Viskic is midway through a trip to the US. It’s a junket for crime writers that she’s undertaken on the eve of the publication of the third in her Caleb Zelic series, Darkness For Light. All the titles have a biblical resonance: Resurrection Bay was the first, And Fire Came Down the second.
Viskic’s voice is calm and practical. She was a professional clarinettist for 20 years and specialised in chamber music, which is a conversation between voices with no managerial authority vested in a conductor.
“It’s very like creative writing. There is the analytical side and the fine detail, and the communication. For some writers and some musicians it’s all about the perfection of the idea and the clarity. For me, it’s about exploring emotions and how people communicate, and the way we are human beings.”
Viskic’s personal life is as complex as her books. She draws deeply on it without making her books feel like a masked first-person journey. Her father is Dalmatian, her mother Irish Australian from Tasmania. Viskic grew up just outside of Frankston, a very English environment then.
She says being half-Slav gave her an outsider status that honed her power of observation.
Her husband is Koori and they have two grown daughters. One of her primary school classmates was deaf and the disability – and particularly the refusal to accept it as a disability by the deaf community – has always intrigued her. She learned Auslan for the novels.
A life of words
Words have always loomed large, despite her swerve into music. She started writing as soon as she could read, she says. Last year, her father gave her a box of her writing that he’d kept in storage.
Her parents met backstage in the Sydney theatre scene. Both had left school before finishing but went back and on to university after she and her two siblings were born. Her mother became a teacher.
She remembers going for long walks with her father, helping him learn his lines. A strand of her early fascination with words, she thinks, was her father’s parents’ lack of English. And, as was common in those assimilationist days, she didn’t learn their language.
“My only grandparents and I couldn’t communicate with them,” she says. It’s more than an irony that her protagonist is deaf.
Caleb Zelic is a stroke of conceptual genius. “I wanted to take what was traditionally a really invincible character – a straight white man, fit and capable – and make him vulnerable,” she says. “So Caleb being deaf is a metaphor, but it makes for a more exciting story.”
Having so many Koori characters was also a leap of empathy. “Like Caleb, I’m a privileged outsider. I have married in and Uncle Jim Berg (a former CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and co-founder of the Koorie Heritage Trust) is my step-father-in-law.”
Writing from outside your own experience is dangerous, she says, “not just because people can shoot you down, but because you can do the wrong thing by people. But I wanted my nieces and nephews to have characters like them in a book. And also, it would have felt cowardly not to have done it”.
Darkness for Light is published by Allen & Unwin at $29.99.