Killing it in Australian publishing

Ann Cleeves and Garry Disher feature at the Huon Valley's Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, with panels, writer retreats, masterclasses and pitching to publishers.
A blonde-haired white woman wearing glasses reads from a novel at a festival reading.

‘Australian fiction began with Tasmanian crime fiction, with Henry Savery’s novel Quintus Servinton that was published here in Hobart in 1830. And, since then, there have been over 100 Tasmanian crime and mystery novels written and published,’ crime writer Dr LJM Owen explains.

Tasmania’s unique history and geography imbues local crime fiction with a particular piquancy, she continues.

‘Whether it’s set in the mountains during a misty winter, or down on Kingston Beach with lots of sun and a few bodies, I think Tasmanian crime fiction always carries a sense of place.’

Owen is the founder and Director of the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival (TARWF), which returns to an in-person event this year at The Kermandie, an Art Deco hotel on the banks of the Huon River. Inspired by British crime novelist Agatha Christie’s 1922 trip to Tasmania, and supported this year by RANT Arts and Regional Arts Australia, TARWF celebrates both writers of crime/mystery fiction and its devoted readers.

‘If you look at the top 10 most borrowed adult fiction books from Tasmanian libraries last year, 10 out of 10 were crime, mystery, thriller [or] suspense novels,’ Owen says, adding that the genre offers near endless variety.

‘Crime and mystery fiction asks a question about society and, through the course of the novel, seeks to answer it or perhaps prod the reader into thinking about it for themselves. I believe that’s what brings people back to crime and mystery fiction again and again.

‘It’s not just the great stories and the great characters, because you can have those in every genre. I think it’s that crime fiction examines social topics that are relevant to most people, and they want to engage in an arm’s length conversation with an author who is exploring those issues,’ she says.

A weekend of crime

TARWF’s Festival Weekend runs from 26-29 October and this year has the theme of ‘Tassie Vice’. Perfect for readers of crime and mystery, the weekend includes an Ann Cleeves high tea, a 1980s themed murder mystery dinner and a two-day panel program exploring crime fiction from the ‘80s to today.

‘The panels feature sessions with Ann Cleeves, the creator of Vera, Shetland and Two Rivers; Garry Disher, author of Australia’s much loved Wyatt, Inspector Challis and Hirsch series; and Vanda Symon, New Zealand’s author of the Sam Shephard books,’ says Owen.

‘We’re very, very lucky to have Ann as one of our international guests… She accepted an offer to be our 2023 Writer in Residence, and she’ll be here for over a week. I expect her fans will be coming in droves from Hobart, Melbourne and beyond.’

The presence of Cleeves and other experienced crime and mystery writers reflects another key aspect of the TARWF program: its focus on professional development and fostering the craft of writing.

The Festival offers a series of Writers’ Retreats at The Kermandie Hotel, including a six-night crime and mystery themed one from Saturday 21 to Friday 27 October, during which both Cleeves and Disher will be running masterclasses for participants.

‘Garry has been working diligently since the ’80s to support other writers, to help them move forward in their careers. He also has a breadth of writing experience, including for television. So when someone sits down to a masterclass with Garry Disher, they’re benefiting from his wealth of experience of more than four decades of working in many areas of the writing world.’

The relative isolation of Port Huon also aids the writing process, Owen adds. ‘The area is stunning, but quiet, perfect for deep thought. The staff at the hotel go to great lengths to minimise noise during writing hours … and that helps everyone who’s on retreat to focus and write without distraction. All the meals are provided. Our retreaters don’t have to think about anything except their writing project.’

Making crime pay

Another way TARWF assists with writers’ professional development is by bringing them together with publishers and agents.

‘The part of the program that’s probably closest to my heart, as a writer, is our Meet the Australian Publishing Industry intensive,’ Owen explains.

Piloted last year in a digital format, and this year taking place in person with support from Arts Tasmania, the program is designed to help writers sidestep the rejection treadmill by hearing first-hand from agents and publishers about the sorts of manuscripts they’re looking for.

‘When it comes to Australian fiction, it’s hard for most emerging writers to meet agents or publishers and find out directly from them what they want. Instead, many people spend years guessing, trying over and over to be published, and not landing a contract,’ Owen says.

The three-day, four-night intensive is followed up with the option of a writers’ retreat focused on honing your manuscript and pitch package with the support of tutors and a postgraduate lecturer from RMIT, then pitching to two agents and publishers at the end of the week.

Reflecting on her own writing career, Owen adds: ‘If I’d attended something like this early in my writing career, when I had a manuscript but no clue what to do with it, it could have made such a difference in terms of understanding what publishers are looking for, making better decisions and, ultimately, enjoying the publishing journey a whole lot more.’

Book now for the 2023 Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts