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‘Ice-pick-sharp, packed with intrigue, action and spine-chilling suspense. Devour will keep you gripped from the very first page’ Kathryn Fox

Larkin's Latest

Welcome to my blog, Larkin’s Latest. News on thriller authors and great books to read, the writing process and festivals, incredible people I interview and exciting story locations, courses I run, and things that make me laugh!

Chinese Censors Twist Arm of Reader’s Digest

June 12, 2014

From The Epoch Times, 3 April 2014 by Joshua Philipp.

Australian thriller novelist L.A. (Louisa) Larkin was working on her next novel on March 24, when the phone rang. On the line was a senior editor at Reader’s Digest, which was scheduled to print a condensed form of her last novel, “Thirst.”

The company that prints Reader’s Digest in China had stopped the presses, and demanded that Reader’s Digest remove references to Falun Gong and torture from Larkin’s work. Larkin was given two choices: censor her novel or lose the deal.
“I almost felt this was part of a story because it was so unexpected, and so unheard of,” Larkin said in a phone interview from her home in Sydney.
What was particularly concerning, she said, was that the edition being printed was not for China. It was for Reader’s Digest markets in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and India.
“This is about censoring extra-territoriality, and it is a way of controlling a world view of China, according to how China wants it to be,” Larkin said.
She refused to censor her work, and Reader’s Digest removed her novel from the edition.
A Reader’s Digest representative said it had no background on the issue. There was no immediate response from its Australia office.
Social Media Buzz
Twitter has been ablaze, however, with writers and authors around the world expressing their dismay.
Philip Patterson of Marjacq Scripts, Larkin’s agent, said authors have a clear reason for concern. He said in an email, “The implication for writers are that they then start asking their publisher or representatives, ‘Will my work be changed?’”
“I doubt any writer with an ounce of integrity would be a willing party to this,” Patterson said.
Larkin was told by Reader’s Digest it considered having the edition printed in Hong Kong instead, where it wouldn’t be subject to China’s censors. Doing so, however, would cost $30,000 more.
In the end, the $30,000 was more valuable to Reader’s Digest than preserving freedom of speech for its authors.
“What has happened here is that Reader’s Digest has used a Chinese printer, and they have pretty much told a very large American and international publisher what they can and cannot do, and I find that very worrying,” she said.
The mentions of Falun Gong and torture are only a small part of Larkin’s novel.
“Thirst,” which was published in 2012, is a thriller about a group of mercenaries who besiege a team of scientists at an Antarctic research station.
One of the characters trapped in the station is a Chinese-Australian named Wendy Woo. The character fled to Australia from China because her mother was arrested for practicing Falun Gong, and she later learned of the tortures her mother endured from Chinese authorities as a consequence of not renouncing her beliefs.
“If I submitted to China’s censorship and removed the references to Falun Gong, I’d feel I had betrayed my own beliefs, but also betrayed the character and her mother in the novel, and also what my readers expect of me,” Larkin said.
A Targeted Belief
Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese meditation practice that teaches adherents to live according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It has been violently persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1999.
Falun Gong is also among the five groups that have become the main focus of Chinese censors. The others are Tibetans, Uyghurs, Chinese democracy activists, and proponents of Taiwanese independence.
A 2013 report from Freedom House explains why the CCP focuses on these topics, stating, “These issues touch on some of the most egregious and systematic abuses taking place in China today, pointing to the CCP’s nervousness of regime violence being exposed, as well as the human costs of international silence.”
The report also warned that Chinese censors were trying to expand their censorship abroad—particularly on these topics. Cases range from the French satellite company Eutelsat cutting the signal of overseas Chinese television network New Tang Dynasty to “show a good gesture to the Chinese government,” to reports in November that Bloomberg News was self-censoring its articles to avoid angering Chinese authorities.
Larkin was told by Reader’s Digest that it had been pressured by China previously to censor a nonfiction work that mentioned Tibet.
She said, however, that the attempt to censor her work was the first she has heard of that applied to a work of fiction for distribution outside China’s borders—and she finds the implications deeply concerning.
Larkin said, “It shows the vulnerability to authors and publishers when they use a country where freedom of speech is not available.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Robertson.
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The Guardian 30 March 2014

How Reader’s Digest Became A Chinese Stooge by Nick Cohen in The Guardian

The notion that the formerly mighty American publisher Reader’s Digest would allow the Chinese Communist party to censor its novels would once have appeared so outrageous as to be unimaginable. In the globalised world, what was once unimaginable is becoming commonplace, however. The Australian novelist LA (Louisa) Larkin has learned the hard way that old certainties no longer apply as the globalisation of trade leads to the globalisation of authoritarian power.

The fate of her book is more than a lesson in modern cynicism. It is the most resonant example of collaboration between the old enemies of communism and capitalism I have encountered.
Larkin published Thirst in 2012. She set her thriller in an Antarctic research station, where mercenaries besiege a team of scientists.
Larkin was delighted when Reader’s Digest said it would take her work for one of its anthologies of condensed novels. Thirst would reach a global audience and – who knows? – take off. Reader’s Digest promised “to ensure that neither the purpose nor the opinion of the author is distorted or misrepresented”, and all seemed well.
One of Larkin’s characters trapped in the station is Wendy Woo, a Chinese-Australian. Woo fled to Australia because the Chinese authorities arrested her mother for being a member of the banned religious group Falun Gong. Larkin has her saying that she had not “learned until much later of the horrific torture her mother had endured because she refused to recant”.
State oppression in China is not a major theme of a novel set in Antarctica. But Larkin needed to provide a back story for Woo and a link between her and the villains of her drama. In any case, she was a free author living in a free country and was free to express her abhorrence of torture and the denial of freedom of conscience. Or so she thought, until she discovered last week that she was not as free as she thought.
The cost of printing makes up the largest part of the price of book production. Publishers have outsourced manufacturing to China, like so many other industries have done. The printing firm noticed the heretical passages in Larkin’s novel. All references to Falun Gong had to go, it said, as did all references to agents of the Chinese state engaging in torture.
They demanded censorship, even though the book was a Reader’s Digest “worldwide English edition” for the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore – not, you will note, for China.
Phil Patterson from Larkin’s London agents, Marjacq Scripts, tried to explain the basics for a free society to Reader’s Digest. To allow China to engage in “extraterritorial censorship” of an Australian novelist writing for an American publisher would set a “very dangerous precedent”, he told its editors. Larkin told me she would have found it unconscionable to change her book to please a dictatorship.
When she made the same point to Reader’s Digest, it replied that if it insisted on defending freedom of publication, it would have to move the printing from China to Hong Kong at a cost of US$30,000.
People ask: “What price liberty?” Reader’s Digest has an answer that is precise to the last cent: the price of liberty is US$30,000. The publisher, from the home of Jefferson, Madison and the first amendment, decided last week to accept the ban and scrap the book.
Globalisation has turned the world upside down. Reader’s Digest was so anti-communist in the cold war that its enemies muttered that the CIA might as well have been funding it. They sneered at its middlebrow manners as much as its politics – “I mean condensed novels for Christ’s sake.”
In 1982, the sight of Solidarity, a genuinely working-class movement, rising against the Soviet occupation of Poland, disoriented the western left. Susan Sontag, who knew how to hurt when she had to, wiped the smiles from a few lips by raising the despised Digest. At a meeting at New York town hall attended by the publisher of the Nation, and many another eminent figures from the American left, she told her listeners that they had been so keen to defend the victims of McCarthyism and American capitalism that they had forgotten about the victims of Soviet communism.
Imagine if you will, she continued, “someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970 and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
The audience booed her. But although you can find many on the left as indifferent to universal human rights today, I’ll say one thing for them: no one can smack them over the head with Reader’s Digest now.
During the cold war, business had to be anti-communist. The communists wanted to take capitalists’ money and, on occasion, to kill them too. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the state capitalist dictatorships in Russia and China, defending free speech, defending even the right of an author to criticise torture in passing, may risk the chance to profit. For if China offers the cheapest printers and a huge market, who wants to alienate its leaders? No one, if the grotesque spectacle of the “market focus on China” at last year’s London Book Fair was a guide. The British Council and the British book trade kept the Communist party sweet by refusing to invite any Chinese “visiting authors” whose work had upset the regime.
When the Chinese Communist party was Maoist, Reader’s Digest denounced it. Now it guarantees profits, Reader’s Digest censors on its behalf. When Putin was in the KGB, bankers, lawyers and industrialists deplored the old Soviet Union. Now Putin is in the Kremlin, they ensure that the first aim of David Cameron’s advisers in the Ukraine crisis is to do nothing that might “close London’s financial centre to Russians”.
Everyone knows LP Hartley’s line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If that were ever true, it isn’t now. For most people, the present is foreign and frightening. The intellectual left that Sontag so magnificently upbraided in 1982 had little real power. You only had to look at it to see that.
By contrast, the publishers, banks and corporations, who have taken over the role of deferring to Moscow and Beijing, have power and money and the ability to use both.
> Read More

Criminal Characters

June 10, 2014

What makes a compelling central character?

Mystery and suspense novels, by their very nature, demand complex and intriguing plots. But an ingenious plot is wasted if the protagonist and the antagonist have failed to hook the reader. If we’re not emotionally engaged with the hero, why should we care what happens to him or her? If the villain isn’t a worthy or credible adversary, then the tension and suspense is lost. Crime fiction is about the ‘battle’ of wits between two talented and fascinating people who, broadly speaking, represent the forces of good and evil. At the story’s climax, the protagonist and the antagonist will come together for the final confrontation Can the hero capture the mass murderer? Will the global catastrophe be averted? However, the story’s crescendo only matters if the reader cares about the hero. It is characters such as Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Inspector Rebus, Dr Tony Hill, Precious Ramotswe and Hercule Poirot that stay with us long after we have finished the book. So contrary to popular myth, crime fiction is not all about plot. The art of creating compelling, emotionally engaging, well-rounded and credible characters is critical to the success of a crime fiction story, just as it is for other genres.

“I think that a crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character,” says Michael Connelly, the creator of Detective Harry Bosch. “Creating and sustaining a main character with whom the reader makes empathetic connection is the biggest ball you must juggle when you are writing one of these things. It is also the most difficult task.”
Authors approach the creation of characters in vastly different ways. Some are lucky enough to see their protagonist fully formed in their imagination. They start writing and let the characters lead the story.  As Stephen King says, “What happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along.” Other novelists write character resumés and back stories, and list details of the character’s physiological, sociological and psychological make-up. Gary Disher plans his crime fiction in minute detail. He “interrogates” his characters to establish their motivations and to ensure they are credible. Other authors have used the method of writing a diary in character, so they can get inside the character’s head and establish the voice. “Dear diary, finally, I killed my mother today. What a relief!”
However a writer chooses to approach characterisation, the focus is on creating real people. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
The crime fiction heroes I love are not all good, and villains are not all bad. Complex flawed characters are lifelike. Hannibal Lector is a supporting character to the trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Lector is about as flawed as you can get, and yet he is compelling and is one of the most recognised thriller characters of all time. We are drawn by his brilliance, their battle of wits. He helps her catch Gumb. The Millennium Trilogy’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is an aggressive outsider, with a brutal moral code. But she’s sympathetic because she’s a victim and her resourcefulness, bravery and brilliance as a hacker has us mesmerised. She is, also, an active character, which is essential for a crime fiction hero. She doesn’t sit around waiting for something to happen. She makes things happen. As does Val McDermid’s Dr Tony Hill. What could be more boring than a detective who sits around waiting for the case to solve itself?
Point of view can further reveal character, both the object of that character’s focus and of the character themselves, because the reader is inside their head. We are now privy to how he or she sees the world and themselves. John Katzenbach’s The Madman’s Tale begins with, “I can no longer hear my voices, so I am a little lost. My suspicion is they would know far better how to tell this story.”
Conflict drives the story and keeps characters interesting. As I work on my novel, I keep asking, where is the conflict? How does this impact other characters? And I’m not just talking about external conflict, such as a character that blocks the hero’s path. I think about internal conflict. How might my protagonist be torn when faced with a difficult choice? What secret is he hiding?
I find character motivation fascinating. What drives them to do what they do? Why does the antagonist believe that the murders he commits, or the horror she is about to unleash on the world, is the right thing to do? How has the villain’s world view become so warped that the killing is justified?
Should a crime fiction protagonist develop during the course of the story? I enjoy reading about heroes who learn something as a result of their experiences, and I write thrillers in which they tap into an unrealised potential as a result of their ordeal. In The Genesis Flaw, Serena Swift is initially too focused on career and wealth to expose the biotech company responsible for her father’s death. She will become a whistle-blower. In Thirst, Luke Searle is an irresponsible father and Antarctic expeditioner, who, during the course of the story, will choose to take on the ultimate responsibility: that of saving the lives of millions. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus or Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin are great examples of complex characters with real lives, who develop over the series. We get to know their families, their friends. We enter their homes. As we follow them onto the next book, and the next, we watch them grow, experience setbacks and disasters, and they discover more about themselves. For some authors, this character arc is perhaps more important than solving the crime. This has been said of Peter Temple’s novels, featuring detective Joe Cashin.
Other authors prefer their heroes to remain steadfast. They have an established moral compass and this governs how they act in each book. They are what they are, with clearly recognisable strength and weaknesses. It is the adversary and the mission that changes. As we follow this series character, we learn more about him or her, often about the past, which helps to explain how they are today. A great example of a hugely loved and enduring character is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
I will leave you with some of my favourite introductions to characters, one, a hero, and the other, a villain. Enjoy!
Michael Connelly, The Poet – “Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker…I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s my rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me.”
Michael Robotham, Shatter – “There is a moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectation, all faith, all desire. I own that moment. It belongs to me. That’s when I hear the sound, the sound of a mind breaking.”
John Le Carre, The Constant Gardener – “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.”
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Writing detective crime fiction

May 19, 2014

I ran a detective crime fiction course recently at the NSW Writers’ Centre and I kicked off with a very brief history of the detective novel and the different styles and sub-genres of detective stories available today. As I’m sure everyone knows, the 1920s was the “Golden Age” of crime fiction, a time when the amazing Agatha Christie was working her magic. In 1928, a gentleman by the name of S.S. Van Dine created his “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”. Many remain true today, but when I read them they always make me smile because he is so very black and white about what constitutes a detective novel. I particularly like rules 6 and 7:

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
He’s right, of course. But most of all I agree that we owe it to our readers to write a satisfying climax, that surprises and delights, with a juicy twist, for good measure.
> Read More

ABC Radio’s Mark Colvin and I talk censorship

April 9, 2014

I was very honoured to be asked to join Mark Colvin on his PM radio show to talk about censorship recently. Here is a link to the conversation transcript and the audio file so you can listen to it, if you wish.

The PM, Tony Abbott, has recently attacked the ABC, claiming it is biased and not on Australia’s side. In my opinion, what he’s really complaining about is that the ABC is, in fact, reporting in an unbiased way and is asking the PM awkward questions. He doesn’t want the ABC to talk about Edward Snowden or about the plight of boat people arriving here. He prefers the tame press who know that if they keep the PM happy, he’ll give them the scoops. There is very little true journalism left. The days when journalism was about uncovering the truth, no matter whom it might upset, are almost gone. There are powerful corporations to consider, mining contracts to take into account. In the UK, the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent soldier on and do a valiant job. In the USA, The New York Times and The Washington Post are still brave enough to delve into delicate topics. In Australia? The ABC and SBS. I’m saddened to see the commercial TV news channels in Australia doing beat up stories on minor issues that are little more than gossip and propaganda. Where are the intelligent, well-researched, and challenging stories about the truly big issues impacting us all?
Hands off the ABC, Tony Abbott, and get used to criticism. Or would you rather a subtle censorship of the ABC? Is that where you are heading?
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