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August 15, 2011 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Derek Hansen on ‘A Man You Can Bank On’

Salient’s Fairooz Samy chats to Australian author Derek Hansen about hold-ups, psychopaths, and his latest book, A Man You Can Bank On.

There’s quite an entertaining but also very serious story behind the idea for A Man You Can Bank On. How did the Guatemalan hold-up inspire you to reconsider the concept of crime?

What happened in Guatemala when I was jammed in the back of a mini bus, unable to move, was that I found a kid with a massive shotgun and trousers that overlap his shoes charging at us, thinking for some reason, ‘I’m going to try to rob them’, and if he tripped, we were all red mist. A little column in the newspaper reading ‘shot accidentally in Guatemala’. That had a profound effect because it was paralysing. You read frequently in crime novels that people do heroic things with guns pointed at them but I just cannot see that happening. We were in a tough part of Guatemala and there were some pretty desperate people, and these heavy guys came over-desperate guys- and cut us off from our guards. One of them grabbed my arm and asked for money, and I would happily have given him a couple of dollars if I had any small money, but I had nothing but $50 notes and I wasn’t about to ask for change. It became more threatening, the grip on my arm became tighter, the guys were closing in, the gap between us and the guards was widening, so I called a guard over- he was a member of the police- and offered him $50 to be our escort. Now $50 is a month’s salary and he felt he had to earn it all at once. He came over and reversed his riffle and clocked the guy that was holding me. Nothing I’d seen had prepared me for that. First, I could have been killed for no reason, and that was terrifying, and next I’d seen this guy punched. I was aware that crime novelists were trying to outdo each other in terms of violence which escalated from one book to the next and it was becoming pornographic, particularly sexual violence. I knew a crime book had to have violence, but that was when I started thinking that if I was going to include violence, there was going to be an element in it that made people laugh, and that’s where the humour really began. After that it was a matter of finding the characters.

Each character has their own charm- did you base any of them on real people?

Looking at the two hit men for example- well, I used to do ads for the labour party, and back then they used to have links with crime. Two days before the election, they had a party, a lunch, and we were invited. I found myself sitting at the wrong table and opposite me was a guy called Neddy Smith. Neddy Smith is Australia’s most notorious hit man and he’s now in jail. It was quite amazing how he killed people. He’d take them out in a boat, tie an old cast iron stove to their leg on a very long rope, and when they got out deep, throw the stove overboard, and then asks them, ‘is there anything you want to tell us?’. We were introduced to him, and Neddy Smith just turned around and he was…cold. The man has so much presence and is just the embodiment of pure evil. It was like he was the man and I was the boy, no two ways about it. It didn’t matter that I never shared a word with him because I watched him for the next two hours and observed a real life psychopath, thinking that one day I was going to use him in a book. And he became the bases for the hit men. But how does pure evil contribute to the layers of humour in the book? I decided that the hit men would have a protestant work ethic, dedicated to their job, taking it very seriously and being creative about the way they did it. There’s an element of self improvement to it- they take pride in the fact that they have a contract from America. Overseas recognition. It shouldn’t work that two guys that are uncompromisingly violent are also comic heroes, but it does.

A Man You Can Bank On is quintessentially Australian, and it reminded me of the classic Aussie The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding style humour. Do you think there’s a mainstay of the Australian experience that is crucial when you have to tell an Australian story?

It’s kind of like when someone is flattering you, they’re rude. Or they understate. You write a book and they say, ‘that’s not as bad as I thought it would be’. There’s also a large element of self-deprecating humour. Irony is used a lot- the tall guy is called short, the fat guy, slim. But what I’ve tried to avoid are those Aussie expressions like, ‘he went through her faster than lightening through a wet dog’. Aussie humour is quite deadpan, in a sense we’re a bit like Belgians, the pathway to somewhere else. It’s also the culture in which I live so I absorb it every day.

Coming from an advertising background, how did you de-condition from the mindset of selling people pitches in 100 words to selling readers stories?

It took three books. I’ll tell you what happened. When wrote Lunch With The Generals, my first book, it ran to 128 pages handwritten, and I realised I wasn’t capable of sitting down and writing 400 pages. I couldn’t expand scenes properly. In advertising you tend to be very succinct, but in novels you’ve got to flesh things out, approach them so that people will understand the story. So I went to have lunch with my old mate Bryce Courtenay and he said, “it doesn’t matter, if we both fail as novelists we’ll still meet for lunch. It might just be a sandwich in the park but it’s still lunch with friends, and in that moment it resonated- lunch with friends. I went away and wrote Lunch With The Generals. Years of advertising had made me an expert on lunches and you should always write about the things you know. If I had four guys meeting over seven lunches, I could then spread it out over several novels. I could handle writing a story in bite size pieces but I couldn’t write a whole meal. By Lunch With Mussolini, I had confidence that I could actually sit down and write a book from beginning to end, and that culminated with Sole Survivor which is still my best-selling book.

You have a wonderful sense of humour that you translate well through fiction. Do you think you’ll continue with the comedy genre?

I don’t know. The book started out as a crime novel but I wanted it to be different because there are so many crime novels and other crime writers there that better than I am, but in writing the characters I discovered that they had a sense humour and that really found a voice. Whether or not the next book will fall in to the same category is unknown. The Lunch series I did was historical and dealt with a lot of serious issues. This book took the seriousness of a crime novel and blended it with a quirky kind of humour. But whether again I’ll go there or not, I don’t know. If the book sells really well, I’ll be crazy if I don’t.

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