This Spotlight On with Hayley Scrivenor we delve into her book Dirt Town and think about the art of crime writing. Spotlight On is where we explore the creative practice of members and celebrate milestones in their writing career, and having a number one selling book is certainly a milestone! Hayley spoke with our Administration and Digital Services Officer, Isaac Wilcox.
Congratulations! You are an internationally published author, including translations! That’s quite something – how does it feel to have your debut novel, Dirt Town, out there?
Thank you! The translations have been a lovely surprise, actually. Who knew people as far afield as Sweden and Brazil would want to read my book about a small country town in Australia? There were so many points in the process where I was sure it would never be read by anyone, so I still pinch myself sometimes.
Dirt Town looks at a community where a young girl has disappeared. That’s quite a difficult subject to approach, with real cases in very recent memory. What drew you to this subject and how did you approach writing about it?
Dirt Town started as a short story. I wrote about a group of small-town kids, describing all the different ways they’d made their way home from school on a Friday afternoon. After I’d written that, it occurred to me that there needed to be a reason for them to be talking about that day, in particular. It was then that the idea of a girl who’d gone missing came to me. I also had a vivid image of what had happened to her, and the novel really sprang from that.
While I, luckily, knew quite quickly where I wanted the novel to end, I had almost no sense of how I was going to get from the starting point of the novel to that conclusion. I come up with scenarios and characters in a very piecemeal, accumulative way at first. I know it would be infinitely quicker if I had some sort of plan, or a better sense of who the characters are, but I honestly can’t seem to write any other way. Over time, I realised that the missing girl Esther Bianchi was going to be the hole at the heart of the novel: the one that everyone else would be orbiting around. I wanted the reader to feel like they’d come to know Esther, that they missed her and saw what her loss had done, not just to the people close to her, but to a whole town. That was my most important goal for the novel, and the element I most hope I’ve done justice to.
Your book is written from different perspectives, including the collective points of view of the town’s children. I find that stylistically interesting, what inspired you to make that choice?
I began this novel as part of a PhD in creative writing that looked specifically at point of view, so this can be a slightly dangerous question to ask me! In short, I looked at novels which featured collective narration – where a group of people spoke together to tell a story. That was where the ‘chorus’ sections with the kids came from. Over time, I introduced a range of other characters to expand the parts of Esther we could know and understand. We meet her mother and her best friend, as well as a boy who saw her on the day she went missing, who is too afraid to come forward to tell police what he saw. We also hear from the police officer sent to investigate Esther’s disappearance. Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels was actually a relatively late addition to Dirt Town, at least as a POV character, which surprises some people. I cycle through these five viewpoints, which allows me to move the story forward by following whoever is most interesting at a given moment, and sometimes I double back to show the same event from more than one angle. It was a bit of a pain in the bum to wrangle, if I’m honest! I ended up writing pretty much all of the events of the book from each point of view, and then doing a lot of cutting. But point of view is really the entry point to story for me: Why this person or people? What do they see that no one else can?
Dirt Town is marketed as a crime novel. It’s also quite literary. When you started writing it, did you see it as a crime novel?
Honestly, no. I’m wary of saying that though, because it suggests that some error was made, or that this book was published as crime against my will. I strongly believe that you don’t need to know where you’re going when you begin, but it is your job to listen to the story as it’s being written. The story is smarter than you are. What’s great about crime is its insistence on structure. This addresses some of my worst tendencies as a writer – I can just keep writing little bits of scenery and feeling and scenario, without getting anywhere. I love the way that, in crime, every paragraph has to be doing multiple things. I would definitely say that I start from the sentences and work my way up, but I’m proud of the structural work I do to bring my writing to a place where it can sit on the crime shelf. And I think you only need to look at the current output of Australian crime writers to see that literary fiction doesn’t have a monopoly on beautiful writing.
Do you have any advice for crime writers starting out?
Be kind to yourself. Whatever the flaws of the writing (and there will be many, at the beginning, but also forever, or for at least as long as you continue to commit to writing), I can assure you they will be more easily addressed with gentle curiosity than with flaming self-hatred.
Also, and this is weirdly specific, one discipline I think every writer should get into is the habit of checking their junk mail at least twice a week. Helen Garner once had an email telling her she’d won the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize (worth US$150,000) go to junk. While we’re clearly not all Helen Garner, if you’re at the stage where you’re submitting work to things, contacting potential mentors, or submitting to prizes and grants, then you absolutely need to be checking that bad boy!
Do you have any book or author recommendations? Who should we be reading in crime writing in 2023?
I recently devoured Iris, by Fiona Kelly McGregor. It’s historical fiction that examines the life of notorious Sydney crim, Iris Webber. It was so interesting to read a novel that looks so closely at crime itself – to consider how racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, among other things, are so entrenched in what society calls ‘criminal’.
If you want something that will keep you up at night, tearing through the pages, then Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s Dark Mode is my hot tip. I couldn’t put it down. Just be warned: it will scare you into changing all your passwords (or just giving it all up and moving to a cave in the French countryside without telling anyone, whatever comes first!)
This year also saw the return of one of my favourite detectives: Dinuka McKenzie’s Taken is such an excellent follow-up to her debut, The Torrent. What I love about Dinuka’s Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is that she’s an ordinary person, trying to juggle family and work. Kate deals with the reality of being a woman of colour in the police force, while also being a mother to young children, and the result is just so compelling. I’ll read everything Dinuka writes forever.
Hayley Scrivenor is a former Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. Originally from a small country town, Hayley now lives and writes on Dharawal country and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong. Hayley’s debut novel, Dirt Town, won the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize. Dirt Town is a #1 Australian bestseller, and was shortlisted for the 2023 Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction.
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