The idea for writing my debut outback noir crime novel The Stoning was hatched in a one-bedroom flat in West Hampstead at about four in the afternoon on a wintry Tuesday in late 2014. It was already dark outside. For a writer from Australia who’d never seen the sun go down that early and thought to write about a scorchingly hot outback town, it made for an interesting contrast. But perhaps that was precisely why the idea came to me – the mild feeling of homesickness and the need to escape congested Central London. Never underestimate the power of yearning.
I was working at Imperial College at the time and had been accepted into the Master of Arts (MA) program in Creative Writing at City, University of London. They had two streams: literary and crime thriller. I’d had an idea for a thriller novel percolating for a while, had tried to map out the entire story and even written the first chapter. But for some reason, it wasn’t quite working. So I ended up at home with my wife on a Tuesday afternoon brainstorming ideas. We both have law degrees: she worked in human rights and immigration, while my expertise was criminal law.
With this as background – the desire for space and isolation, for sun and heat, and with the backdrop of human rights and migrants and asylum seekers and crime – the idea for The Stoning began to crystallise. A small mythical town with no specific geographic location so that readers could potentially picture it in their own backyards. A largely white township, tensions with the Aboriginal community, and an immigration detention centre plonked on the outskirts to stimulate the local economy. As the child of migrants and grandchild of refugees, the treatment of ‘new arrivals’ is a topic close to my heart. The book blossomed in my mind. And then, without thinking, I blurted out:
‘Well, what if someone was stoned to death?’
The Stoning is actually the third book I’ve written. The first was a memoir about my international adoption as a baby in 1974; it was published in 2019 by Salt in the UK and by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). The second was a fiction thriller about a road trip through the Australian outback; it is yet to see the light of day, but it did help hone my writing skills for The Stoning. I was awarded a Distinction grade for my MA when I submitted the manuscript in 2017.
In discussing Australia’s treatment of new arrivals, I knew I needed to be true to the nation’s original inhabitants. To do so, the book needed the voice of a First Nations character. So I created Constable Andrew ‘Sparrow’ Smith, who became the main secondary character to Detective Sergeant George Manolis, the novel’s protagonist. Writing Manolis was relatively easy: he was Greek-Australian, like me. But I knew that writing Sparrow would be harder, and that I needed to properly research all aspects of his character.
I had attempted to write a First Nations character in my thriller, but had been talked out of it at the time by a (non-Indigenous) writing colleague. ‘Don’t do it,’ they told me. ‘It’s too hard, too complicated and too fraught. Too many writers have tried and failed.’ At the time, I listened to their advice. But I knew I couldn’t do it in The Stoning – for a book exploring culture and race and migration, it absolutely needed the voice of an Indigenous Australian to provide perspective and be true.
To research Sparrow’s character, I read widely, both fiction and nonfiction. I also consulted the Australia Council’s Protocols for Producing Indigenous Australian Writing and Screen Australia’s Pathways & Protocols: A filmmaker’s guide to working with Indigenous people, culture and concepts. But I also had the manuscript read by sensitivity readers representing the Indigenous writing community. They are acknowledged in The Stoning, along with representatives of the asylum seeker community who also read the manuscript. As another vulnerable and marginalised peoples, their insights into my characters and story were as equally important to me.
As a crime writer, I am especially inspired by the late Peter Temple, who died in 2018. He was the first Australian crime writer to win the Gold Dagger in 2007 for The Broken Shore. In a first for a crime novel, Temple’s Truth then won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2010. The name of my deuteragonist Sparrow is actually an intentional doff of the cap to Temple and his own Indigenous cop named Paul Dove.
Through my London-based agent, The Stoning was first submitted to about ten UK publishers in 2018, but was rejected. I then further edited and polished while I published my memoir in 2019. In 2020, my new literary agent based in Germany decided to send The Stoning out for a new round of submissions and Transit Lounge, a Melbourne-based independent publisher, pounced. They hadn’t typically published much crime fiction before, but appreciated that The Stoning was more than a simple whodunit. A whodunit thread can help propel a plot, but mine was designed as a springboard to launch into an exploration of characters and their worlds. A few months later, the UK’s MacLehose Press acquired world rights, excluding ANZ and US. Simultaneous publication was scheduled for October 2021 in Australia and the UK. And then, crime publisher Polar Verlag bought German rights for 2022.
I’m thrilled that The Stoning is finding a global audience seven years after I first began the project. But I also know I’m taking a bit of a risk with writing and publishing this book. It is designed as a book that speaks to the world from the island continent down under, and the depths of its vast and ruthless outback. It touches on many hot-button issues within society that can be both controversial and divisive. I credit the distance away from Australia as giving me the clarity and headspace to write boldly and without apology. This is not a story of which Australia will be proud, but which I feel must be told.
(c) Peter Papathanasiou
The Stoning is published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books.
About The Stoning:
A small town in outback Australia wakes to an appalling crime.
A local schoolteacher is found taped to a tree and stoned to death. Suspicion instantly falls on the refugees at the new detention centre on Cobb’s northern outskirts. Tensions are high, between whites and the local indigenous community, between immigrants and the townies.
Still mourning the recent death of his father, Detective Sergeant George Manolis returns to his childhood hometown to investigate. Within minutes of his arrival, it’s clear that Cobb is not the same place he left. Once it thrived, but now it’s a poor and derelict dusthole, with the local police chief it deserves. And as Manolis negotiates his new colleagues’ antagonism, and the simmering anger of a community destroyed by alcohol and drugs, the ghosts of his past begin to flicker to life.
Vivid, pacy and almost dangerously atmospheric, The Stoning is the first in a new series of outback noir featuring DS Manolis, himself an outsider, and a good man in a world gone to hell.
Order your copy online here.