first read seminal works like Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea. Given that a novella can be created in a third the time or less that it takes to craft a novel, the rich excitement of furious creation can often be sensed on the page. A story has a life of its own, and to be effectively told it needs to fill into its own body without constraint or artificial inflation –- some stories are simply too long for to be a ‘short’, and too contained to warrant novel length. I think since the 1980s, the bang-for-buck book purchasing mindset has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to justify the printing and marketing of the novella form, but the e-book format is making it much easier for publishers to price the form back into popularity, and also for self-publishers to get their works to market. I am delighted that a number of authors I know are working in this form right now. It is good news that this important middle sibling is coming back in force.