Stephen M Irwin
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
My childhood was spent in the western suburbs of Brisbane: Taringa while I was at primary school in neighbouring St Lucia, then Graceville while I was at secondary school in Indooroopilly. Until college, my world was a pretty small circle about five kilometres wide. I now live only a few kilometres north, so I think the gravity of childhood still has a pretty strong hold on me. It was a happy childhood, and maybe I’m hoping to pass that fondness for Brisbane’s inner west onto my two kids.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I think I wanted to be an illustrator – I am a passable sketch artist but without any brilliance, so I’m glad that passed. At eighteen I was at Art College studying film production, and my love of filmmaking continues today as a screenwriter. At thirty, I was just entering a phase of making corporate and then television documentaries – the real world had more allure to me then, and I enjoyed finding order (and story structure) in the chaos. Now, I realise what I have most control over is my own imagination, and its fiction for the screen and page that floats my boat.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen, I believed I was truly good at what I did. Now, looking back after twenty-five years of writing everything from training videos to poetry, screenplays and short stories and novels, I realise that I was, in fact, pretty crap. But nature balances itself; it gave me enough fuel in the ‘self-confidence’ tank to keep motoring while I learned the basic skills of storytelling. Those inborn reserves of self-belief have all but run out, now, leaving me quite self-critical.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ startled me when I first saw it as a teenager – such a still image, yet latent with threat. It looks so simple on the page, but his Naïve style placements are anything but simple; it is beautifully structured. But it’s the mood that arrests: one can almost smell the sand and the exotic desert scents, feel the contrast of cool air and warm sand. I think these three elements – the suspense, the apparent simplicity, the glimpse of a different world – are things I aspire to bring into my work.
I don’t generally write to music – my brain is easily crowded, and my wife can attest to my hopeless inability to multitask. But there are times when I do break from the writing and idle through my music library for an audible ‘snack’ – and I often find myself listening to Mike Scott and The Waterboys song ‘When Ye Go Away’. It never fails to tug at my heart and pull at the Celtic genes running in my blood. The bittersweet – the counterpoint between the hoped for and the actual – underpins great drama. This song is a perfect little lesson about great drama in three and a half minutes.
And when time permits, there is a work of great art I return to from my lounge chair: Robert Mulligan’s screen adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. From the opening title sequence, you know you are the hands of a gifted storyteller – and the rest of the film lives up to the promise. How brilliant was Lee, how clever and respectful was Mulligan, to show such painful and enormous issues through the eyes of a child, our eyes? It never condescends, it is never overly sentimental, yet I can think of few stories that portray right and wrong with such exquisite effortlessness. And what father does not want to be as good a man as Peck’s Finch? An inspriration.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I learned some time ago that stories have their own life and length. Some need just three hundred words, and more would diminish rather than improve them; others need one hundred and twenty thousand. I have some experience writing screenplays, and I certainly wondered before embarking whether I should write The Broken Ones as a novel or a screenplay. Both are long-form, and this story had to not only tell a story of a detective trying to uncover the reasons behind a particularly disturbing murder, but also to portray a haunted world in chaos. I chose the novel, because I wanted to get to know the protagonist Oscar Mariani better myself. Novels allow you to get into a character’s mind, to portray his or her thoughts – film doesn’t give you that option, it only allows you to show the results of those thoughts – feelings and actions. So, in a way, it was Oscar that chose the novel, not me.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
It’s a supernatural thriller set in the near future. On a fateful day called Grey Wednesday, the world plunged into chaos. Everyone on earth became haunted by a dead relative, friend, or stranger. Detective Oscar Mariani investigates murders blamed on the ghosts, but his strike rate is embarrassingly low, and he is grappling with a terrible mistake he made on Grey Wednesday. But the murder of a young woman cuts through his apathy, and he begins to unpick a crime that implicates those in the highest places.
(BBguru: The Publisher’s synopsis – THE BROKEN ONES is the latest dark, gripping, chilling supernatural tale from a highly talented internationally acclaimed Australian author.
It s the near future and the world has descended into chaos. On the surface, everything looks the same yet the unthinkable has happened…the dead have risen.
Everyone is haunted by a dead relative, friend, spouse, or stranger, and these spirits are unshakable, silent and watching. No one is safe. Governments the world over fail to deal with the epidemic, they begin to lose control of their economies and their resources. Their people. Crime is rife, and murders commonplace. But who is responsible: the ghosts or the people?
Finding out is where Detective Oscar Mariani comes in, although it s nearly impossible to run a department when you can t even see half the suspects. His strike rate is embarrassingly low. Then he stumbles into a case that cuts through his apathy and depression, a case that suggests a ritualistic, brutal serial killer attracted to innocent young women at work and one that, unfortunately for Mariani and his less jaded partner, implicates those in high places.
However, if he can solve it, and keep alive himself, he may be able to exorcise his own ghostly shadow, a dead young man who might just have something to say.
Mixing police procedural, suspense and horror, Stephen M Irwin’s new book is a compelling, knuckle-whitening ride. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope the reader, when she or he is walking alone down a night time street, will look into the shadows and wonder if there is a spirit there they can’t quite see … and if there is, what it might want to say to them.
The list is enormous, and picking one would be like deciding which of your children is your favourite – only possible for a moment when one is misbehaving and the other is not! But one author whose work I will always buy the instant it arrives is Mark Helprin. His work transports me like few other writers’. His prose is simply beautiful, yet (for me at least) it never seems to foul the storytelling. His stories are journeys, and I admire that enormously. Characters change as they move through his tales, and the worlds he paints are lovingly created, wistful, sometimes violent, but always real. I return often to ‘The Pacific and Other Stories’ to remind myself how short stories should be written. A soldier, a writer, a poet, Helprin brings a full life to the page.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be a good father. Writing is my job, and I am okay at it. But I’m not an artist. If anything, I am working at a craft. My father was a carpenter – a skilled craftsman who did his apprenticeship and learned on the job. I think I’m muddling along a similar path. If I can emulate him by doing my job as well as I can, improving through experience, and helping provide for my family and most especially be a decent father, then I’ll be very happy indeed.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Be proud of yourself, but not too proud. You’ve done some good stuff, but you’ve made mistakes, too. Enjoy the glimmers of gold, but keep sifting. It does get easier.
Stephen, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.