Stephen M. Irwin is the author of The Dead Path, and most recently, the amazing The Broken Ones. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please welcome Stephen to the blog! Also, be sure to check out the giveaway for The Broken Ones at the bottom of the post!
Steve, you’re a screenwriter and the writer of two novels, The Dead Path and your newest, The Broken Ones. When you were growing up, did you want to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your journey?
I was born in, grew up in, and still live in Brisbane, Australia. It’s the third most populous city in Australia, which is kind of like saying Norway has the third best basketballers in Scandinavia – in the tally of national populations, Australia’s is pretty small. Brisbane is often called a big country town, and growing up in the seventies and eighties, it certainly felt that way. I have five sisters, so growing up I learned pretty quickly the ninja arts of camouflage and silent breathing so as to avoid experimental makeovers. I was pretty comfy in my own company… well, that’s not entirely true. Happy alone but in the company of good comics, and, later, good books. I didn’t give school and homework a whole lot of time, but I read a lot and I read for pleasure.
Looking back at my school books that my parents kept, it’s clear I enjoyed writing short stories, but I didn’t have a burning desire to be a writer. I wanted to be, as years passed, Jimmy Sparks (the kid who owned Gigantor, the titular robot character of the anime series – man, I loved robots), then an Egyptologist, then an illustrator, and when I began flunking physics and moved to film and television in high school, I wanted to make movies.
I graduated from film college aged 19 more interested in acting than anything, and spent a few years straddled between trying to learn acting craft and trying to eke out a living without a filmmaking specialty – I tried camerawork, stills photography, editing… and so it took some years to discover I was most comfortable writing and directing. I made countless corporate and training videos, then wrote and directed some TV documentaries, moved into short drama, and then began writing short stories. Strange, long full circle. After some success with the short stories, I decided to try a long one… a novel. That was The Dead Path, published in 2009/10. I began writing my second novel, The Broken Ones, about six months later.
The Broken Ones goes to some pretty dark places. Was it tough, emotionally, to write at times?
Graham Greene famously said there has to be a shard of ice in every writer’s heart. I guess mine is pretty solid when I’m doing the ‘fun’ part of my writing process: the big-brushstroke plotting and character invention. It’s kind of clinical for me at that stage, and easy to write notes like, ‘the cops find the mutilated body of a murdered young girl’. But once I start to load flesh on the bones of my characters, and I shut the door to write scenes, it does become a bit harder.
I’m a firm believer that writing is a lot like acting: you can fake it passably and keep the performances cosmetic, or you can try and invest yourself in the moment and try and find actions and words for the characters to do and say that are as honest as possible. This means that, when I’m writing fast and the scene is clear in my mind, the characters aren’t behaving clinically, all obedient to the plot notes on my whiteboard; they are doing their own thing. And when it comes to some of the nasty events in the book – the willful killing of children with physical and mental difficulties – the writing days got quite raw and draining.
What made things tougher was the passing of my father mid-way through the writing of the book. Dad’s death wasn’t unexpected, but I loved him deeply and felt his loss pretty keenly – he was simply the best man I’ve ever met. And seemingly out of nowhere – but clearly out of this – the relationship in the book between the protagonist Oscar Mariani and his father began to play a much bigger part.
What made you decide to set The Broken Ones in the future?
Well, the choice was set the book in the near future, or set it in an alternative present. There’s some fundamental changes to our society’s that are catalytic to the setting of this book. Something happens that causes two big changes to Earth, one physical, and one spiritual: the poles shift and North becomes South, and everyone suddenly finds her- or himself haunted. Everyone has their own personal spectre that shadows them 24/7, there watching them when they wake in the morning, go through their day, kiss their partner goodnight.
I considered setting the book in an alternative present and suggesting that this event might have been the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008. But in discussions with my publisher, we agreed it was more powerful to set the book in the near future, and suggest that experiments at the LHC were only one possible cause of this cataclysm – no one knows for sure what caused it, and maybe no one will. What is certain is that now everyone is haunted, huge swathes of every country’s population are chronically stressed and depressed. Lots of suicides, lots of people mentally unable to work. Economies crumble, and societal glue with them. It’s in this setting of a world on the brink of total collapse that the book’s hero, a police detective, has to try and find justice for just one more death among the millions, that of a murdered girl.
I think the book has more power if the reader embarks on it thinking: this could still happen.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I like to think I read pretty broadly, but if I’m honest with myself, I do return again and again to a few favourite things. Motorcycle magazines, the New Yorker, and the authors that I fell in love with and stayed in love with – some years ago, some more recently. In primary school, the two big-ticket items were horror comics (I remember distinctly The Werewolf Wasp in Ghost Stories, and the fantastically, cheesily named antagonist Professor Larvay), and a great book by Susan Cooper called The Dark is Rising. high school, I went deep into fantasy and writers like Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson, Isaac Asimov… But it is Ray Bradbury who remains The Man, and Fahrenheit 451 the book that really got stuck in my throat. Bradbury could do it all – stunning prose, soaring sci-fi, horror, comedy, dystopia. And Bradbury started a lifelong love for the short story form, and I ate up other masters of the short horror form: Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Ambrose Bierce, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King… these people knew how to come up with a stunning premise and tease it out into a fulfilling story in a few thousand words, and I absolutely loved that.
I think it was around 1990 I read another book that influenced me profoundly: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It was simply beautiful. Achingly lovely prose, action, great wit, and soul-baring heart. It was a confirmation of the lessons that Bradbury had suggested: you can have it all in one story. Favourites in the last few years include Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel, Joe Hill, Michael Chabon… and hundreds more besides.
What kind of research went into writing The Broken Ones?
I think it was Eisenhower who said famously: plans are nothing; planning is everything. This certainly holds pretty true for the way I write. I had the almost childishly basic idea of writing a detective story with ghosts in it. From there, the planning truly was everything, and by planning I mean thinking about problems and solutions – how did the ghosts arrive? How are people dealing with them? What happens to a murderer in this kind of world? Are the ghosts a help or a hindrance? I was fortunate to know of a brilliant non-fiction book about ghosts: Spirit Sisters by Karina Machado. Reading this was the bedrock of research into ghosts, but more importantly, into the impact that ghosts have on the people who believe they are haunted. The hero of The Broken Ones is a detective haunted by a ghost whose identity is a mystery to him – and that mystery weaves with the mystery of the crime he commits himself to solving.
I am fortunate to know people who’ve worked as police officers and mortuary workers, and to that end, the crime procedural side of the research was able to be examined and put aside pretty easily. I wanted to know the rules about those things, and then break them – because the world of this story is a world of broken rules and new shortcuts, black markets and corruption.
The toughest part of the research was the third leg of the stool this story rests on: the mythological aspect. I don’t want to give too much away, but I had a strong feeling in those early, planning stages that having a strong undercurrent of ancient mythology in this post-modern dystopia would work. In the end, I did a lot of research into ancient Persian and Mesopotamian gods, and one found her way into the dark heart of the story. There was some nasty stuff that I turned up about, and I picked and chose which of those might be palatable enough to retain.
The Broken Ones has a decidedly noir feel to it, and works perfectly with the dystopian landscape. Do you have any favorite “noir” authors or books?
Absolutely. Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. I am a fan of other detective genre authors like Hammet and MacDonald, but for me the big dogs are Chandler and Parker. Sparse, witty, no-nonsense. Those guys didn’t mince words, yet they made the words dance like boxers. There is always a new lesson in every re-read.
In The Broken Ones, there was one scene that had me especially on the edge of my seat. Seriously, it was the heart-rate-up, almost-afraid-to turn-the-page kind of scary. Have there been any books or movies that have affected you that way? What do you find truly scary?
I was the most fearful child. Seriously, everything: swimming pools, cricket balls, possums, spiders, heights… but one by one, I’ve pretty much got over them – I can swim, I have parachuted, I can have a spider walk up my arm without losing control of muscles essential to public decency… but I’ve never quite got over the unnatural tension of being alone in a house that you think is haunted. A lot of people don’t believe in ghosts, and that’s cool. But if you do believe, and you find yourself in an empty place where something inside you is shouting at you: there is someone else here! That’s hard to control. It’s an irrational fear, and it’s the stuff of my nightmares. Which is great – nightmares make good fodder for the page!
In terms of films, I like well told horror suspense much more than blood’n’guts. I am a huge fan of movies like The Others and The Orphanage. But the stuff that scares me, truly and to the bone, is documentary stuff. Footage of the Holocaust. Footage of the Killing Fields. Footage of stonings and religiously sanctioned executions. Every scary notion I can come up with doesn’t hold a dark candle to the truly horrible things that fundamentalism inspires.
I noticed in your bio that you’ve long been involved with the Australia based beyond blue: the national depression initiative. Will you tell us a bit about that and how it has influenced your writing?
What began as a one-off job designing a cover for a booklet grew into a working relationship that has lasted almost ten years now. beyondblue tries to inform the wider Australian about depression and its risks, to destigmatise it, and to help find ways to prevent it and limit its impact on individuals and families. My work with them has been with developing programs for high schools that help raise awareness about depression and anxiety, how every one of us can be at risk, and how important it is to seek help. As a creative writer, I think two really vital things have come from this working relationship: one is a better understanding of cognitive behavioural theory – the understanding that how a person thinks about things affects their feelings and actions. This is great for both heroes and villains – so I don’t just write what they do and feel, but think about the mental processes that underpin those emotions and actions. The second thing is not to accept stereotypes about mental illness. Film and pulp fiction are thick with ‘crazy’ characters, but I know now that mental health and mental illness exist on a very broad sliding scale, and each of us is on there someone, so don’t propagate cheap-and-easy stereotypes about ‘nutters’.
On a lighter side, I read that you had quite a few interesting jobs before settling into writing! What was the worst, and the best, of the bunch?
Every job has its riches and its punishments. Dad was a carpenter, and I’ve inherited a fraction of his handiness, and in leaner times have put that to use to pay the bills. As a handyman, I’ve unblocked toilets and urinals, and there really isn’t much glamour in that. I’ve worked long shifts at a chip fryer, I’ve hung out of helicopters filming biplanes, I’ve clambered above concert halls rigging lights. I think the worst job was as a call centre operator: taking call after call from people complaining about running out of propane, being stuck in lifts, and wanting to leave drunken messages for their mates was too much for me. . I remember taking a call on behalf of a city council two thousand kilometres away, from an elderly woman whose husband had died and was being pressured by a real estate agent to sell her home, and she didn’t know what to do. It was against the rules to take down caller numbers, and I regret to this day I didn’t take hers – I feel so guilty I couldn’t help her. I think the best non-writing job is illustrating – coming up with caricatures or line illustrations for periodical articles. It is a process for me that satisfies not because the work is perfect – I almost invariably feel it is far from it – but because it starts, ends, and is complete: on a previously empty page, something is created that wasn’t there before. I like that.
When you manage to carve out some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I have two utterly beautiful children (they look like my wife, not me, so I can say that with acknowledged prejudice and complete honesty). They take most of my spare time, and I’m happy to give it. Making them laugh is the best part of my life. But I also like getting out my hand tools and doing carpentry work around the house – you may hear a lot of swearing if you watch me do it, but I’m secretly loving it. I like going for rides on my motorcycle. And I like watching great TV – and this is a golden era of television right now. I just heard there is a new season of Arrested Development coming, and I am a very happy man.
If someone were to visit you in Brisbane for the first time, where would you take them? Any out of the way things you’d want to show a first time visitor?
If you trust me, climb behind me on the bike, and I can take you for a great coffee at my sister’s café right opposite a windmill made by convicts, the oldest of its kind in Australia. I’ll show you Toowong Cemetery, just up the road from where I live, 150+ years old and final home to a former world boxing champion and, at least one person believes, Jack the Ripper. And maybe we can go to the old Museum building, a beautiful building from the 1890s that is now home to the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra and, if you believe such things, at least two ghosts.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about upcoming projects or events, or anything at all?
Right now I’m in the thick of writing a screen adaptation of The Dead Path as a feature film (the book has been optioned by a production company Hoodlum Entertainment), and got the great news that a national television network is keen on a crime series I’ve developed. These come as part apology for those waiting on my third novel, which is progressing, but not as fast as I’d like with these other exciting distractions.
Keep up with Stephen: Website | Twitter
About The Broken Ones:
Without warning, a boy in the middle of a city intersection sends Detective Oscar Mariani’s car careening into a busy sidewalk. The scene is bedlam as every person becomes visited by something no one else can see. We are all haunted. Usually, the apparition is someone known: a lost relative, a lover, an enemy. But not always. For Oscar Mariani, the only secret that matters is the unknown ghost who now shares his every waking moment . . . and why.
The worldwide aftershock of what becomes known as “Gray Wednesday” is immediate and catastrophic, leaving governments barely functioning and economies devastated . . . but some things don’t change. When Detective Mariani discovers the grisly remains of an anonymous murder victim in the city sewage system, his investigation will pit him against a corrupt police department and a murky cabal conspiring for power in the new world order.
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