The Godfather: Peter Corris on where ideas come from
‘Where do your ideas come from?’ is a question often put to authors, especially crime writers. When I was busy at the trade I tended to fob it off with answers about my imagination and picking up on things I’d overheard when I was a journalist or listened to on radio or seen on television.
There is, of course, much more to it than that and now that I’m in retirement I’ve thought about a more considered response because people seem to be interested.
My first detective novel, The Dying Trade (1980), was simply an exercise in trying to write the kind of hard-boiled detective novel I admired from Chandler, Hammett and Ross Macdonald. I piled everything in – a missing person, corrupt cops, sex and violence. The next, White Meat (1981), derived from my knowledge of boxing and the research I’d done for my history of prize-fighting in Australia, Lords of the Ring (1980). I’d been to many fights and talked to boxers in gyms and pubs. I knew how it all worked. The third, The Marvellous Boy (1982) came about because I wanted to write a little about Canberra, where I’d spent years as a post-graduate student and academic.
After that the books came thick and fast – including the novels and the short stories, I calculate that Cliff Hardy must have dealt with about a hundred cases – and I forget the genesis and the plots of most of them. But a few are clear in my memory.
The only short story I can remember the spark for is ‘The luck of Clem Carter’ in the collection Heroin Annie (1984). I’d been captivated by the opening line of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926): ‘Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.’ I thought it would be interesting to imitate it and see if anyone noticed. From memory (I don’t have a copy of the book to hand) my lines were: ‘Clem Carter was the welterweight boxing champion of the Maroubra Police Citizens Boys Club. The title didn’t mean much to most people but it did to me because he beat me for it.’ The story, one of my best I think, was about mateship. No one ever noticed my homage.
Wet Graves (1991) was inspired by a passage in Peter Spearritt’s book Sydney Since the Twenties (1978), which gave an account of the people killed in the construction of the Harbour Bridge. Their bodies were recovered but it occurred to me that there might still be undiscovered corpses under the bridge and I built up a story to develop the thought.
The Greenwich Apartments (1986) had its beginning in my friend Bill Garner’s account of renting a supposedly empty flat and finding a suitcase under a bed containing, I think, photographs. I changed the photos to video cassettes and that set the story in motion.
Torn Apart (2010) gestated for many years. When I was at university I got a letter from a friend in Sydney enclosing a clipping from a Sydney newspaper. It showed a student demonstration at the Melbourne University campus and the head and shoulders of one student was circled. My friend commented on my participation. But, although the photograph looked exactly like me – the height and build, the hair, the expression, even the clothes – I’d been nowhere near the demo. The idea of a doppelgänger stayed with me for decades until I incorporated it into Torn Apart, providing Hardy with a lookalike.
Apart from Sydney locations, places where I’ve lived or visited were quite often the stimuli for stories – the south coast of New South Wales, the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island. If I racked my brains I could probably come up with some other triggers but this is enough to make the point that it didn’t take much to set me off.