Greg Fleming talks to author Alan Carter about crime writing with a conscience.

Alan Carter may have come relatively late to crime fiction but the change of career has proved a winning one.

The UK-born, Western Australia-based author - he's been Downunder since 1991 - has already earned a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and Best Novel at this year's Ngaio Marsh Award for his New Zealand-based standalone book, Marlborough Man.
Now in his 50s, Carter came to writing from TV documentary work, which he considers perfect grounding for the medium. He says it shares key fundamentals with crime writing: the importance of the visual scene, the cliff-hanger and pacing. The experience also made him open to feedback.

"In TV, you get used to the idea that people have their two cents to offer on what you're doing so I know not to be too precious, while also being able to stand my ground, but to be able to take good advice," he says.

"My editor, Georgia Richter, is very good at the good advice thing. Also, research comes pretty naturally to me and I like to have a good degree of realism in my writing - as long as it doesn't interfere with a good story."

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Carter got his start in the crime-fiction business nearly a decade ago after his wife made him an offer he couldn't refuse. She'd taken a teaching position in Hopetoun, on the far southern coast of WA, which was opening because of the mining boom, but he was still working in television, flying in and out in the opposite direction.

It wasn't good for family life in a new town, he says, so she offered to cover the bills for the year if he stayed home, looked after their son and did the housework.

"In my spare time, she said, maybe I could write that book that was in me. Luckily, the housework only ever took about 15 minutes so I had heaps of time to write."

Carter's new book, Heaven Sent, is the fourth in his acclaimed Cato Kwong series, which started with 2011's Prime Cut. Kwong is a Chinese-Australian detective with the WA police; he's tenacious, stubborn, cheap (he refuses to buy his own paper to do the crossword), a bit of an outsider and based on a real-life Chinese-Australian cop Carter met while working on a documentary.

His colleagues called him Cato: "I got to thinking, 'What did he feel about that nickname which immediately marked him as an outsider?"'

In book three in the series, Bad Seed, which Carter wrote on a residency in Shanghai, Kwong returns to China; in Heaven Sent, he's back in Fremantle with a new wife and daughter and in a much happier frame of mind, although that doesn't last long.

"At the end of Bad Seed, I left him dangling precariously on the edge of happiness and a new love. I couldn't leave him dangling any longer. He's also a good vehicle for getting things off my chest about the various toxic things in Australian society that need a good shake."

With Heaven Sent, that's the increasing disparity between the rich and poor in Australia, particularly in areas like Western Australia where, says Carter, inequality has become painfully obvious in recent years.

"I had also read Mark Billingham's Lifeless where he uses crime fiction to interrogate the homelessness situation in the UK. It inspired me to do likewise, although the storyline is very different.

"Not long after I started writing Heaven Sent, there were some appalling attacks on homeless people in WA. They are among the most vulnerable in our society and any attempt to break through some of the prejudices and lack of understanding out there has to be worth a go."

The issue of Fremantle's homeless were perfect for fiction.

"It's a funky, progressive port city and tourist destination so doesn't want to be seen to be harsh or nasty to the marginalised in society," he says. "But, through wider economic and political and social factors, there has been an increased visibility of homeless people so the council has been grappling with that as an issue, trying to please both the hawks and the doves if you like.

"Homelessness and crime in Fremantle particularly are not especially huge issues but they are issues enough to be of interest to a crime writer with a social conscience."
The Ngaio Marsh-winning Marlborough Man came about by accident while living on a hobby farm in Marlborough, NZ.

"I was meant to be writing Heaven Sent - thinking the occasional exiled Geordie thoughts like, 'How the hell did I end up here?' - reading in the Marlborough Express newspaper about meat thefts, watching the pine trees tumble in the plantation across the river and hearing the gunshots of hunters passing by in the night.

"It's a beautiful yet rough-as-guts, yin-and-yang kind of place. We've had to move on from the farm since my wife had a bad accident and the place became too hard to manage - especially with me being so useless and impractical - so we're doing some grandparenting in Hobart while we reconfigure our New Zealand options."

Carter joins a growing list of celebrated crime writers from Australasia; he believes both countries have plenty to inspire dark tales.

"The extremes of nature, society, history and evil doing can all be found here," he says. "I think, in particular, there is a strong sense of place in 'Southern Cross noir' and that helps mark out the difference, too.
"Women are at the forefront of that writing boom - look at Jane Harper, Emma Viskic, Stella Duffy, Vanda Symon to name just a few. And women are the main readers too - maybe they like the 'stuff of life' that crime fiction examines or maybe they're just looking for ideas."

And Carter has some tips for aspiring crime writers.

"Read what you like, and read it again and again to understand exactly what it is you like about it and why - and then try your damnedest to aspire to that. Treat writing like a job - I do five days a week, nine to five - or, if you've got bills to pay, then still attach some structure and discipline to whatever time you can put into it."