Chris Nyst is one of Australia’s best known criminal lawyers. He is the author of three popular legal novels – Cop This! (1999), Gone (2001) and Crook As Rookwood (2006) – and the screenwriter of the 2003 crime caper film Gettin’ Square. He is a former director of Screen Queensland.
Chris Nyst is also a co-founder of Griffith University’s Innocence Project which takes on cases where initial investigations support inmates’ assertions that they have been wrongly convicted and where innocence may be established through the use of DNA technology.
He lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and four children.
How did you get into writing?
My first novel, Cop This!, was really about what I had been doing in my legal work to some extent. I’ve been a criminal lawyer since ’77, and the first 10 or 15 years of my life were involved in fighting with police in pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry Queensland in what was known as ‘verballing’ [the corrupt practice of attributing incriminating remarks to suspects during police interrogation]. Then in 1987 Fitzgerald came along and everything pretty much changed overnight. Not long after the inquiry wound up I bumped into a fellow criminal lawyer, a friend of mine, and we got talking about the old days and how the practice of criminal law had changed. We were talking for over an hour, I suppose. As we were leaving he said to me, “I sort of miss it, don’t you?” and I realised I did miss it because although it was a real struggle it was also very exciting because you were in this constant state of turmoil and conflict. I came away from that conversation thinking that this was an era that had passed; a piece of history that we’d lived through. That was the inspiration for sitting down and writing stories about that time and I sort of fashioned all that into the story that then became Cop This!
Did you find transitioning from legal writing to fiction difficult?
I guess so. I enjoyed it though. I’ve always enjoyed the freedom of fiction writing. You can win all those cases that were unwinnable; all the endings are happy ones. There was a freedom attached to fiction that I didn’t have in my work and that was rather refreshing.
How long did it take you to write Cop This!?
A long time. I guess it would have been at least a couple of years. I wrote it in my spare time. Cop This! is a book in three parts – it’s about a case that happens in the late 1960s, and then you jump forward to a case in the ’80s and then there’s a third case – it’s a three-part saga if you like. I wrote the first part, about six chapters, and then foolishly sent it off to a number of publishers. A couple replied to say they liked it and asked me to send the rest and, of course, I didn’t have the rest. By the time I finished it in another year or so by they had lost interest so I had to start all over again [laughs].
What writing habits do you keep?
It depends what I’m doing. When I’ve had novels to write with a deadline I try to treat it as work. When I wrote Cop This! I got a three-book deal with HarperCollins and had to put the second book out within 12 months so I took a day off every week. I’d work through until the Thursday with my legal job, and on the Friday I’d start writing. At that stage we were living in a house with a garden shed so I would get dressed in my suit and head off to work at the usual time, around 7.30 in the morning, but instead of getting in my car and driving to work I’d walk down to the shed in the backyard and stay there until seven at night. The idea was that that was where I did my work.
How productive were you?
The Friday morning wasn’t very productive. But once I got to Friday lunchtime the juices were starting to flow and I was getting stuff out. By the time I got to Friday night I’d have to tear myself away from the computer, and by Saturday morning I’d be in the zone and away we’d go. I’d write right through until Sunday night.
Do you still write in a shed?
These days I have an office at home that I write in. It’s not as good as the shed [laughs].
Did you work to a daily word count?
I didn’t when I first started, but I was talking to another local writer who told me he wrote 2,500 words a day and I actually adopted that practice and found it very useful. I told myself, ‘I’m not leaving here until I’ve written 2,500 words.’ And, of course, once you get started writing the brain gets going and you sail past that.
Did you keeping forging ahead until you had a first draft or did you re-edit copy from the day before?
I did a fair bit of tinkering initially, but as I became experienced I found it was better just to churn it out and then go back later and play with it. But the more experienced you get you realize that people are going to play with it and chop it anyway [laughs].
Do you enjoy writing?
I once met a guy who was both a weightlifter and writer who likened weightlifting to writing. He said, ‘I can’t say I enjoyed weightlifting; I just had to do it. And after I did it I felt really good.’ The same applies to writing. But when I get going, it’s not a chore; I really do enjoy it.
Do you ever doubt your ability as a writer?
Yes, every time I start to write. It’s always hard when you start out. You have an idea of where you want to go, but it’s difficult to bring it all altogether.
Is it different from the anxiety you might have before a court case?
Court cases are different. You’ve always got an awful lot of material; you’ve absorbed it, you know what it is. The panic that comes from writing is getting to a stage where you say, ‘I don’t have another one in me’ or ‘I don’t have this story in me.’ It’s a different kind of stress.
Do you keep a notebook?
I used to carry a wallet that was full of little scraps of paper with ideas written on them. Now I try to put it all on the computer and I’ve got lots of bits and pieces of scenes, particularly with the film stuff. I guess everyone does that.
What distracts you the most when writing?
Food. As I sit down in front of the computer I want to eat. It’s a really good excuse to stop doing what I’m doing and prepare some food for myself.
Is your computer connected to the Internet?
It is, but I am not an Internet surfer. If I’m writing I go on the Internet to look at stuff to do with what I’m writing about.
Many writers say they go looking for something on the Net but then find they don’t emerge until hours later with nothing written. Is it the same for you?
I don’t tend to surf off into other areas. If I’m writing about, say, a prisoner of war camp, I might look at sites about that. And then once I get there my brain really starts to get into that zone and I just want to write. So I don’t lose myself for hours at a time, no.
What are your reading habits?
I read a lot for work, obviously. But I’m not a great reader. I’m a very slow reader; when I read things I like to savor them. My daughter will read two or three books a week, but I wouldn’t finish one inside two months. Unless I’m on holidays. If I’m away surfing and there’s no surf, I’ll sit and read a book all day.
Who do you read?
Everything, really. In recent times, I tend towards non-fiction. As a kid I read a lot of Damon Runyon, which I also read to my kids when they were young.
Cop This! was the first work you had published. Looking back, how do you regard it?
I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but to me I still think it’s a book all law students should read because it’s about why I became a lawyer and why I enjoyed practicing law. I think a lot of the sentiments contained in the book have been lost today on recent graduates. The law has become about making money, but when I went into the law it wasn’t about that. Various ideals were verbalized in those days. Your masters would tell you what was expected of you as a lawyer, that your client’s interests were paramount and so forth. There’s a lot of that in Cop This! and I’m still very proud of it for that reason.
Did you feel that your writing craft improved as the three novels progressed?
Yes, I felt I got better as a novel writer. When I wrote my second book, Gone, I felt it was a much better book. It was tighter; I was more economical in my language. When you move into film you have to be even more economical, not so much in your language, but in your storytelling.
You’re doing more scriptwriting these days. Do you miss writing novels?
I do. But it’s such a big, deep, dark hole that you have to jump into that I keep putting it off.
Do you ever see yourself returning to it?
I’ve toyed with it a couple of times in recent years and my publisher asked me some time ago when I might write one. After Gone, I wrote Gettin’ Squared, which exposed me to the whole filmmaking process. That involved a Brisbane producer, a Sydney producer, and an international producer, Working Title, with an office in London, LA and Sydney. Every time you did a version of the script everyone had to read it and have their input. So it would go to Brisbane, Sydney, London, LA and you’d get reader’s note from everyone. As the writer I was expected to turn out another draft. That went on for about 12 months and it used to drive me insane.
But after Gettin’ Square I was due to get out my third novel, Crook as Rookwood, and I found it so liberating to be just me in front of a typewriter writing it as I wanted to. There was this enormous freedom. Although I enjoy the film stuff, the idea of being able to sit down and write just what I want is very appealing. But it’s such a big undertaking. To write 80,000 words of a book is a big, long-term commitment, especially when you’re working in a real job, which means whatever time I spend on it is going to be my spare time. And it affects your ability to communicate with your family and everybody else.
Was it easier working under a publisher’s deadline for the second and third novels?
It was. While it took years to write Cop This!, I wrote Gone and Crook as Rookwood in six or seven months.
Why do you write?
I just can’t help it, to be honest. I’m writing all the time in my head. My wife is telling me about what happened today and I drift off and start writing in my head. It’s just what I do. Even when I’m driving I’m writing stuff in my head. I think I have an active imagination. And when you can actually put it all altogether in a story that makes sense and maybe impart even a smidgeon of wisdom it’s really satisfying.
Does writing change anything?
Writing for me has been a great diversion; it’s been a really good thing because it has rounded out my life and given me an outlet. I often joke that most guys who have their midlife crisis get a girlfriend a divorce, but I was lucky enough to find myself writing. It really gave me another facet to my life; it was rejuvenating, both in my life and in my work.
Does it change things externally? Of course. When people write about their experiences and somebody else can then share that experience, if there’s a little bit of wisdom in there and they can take that wisdom, that has got to be a factor of change. As I said, I’m not a great reader, but I wish I were. It is a great to take the experience of people from life and to learn and grow from them.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two or three film projects. I’ve also got a television project so I’m doing a bit of writing on that, but mainly film scripts. At the moment I’m developing a film about the Fine Cotton Affair and I’ve written a script so we’re doing re-writes on that. I’m also in the process of developing a script for a film called Freedom Ride, which is based on the 1965 Freedom Ride [a bus tour organized by University of Sydney students to draw attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing].
Posted: Monday, April 15, 2013