Roland Perry – The Honourable Assassin – Podcast
Roland Perry is one of Australia’s best known authors and speaks to the Co-op Chat about his newest book, The Honourable Assassin.
He has written 28 books, many of them going on to become bestsellers, including The Queen, Her Lover and the Most Notorious Spy in History, Horrie the War Dog, Bill the Bastard, Bradman’s Invincibles, The Changi Brownlow, The Australian Light Horse and Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War. Weaving together a face-paced, all-too-real story The Honourable Assassin is part psychological thriller and part today’s headlines about massive illegal drug trafficking in Australia and corruption at the highest levels in South East Asia.
This is fiction, return to fiction. I got a kick start with fiction way back in ’79. I had a hardcover come out that didn’t sell very well. I think about 4000 in England, I was based there, and it took off in [inaudible 00:01:07] Bay absolutely ripping, literally 350, something like, that without translations. It allowed me to write, learn to write. Any one who is a good writer after one book is kidding themselves or the publicist pumped them up. Ask any pro who has been around a long time or has had around 4 books.
The next marker is that first book bought me time on the other 3 to get a voice. I don’t know anyone unless they’re a complete idiot, narcissist, arrogant so-and-so who ever says or thinks they’re good after their first book. It takes a while to get the voice and the confidence which come together. I was sort of on the track after 4 but that first fiction gave me that. I did a couple more fiction, one which was successful in commercial terms, the other one wasn’t.
Then I had a really good run on non fiction. Global one, Monash biography and so forth. Cricket and espionage, “Fifth Man” and all that. I just recently thought, I want to have another crack at fiction just to … If I’ve developed because if you don’t develop the muscle, if you don’t work the muscle it doesn’t happen. You learn a lot in the way through … I’ve probably done more biography than anyone in the country and you learn a lot about character, about the minimal use of dialogue. You know, don’t be too significant in asking how you are and if a dialogue starts with, “Hi, how are you doing today Rob?” “All right Roland”. You know that they can’t write and a lot of fiction writers today go along with it prepared.
You learn a bit on the non-fiction but I still had to work fiction so I went back to this one. Primarily because I have been travelling through South East Asia on several books, 4 or 5 books now. I’m travelling through Thailand quite a bit and a very mysterious country for many reasons. It’s exotic, it’s erotic, it’s mysterious in the sense of a closed society because of the now fecund junta generals running the country, literally a military dictatorship. You aren’t allowed to speak anything about the royal family and by association anyone representing, which means the military and several. The ruling party can use that, the ruling junta can use that any way they like.
The society is closed which adds to the mystery of the place and I like the Thais. I’ve got say I love the Thais and I also like the fact they’ve never been colonized. This adds several facets to the background of “The Honorable Assassin” which gives them a certain kudos in my mind because the French took one look at them, didn’t like them that much. The English did the same. The Japanese, they rolled over the Japanese and said, “We’re not fighting you” during World War II. The Japanese didn’t have a chance to colonize them. The Americans, after they’ve beaten the Japanese in World War II, said not interested. No minerals. Nothing out of the ground.
They’ve kept this identity. Music wise, cultural wise, language wise, which adds to the appeal. It’s very low key. They don’t push themselves up in that way at all, and it’s a beautiful country. The people are really very friendly on mass, and that’s a nice thing. I’ve based there writing a couple of books, in just a hotel, but writing a couple of books in a remote part of the northern part of Thailand. This book was coming to me all through that 7 or 8 year period, and finally I got around to writing it.
The thing about me as a writer is that I’m not Grisham, who has 25,000 legal cases to draw on for his writing, which is highly successful. I’m not a doctor who can draw on medical files. I have to go and do the hard yards and research every time I do a new genre and book, which is good. Good for the brain and good for the synapses going in new directions. In this case I had a fair feel for the country, having been there so many times for the last 8 years for other books and all the way through, and so forth, and the remote parts that people don’t get to. The parts that other people don’t touch. 3 pagoda pass, [inaudible 00:05:02], The Golden Triangle that everyone knows about. How many have done the full ride down the Mekong right down to Vietnam, which I’ve done, from the north. Laos near by, so I had a feel for the country in many respects, and that forms the background of the story.
Yes. Well, one of the backdrops of the story is what’s actually happening. They’ve got porous borders, but we Australia have just as porous borders in sense of drug movement. That attributed to the story, looking at the background to who’s doing the drug running, who are the big pins, how are they basing in the country, how are they getting in and out of Thailand and Australia and so forth. That’s the solid background, but I like writing [inaudible 00:06:12]. He knows what the inside of MI6 looks like, but you never hear him describe it. You have to get to the stage as an author to know the background of the story. Just little snipits. We’re not doing research. It’s not 40 ways to pick a lock, it’s not 34 side. It’s not non-fiction. You have to make the reader feel you know what’s going on. You should, doing the homework. That’s the other side of it, but the characters… I’ve got a male and female character that are equal in this story and that’s just the way it is. I haven’t planned it that way.
You’ve got to approach it in an entirely different way. It’s a narrative. You’re looking at character development. [inaudible 00:07:09] your way through a story, maybe psychological in this case, in a couple of instances, you’ve got to follow what’s being said as the reader, to understand the characters in depth. Dialog is important. It’s a big change from non-fiction. You can use dialog of course when you’re sourcing in non- fiction, but you have to edit it otherwise you’d be embarrassed people, just like you’d embarrass me if you didn’t edit this particular type, so forth, if you’re doing it down to 3 minutes. You have to find the essence in non-fiction, which helps the dialog when you move into fiction. It’s a different ballgame altogether. You have to have a different mindset, and because I’ve done 3 already, and this was a return to it. I knew the basic approach to it. The road map for it, if you like.
With the main character too, there were 2 characters, one female one male. The female was interesting, for me anyway because I’ve been inspired by the Millennium series, about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I thought that was the best character association in modern literature, in the last 30 years. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I use it for students when I’m talking about fiction writing. I thought, well I’ve got to do at least as well as that, but I can’t copy it. You cannot. There’s no point. It’s not plagiarism, but copying, and I wouldn’t do that. I thought how the hell, how the hell do I get something as good as that without doing the same sort of character or style, and I found it through the travels with Thailand. It was an epiphany. I thought I’ll go with that. It’s a bit outrageous but it’s worked. It’s worked because I know the publisher Allen & Unwin’s Sue Hines had read that. Being a woman and liking the development of females in fiction of course, she thought it worked. I’ll let other’s judge that, but that was my yardstick.
As for the main character, or the 2nd main character, the male, I used my own experience in many ways as a journalist there, and I’ve been in the business 47 years, primarily books, but I’ve done a bit of journalism and sided often that way. During that period, I had 3 or 4 agencies, spy agencies approach me for work.
Unlike Freddie Forsyth who owned up and said recently, which was a big headline, “Iwork for MI6”, Freddie worked for MI6, I never took an offer. I never took a plane ride, never took even a bus on one of the agencies , but I did have 5 offers. 1 when I was journalist for The Age in 1974, until I found out what this man represented. I was very tempted. He offered me 3 times the salary I was on with The Age. He was a PR man, he wouldn’t say what the companies were he was working for, and when he wouldn’t tell me I politely said “Well, I’m not going to be involved unless you tell me what I’m going to be in for.” It went on for about 6 months of him wooing me. Later I found out he was mixed up in representing the Noogan Hand Bank which was [inaudible 00:10:11]. I was very pleased I said no to that.
The CIA had another crack 20 years later. MI6, because I use to use then as a resource, as I might with politicians or anyone else. Finally getting information, they offered me work. Now, the reason I was popular, if you like, quote un-quote, was that I had access to Russia that they don’t have as a journalist and a writer. The Russians, of course, are watching you during that whole period, but you’re not representing a spy agency, unless you run into something, you run fowl of somebody, or you make a big error or you take a stupid risk, you’re not to get into trouble. I didn’t ever get into trouble.
The ASIO offered me work once. I’m a good friend, or a friend I’d say of the former head of ASIO, David Irvine. We sat on the same National Archive Advisory Council. Never offered me work. Never got near it. We were mates. This is recently, we’re friends on the advisory council. The one person I know well would never go near us, like your friend.
The KGB disappointed me greatly by not offering me work, because I was doing a lot with the old KGB, but they did say to me, this is a wonderful line I got from Yuri Ivonovich [inaudible 00:11:26], THE master spy, that is banded around stupidly by people. This man ran the [inaudible 00:11:32]. He said “I’m not giving you anything more than military intelli…, [inaudible 00:11:37] intelligence has already”. I said, “Yuri, that’s good enough for me, because that puts me ahead of the media pack”. My background in dealing with this dark world, the demimonde if you like, of espionage, is a wonderful vehicle for the writing.
I have another itch, the main character, which is in the story, and it’ll give too much away if I said what that was. There, I using my own. That’s the best way to do it. Use your own. If you have the experience, use it. That’s where I’m not far off of Grisham, because he’s had the background in law, so I can say write in espionage, I’ve dealt with these people. Another one who offered me work, by the way, was the DGSE. That’s French intelligence. I was dealing with a publisher in Paris who was connected, shall we say, with the DGSE. I was fascinated counting backwards and forwards from Russia too.
No, it’s the same principal as the Cold War. It’s a little more hidden. The Russians are highly active. The CIA is highly active, it’s got a massive budget. Putin is on the KGB list as a Colonel. He’s still a Colonel in the KGB and he takes it very seriously. It’s the only institution in Russia that’s expanded in the last, since democracy allegedly came in and the walls went down. Democracy hasn’t come in as we know it. He’s a dictator essentially. It’s ongoing. It’s spying just as heavily as ever. It’s just not as sexy. It’s not the Cold War, it’s not a confrontation with the West. We have a common enemy basically now in the extreme Islam. That’s going to be the main focus for a lot of people. Still, the west and the east are unfortunately still “at loggerheads”. There’s a lot of industrial spying, political spying, a massive amount. It’s just not safe for you to write about it. Doesn’t mean anything. In my books, it’s not about spying, it’s about an investigative journalist looking at things and searching for things.
At that stage I’d done 7 years tertiary, because I did it as a primer for journalism at Melbourne University as well, so I thought at being a producer rather than an academic or an intellectual I felt I had to get out. I was 26, even though I had full time work, I felt I had to get out. I’m not built for academia.
As it turned out, 30-40 years later, the vice-chancellor at Monash pulled me back in to act as a professor and to occasionally lecture to Ph.D’s and Doctorates on all aspects of writing and some aspects of Australian history. I’m just completing that this year. That was fun giving back. I’ve enjoyed that. They wouldn’t let me near the first year students which was a disappointment. I would’ve been a spare in the works for all of their progress because I would’ve taught real history not the theoretical and rubbish that they do teach unfortunately. It doesn’t give the real history of Australia in the last 100 years, but that’s another story. I didn’t mind. I was lecturing intelligent people, who were interested in writing, all aspects of writing, and also a bit of Australian history, World War I and II particularly.
I’ll just say too, my computer assistant said to me, don’t forget to mention the website. I’ve got to get use to this. Latecut.net will get to my website, and you’ll see a lot of the books. It’s not a payroll job. I occasionally write a feature, a long form feature, so if the brilliant students who are listening out there who want to read something other than the trite newspapers, I can give that. I occasionally do that. I enjoy the long form reading myself, and I love writing them, 3 or 4 thousand words rather than 800 words. So, there you go. Latecut.net, couldn’t be easier than that really, could it?