As you may or may not know, recently my TV concept Endgame was a finalist in the AACTA Elevate Pitch competition. This in and of itself is a big deal; the winner gets some development support and the prestige of the AACTA name on their project, but every finalist gets to pitch onstage in Sydney in front of an audience of industry people. So, first thing Saturday, producer/friend Dan Nixon and I were flown up to Sydney to basically try and sell the show.
I was not prepared. It’s been a busy time and to be honest, the Endgame pitch was at the back of my mind. I kept trying to make myself rehearse or even write out what I was going to say, but other things kept getting in the way and so I got on the plane Saturday morning with only the vaguest notion of what I was going to do.
The moment we arrived at the Factory Theatre reality started to set in and so Dan and I ran through our pitch again and again. We only had two minutes to convey what was special about the show, but pretty quickly we settled on a pitch that felt right, engaging. Not that that in any way assuaged nerves as the clock ticked down and two really great pitches preceded us.
We didn’t win, but given how deserving the pitch that did was, how clearly the creator understood her product and how perfectly she articulated her ideas, it was hard to be too upset about that. In the end I think we did well. We got laughs in the right places and plenty of people approached us afterwards to congratulate us on the pitch, give us their details and ask to know more about the project. It was thrilling enough just to be there and to see how much potential and marketability Endgame really has. For the project, it was a super energising experience and leaves me excited to see where it can go next.
Sunday was pleasantly lazy; Dan and I wandered around the city, had breakfast overlooking the sunny harbour, browsed bookshops and drank beer at the Rocks before Dan headed off for his flight home, leaving me alone and ready to take Sydney by storm. By which I mean I drank Guinness and did some writing at the Irish pub near my hotel before being in bed by 8:30.
The reason I was sticking around longer than Dan was because I had organised to have lunch with my agents Tara and Jerry on Monday. These are the two people responsible for changing my life almost overnight; Tara having sold the book rights to The Hunted and Jerry, visiting from LA, the one who sold the film. It was the first time I had met Jerry and it was great to be able to chat in person over lunch, to try and fail once again to adequately convey just how grateful I am to these two people.
The AACTA pitch and the lunch with Tara and Jerry feel, in some ways, symptomatic of the totally different speed my life seems to operate at these days. If you told me a year ago that I would be regularly flying to Sydney for pitches and meetings, that I would be sending emails back and forth with major Hollywood producers and some of the biggest publishers in the world, I would have laughed you off while desperately hoping you were right.
But in some ways the more things change the more they stay the same.
Next week Bitten By Productions’ new show, a revival of my 2016 comedy The Critic, opens at the Butterfly Club for Melbourne Fringe. I’m super excited about this; the cast and director are amazing and the rehearsals I’ve sat in on have been uniformly brilliant. But, of course, independent theatre is independent theatre, by which I mean there’s no money and lots of competition, particularly during Fringe. So my time-honoured techniques of guerrilla marketing come into play; namely spending the day running around the city surreptitiously sticking up posters and leaving flyers in obvious places in the hopes that more people will see them and come to see the play. It’s a very stark difference from being wined and dined by publishers and agents or getting on stage at major industry events.
But this, I guess, is my life now. For all that the most incredible and formerly inconceivable things have happened in the last six months, things just haven’t changed that much on a day to day basis. I still have my old commitments and I still have to trudge around trying to look casual while leaving flyers and posters in places I’m probably not supposed to.
I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Quentin Tarantino famously insists that he will stop directing after his tenth film. His cited reason is that directors don’t get better with age, something he backs up by pointing to the demonstrably less vital late career work of various great auteurs. It’s hard to deny that he has a point; Steven Spielberg will always be Steven Spielberg, but there’s a huge gap between Jaws and Ready Player One.
I would never presume to guess what’s going through anyone’s mind, let alone Spielberg’s, but it has felt for a while like he’s reached a place in his career where he has nothing left to prove and so he’s no longer really trying. And honestly, that would be fair enough; there’s no way that Spielberg owes any more than what he’s already given. Yet it’s hard not to feel a little wistful for the time when a Spielberg film was synonymous with an instant classic.
It’s no secret that Bruce Springsteen is one of my biggest inspirations, and that has only been consolidated by the fact that he seems to be consistently challenging himself to explore new territory even as he enters his 70s. His most recent album, Western Stars, was initially sold as a return to his sparser acoustic efforts like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, but in reality it’s something totally different, an introspective work of sweeping grandiosity, the haunting poetry of his lyrics elevated by the sort of soaring orchestral accompaniment he’s never really utilised before. Like it or not, there’s no mistaking Western Stars for any previous work of his. And beyond that, Springsteen is now using it as the platform for another artistic challenge, adapting the album into a concert film/documentary that looks likely to be a tear-jerker of immense power.
This, coming hot on the heels of not only his triumphant autobiography, but the beautiful work of self-reflection that was Springsteen on Broadway. He could easily spend the rest of his career dropping interchangeable albums and going on greatest hits tours but instead is swinging for the fences and trying new things. That, to me, is as exhilarating as it is rare to see from an artist of his age and stature. Springsteen has stayed hungry which is why for his fans a new project becomes an event of almost religious significance.
But outside of the devoted faithful, most would believe that Springsteen is past his prime. In truth it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another hit from him on the level of Born to Run or Born in the USA. Given his back catalogue I think that’s okay, but it does make me wonder how Springsteen himself feels about his old work compared to his new. Does he roll his eyes at the now 40-year-old naivete of Born to Run? Does he wish that he could capture that power and energy again? Or is the answer something a bit more complicated?
Back in high school I wrote as much as I do now – maybe even more. I would finish stories, become convinced they were straight up perfect, and then start sending them off to publishers and agents with predictably non-existent results. Within a year, I would be turning my nose up at those pieces, cringing anytime they were mentioned to me and promising everyone that I could write much better stuff now. This cycle of essentially disowning past works for being inferior went on for a long time.
In some ways, the tendency remains ingrained. When we decided to revive We Can Work It Out for Fringe last year, my first instinct was that the play would need some major overhauling, that it wouldn’t be representative of what I was now capable of. It was a surprise, then, to read over the script with a view to making changes only to find that by and large, I was happy with it. There were lines, concepts and developments that I wouldn’t write today, but that didn’t make them inherently bad. A couple of beats went or were tweaked, but otherwise it was the same text. A similar thing happened with The Critic this year, which is also returning for a Fringe run after doing well in 2016. Again I was sure I would need to rework the thing. Again I barely touched it. With both We Can Work It Out and The Critic I remain comfortable to share them as representative of my writing, even if, due to circumstances and shifting worldviews, I could write neither today. Does this, then, mean that I’ve reached a place where I’ve ‘developed’ enough as a writer to not cringe at old work even when it’s no longer as thematically relevant to me?
Not quite. We Can Work It Out was arguably the first good play I wrote, but I won’t let myself forget that it was put together around the same time as A Good German – the nadir of my work as a writer so far. Within months of each other, I was capable of writing both plays; one that I remain proud of, the other representing a low I never want to hit again. This fact precludes me from claiming some quantifiable shift in ability occurred around that time.
I think age and experience helps you be a little more discerning in knowing when a work is ready for public consumption, but it can only go so far. We never see our own stuff 100% clearly. And that, I think, is where a healthy combination of fear and hunger is your best friend. Hunger to challenge yourself, to jump higher hurdles, to try new things and wade into uncharted territory, but also fear of catastrophic failure, of another Good German.
Recently, delivering new drafts of both the manuscript and screenplay of The Hunted/Sunburnt Country, I was scared. I’d followed the notes I was given, but part of me was certain I’d got it wrong, that my reworkings had thrown off some integral but accidental balance in the text that was only the reason anyone liked it to begin with. Similarly, I’ve already finished the first draft of the sequel to The Hunted and yet as the first book gets closer to publication I’m finding myself almost paralysed with fear that the second will be laughed out of the building, that it’s too different to the first, that I’ve lost the alchemy and The Hunted was only a fluke.
And maybe those fears will be proved correct. But you know what? They also hold me to account. Fear means that I’ll only deliver the book when I’m confident that it’s the best I can make it. For this reason I now think that We Can Work It Out never represented the turning point in my writing; A Good German did. Because before failing on that level, I didn’t carry that secret fear of it ever happening again, that constant check on the easy assumption that something is good enough.
Fear of failure is universal to any artist trying to prove themselves. When Springsteen received the first pressing of Born to Run, he could listen to only a few minutes before he stormed out and threw it in the pool. The album was his last chance with a label looking to drop him, so he put everything he had into getting it right. The album, of course, was a masterpiece, but what lies under the perfectionism that led to its success was a deep and terrible fear that it would fail and ruin his career, fear that he couldn’t see past even when he heard the now-classic finished product. After Born to Run made him a legend, I doubt that fear was ever as strong again. How could it have been? Forty years later, Springsteen’s artistic ambition remains evident, but he’ll never again pour everything he has into making an album the best of all time. Born to Run’s brilliance was at least in part born of a necessity that no longer exists for him.
Maybe, then, Tarantino is wrong about age being the enemy of artists. I have to wonder if, in some ways, the biggest detriment to art is success. Consistent, regular success that slowly erodes your fears until you become comfortable that whatever you do will be good enough. Maybe dwindling ambition has a role to play as well, but if you’re no longer scared of failure I doubt you try as hard for victory.
I speak with minimal authority, but for what it’s worth I think that mix of fear and hunger is the artistic sweet spot. It doesn’t guarantee good work, but it makes it more possible.
The day I found out I’d won the Sir Peter Ustinov award, I sat out on the deck of the house I lived in at the time and had a glass of wine with a friend. I explained to him what the award meant and where it could lead. A shining, glorious career was ahead of me, my creative success practically assured. I was about to become an in-demand writer and all the failures and disappointments that characterised the first half of my twenties would fade fast in the rearview mirror.
This friend, who tends to err on the side of cynical, listened in silence, then simply and honestly said ‘wow. So you’re set, then.’
I smiled, sipped my wine and agreed. Everything seemed certain and kept seeming certain for a long time after that. Even when the meetings that followed came and went without any tangible change in my life, I still believed that I was riding the wave of success. It probably took about a year for it to become clear to me that I was a lot less ‘set’ than I’d let myself assume.
There are various reasons for why things didn’t blow up the way I thought they would, but looking back the biggest one is that I just don’t think I was ready. Outside of the award winning Windmills pilot I didn’t have much else to offer when I went into meetings with producers, and beyond that my conception of what I wanted my career to be, the sort of writer I envisioned myself as, was vague and poorly defined. What I had been working towards was less a clear goal and more a kind of blurry notion of ‘making it’ without any realistic consideration of what that actually meant.
The Ustinov and its aftermath was a long, painful lesson in making assumptions. A few months ago, when initial interest came out of LA for the film adaptation of Sunburnt Country, my agent noted that I seemed very calm about what should have been mind blowing news. In truth, I was close to squealing with excitement – I just knew not to take anything for granted, that even certainties are a lot less certain than you might think in the creative industries. In retrospect, the Ustinov experience was preparatory for what was to come, a valuable learning curve about keeping a level head even when it seems like your dreams are coming true around you.
All of which brings me to the past week. You’ll have to excuse me being a little vague about things; some conversations are in such early stages and some projects aren’t able to be spoken about just yet, so I’m going to talk around a lot of what I’ve been doing and hope I arrive at the point I’m looking for.
Last Friday morning I flew to Sydney for a writers room job. Securing it was the work of my brilliant agent and it would be the first time I worked in a room over the course of several days, shoulder to shoulder with other writers as we developed the outline for a new TV show. The room, however, didn’t kick off until Monday; I was flying up early for a series of meetings at Harper Collins about the next stage of my book’s development.
That alone was a head-spinner. Seeing the passion from the team led to a mix of excitement and gnawing anxiety over when exactly they’re all going to realise that I have no clue what I’m doing. Their faith in the book and the scale on which it’s going to be promoted is mildly terrifying and I can’t wait. Of course, everything going smoothly relies on me holding up my end of the bargain; namely finishing the edits and getting the book to the highest possible standard before it goes to print. Flying up on Friday gave me Saturday and Sunday to wander around Sydney, stopping in at occasional pubs and cafes in order to keep working on the edits. By Sunday evening the major rewrites were all wrapped, right before I dove into a week of working on a very different project.
Editing the book is only one part of the ongoing Sunburnt Country/The Hunted (different names in different territories) experience. I’m also currently working on the next draft of the screenplay, which as has now been announced, is being developed by Stampede Ventures and Vertigo Entertainment in LA under the guiding hand of some of the biggest producers in Hollywood, including Greg Silverman – the former head of Warner Brothers. The film deal technically got underway before the book was sold, but I don’t think the size of the thing hit home for me until I saw the Variety and Deadline articles come out last week. For the first time it felt real. Add to this the fact that the other night I had dinner with a Stampede Executive over from LA and was given a bit more of an idea of what they have in mind for the film, including the timeline and potential talent involved. All of which left me with a panicky feeling of holy shit I have to finish this screenplay.
My plan was to get the script done in the evenings over last week in Sydney, but writers rooms are tiring and by the time you get out at the end of every day your brain is so stretched in so many different directions that giving any thought to a different project is nearly impossible. I therefore made the decision to focus on the room, do some screenplay notes if I found the energy but otherwise relegate the script to this week’s job. As much as I wanted to get it done, I don’t benefit anyone by rushing or not giving it my full attention.
The writers room was a fascinating experience, in its intensity, frustrations, and ultimate arrival at something really cool. I was comfortably the least experienced writer working on the show, and while it was a little intimidating to be working so closely with people who have been in the industry for a long time and have massive successes to their name, I never felt like my ideas weren’t being valued. Still, I was fairly exhausted by the time we wrapped on Friday and keen to get home and get back to work on the script. But over the course of the weekend, a couple of other things happened – nothing huge, but some potential movement, in one case on a project that I’d long since suspected would stay still indefinitely. I also found out that my TV concept Endgame (the name will change, thanks Avengers) is a finalist for a major pitching competition. If we win, we’ll get some development funding and support, which is thrilling but a little daunting from a time perspective. The pitching stage alone means another trip to Sydney before the month is out.
So yeah, things are hectic in the best way possible.
With so much tangible momentum on so many different fronts, am I starting to think that this is the belated realisation of that premature prophecy of being ‘set’? To be honest, I’m not thinking about it in those terms. Because as exciting as everything is, it’s also early days. Some high profile stuff has happened and I no longer have to do freelance gigs in order to support myself financially, but that doesn’t mean my career has erupted in a way that’s necessarily viable in the long term. Obviously I hope that’s the case and I think it’s fair enough that I’m optimistic, but I’ll never forget that, as I learned after the Ustinov, nothing has happened until it has happened. I strongly believe that one of the keys to creative success is a balance of realism and almost deluded hopefulness. I really hope every exciting seed that has been planted recently grows big and strong, but at this stage who knows? For now, I’m enjoying the ride but remembering to hold on tight and keep one eye on the ground.
The first hint of what was about to happen came quietly a few months ago. I’d been visiting an old friend and was walking home alone up an empty road when I felt something both familiar and new.
Years ago, when I was in the midst of writing what would become the Boone Shepard trilogy, there were moments when I would sense with quiet certainty that I wasn’t alone. That Boone was standing just out of my field of vision, tapping his foot and wondering when we were going to get back to our adventures. These instances weren’t the first time I’d felt this. In 2009, writing the very first draft of Windmills, I spent the day after finishing a pivotal scene with the uncomfortable feeling that protagonist Leo Grey was following me. It wasn’t something I articulated to anyone. I just kind of accepted it; whether a trick of the mind or something else, the characters you embark on a journey with make themselves known to you. They’re your companions until, as I learnt in the case of Boone, you reach the end of the line and have to say goodbye, finding yourself faced with a particular sorrow that you never could have anticipated.
Anyway. This night, not long ago, came several months after I had seen Boone for the last time. And as I was walking home, I felt someone new at my shoulder. It wasn’t Boone; Boone stumbled and tripped along. It wasn’t Leo, who tended to lurk in the shadows. This was someone prowling and confident, someone who exuded danger and made me feel, on this empty road late at night, that I was about as protected as I could be.
I knew Sunburnt Country was a gamble the moment I hit send. A brutal, visceral expansion of a novella I wrote in 2017, it was unlike any of my other projects and it was for that reason that I thought it might be exactly what I needed.
About a year previously I had been put in touch with Tara Wynne, a brilliant agent at the venerable and prestigious Curtis Brown. Tara read some of my work and while she liked it, she felt that both of the novels I had sent her weren’t quite ready. Looking at what else I had, I decided to move ahead with Sunburnt Country. I figured it would either help illustrate my range or prompt Tara to politely ask me to leave her alone. I rolled the dice and was almost certain I had made a mistake. It was too violent, too gratuitous, too weird. There was no way Curtis Brown would go for it.
They went for it.
Even when Tara told me she would be interested in representing it after a few changes, I was still doubtful. This seemed to have happened too quickly and too easily – Curtis Brown are one of the best agencies in the country, representing a variety of famous Australian bestsellers. The notion that I might join their ranks was giving me a serious bout of imposter syndrome. But I pushed ahead, I made the changes and sent the novel back. I was ready to receive a response telling me it still wasn’t ready. What I got was a contract.
The speed with which things happened after that still makes my head spin. Within a day of signing with Curtis Brown, Sunburnt Country went out to Jerry Kalajian, an LA agent who specialises in selling the film rights to major novels. He read Sunburnt Country in one sitting and loved it. In our first conversation he started bringing up the kind of big names that made me gape at the phone, not least when he told me he would be sending them the book that night.
In the meantime, Sunburnt Country went out to several Australian publishers and I started playing the waiting game. I managed to discipline myself into only checking my emails every fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to annoy Tara with hourly queries about how everything was going, but I was desperate to know what was happening. When a couple of quiet weeks passed and Tara got back to me saying that there had been a handful of passes, disappointment started to close in. Despite my best efforts, I had gotten carried away with the thrilling possibilities, but of course, just because some people liked the book didn’t mean the publishers and producers who actually had to front up the money would.
Then came the first email from an interested publisher. Then the second. And the third. And a phone call with a major producer in LA interested in the rights.
Suddenly I was in the middle of a whirlwind. I took lunch with the publishers behind some of Australian literature’s biggest recent success stories. I flew to Sydney to hear pitches in boardrooms overlooking the city. I was sent emails keeping me up to date with contract negotiations in LA, emails discussing the kind of money I’d never even seen in my life.
The film option was secured. And following it came the publishing offers. Several of them, meaning I had to make a very hard choice. Everyone I met with would have been an incredible publisher for my book. In the end though, it had to be Harper Collins. They had gone above and beyond in their pitch, sending me a 27-page document full of striking, sun beaten imagery that took me through how much they loved the book and what their vision for it was. They wanted the novel, they got the novel, and they were already talking sequel potential. In fact, they were sure of it; theirs was a two-book offer.
So I accepted. A contract was negotiated. I signed and sent it off. And like that, it was official. My next two books would be published by one of the biggest publishers on the planet. The whole process, from signing with Curtis Brown to sending off the publishing contract, had barely taken two months.
Except it took a lot longer than that. I’ve dreamed of this moment my whole life, and pretty much everything I’ve ever done in the sphere of writing has been working towards it. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for the dumb mistakes and the minor successes I had along the way, from my theatre work to podcasting, from self-publishing Windmills to seeing Boone Shepard’s final adventure hit shelves, from studying screenwriting to winning the Ustinov. Everything was a means to an end that, now it’s here, I realise is very far from an end.
It took years. It took countless failures and just enough successes to keep my head above water. And it took the support of the people who believed in me from the start, despite me giving them very little reason to. I hope you know how grateful I am. Because God knows I haven’t always been worthy of your support.
To be honest, I’m still not sure I am. I’m still terrified I’m going to screw all of this up somehow, that I won’t know how to manage it and I’ll make some rookie error that will send everything careening off the deep end. But I’m going to do my absolute best not to.
When, walking up that empty road, I felt this new presence behind me, I grinned. I didn’t know, in that moment, what was going to happen. But on some level, I knew things were heading in the right direction. I knew I had somebody steering me who knew what they were doing, who, like Boone before, would be my guide to the years ahead.
In July 2020, this character will walk out into the world, as their first story is released and a whole new adventure starts.
I can’t wait for you to meet her.
My favourite play of all time is Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, for a couple of reasons. Not only is it a deft combination of laugh out loud funny and gut-punch devastating, but it is only the first part of a trilogy of plays, all set in the same town, all standalone stories and yet all stories that enrich each other if you read/watch them in sequence, due to the new perspective each instalment gives you on characters and events you thought you had a handle on. The Leenane Trilogy is a singular storytelling experience because each play is satisfying by itself and yet together they create a powerful portrait of a small-town Ireland in despair, a sense of a lived in world that led me, when I was in Ireland two years ago, to go out of my way to visit the real town of Leenane, just to feel like I was stepping into the world of some of my favourite ever stories.
I’d never known anything like those plays and would recommend them heartily to anyone who would listen. Most of the time I got half-hearted nods or a vague ‘guess I’ll check them out’. One time, however, the response was ‘oh, that sounds a lot like the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French’.
I’m not somebody who rushes out to seek stories similar to ones I’ve previously enjoyed, and while I made vague noises of my own about how I might check out that series, I remembered it and when I came across the first book, In The Woods in a second hand bookstore earlier this year, I figured I might as well give it a try.
What followed was revelatory. What is about to follow is my spoiler-free post-mortem of the whole series, why I loved it, and why you should read it. But if you want the short version, I finally found something I could be as effusive about as the Leenane Trilogy. It turned out all I needed was another Irish series of standalone stories set in the same universe with each instalment giving new context to the ones that preceded it. Who’d have thought?
In The Woods
It took me a little while to get into In The Woods. The prologue read as a little too heady and flowery, in a way that I found hard to engage with. Still, I pushed on, as the hook was more than enough. The plot is simple; twenty-two years ago, three kids went to play in the woods outside of Dublin. Only one came back, covered in blood with no memory of what happened to his friends. In the present day that boy, Rob Ryan, has become a detective in the Dublin Murder Squad. He’s changed his name and put his past behind him. Then a body is found on the same spot where his friends went missing and he and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned the case.
In The Woods doesn’t seize you immediately. It takes its time setting up Rob and Cassie, letting us get to know and like them, letting us get invested in their bond. Even the case starts slowly. There’s the persistent prickle of unease in Rob’s first-person narration, but he insists that there’s probably no link to his past, and that what happened all those years ago hasn’t really affected him. It has.
Each book in the series uses the connection between the detective and the case as a way to explore a particular theme, and for Rob and In The Woods it’s trauma. As the book goes on, what really pulls you in is Rob’s plight; his deep flaws and tragic inability to confront the thing that looms so large in his past. The resolution to the case, in the end, becomes almost incidental as we watch each new discovery tug at the threads of Rob’s already fraying psyche, forcing a man who is singularly unable to think about his past into a situation where he can do nothing else. What the ensuing fallout does to him, and by extension Cassie, led to late night reading sessions after which I would lie in bed, staring at the roof as my mind turned over what I had just read.
Part of it is French’s prose. What initially risked putting me off soon become an indelible part of one of the most complete reading experiences I’d had in years. There are moments where her descriptions put you in the mindset of somebody watching a horror movie; you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for the jump, so drawn in by the way that she seems to paint with words. To call it poetic is almost to cheapen what she achieves.
In The Woods is a murder mystery. But it’s also a character study and a literary novel of stunning craft. I finished it with the certainty that this was the best book I’d read in years. What I was less certain about was just how the hell you could follow it up.
I didn’t dive into The Likeness immediately. When I refer to In The Woods as a complete experience, I mean it’s the kind of book that feels finished at the end, satisfying on just about every level. When I mentioned to a friend who had also read it that there was a second, he couldn’t believe it. It’s nice to know there’s more, but you’re not exactly tripping over yourself to find out what happens, especially as each book is basically a standalone about a different character.
The Likeness is probably the closest thing to a direct sequel in the whole series. While it contains only oblique references to the events of In The Woods, they are reasonably important and I do recommend reading them in order (that goes for the whole series – we’ll get to why).
The Likeness follows Cassie Maddox, a few months after the events of In The Woods. Following what happened at the end of that book she has transferred out of murder, but gets called back when a body is found – a body that not only looks identical to Cassie, but was carrying an ID that she previously used as an undercover cop. Cassie’s former boss, Frank Mackey, floats the idea that Cassie can infiltrate the dead girl’s life, pretending to be her and from the inside working out who killed her. Cassie is reluctant, but ultimately agrees and soon finds the lines blurring between herself and her deceased doppelganger in ways that become increasingly dangerous.
A lot of people can’t get into In The Woods because they find the relatively dour and at times unpleasant Rob Ryan a hard protagonist to connect to. Cassie Maddox doesn’t have that problem; she’s comfortably the most likable of all French’s detectives; intelligent, empathetic and very funny. Cassie, however, is dealing with trauma of her own, linked to the death of her parents and a life in which she’s never really belonged anywhere. What’s fascinating about The Likeness is how it juxtaposes Cassie with the dead girl she’s impersonating, somebody who seemingly had found the very things Cassie has always been missing and in death left Cassie a twisted opportunity for the same. Again, French challenges her detective with a case that cuts to the core of who they are. Over the course of the book, Cassie makes mistakes that we completely understand even as we yell at the pages; the real beauty of this story is how much we feel for Cassie and how, at times, we want her to forget the case and embrace this new life that she’s faking her way through.
Of course, one of the people in said new life killed the previous inhabitant of it.
The Likeness takes quite a while to get going, and even when it does it moves along at a leisurely stroll rather than a gallop. All told this isn’t the worst thing; in order for us to understand Cassie’s growing connection to the world she’s found herself in we need to spend time there and, like Cassie, we need to experience stretches where the underlying tension slips to the back of our minds. French manages this masterfully, and by the end is vindicated of any accusations of dragging her feet by a final stretch that is as propulsive and pulse-pounding as any book you’d care to name. I started The Likeness thinking it wasn’t as good as In The Woods. I finished it convinced it was better.
Part of this is due to the prose, which I mentioned above but in The Likeness explodes into vivid life that the rest of the series never quite matches. Some of the descriptions are literally breath taking, leading you to put the book down for a moment to process the singular beauty of what you just read. One of French’s most impressive skills is her ability to tweak her voice for each new protagonist, and Cassie Maddox gets the most elegiac and lyrical. The Likeness has a certain dreamlike otherworldliness that is a world away from the creeping darkness of In The Woods or really, any other crime novel I’ve read.
A lot of people recommend starting the series with Faithful Place. I don’t quite agree; I think the books feel richest read in order, but I can understand the argument. Where In The Woods and The Likeness both take their time, Faithful Place moves at a relentless pace that had me finishing it in three days.
The protagonist this time is Cassie’s former boss from Undercover, Frank Mackey, who might be French’s most interesting character across the board. An irreverent, rule breaking tough guy, Frank nonetheless has his own demons; namely a horrible, abusive adolescence in a rough part of Dublin that he sought to escape with his sweetheart Rosie two decades previously. When she never turned up for their planned rendezvous, Frank left alone, assuming she had gone without him. Fast forward to the present day, when Frank’s family contact him for the first time in twenty years to tell him Rosie’s suitcase has been found. And shortly thereafter, her body.
Faithful Place is a different beast from the previous two books. The relative lack of lyrical prose is understandable; Frank is not the type to go in for that kind of thing. Nor does this case require time or careful set up. Frank wants to resolve it and get out before he’s dragged back into the trap he sees his family as. What he slowly realises is that there’s no escape, that the claws are buried too deep and the more he struggles the more he’s going to get torn apart.
French’s sense of location and character is arguably at its strongest here. The sometimes hilarious Irish dialogue of Frank’s family bring them to colourful life; they’re stereotypical but with very real darkness hidden below the familiar veneer. Taking place almost entirely around the titular street, Faithful Place is maybe the most contained book in the series, claustrophobic and laser focused. The turns come fast and some of them are genuinely shocking.
Frank Mackey is fascinating company. Beneath his roguish charm he’s dangerous and unscrupulous, willing to do just about anything to achieve his goals. Some scenes are genuinely uncomfortable to read, leading us to wonder whether we’re right to be on his side. It’s all intentional of course; Frank’s deep fear is that he has inherited the violence of his family and that the twenty years he’s spent running were ultimately a pointless distraction from the person he can’t help being. There’s a pleasing ambiguity when it comes to answering the question of who Frank really is, ambiguity that French cleverly reintroduces two books later (we’ll get to that).
Where Faithful Place falls just slightly short (and in a book as riveting and well rounded as this to even mention it feels like a nitpick) is in the conclusion. None of these books boast especially shocking reveals of who the killer is and nor should they – they’re more character studies than whodunnits – but Faithful Place lands in a fairly obvious place and the ending feels uncharacteristically uncertain for French, like she wasn’t quite sure where to leave Frank. Both Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox ended up in places that felt fitting. Frank is left more in a vague limbo that doesn’t boast the same power as the other books.
But if I was going to get somebody into this series and wasn’t sure they’d have the patience for the first two, I’d be more than comfortable to recommend Faithful Place. Very few books hook me to the degree that this one did.
Broken Harbour is a bit of an outlier in the series. While they all function as standalones, each book has a fairly close relationship with at least one other volume – In The Woods and The Likeness create a solid little double bill, while The Secret Place is in many ways a sequel to Faithful Place and The Trespasser to The Secret Place. Broken Harbour, however, is different.
The protagonist this time around is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, introduced in Faithful Place as Frank’s rival. In the previous book he came off as a bit of a pompous jerk and that doesn’t really change now that he’s the protagonist. Scorcher has an elevated (not entirely unearned) opinion of himself and where Frank didn’t care about the rules, Scorcher follows them to the letter.
The case doesn’t have the same immediate hook of the previous books either. In a largely abandoned housing development, a seemingly perfect young family have been attacked; the father and two kids are dead, the mother in a coma. Scorcher does have a connection to the location in question, but it affects the present in a thematic sense rather than a plot one. His main involvement here is that he just happens to be the detective assigned the case.
Broken Harbour is a book I admire more than I like. While French inhabits Scorcher to the degree that he feels easily as real and alive as her other characters, she has admitted in interviews to finding him harder to connect to and I think it does show. I love that she went for a protagonist like this, but you neither fall in love with him the way you do Cassie or find him as compelling as Frank. It doesn’t help that the case is less involving and it takes a while to really get drawn in; I would argue, until roughly the final act of the story.
That said, where Broken Harbour hits hard is in its themes. Scorcher is a man who rigidly believes – has to believe – that if you follow the rules you’ll be okay, that if something goes wrong it’s because you’ve messed up somewhere. As he delves into a case that makes less and less sense the further he goes, he finds himself confronted by a crime that has no rhyme or reason, in which madness and murder still appeared despite the victims doing everything right. And as the rough edges of the case become evident, the man who follows every rule to the letter finds himself in a situation where the only way to get a solve might be to break them.
The thing about the series being arguably one of character studies is that eventually you’ll find a character you don’t like that much. But while I didn’t feel overly connected to Scorcher, the final moments of his story were affecting enough that I found myself thinking about him the most after turning the final page. Just about every Tana French protagonist departs on a slightly ambiguous note as far as their future is concerned, but there were none I wanted to see the next chapter for more than Scorcher. Unfortunately, we don’t hear from him again.
The Secret Place
Finding Broken Harbour a bit of a slog meant that I was really looking forward to The Secret Place, not least because I knew that it featured the return of Frank Mackey. Not, mind you, as a protagonist; the lead this time is Stephen Moran, another Faithful Place alumnus who was last seen being used as a pawn in the rivalry between Frank and Scorcher. Stephen is contacted by Frank’s now teenage daughter Holly, whose private school became the subject of scandal a year previously when a boy was found dead on the grounds. Holly has discovered a card left on a school noticeboard with a picture of the boy and the caption ‘I know who killed him.’
The Secret Place is probably the biggest break in formula for the series. Stephen Moran has no real connection to the crime, either textually or subtextually. There’s some vague stuff about the class envy he feels at the sight of the stunning, prestigious school that serves as the primary setting for the book, but he’s not confronting any long-buried demons here. In general, Moran is a likable character but nowhere near as complex or interesting as the rest. Tellingly, this is the first book that deviates from a strict first-person narrative, with every second chapter being a flashback to the events that led up to the murder.
This largely works, with the book alternating between the day-long investigation of Moran and the acerbic Antionette Conway into the school and the fraught network of political relationships between teenage girls that ultimately led to a murder. French’s characterisation, as always, is impeccable; the students end up engaging characters and there’s a lot in their depictions that rings true about friendship and how simultaneously empowering and endangering it can be when you’re growing up and not sure of who you are. Friendship is the central theme of this book; the way it grows, fractures and weathers the worst storms, evident also in the growing bond between Conway and Moran, a bond that starts in a place of mutual distrust and becomes something with its own unique power.
The Secret Place marks a return to some of the lyricism of In The Woods and The Likeness, but somehow it doesn’t work as well here, coming off occasionally as overblown and distracting. At times The Secret Place feels like it’s biting off more than it can chew and for that reason doesn’t quite match the cohesiveness of some of the other instalments. There’s also a mild supernatural element that, while I get French’s reasoning for it, to me feels a little distracting and out of place.
All of that said, The Secret Place ultimately packs a pretty serious punch, especially when it comes to the reintroduction of Frank Mackey in the story’s final act. It’s here that some of French’s true genius becomes apparent; we’ve met Frank as an ally to Cassie in The Likeness, as the compromised hero of his own story in Faithful Place, and now, without ever feeling like a different character to the one we’ve already met, he becomes the antagonist, the worst possible person to get involved at the crucial juncture of Moran and Conway’s case. A new perspective changes so much, and nowhere is that more beautifully depicted than in the case of Frank, whose inherent danger here becomes difficult to ignore or accept when it actively threatens our protagonists. It’s a brilliant shift that, to me, illustrates exactly why these books need to be read in order, even if they all seem on the surface to be their own thing.
At face value, The Trespasser probably seems like the least enticing plot of the bunch. Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, partners since the events of The Secret Place, are called to a crime scene that looks in every way to be a straightforward domestic dispute, complete with a jumpy boyfriend and a weak alibi. Regularly the subject of dull assignments, Conway (the protagonist this time) notices nothing interesting in the case apart from the vague sense that she’s seen the victim before.
Naturally, all is not as it seems.
The Trespasser rivals Faithful Place as my favourite of the series, but I doubt that would be the case had I read it in isolation. As the unofficial finale, it’s the first to really explore the murder squad itself, and without getting into spoilers the case involves the secrets, hopes and failures of certain detectives in ways both surprising and heart-wrenching. Despite its humble appearance, the case is also the most fleshed out and fascinating of the series, one that gets deeper, more complicated and more tragic the further along the book goes. Like in Broken Harbour the link between case and protagonist is more thematic than anything else, but it really lands this time, as Conway’s initial disdain for the victim soon gives way to a sort of kinship.
Conway is probably the most well-rounded protagonist of the whole series, and that’s really saying something. Tough, unsentimental but fundamentally wounded in ways she refuses to admit, she’s highly likeable and deeply flawed. Her relationship with Stephen Moran continues to grow and develop in directions that are both triumphant and moving, and furthermore her relationship with the squad at large, which seems initially to be headed in one direction, takes some welcome turns and shades of complexity. Conway’s journey in this book is probably the most satisfying since Cassie Maddox; in fact, the book across the board is arguably the most roundly satisfying of the series and while I went into it not wanting to view it as an ending it feels like exactly the right kind of send off for this loosely linked series. There’s a pleasing circularity to where The Trespasser leaves us, coming back to ideas and plot points that evoke In The Woods without ever even mentioning the events of that book. I referred to In The Woods as ‘complete’ and it’s a descriptor I would just as comfortably hand to The Trespasser, only more so. Everything about it feels earned and nothing lingers in a way that leaves you unsatisfied. It’s a masterclass of detective fiction.
But then, that descriptor applies comfortably to the whole series. I’ve long had a theory that whodunnits tend to be especially well thought out stories as writing a good one effectively requires giving every potential suspect a valid reason to be the killer and in the process leading to fairly developed characters across the board, but what Tana French has achieved in these books is elevating the genre in ways I found inspiring. As somebody who loves whodunnits, I feel like the term is wrong for what this series is. I feel like what it is in the end is a series of masterfully written novels that are each strong works in their own right but together become something greater. It’s a storytelling achievement that I find myself in awe of, and more than that, one I’ve learnt so much from.
It’s not often that you discover a series that makes you grateful it exists. Tana French has more than achieved that. Now go read them for yourselves.
A few years ago, I was on a date that I thought was going really well. I had been (to my mind) cool, charming, collected and had said nothing especially embarrassing. Then, several hours and several drinks into the night, she calmly asked me if I realised how negative I was.
My mind reeled. Any witty replies or pre-planned directions of conversation vanished. I gaped at her like a fish man. ‘What do you mean?’ I stammered.
She proceeded to go through all of our conversation topics; from university to housemates to the state of Melbourne theatre to recent TV shows. I had not, it turned out, had a nice word to say about any of them. I was floored because she was completely right. Suddenly, the date took a sharp turn from what I thought was smooth sailing to something a lot closer to a therapy session. Why, she asked, was that my attitude?
It’s hard to be especially articulate when you’ve only just realised such an unflattering thing about yourself. As dumb as it sounds (and was), the best explanation I had was that I felt like expressing enthusiasm on certain topics in the circles I moved in was tantamount to pouring blood into water full of sharks. At the times when I felt the most secure and happy with myself, I didn’t much care. This wasn’t one of those times. My default defensive setting was negativity.
I did my best, after that, to be more optimistic but in some areas I didn’t have much choice; this was during my time on Movie Maintenance and negativity was kind of my job. After all, you can’t ‘fix’ films if you’re not working from the foundation of feeling at least somewhat negative towards said film. I’m well aware that that inherent negativity turned a lot of people off the show, and ultimately, it was one of the reasons the podcast came to an end; we all got sick of being so critical.
I will always be the first to defend the vocation of a critic and argue that they’re an essential part of the creative industry. Critics create conversation and engagement and that’s important for holding art to account. But defending and appreciating the work of a critic doesn’t necessarily mean thinking everyone should be one.
I used to be vehement and furious when I felt like a movie, book or TV show had wasted my time (see: Jones, Jessica). I was utterly righteous in my belief that not only did I have a right to say what I wanted about properties I disliked, but that given my small following I almost had a duty to. It’s why I spent a lot of last year tweeting micro reviews of every film I saw.
For largely pragmatic reasons, I pulled back on this. It started with my quitting reviewing theatre after realising that the Melbourne scene is small and I was harming potential working relationships by publicly espousing my opinions. Recently, I found myself in a similar position on a larger scale; an exciting conversation with a major industry figure led me to trawl through old Tweets to delete ones where I’d been critical of projects this person worked on. Not that I thought this person would necessarily care or even consider looking, but still; I wanted to cover my arse.
But in a weird way, I think that shutting my mouth about my opinions has been kind of healthy. Being on Twitter and being passionate about film means that you end up exposed to some pretty ugly stuff; some ‘fans’ feel like they have a kind of ownership over big franchises and have no problem abusing the people who worked on them when films aren’t made to their exact specifications. Seeing this now makes me wonder; on some level, during my Movie Maintenance days and before, was I one of those people?
Whatever the case, it’s indisputable that at one time I felt it was necessary to get angry when a movie or TV show wasn’t for me. Again; this isn’t for a second to say that you shouldn’t have an opinion or express that opinion, but there’s nothing constructive about vitriol.
It’s okay if a story doesn’t work for you. I’ve realised that it’s just not that big of a deal for me anymore. I’ll always love good films and roll my eyes at bad ones. But there are so many people out there dissecting, articulating and raging about the merits or lack thereof of every film, and I no longer feel that I have much of value to offer to those conversations. I’d rather create than criticise and while the two things aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, from a long-term career standpoint they might as well be.
Recently Kit Harrington expressed some harsh opinions on critics of Game of Thrones, making the point that whatever they say, he will always know how much work and passion went into the show. I don’t agree with the sentiment; again, I will always stand up for the value of critics, but I get why he would feel that way, and it’s partly the reason I’ve pulled back on expressing every little quibble I have with stories. Somebody works hard on something that cannot please everyone. A lot of people will make their opinions on that something loudly known and the general consensus of those opinions will become part of the product’s narrative. It’s for us personally to decide if adding our voice to the mass of negativity is worthwhile.
Maybe it sounds New Age-y or whatever, but since I’ve started focusing on my positive experiences with the stories I’ve been consuming (please read Tana French) I’ve felt happier. And I’ve learnt that I don’t need to seethe and sneer when I walk out of a bad film. I just shrug it off and think about something else.
After all, why waste energy on something that you don’t like?
I’ve been a bit quiet lately, in terms of blogs, tweets and videos, so I thought I might just provide a little update about what’s been going on. As I reflected in my last video, there’s a lot I can’t/won’t talk about specifically, but suffice to say there are exciting things going on that have dominated my time and attention.
Of course, saying that doesn’t indicate that any of these things will come to fruition. Being a creative means getting very used to seeing stuff collapse out from under you, so, simply put, I’m not going to start whooping and cheering until official confirmations. But for now, things look promising on a lot of different fronts. I’ve had to compartmentalise my time in order to efficiently follow up on a few different projects, and in the midst of this, after a dreary, uninspired start to the year, I’ve found myself with a bit of a deluge of new, strong ideas that I’m really keen to write. It’s by turns energising and exhausting, but never less than exciting.
In terms of updates I can be clear about; a new podcast is on the way, probably sooner rather than later. I’ll save the announcements about what it is and who’s involved for a more official forum, but suffice to say at this stage we just need to get in the room, bulk record, then work out when to start releasing. Time, again, has proved a bit of a pain in the arse here, but we’re all committed to making it happen so watch this space. While we’re not expecting to recapture the audience numbers of Movie Maintenance, we all feel pretty good about what this can be; a chance to recapture the spirit of the old show without the negativity. Hopefully.
We also had a full table read the other night for the web-series adaptation of Heroes, which was more than a little exciting. It’s almost entirely cast and all six episodes have been drafted by our team of writers; the read was about seeing what we have on our hands and working out the next steps. What we seem to have on our hands is something gritty, surprising and tense that evokes the spirit of the play without being entirely faithful to the letter of its events. Purely by merit of it not being two guys talking in a room, it has a different style and energy to the stage/radio version in a way that, for my money, both complements the original and charts its own path. Once the feedback from the read has been addressed, we’ll be moving into proper pre-production and I’m really excited to see where this goes. If you liked the play, you’ll love this. I hope.
Meanwhile, The Trial of Dorian Gray is in the early stages of working out its next destination, whether that’s Sydney or overseas. It seems fairly likely that the show will go on, and if it doesn’t, it’s also in production as a radio play AND a film by two different companies in England, so you’ll get to see a version of it at some stage.
Elsewhere, there has been some tangible forward momentum for some of my novels, TV concepts and film projects, but again; I’ll celebrate when there’s something solid to celebrate. For now though, I’m optimistic.
In the middle of all of this, I’ve been working on a new book that’s vastly different to anything I’ve done before. Namely because it’s non-fiction. It’s also a bit of a hard concept to define in terms of where it would sit in a bookstore. Consequently, I have absolutely no idea of what I’ll do with it when it’s finished.
The short summary is that it’s a kind of autobiographical industry guidebook. A lot of people have told me how valuable they find my blogs, and this kind of stemmed from that; it’s not that I’m super successful or anything, but writing is how I make a living and I have a bit of a following so I figure I have at least a few things of value to share in terms of how to build a viable career out of storytelling. It’s not a memoir; there are no lengthy, nostalgic reflections on childhood or anything – it’s strictly about how to develop as a writer, with particular emphasis on what not to do, using the many, many embarrassing mistakes I’ve made as examples.
So yeah, it’s a weird one in terms of where it would sit in the market, or if it would even have a place. And, being only partway through, I have no idea if it just reads as supremely self-indulgent (if it does, you can rest assured it will never see the light of day). I guess it’s that rare case of something that I’m feeling out as I go with no clear idea of what the long-term goal is. Honestly, at this stage I’m just as likely to release it as a series of free blog posts as I am to investigate any legitimate publishing options. It might be something cool and unique. It might be thoroughly awful. All I know is that it’s new territory for me and I’m enjoying the process, especially as there are no stakes to whether I finish it or not.
So yeah, across the board stuff is moving along nicely and hopefully before long I’ll have something really exciting to share. For now though, I feel like I’ve finally got my groove back.
I spoke in a recent blog post about how, ever since Boone Shepard’s final adventure came out I’ve had trouble coming up with new ideas. Not for lack of trying; I’ve toyed with new novel, screenplay and play ideas in that time, but none of them have really ignited in that way that means I have to write them.
The other night, I was about to go to bed when an idea for a short story hit me. Nothing exciting or revelatory, but something I could write quickly. So I did. And as I finished what I thought was an alright little piece, I wondered if I could try and do the same every day for a week. Write a short story without pressure, intent or pre-planning. The kind of initiative that could turn out good, average or awful and not really matter.
So over the last week I wrote seven short stories, and at the bottom of this page is a link to download a PDF of all of them if you’re so inclined. Not a single one of them had more than a few minutes of planning before I started typing. Some came together fast, some were a bit more torturous. Some I feel pretty good about, others are a mixed bag.
But the exercise did its job; by the second day I already felt better than I had in ages, creatively energised and ready to dive back into some big projects. Honestly, I did this more to challenge myself than anything, but I think it actually turned out to be really good for me.
Lately I haven’t been writing; or at least not much. I did some work on Nelson and the Gallagher over Christmas and about a month before that finished my play Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller, but beyond that I haven’t written anything that wasn’t either for a freelance gig, an application or a blog post. And while lots of exciting things have been happening with various projects, I haven’t felt 100% about any of it.
This malaise is the very definition of a first world problem so let me clarify; I’m not throwing myself a pity party or courting sympathy. I have no doubt this vaguely defined flat feeling will pass. No, the reason I’m writing this is to grapple with the source of why I feel this way, something that has genuinely blindsided me in how much it’s affected me.
That, of course, is saying goodbye to Boone Shepard.
A bit of context: by the time The Silhouette and the Sacrifice had gone to print, I felt largely done with Boone. I had told the story I wanted to tell, and while of course I would love the books to reach the biggest audience possible, the fact remained that thousands of people around the world had read the books in either text or audio form, and that’s a hard thing to be unsatisfied with. Add to this the endless list of rewrites and re-edits and eventually you get to a point where you’re just sort of done. I wrote the first ever version of a Boone Shepard story in 2008 and in 2018 his last published adventure was hitting bookshelves. Ten years is a long time to spend with a story.
It wasn’t until a couple of nights before Silhouette was published that the reality of what was about to happen started to dawn on me. I wrote a retrospective post about my journey with the character and the books, and near the end I started to choke up. I wasn’t really sure why; the ending you see in Silhouette is the same ending I originally wrote in 2014. I wrapped up Boone’s adventures back then. But still, this deep, raw sadness remained.
The next day, publication eve, I wrote a short Boone story as a kind of goodbye to him. I had no real plan for it, I was just walking past a pub and thought ‘you know what, I’d like to see Boone again’. So I sat down and wrote what, despite being set prior to the first novel, amounts to a kind of thematic epilogue for him. And as I typed out the last words, I realised why I felt the way I did; I was finished with the character.
That probably sounds simple and obvious, but bear in mind that, consistently after I typed out the words ‘The End’ in 2014, Boone stayed with me, through both short stories and the ongoing re-edits and rewrites of the novels.
But now he’s gone. I look in the place where Boone always waited in my mind, and it’s empty. I used to know he was always there, ready to ride off on some random adventure, to bicker with Promethia and save the day from whatever nonsensical threat he’d stumbled upon this time. But when he rode away at the end of that short epilogue, he rode away from me as well.
It’s a hard thing to quantify. Nothing is stopping me from coming up with a new Boone short story. But I know that it would feel forced and artificial. The need to write about him has dissipated. I let Boone go and I hardly realised I was doing it until he’d ridden off into the sunrise, chasing more adventures and mysteries that I won’t be privy to anymore.
And that has left me feeling hollow, like part of me rode away with him. Because of course it did. Because Boone was part of me and part of my life. My journey with him is my journey into adulthood. And maybe Boone being gone means finally growing up, somehow.
I didn’t think it would feel like this. I had no prior experience to suggest it might. When you finish a play you can always revive it. Before a story is published, you’ll be tinkering, tweaking and re-writing. Windmills has been around almost as long as Boone, but I haven’t had to say goodbye because, unlike Boone, it hasn’t gone out into the world in complete form yet.
It’s bittersweet; knowing you’ve finished something you feel so proud of, knowing that a journey can begin with a weird dream and become a thrilling reality. But journeys end, and maybe when they do part of you ends with them. And that can be harder to come to terms with than you ever let yourself consider.
So the book came out and instead of euphoria I felt empty, uninspired and unlike myself. Because part of what made me myself was gone.
It’s so easy to begrudge authors like J.K. Rowling or John Marsden returning again and again to the properties that made their names. But for the first time I get it. If I feel this way after three relatively short books that only achieved a modest readership, I can’t imagine what saying goodbye to something on the scale of Harry Potter or The Tomorrow Series must be like. Of course we need to know when to let something go, but that doesn’t make letting go easy.
There will be new stories and knew characters who mean as much to me as Boone. I’m confident of that. And of course the times that feel a little colourless always pass. New horizons and new projects make sure of that. Like I said at the start, this isn’t me throwing my hands in the air and wailing ‘woe is me’ because I’m no longer writing about a made up character who, in theory, I can do whatever I want with. This is me trying to articulate a whole new experience that I’ve never had to deal with as a writer before; being done with a story you love.
Learning from your mistakes is important, but it’s also essential to recognise when you feel like you’ve gone right. The sweet spot between the two is, for my money, where you learn; build on your successes and memorise your failures so as to avoid ever repeating them. It’s partly for this reason that, following on from a lengthy retrospective of Bitten By Productions’ first ten shows and one recapping our 2017 output, that I’m endeavouring to make it a yearly thing. It’s not so much something I’m doing for anyone else to read or enjoy, but more a way for me to candidly arrange my thoughts regarding our work and also go on the record about what I felt was or wasn’t successful. As in previous years, I’ll be honest but not specific – if you’re looking for particular names to be named then look elsewhere. This isn’t designed to speak for anyone except me; it’s squarely a personal reflection written in the interests of charting further advancement.
2017 was a big year for Bitten By. Springsteen and Dracula gave us our biggest ever audiences, and both were warmly received. Heroes struggled in the audience department, but went on to win multiple awards and, as of last December, is now my first published play. So that’s pretty vindicating. The Commune, which closed our 2017 season, was a show that I wish more people had seen; everyone did exemplary work and in terms of quality, ambition and realisation, it might have been our most consistently good show. But it provided a strong foundation for an even better 2018, especially coming into the opening of Moonlite, our first musical and first show as part of a festival. So, looking back a year later, how did that work out?
Full disclosure; Moonlite nearly broke me. I’m only now starting to be able to look at it with any clarity, after a gruelling rehearsal process and an equally rough run of performances. In some ways this was probably inevitable; apart from the live songs interspersed throughout Springsteen, we’d never done anything in the territory of a musical before and early discussions of getting on board a director experienced in that kind of thing swiftly dissipated as composer Dan Nixon and I made the, in hindsight arrogant, decision to direct it ourselves.
The cast we assembled were across the board brilliant; all professional actors trained in musical theatre, but the flip side to that was that their collective availability was all over the place. From day one, rehearsals were nearly impossible to schedule, and that was just for the acting side of things. Add to this the fact that our band were a group of professional working musicians and the prospect of trying to wrangle full rehearsals to work out the shape of the show became a pipe dream. The first full rehearsal with the complete band and cast didn’t happen until the week the show opened.
I did my best trying to keep a smooth ship running, but it was a case where my best just wasn’t enough. I didn’t know the first thing about directing a musical and all I could do was handle the material as I would a straight play and hope that everybody would do their jobs and put it all together into a coherent show when it counted.
This might have been less of an issue if it wasn’t for the venue. Let me clarify; I’m not badmouthing the Grace Darling here, as they fully supported the show from the start, but miscommunications with the staff and the fact that, simply put, the basement space where we performed was not equipped as a theatre meant that the process became pretty tense at times. We chose this venue due to its rumoured connection with the real Captain Moonlite, but the idealistic dream of its suitability quickly proved to be just that. Purely due to the nature of the space, performing in the Grace Darling actively harmed Moonlite; there was no way of facilitating the scripted lighting changes to cleanly delineate between past and present scenes (which confused several audience members) and the constant noise from upstairs meant that several of our most emotional, pivotal scenes were punctuated by loud laughter or music. Then there was the total lack of air conditioning; which, when you’re performing in a packed cellar in the middle of summer, is a bad, bad thing.
It's a testament to the work of everyone involved that Moonlite somehow managed to not be a total embarrassment. In fact, it might have sat somewhere in the territory of really good – honestly, in the wake of trying to make it happen it’s a tough one for me to gauge. What is indisputable is the following; we sold out every single show before we even opened, we got stellar reviews across the board, and large chunks of our audiences were openly wiping away tears by the end of the performance. The extra show we added halfway through the season also sold out within a couple of days. Moonlite was a hit, something that was consolidated down the line when it was chosen for the Grassroots Development Initiative and got some fantastic feedback from a panel of industry judges, who uniformly saw enormous potential for future productions.
On that, it’s not the end of Moonlite. We’re going to be recording a radio play version soon, incorporating some of the Grassroots feedback to make the show even stronger, then after that we’ll be investigating the potential of a tour. The story of Captain Moonlite is an incredible one and when all is said and done I remain thrilled to have been able to tell my own version of it to a seemingly appreciative audience. That, ultimately, is what matters to me when I think about the show. But it doesn’t change the fact that putting it together was a nightmare.
That, of course, is where the important lessons come in. I would handle any future run of Moonlite or potential other musical project vastly differently. Given the behind the scenes process, part of me feels like we were lucky that Moonlite managed to not crash and burn, but to suggest luck had anything to do with it would be to suggest that the show’s success was due to anything other than an immense amount of hard work against the odds. I just hope the team who made that show happen know how grateful I am for what they managed to pull off.
Dead Air had the unique distinction of being the first Bitten By show that I had nothing to do with. Even Dracula, which I didn’t write, I played a small part in that kept me around for most of the process. Dead Air, on the other hand, was something I watched unfold like a proud uncle; naturally invested in its success, but separate from it all the same. Which, after Moonlite, was something I needed.
While this might imply more of an ability to be objective, in some ways it’s the opposite when it’s still your company but not your work. The success or failure of your own work is something you personally have to come to terms with one way or another, which means you approach it with a level of analysis you simply can’t apply to something you weren’t involved with but still falls under the banner of the company you co-created.
So, speaking as somebody who saw almost every performance of Dead Air but wasn’t part of its development, I was thrilled with how it turned out. The performances were fantastic, the slow build of tension kept audiences on the edge of their seats and the use of sound and lighting represented a totally new step for us as a company.
I guess if I had one major reservation it would be that the venue didn’t exactly complement any of the above. The Bluestone Church in Footscray is a fantastic, versatile performance space but for my money Dead Air would have benefited from a tiny, claustrophobic theatre. As it stood, the high ceilings and clear sightlines around the curtains that boxed in the performance meant that any illusion of a small, contained space was quickly eliminated by lighting changes that illuminated the size of where we were. To me this mitigated the hard work the special effects were doing and occasionally sapped some of the tension. I don’t for a second think it killed the show, but it was a problem nonetheless. I would love to do more shows in the Bluestone Church, but I don’t think it was the right venue for this particular production.
We Can Work It Out
Of all the shows we’ve spoken about bringing back for a new run, We Can Work it Out was always the no-brainer. Its 2015 run was probably our first inarguable hit in terms of ticket sales and audience response, and after the success of pairing a known quantity with a festival in the case of Moonlite, we decided to try a similar thing by reviving We Can Work It Out for Fringe.
Except, in truth, calling it a revival feels disingenuous. While it had much of the same cast and the same script as the 2015 run, this We Can Work It Out was a very different beast to its predecessor. After delivering amazing performance after amazing performance in several Bitten By shows, Greg Caine put up his hand to direct and swiftly demonstrated a natural aptitude for it, to the point where I had to re-evaluate some of my fond memories of the 2015 WCWIO (which I directed) in light of the fact that Greg was doing it far, far better than I had. While I tried to play up the farce, Greg focused on emotion and character. I won’t lie; during the rehearsal process I was scared that he was losing some of the humour and fun of the show, but I needn’t have worried. The humour went nowhere; the only difference was that now it sat in a natural, believable place, rather than a heightened one. Which is much, much better.
We didn’t repeat the sell out success of Moonlite, but to be fair the Butterfly Club seats twice as many people as the Grace Darling cellar, so that was probably a given. We did, however, have healthy audiences across the whole run and both opened and closed with a rapturous full house.
We had long planned to follow it up with a regional tour, but this became less of a given when, a week and a half out from our first country performance, we discovered that Brett Wolfenden, who had been excellent as Ringo in both 2015 and 2018, wouldn’t be able to come on tour due to unforeseen (but positive) circumstances. With the shows booked and advertisements run cancelling wasn’t an option, but Justin Anderson, a co-founder of Bitten By fresh off his leading performance in Dead Air, stepped in and learned the role in ten days. Regional audiences didn’t know the difference; Justin killed it, got lots of laughs, and won over a raucous full house audience of over a hundred people in my hometown of Mansfield. The tour turned out to be an enormously fun capper to an enormously fun season. All things considered, this version of We Can Work It Out ran relatively smoothly and earned itself a whole new round of great reviews and highly entertained audiences. Having also been performed by a different company in Queensland, We Can Work It Out has proved more than almost any of our other shows how much life it has in it. Which is another way of saying a further revival is not unlikely.
Nobody likes to be seen as repeating themselves, but I feel that we’ve reached a point as a company where we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot to not give another run to some of our proven successes, providing good shows the chance to reach a whole new audience. We Can Work It Out 2.0 proved the worth of that.
There are three major things I want to replicate from our 2018 season; conveniently, one from each show. From Moonlite I saw the value of swinging for the fences, of being ambitious even when it scares or wears you down. Dead Air strengthened my commitment to supporting the work of new writers – I would love to reach a point where Bitten By Productions runs a whole season of scripts not written by me. And We Can Work It Out, simply put, demonstrated the value of the crowd pleaser and reinforced another lesson Moonlite taught us; that pairing an appealing show based around a known quantity with the exposure of a festival can yield major dividends.
That’s what we’re trying to repeat with our first show of 2018, The Trial of Dorian Gray. Like Moonlite, this production will be a part of the Midsumma Festival and so far that seems to be paying off; it’s not selling quite as well as the earlier show, but tickets are moving steadily and I’m confident that, given the subject matter, it will do well. Furthermore, The Trial of Dorian Gray is looking really promising; the cast and crew are across the board one of the best we’ve ever worked with, thanks to the involvement of respected director Peter Blackburn, who brought his own team together, all of whom are working professionals in their field, all of whom are doing amazing work. Had Dorian been directed by myself, it probably would have been a pretty basic, no frills two hander. Under Pete however, it’s become something far more ambitious, something that will fire on all cylinders from a production standpoint. Add to that the fact that James Biasetto and Ratidzo Mambo are a pair of incredible actors who bring so much depth, danger and pathos to their characters, and Dorian promises to be something pretty special.
Next up, the plan is for me to return to the director’s chair with The Wild Colonial Boys, a script I’m really proud of that works as a kind of subversion and deconstruction of the Ned Kelly legend. It’s pure fiction, a sort of ‘what if’ set during the Siege of Glenrowan that further examines the themes of myth-making that drove Moonlite, but I think it could be really good. I can certainly promise that it offers a take on a well-trodden story that you have never seen before.
After that, the idea is that we’ll return to Fringe for the first play by my friend, housemate and former Movie Maintenance co-host Kath Atkins, Three Cigarettes and a Hooker, which tells the story of a group of highly ‘woke’ twenty somethings who attempt to prove their virtue by inviting a sex worker to a dinner party. Naturally, in stumbling over each other to show off how progressive they are, buried hypocrisies and prejudices are swiftly exposed. Three Cigarettes is a hilarious script and a highly pointed satire; it will ruffle feathers and probably piss people off with how accurate it is on many things. I can’t wait.
So yeah; things are in a good place for the company. I’m proud of our 2018 run and grateful for the valuable lessons we came away with. Independent theatre can be trying, but when things go well it’s hard not to feel good about where you’re at. Some bumps in the road aside, 2018 was a year in which things went pretty well indeed.
Just some thoughts.