The characters are so believable, so recognisable that as a reader you can’t help but quietly think, ‘he knows these people!’ Bryan laughs at the suggestion – it’s something he’s heard a few times already.
‘I was shooting on the Gold Coast before Christmas, and my understudy was an ex-cop. He read the book and he told me some of his mates, also cops, said, “How does Bryan know this stuff!”
‘Boys will be Killers was inspired by two young blokes I’d see when I was surfing in Cronulla as a kid. They always wore pretty cool jackets and they’d knocked these off from the local Surf Dive n Ski shop. I imagined what might have happened to them and I wrote that down. So the stories are based on little moments I experienced, or that I imagined.’
Aside from the fact that this particular story travels to Gosford, Avoca and Wamberal (as well as Cronulla), you didn’t have to do too much research to draw the characters?
‘I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, and I loved playing in the swamps, going to the movies on Saturdays, climbing on buildings to get pigeons, all that stuff. But I also saw there were lots of opportunities to get into trouble. You know, knocking off an orange from the local greengrocer when he wasn’t looking might have been a bit of fun. But then, knocking off a lawnmower when the owner was away … there was a fine line between what may have been a bit of fun or something that led to a terrible place. I saw choices.’
Has he secretly been honing his writing skills over the years and putting his stories in a bottom drawer until now?
‘I started Nightmare 40 years ago as a pitch for a movie in the US. It was never made, but when I was putting these stories together, I went back to it and I thought it was still really relevant.
‘The idea for A Time to Do started when I was watching TV one night and there was a segment on people in Hong Kong who were all aged over 60 years and they’d been caught as drug couriers but they hadn’t known what they were carrying. And I thought, if that was me, I’d want to know who was behind this – so I started imaging how I’d do that, and then I just kept going. When I was at 7,000 words I showed it to Matilda, my daughter, and she liked it and encouraged me to keep going. Then Jennifer Byrne [former publisher and host of the ABC TV program, The Book Club] said, “why don’t you write some more”.’
Acting is a very public activity, whereas writing is so solitary, and I tell Bryan that I imagine him in his study pacing the floor, taking on his characters’ voices, and maybe dictating the words instead of typing them straight into a computer.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I sit at my desk and type it all on the computer, and just go for it. I trust my instincts. I’m definitely not a planner. I have no idea where the story is going, or what the next letter or next word is going to be. It just evolves as I imagine what is happening.’
Bryan’s writing in the first couple of stories in Sweet Jimmy is fast-paced and doesn’t get waylaid by lengthy descriptive passages. In the later stories, he cleverly slows the pace (not too much) and the insights into the characters are more considered.
‘When I started writing Vigilante, all I had was the name, “Ahmed”,’ Bryan says. ‘I had no clue who he was, or what he was going to do. Just a character called Ahmed. He was a more thoughtful character than, say Johnny and Jimmy in Boys will be Killers, so the piece lends itself to a more layered approach, to explore the core of the story.’
Does he find writing easy, and how does it compare to acting?
‘As an actor, my job is to sell a story and to do that I have to be so natural, so truthful – exactly the same when you are writing – it’s just another way of telling a story.
‘I find writing easy for a certain amount of time as the story flows. I write for about one to two hours, and not every day. Sometimes I write four days in a row, other times not for three weeks. I’m working on a novel now, researching and finding out about the backgrounds to the people. I got to 7,000 words and then stopped for five months.’
It wasn’t until Bryan became involved in acting that he became at all interested in reading.
‘When I was 21 I came across amateur theatre and I had to read scripts – John Osborne’s and Peter Nichols’ plays – they opened up my world in a big way. Then later I started reading Lolita, Look Back in Anger, Kate Grenville.’
Having disliked English at school – studying Shakespeare and English literature that he couldn’t relate to – what would his English teacher have thought about Bryan becoming an author?
‘He would have said, “not fair”! In fact, that’s exactly what he said when I got an A in English in the Leaving Certificate (I knew how to pass exams)!’
Bryan Brown appeared at the Words on the Waves Writers’ Festival at Umina.
WORDS CATHARINE RETTER