Dave Warner is an author, musician and screenwriter. His first novel City of Light won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for Fiction, and Before it Breaks (2015) the Ned Kelly Award for best Australian crime fiction. His last novel Clear to the Horizon features the lead characters from both these books. Dave Warner originally came to national prominence with his gold album Mug’s Game, and his band Dave Warner’s from the Suburbs. In 2017 he released his tenth album When. He has been named a Western Australian State Living Treasure and has been inducted into the WAMi Rock’n’Roll of Renown.
Tell us about River of Salt.
I have always been fascinated by stories of brothers in organised crime stories – The Godfather, On The Waterfront and the biggest influence on this novel, a short story called The Brothers Rico. If a character has to forsake or betray a family member, it sets up a very powerful story engine, and gives the character a long way to travel which is good for the reader.
In my book, Blake a young hit man hears the sound of a surf guitar record and it entrances him and makes him want to learn guitar and surf and be as far away from where he is. He aims for California but winds up in Australia. But even though he finds a new Eden, he learns human nature can’t be confined to good in one place and bad in another. Even in Eden there are snakes.
What inspired the story?
The surf music came first, it was the whole inspiration. My guitarist Martin Cilia, Australia’s premier surf guitarist, had joined the original Atlantics and some years ago was doing a gig down in a small bar in Manly – The Boatshed – a venue that has a kind of 60s vibe about it.
As I watched the band, and as I listened I started buzzing on the whole idea of a TV series or book set in the early 60s – the years of my youth – but with a coastal feel, watusi dances, surfing and so on. I remembered black-and-white TVs with lopsided screens, men with Caesar haircuts and kids playing in rumpus rooms, pogo sticks. I wasn’t sure whether it should be a comedy or drama, but then I went to what I know best and thought, why not a murder mystery?
I loved writing this book. It was not heavily structured before I began, just a basic skeleton, but the characters, even the local corrupt cop, whispered in my ear as I was writing them and I sat back and let them take me to surprising places. I will also say this was made easier by the fact that setting the story in the 60s meant there was a lot less police procedural I had to worry about like traffic cameras and DNA, and that frees up a writer to spend time with his characters.
Your lead character Blake is a cold-hearted killer, but he is very likeable. Why?
While Blake is an efficient killer, I don’t think he’s cold-hearted. He steels himself to do what he does, but he doesn’t want to do it, he just doesn’t know how to get away from it. Circumstances conspire to offer him that way, but they come with a price, and that price is being constantly aware of the blackness of where he has come from. Blake may be a killer, but he is an honourable and caring person in his day-to-day relationships with people, and he never seeks to pretty up or excuse his deeds. But he is prepared to risk everything, including his own life, to protect innocent people, and that is why we like him.
The important thing with Blake is that he never shirks the moral responsibility. There are loads of reasons that he winds up as a young hitman but he never excuses himself and knows he should have done a harder job, a more noble job. But he is very good at what he does. Yet still, he wants to escape this – he recognises his and wants to change it, even if it is too late to save him. The next thing is that he tries to be a decent person, he treats those who are weaker than him with respect and love, he is loyal too.
Importantly he does change, there is a moment later in the novel where he decides he will not kill somebody simply to protect his identity. In the end the old biblical line “greater love hath no man than he lays down his life for his friend” applies to Blake.
Your female characters must be some of the most likeable in Aussie crime fiction to date, and they play a major role in the book. Why have you included such a strong supporting cast of women?
I didn’t set out to write ‘strong’ women characters any more than I set out to write strong male characters, I just try to construct characters with humanity and surprising secret places in their innermost thoughts. If this means the characters are strong then perhaps it is because I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by strong women in my life as I grew up, and by that I don’t mean women who scaled political heights or took charge of their lives the way you see in so many TV dramas and films these days. In that period, the 60s, this just wasn’t the case and those shows that paint those pictures are mostly a sham. But characters who are resilient even though they are vulnerable I find very appealing, and I think that’s what my main females are in the book – resilient.
What are your tips for aspiring writers?
I would say, read widely, especially crime. Ask what it is about a certain book you really like, and see how the writer is bringing this about. It might be actual technique in the style or it might be more related to their ear for language used by characters. Find out what you are good at and retain those elements even if the stories vary greatly. For mystery and thriller writers you have to work hard on plot. Every course you will hear at Uni and so on will be about character but character is only fifty percent of a good crime story. Plot is the uncool, the fat cousin nobody wants to associate with but plot is what hooks the reader.
Can you surf?
No. In my day as a teenager, you could either play in a band or surf, but definitely not both. Brian Wilson never surfed and he is the greatest songwriter of his generation.