Location spotting for my next novel at Manly Beach

Manly, Sydney’s favourite seaside suburb, sits on its own peninsula with a harbour on one side and a surf beach on the other. The Victorian Gothic splendour of St Patrick’s Seminary looks down on an architectural mishmash of styles ranging through Art Deco to Federation to concrete brutal to plain eccentric.

Thousands of jolly day visitors munch their way along the Corso from the ferry wharf to the beach, oblivious to the alleys and dark corners behind the tourist strip. On hot summer nights when the family groups have gone home, the partygoers, boozers and out-of-town revellers take over.

Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020 opened up corners of Manly I’d barely noticed. Hordes of joggers and cyclists – out for their one hour of exercise – forced me off the seafront into empty backs streets for my daily constitutional. But soon my meditative walks turned into location spotting for the novel I’m currently writing.

The Impeccables is set in Manly in 1978. Why? Well, the previous book in the series Bury me in Valletta ended with the main character Pierre Farag being exiled to Australia in 1975. I needed him to settle down for few years before he finds himself unwillingly involved with a clandestine right-wing group that aims to blow up the Opera House and stage a coup.

And I love a writing challenge: I couldn’t resist the idea of reconstructing the look and feel of the town where I came to live in 1978 – an era before iPhones and credit cards, when the seafront was lined with pre-war brown brick blocks of flats rather than swish seafront apartments.

I installed Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a run-down rented house. It’s in a made-up street called Rialto Close ‘in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach.’ The name Rialto harks back to a former cinema in the Corso. The site is now occupied by a small shopping arcade, commemorated by the unglamorous Rialto Lane. My Rialto Close could be in any of half a dozen locations around the town, but wherever it is you’d probably spot a dumped sofa.

Meanwhile, I’ve been honing my skills in book design. Right now, you can get a paperback of Bury me in Valletta through Amazon in the US, but there’s a big freight charge and a long wait for Australian readers. So, I’ve produced an additional paperback version with Ingram Spark, which will be accessible through thousands of bookshops and libraries around the world. I was thrilled to receive the proof copy – excellent production values, and the interior all designed by me. I incorporated the lovely cover designed by Rachel Ainge for the ebook. This version will be on sale from December 1 2020.

Here’s a great Smashwords review of Bury me in Valletta from a reader in Scotland: ‘Gripping from beginning to the end. Brilliant book and great sequel to Cairo Mon Amour. When is the next book of Pierre Farag, Stuart?

Finally, all my books are going off discount this week except for Ash on the Tongue, which is now free on Smashwords here. The Impeccables will be released early in 2021

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Walking back to 1978 in Manly’s back lanes

If you look hard enough, lockdown has its upsides. Here in Manly, my daily exercise walk takes me around quaint back streets I’d never normally go to. The glorious beachfront is too crowded for safety, even if the walkers are in singles or pairs as prescribed by the Public Health (COVID-19) Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.

The other upside of being locked down is the extra time I have for writing. After completing my socially isolated morning schedule (news, balcony exercises, daily deep cleaning project, family and work Zoom sessions, walk) I get to spend a fair chunk of the afternoon working on my next novel.

Now, here’s a nice confluence of things: This novel (working title The Impeccables) is set in Manly in 1978, and when I walk the quiet back streets my town looks pretty much as it did in the late seventies when I first lived here.

I have a habit of ‘prewriting’ a lot of my work while I’m walking, so I stroll around the empty lanes immersed in the story, and recalling fragments of life in 1978 Manly that I can weave into the setting. These are some of the things that came back to me yesterday:

  • water beds
  • rented black and white TVs
  • improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
  • joss sticks
  • KB beer

Yesterday I discovered this ingenious mural* on the back wall of the Salvation Army premises in Kangaroo Lane, and I returned this afternoon to take more photographs of this forgotten corner of my town. I’ve printed the picture in monochrome in sympathy with the fact there were still plenty of black and white TVs in the late seventies. It’ll feature somewhere in the new novel.

Here’s the draft opening of The Impeccables:

Pierre Farag was woken by a thump and a clatter. He took his hand out of the sheets to touch the wall of the tiny ground-floor flat. Their rented home was in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The bedroom wall was still warm. It would be this way until March, when autumn released Sydney from the ravaging summer heat. 

He padded out to the front yard. The Sun Herald – the New Year’s Day 1978 edition – lay on the doormat where it had bounced off the flyscreen. The paper van slewed around to serve the other side of Rialto Close, the driver steering with his left arm and lobbing the rolled-up papers into the front yards with his right.

Just give me a year and you’ll be able to read the whole thing!

Last thing: Thanks for all the wonderful feedback I’ve had for Bury me in Valletta. It makes the labour of writing into a pleasure.

*Update: A closer look at the mural shows that is signed by Manly artist Mark Budd and dated 09.