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Cairo by Chris Womersley Q&A: 23 March, 2017

"The warmth of Womersley’s writing allows for such interplay between fiction and reality: real-world references do not feel contrived; rather, they’re satisfying and authentic, bringing the reader in closer to Tom’s close-knit cohort. Cairo is smart, thrilling and extremely well written – a fantastic read." – Alan Vaarwerk

Chris Womersley is the author of the novels Cairo, Bereft and The low road, as well as numerous short stories and occasional reviews and essays. Cairo was long-listed for the Dublin/IMPAC Award. Bereft won the Indie Award for Best Fiction, the ABIA Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and The Gold Dagger Award for International Crime Fiction. The low road won the Ned Kelly Award. His fourth novel, City of crows, will be published in September 2017. Chris lives in Melbourne.

Chris will join us for a Q&A on Thursday, 23 March between 8 and 9pm. Please leave any questions you have below. (And discuss his writing at your leisure!)

Want to buy Cairo? Receive 10% off when purchasing it from Readings at State Library Victoria. To receive the discount online, enter the promo code BOOKCLUB in the promo code box during online checkout. To receive the discount at our State Library bookshop, simply mention the Thursday night book club at the counter.

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Hi Chris,

One of the real highlights of Cairo for me was just how tight the plotting was—details that seem like nice character building moments become great plot points way down the track. I distinctly remember thinking "Oh that was clever..." a few times as I approached the end of the book.

How did you go about laying out your plot and working in those points? How detailed was your planning (assuming you planned it at all)?

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Hi Cory. Thanks for thinking I'm clever! The truth is that I'm a terrible plotter and often it's a matter of retro-fitting scenes and chapters to accord with the rising action of the narrative. I usually have a loose idea of the arc of the narrative but make the specifics up as I go along. Which is a shame because I suspect it would be much easier to plot in advance...

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👋🏼 Chris, Cairo has a strong sense of place, how did you go about your research to help you really evoke 1980s Melbourne?

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Thanks, Sarah. The plain truth of that is that I was exactly Tom Button's age in 1986 (I'm almost an old man), so research was a matter of recalling certain things. I was also aware that the novel is one man's recollecion of events through slightly rose-coloured glasses, so accuracy is always patchy. As for the details fo the theft, a lot of the research was in reading media accounts of the weeks in which the painting was missing to ensure the timelines and so on were as accurate as possible and the theft was as plausible as possible. Plus I listened to a lot of nostalgic songs from my teenaged years. New Order, Nick Cave, Beasts of Bourbon...

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The big question Chris... the Weeping Woman, fake or fortune???

Also, any tips on writing crime fiction?

Loved Cairo 👏🏼

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Hi Eoin. So pleased you enjoyed Cairo. Thanks so much. I think the Weeping Woman at NGV is probably the legit version, but you never know....
As for writing crime fiction. Hmm. My work always starts with characters and wondering what would put them under the greatest stress. The stakes need to be high. You don't have to start at the beginning - rather, write the scene that is probably lurking in your head somewhere and work out from there. That way you can try capture the voice of the work. Good luck!

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Hi there - we’d love to hear your answers to these questions which are particularly interesting to writers on Tablo - there's a few so much appreciated!

- All of your books are utterly different and compelling. Is it difficult to keep coming up with stories and then decide on the ones you want to follow through?

-   With Cairo, did the idea for the story come first and dictate the style?

- I also loved your earlier novel Bereft and thought a review saying it was 'gothic, crime, ghost, thriller' was a great description - but more generally classifications can be loaded (and dictate so much). Have you ever disagreed with your publisher in terms of the way your books are classified?

- You’ve been published elsewhere in the world including France – do you find readers in other countries respond differently to your books?

- What advice would you give a new writer? Anything to do or not to do?

- Is there anything a writer can do her/himself to help promote and market their books?

- Who are some of your favourite writers you’ve learnt the most from (and what)?

Many thanks kind sir + can't wait for the new book!

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Hi Jemma. There are threads common to all my novels, I think, but it's true they tend to veer all over the place. Basially, one of the pleasures of being a novelist is in finding something in which to be interested and following my nose until a story emerges, Spanish Flu, art forgery, witchcraft. That said, there's often a long period of reading and pondering before I'm almost forced to stop procrastinating and get down to writing. There's often a lengthy period of trying to figure out what *kind* of book I want to write stylistically - in terms of mood and feel and tone. With Cairo, I knew I wanted to write a sort of romantic coming-of-age style piece and that, in turn, dictated the period and then the story followed on from that.

I've never really worried too much about the ways in which the books are classified, to be honest but you're right in saying they can be loaded. I think that often the best books are hybrid creatures anyway. As a writer I'm something of a magpie and willing to borrow anything from anywhere if I feel it might work for the book in question.

Yes, I have a few readers in France and, particularly with Bereft, the French were astounded that Australians fought in WWI! For many of them, Australia is quite a mysterious country. The French, as you know, take literature pretty seriously and it's certainly great to have a readership there.

As for advice. It's always tricky and depends on the person. Read a lot and widely is always the first thing. Keep a notebook. Jot down words or conversations or incidents that interest you. Stories are everywhere when you refine your antenna. Rather than seeking to emulate writers you admire, try and figure out what they evoke in you that you, in turn, might try to evoke in a reader - whether it's fear or compassion or sorrow. I love a lot of different writers and have had crushes on writers from Marguerite Duras to Anthony Powell.

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