Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is “an electrifying contemporary detective thriller” that “explores Europe’s simmering anti-Muslim sentiments” in the aftermath of a bus bomb, writes Australian reviewer Fiona Hardy. She spoke to the author.
Hardy: Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is set in Calais and England. What compelled you to set your book in Europe instead of Australia?
Marchetta: I really needed the English Channel because of the short distance between two countries and the fact that, on a good day, you can see all the way across. An image from my childhood bible was of Moses sitting on a rock looking across to a land in the close distance. He’d been instructed to lead his people to the Promised Land, but as a punishment, he knew he’d never reach it himself. So the first mental image I had for this novel was of Jamal Sarraf looking across the channel towards Dover, knowing he’d never be permitted to return to his homeland.
Another reason I set it overseas was because of the Australian character Violette. I wanted her “Australianness” to stand out. I wanted her journey to be epic. I’ve referred to the difference between a trip and a journey in a previous novel. Violette doesn’t go on a trip from the country to the city, or from one town to the next. She goes on a journey to the other side of the world, and only one person knows why. There are many characters in this novel, and I had to distinguish Violette from the rest.
Hardy: Your books frequently depict racial tensions while revealing the humanity of those subjected to the media’s misplaced scrutiny. Do you deliberately set out to create these situations?
Marchetta: I don’t feel as if it was deliberate. It all comes down to characterization. I have this wonderfully strange relationship with my characters. When they nudge at my psyche, I allow them in, but they have to tell a pretty good story for me to let them stay. Of course, those stories are part of my family’s early days in this country, or they’re a combination of what I’ve witnessed, experienced and been a part of.
Australia is a paradox. It has embraced diversity, but scratch the surface and racism is there. We’ve seen it when a footy star and Australian of the Year walks onto an AFL ground and is booed, when badly behaved tennis stars are told by a respected Australian sportswoman to go back to the country of their parents’ birth, and it’s there in the rhetoric that comes from our politicians when speaking about refugees. Ultimately, I wanted to scratch the other surface, and explore what makes us stay human and united when acts of terror, and the media’s response to it, gather enough power to challenge our ideology.
Hardy: When writing a large cast of characters as you did in Tell the Truth, how do you make sure each character is interesting in their own right?
Marchetta: I know the backstory of every one of my characters. Most of the details don’t end up in the novel, but I need to know them inside out to be able to differentiate between them. The challenge is to be clear whose emotional journey you’re following from the beginning, and I knew this was Bish’s story. From that point on, every character in the novel is a contributor to his journey, and that’s where the challenge lies. One of my writing rules is that a piece of good dialogue should serve three purposes: contribute to the plot; tell us something about the character; and tell us something about the relationship between the characters. Sometimes it’s as easy as knowing enough about their backstory to give them a line or description that’s going to stick in the reader’s head.
Hardy: A lot of the story centers around misplaced first impressions of people. Do you feel this is something the modern world is frequently guilty of?
Marchetta: I’ve been guilty of misplaced first impressions many times, especially when I was teaching boys. So Bish as a character inherited such a vice. A few times in the novel, “common ground” is mentioned. Common ground isn’t the answer to combating conflict, but it provides an entry point, so that first impressions are challenged.
Hardy: Were there any particular books that nudged you towards writing a crime novel?
Marchetta: I’m a great fan of character-driven stories. I really loved Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, for her control over multiple perspectives, and the use of Jackson Brody’s past, which determines many of his actions. Joe Cashin from Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore is also one of my favourite protagonists. A short observation from him about orange juice in his fridge belongs to a show-not-tell master class.
Hardy: What was the last book you read and loved?
Marchetta: Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road.