Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Toni Johnson-Woods on Carter Brown

I interviewed the Australian scholar Toni Johnson-Woods about her book project on Australian paperback crime fictioneer, Carter Brown. I posted the interview in Finnish here, here are the Q&A. Toni's blog on Aussie pulp fiction is here.

Just what are you doing regards to Carter Brown?

Carter Brown is part of a larger project of mine. In 2007 I received a grant from the Australian Research Council to document the spread of Australian “popular” (more often called pulp) fiction of the 1950s throughout the world. Carter Brown was one of the most widespread authors. Carter Brown is really Alan Geoffrey Yates who wrote nearly 300 books as Carter Brown between 1951 and 1985.
What got you attracted to Carter Brown in the first place?

Carter Brown is the person about whom I talk the most because he is probably the best known of all Australian writers. It started, as most research projects do, from a very simple question – who is Australia’s most *popular* author…my colleagues at the University of Queensland and I were having a cup of tea asking this question. Someone said “Carter Brown”. I’d never heard of him so I went to our national library and discovered that he’d written nearly 300 novels. After ten years of studying Australian literature I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard his name mentioned once. Then I dug a little deeper and found dozens of Australian writers had written thousands of books in the 1950s — romances, westerns, and crime. And yet not one academic in Australia had investigated them more fully. So I decided it was time for the academy to get a bit of a wakeup call.

What's interesting about Brown to modern readers? Does he still hold up?

He is of interest to readers because his stories are so representative of the time in which they were written. The language, fashions, technology, consumerism, representations of women, women and sex are all snapshots into the various decades. For instance, the earliest stories are very hardboiled and reflect the James Hadley Chase style of fiction – mean streets, political corruption and dangerous dames. Later the stories are much more light-hearted and poke fun at the “heroes”. The final stories are pretty much sex and sadism. I prefer the light-hearted funny ones and they still are amusing.

Why was he so popular around the world?

I think it was the funny Carter Browns who amused people all over the world. It seems that some humour does transcend national boundaries. My favourite character is Mavis Seidlitz who is a ditzy blonde – she
is like a detective Lucille Ball. I think his steady stream of fiction meant that a publisher could rely on a new title every
month to fill the bookshelves and so maybe it was just because he was there.

How could he be so prolific?

Yates never owned the name “Carter Brown” – it was owned by the publisher Horwitz. So when the owner Stanley Horwitz sold the licence for Carter Brown to Signet in the USA, he signed at 10 books a year deal. So if Yates wanted to earn money he had to supply those ten books. It was a harrowing deal—as often Yates was writing a current book, editing his last book and plotting his next one. He confessed that he took Dexedrine (which was legal then) and would write the whole book in 48 hours. The book then was edited by the Sydney offices of Horwitz, they sent the edited version to the USA where their editorial team fixed mistakes and then the manuscript was sent back to Australia for approval. Can you image the pressure? So from 1957 – 1985 he was writing between 6 and 10 books a year. Most of the earlier “books” were really short – about 34 pages -- and he wrote two of those a month.
I spoke with Yates’ widow last year and she said he didn’t even have a full collection of his books. So I’m unsure if there is a complete collection anywhere in the world. Even the Australian National Library, our legal repository, does not have all of his books.

What can you tell us about your research about Brown in Finland? Did you find any explanation why there was so much of Australian stuff published here?

I was in Finland to present a paper on Carter Brown at the annual SHARP conference. I focused on my findings in Nordic countries; earlier this year I was in Copenhagen and Oslo (I didn’t have time to visit Sweden). I spent the first week in the Finnish National Library; and I spent some time with some enthusiastic collectors. Finland has a unique relationship with Carter Brown because it was the FIRST overseas country to translate him—between 1957 and 1985 Finland published 140 Carter Browns…second only to France (222 books). Finland also has different covers to those in Denmark, Norway and Sweden: it reused the Australian covers. This suggests that Finland had an agreement with Horwitz (the Australian publisher) and not with Signet (the US publisher). Why or how this happened is still unknown. Unfortunately the Horwitz archives are not available and the company was sold last year so we
will probably never know.

Any interesting anecdotes you can share about CB?

Australia’s popular crime writer Peter Corris tells how he used to steal Carter Browns from his local newsagency. He says Carter Brown influenced his writing style. Mickey Spillane trashed Carter Brown on American television once – apparently Spillane had been drinking and Yates found it amusing. Yates had been writing about the USA for half a dozen years before he finally visited there. He was very popular in Japan – and his Japanese covers are the most beautiful of all I think. His material was turned into two French films (both are pretty ordinary). Richard O’Brien of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame has written a musical, The Stripper, based on the CB book of the same name. It is supposed to be playing in the UK at the moment.

You've read some other Australian writers and I've understood they are pretty bad compared to Carter Brown. Is this true?

Yes. Because CB was so successful a rival publishing company started Larry Kent. Kent lacks the humour of CB. He is just a little too violent for my taste. Marc Brody’s stories are just poorly written and an effort to read. Carl Dekker has an interesting “hook” each story is written in a different location – again, the writing is pretty poor. The best of the ‘second’ string CB is K T McCall – the author is supposed to be the girlfriend of Johnny Buchanan, but really the series was written by two women.

Could you name some other interesting Australian writers?

I believe that Australian Peter Temple is one of the leading crime fiction writers in the world today. But as to the fiction of the 1950s – I find myself more engaged by the westerns—Marshall Grover, Emerson Dodge…there are dozens of them. I think I’ve read way too many crime fiction novels and so I find

Why was there so much pulp and paperback publishing in Australia? Could you share some of that history?

In 1939 the Australian government imposed taxes on non-essential imports such as books. After the war was finished the taxes were not lifted and so Sydney publishers found a gap in the book market. Previously the majority of cheap fiction had come from America – Australia hadn’t developed its own publishing ethos. Suddenly there was a ready market for cheap fiction – these publishers desperately looked for authors who could write genre fiction (romances, westerns, crime, science fiction) quickly. They wanted to fill the stands at railways with reading material each month. As there weren’t that many experienced writers, the publishers asked all sorts of people to write. The result was that anyone who could provide enough words got published – hence the poor quality of some of the material. Still it provided extra income for railway workers, accountants, teachers and those willing to spend their weekends writing at their kitchen table. Many of the writers I interviewed admitted that they wanted the extra money to buy a house. It was the post-World War Two boom in Australia.

What's next after your CB book is completed? More Australian pulp?

After I’ve finished the CB book (which has taken me about three years) I am going to publish a complete list of all of the Australian authors and editions I have found—that should be a couple of volumes. At least that’s what I hope. My next big project is to trace all the Australian westerns published around the world. Western fiction is the least researched of all ‘pulp’ fictions.

The pictures are Finnish editions of Carter Browns, the latter two are with original Australian covers.


paddywack said...

Dear Toni
we collect carter brown and I have a list of 290 books and date published
plus 13 omnibus books and still books come up on Ebuy that are not on my list. do you have the full list? i would love it.
conincidenly the granddaughter of the horwitz publisher lives in our town and I happen to know her.


paddywack said...

is there a full list of his book. i have a list that i got from the net a few years ago there is 290 book on it and 13 omnibus books.my husband and i collect them and book still not on my list still come available,who knows how many are out there don't think i will be able to find them in my life time
cheers kath