(Editor’s note: This 36th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from New Zealand resident Geoff Vause, who often writes novels under the pseudonym Jack Eden. After a long career producing and editing daily and community newspapers, Vause served as private secretary to Civil Defence Minister John Carter, and then as editor of the New Zealand Education Gazette and the New Zealand Education Review. He is currently a sub editor at Fairfax Media. Vause has penned eight novels so far, several of which have been published, including Trade Me [2006, trade paperback], which was optioned for a TV series and is to be followed by the scammer drama, Blackhat; and Jetsam’s Caress , which was published as an e-book. His novel Furt Bent from Aldaheit, issued late last year [under his Jack Eden pseudonym] as both an e-book and a trade paperback by New Zealand-based Pear Jam Books, has been longlisted for the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award. Below, Vause presents some of the background to that latest novel as well as his own story about getting into the business of crime-fiction writing.)
In 1971 I was a cadet journalist working on a community newspaper in West Auckland. I was paid $28.50 per week. It was a lot of fun. I lived at the beautiful, wild Karekare Beach.
I was fortunate to have Cedric Gray as my editor, an excellent journalist and boss who helped develop my writing and editing skills.
But I wanted my own newspaper. A printing firm south of Auckland was looking for someone to start a newspaper for them. It seemed a logical next step. So the County News was born, which later became the Franklin County News.
I had sucked a couple of editions out of my thumbs when former Tuakau mayor George McGuire and his raven-haired wife, Ella, came into the office. A few months before the County News appeared, local farmer Arthur Alan Thomas had been found guilty of murdering another farmer and his wife, Harvey and Jeanette Crewe.
George and Ella didn’t believe Thomas had done it. If he was the murderer, then his wife, Vivien, had to have been an accomplice or at least known about it and helped to cover it up. George and Ella wanted me to interview her.
Well, I did the interview and ran the story in the County News. It was the first article in New Zealand that talked about Thomas being innocent--which eventually proved to be the case (although he was given a Royal Pardon, rather than being found not guilty through appeal or retrial).
A few days after I ran that piece, two policemen involved in the investigation visited me. They made it clear they weren’t happy with my story. Well, stuff happened, as it does. Soon after, I left the township and my little newspaper, and headed north to other adventures.
The murders remain unsolved.
I had nothing more to do with the Thomas affair; however, meeting the McGuires, interviewing Vivien Thomas, and the subsequent events stayed with me, and Furt Bent from Aldaheit--inspired by those events--became the fourth of the eight novels I have written so far.
After I left the County News I spent a lot of time in New Zealand’s Hokianga and met a number of Vietnam War draft dodgers. Those encounters led to the novel Jetsam’s Caress, which is set in the Far North. I eventually returned to journalism, and through that work I encountered a number of colorful characters, particularly through court reporting and also by covering local government politics. Aspects of those characters make their way onto the pages of my novels.
When I am writing crime stories, I allow the characters to drive the tale through the settings and events. In short, the crime genre usually has the crime(s) central to the idea, and the characters react to the crime and take their shape largely in response to it. Solving the crime is almost irrelevant to me. In my fiction I am looking for solutions, resolution, perhaps redemption, in the character interaction.
This was one of the reasons the Crewe murders made such a compelling backdrop for Furt Bent from Aldaheit. The murders, as I said before, have not been solved, and the people involved are still searching for resolution, to some extent. They have also been subject to one-, two-, or three-dimensional development in various media and other publications dealing with those long-ago murders.
In my novel, “Furt Bent” is the delinquent alter-ego Osgood Sneddon assumes to deal with his extreme life. He’s an ordinary Kiwi teenager, thrust by events into an extreme underground crime world. It is this delinquent alter-ego that is the foil, the nemesis to my Detective Inspector Hubbard, a crooked cop who doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a result.
The crime(s), the setting, and the one- and two-dimensional characters help form a canvas on which the main characters can take on color and shape. At the time of writing, I am unconcerned with how the reader looks at the main character(s). I don’t care if the reader likes them or not. I want them to be effective. Furt Bent became more “likable” as a result of suggestions from my publisher, Jill Marshall, and I followed that advice during the final edits.
In Furt Bent from Aldaheit, I combine this approach to characterization with the present tense. In most of my novels I attempt to create strong imagery and relatively fast action. I try to screen a film in the reader’s mind and I find present tense allows me to do so. Oddly, I am not a big fan of other novels that use the present tense, yet it is the structure that arrives as soon as I embark upon writing a novel of my own.
I write quickly, and barely rewrite anything when the story is unfolding. I hardly read what I have written while the novel is underway. I start at the first chapter and finish at chapter wherever. I can feel the beginning, the middle, and the end unfolding. However, I do a lot of cuts at the direction of my publisher, whom I trust and respect. Most of my novels have had 40,000 to 60,000 words cut from them. When the need for cutting is pointed out to me, I agonize for a few days and then find it quite easy to do, largely because the rhythm to my writing settles each chapter into a similar length throughout the novel, and losing chapters--or moving them about--is relatively simple.
Chapters unfold for me rather like short stories, and the rhythm and chapter length varies from novel to novel. However, in each case I find the muse arrives at around 12,000 to 15,000 words. I push myself to get the characters into some sort of “match fit” state, like a coach, and once the muse arrives I find I become more of a referee, getting about the field of action, blowing the whistle and trying to get the players to follow the rules and stay onside.
They don’t. Once they are fleshed out, they become impertinent. They think they can interact with each other in ways that oblige the story in directions I had not envisaged. They get involved with each other. They develop unhealthy friendships. They generally misbehave like teenage scallywags, and I find it difficult keeping them on track. My main tools for doing this are the innate rhythm--the song--the novel has found, and the chapter length. The characters can mess about as they will, but they have to sing in tune, and stay within the field of play.
I have retained the Australasian setting in the sequel to Furt Bent (the working title of which is Body Copy). The opening pages reveal a woman’s body found in a rural church. That crime, and others in the novel, may or may not be “solved.” That’s largely up to the characters as they take shape on the pages. It is their individual development and interaction with each other that becomes the novel. It’s their story. Once they have shape and timbre, they show the story their way.