The electrifying moment: Peter Temple on writing

Ask me to name my favourite writer in a given genre – science fiction, thriller, horror – and I would usually struggle to whittle it down beyond a shifting shortlist. But ask me my favourite crime writer, and I settle readily on the name Peter Temple (1946–2018).

Why Temple? There’s his style and language, stripped down and surprising; his pitch-perfect dialogue that puts you right into his world; his dark wit and playful metaphors, so satisfying to my Irish tastes; his gloomy, uncompromising stories, with their shards of love and beauty.

Book cover features a large black-and-white photo of Peter Temple sitting, relaxed, reading a newspaper. He has white hair, rimless glasses, and a dark shirt. On a shelf behind him can be seen two of his own books: The Broken Shore, and Shooting Star. Below the photo are the author's name, book title, and book subtitle, in black, red, and grey text, respectively, on a white background.I discovered him late, years after his last novel was published in 2009. But he started late (his debut was published when he was almost 50 years old), and he completed nine. So it didn’t take me long to catch up, though I spaced them out to postpone the day when I’d have no more to discover.*

In his posthumous collection The Red Hand: Stories, Reflections and the Last Appearance of Jack Irish (Irish is the protagonist of four Temple novels, an unfinished one, and an adapted TV series), Temple describes his unlikely late blossoming with a mix of self-deprecation and alienation:

I never had the feeling of having a career. I was just waiting for my vocation to announce itself. And one day I began writing and it did.

It’s not that writing comes easily to me. Being stuck is the rule, not the exception. In fact, for me writing is one long attempt to become unstuck. I move from one impasse to another. Most of the time, I am convinced that the whole enterprise is a mistake and doomed.

This kind of anxiety would be acceptable if I believed I was creating art, but I don’t, and that knowledge serves to make matters worse. An ordinary sentence, like an ordinary piece of joinery, isn’t dignified by the time it took to make.

The simile is deliberate: woodwork is a recurring activity in several of Temple’s books, and I suspect he practised it himself at least sometime in his life.

His muse is elusive and fleeting:

I’ve also found that inspiration isn’t something that lasts beyond a paragraph or two. Creative rushes are also to be distrusted. It’s the passages that flowed from your fingertips that you have to axe the next day.

The ideas I have for books are also much too vague and ephemeral to be called inspirations. For me, they take the form of images and the feelings that come with them, scenes seen and imagined, usually unconnected, isolated, not part of any narrative. I’ve usually forgotten them by chapter three.

Before leaving his native South Africa for Australia in 1979 and turning his hand to crime fiction, Temple worked in journalism and academia. I detect in his prose some of the former but little of the latter, except perhaps the struggle with structure:

I must confess to hating plotting. I like travelling without a map, falling into holes, straying down dark alleys into cul-de-sacs, waiting for the electrifying moment when the story wants to tell itself to me, when characters turn their faces to me and speak.

When they do speak, his ear is ready:

Another important thing that happened to me was a friend’s mother introducing me to reading plays. If I have any ability to write dialogue, it comes from reading at least thirty volumes of Best American Short Plays. This worthy annual introduced me to Tennessee Williams, Albee, Odets, Miller, Mamet, Wilder. I still love reading plays and revere no writer more than the British minimalist Harold Pinter.

He not only appreciated but applied that minimalism. His books are not slim but their stories are elliptical, requiring more investment than most, and perhaps more perseverance, depending on your tastes. After Truth won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010, Temple said in his address:

To the dismay of my publishers and many readers I have been concerned to put language under pressure. To compress it into little bits that cease to squeak and then to put back in only so many words as are needed to restore meaning. My defence in this is that I have been encouraged by my adopted country’s ingrained habits of expression. Of saying as little as possible in dealing with one another.

That style also manifests in the popular Australian practice of clipped words (like bikie, relly, servo, tradie, and ute), which Temple used in his novels. The Red Hand includes a 10-page glossary (‘Tradies Wear Sunnies and Blunnies’) written for American publishers.

One last excerpt from the collection, quoting his Miles Franklin talk:

There are only a few stories available to us. But there are countless variations. Stories are valuable only and in proportion to the gifts that the storyteller brings to them.  I don’t know if I have any gifts. I can only say that I’ve loved words. They haven’t loved me back but I’ve tried to do justice to the language and to its infinite malleability. But my God, I have tested that malleability in my time.

If you haven’t read Peter Temple and want a flavour of his fiction, this thread on Twitter contains a scattering of lines from his books, such as the Chandleresque ‘He eyed me like a dog show judge‘ and ‘His face was mostly nose, spread over it like a frog.

I’ve also featured a couple of Temple’s novels in book spine poems: Truth in ‘Useless Crazy Heart‘, and The Broken Shore in ‘A Quiet Life‘.


* Filmmaker John Waters, in his memoir Role Models, confessed to leaving unread one book by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett:

Her last spoken words before death? “Leave me alone.” I have to. I have all twenty of her novels and I’ve read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself.

3 Responses to The electrifying moment: Peter Temple on writing

  1. Thank you for this introduction to a writer who has completely passed me by. I’m going to find him…

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