Sound and Silence
Emma Viskic is an award-winning Australian crime writer. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Resurrection Bay, now available in the UK, won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut, as well as an unprecedented three Davitt Awards: Best Adult Novel, Best Debut and Readers' Choice. It was also iBooks Australia's Crime Novel of the year in 2015. She is currently writing the second in the Caleb Zelic series, And Fire Came Down. Emma studied Australian sign language (Auslan) in order to write the character of Caleb Zelic. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Emma describes how and why she came to learn sign language.
Writing and music have always been the twin pillars of my life, so it’s probably not surprising that I ended up becoming both a musician and an author. It’s a little harder to understand how I came to write a profoundly deaf protagonist in my debut novel, Resurrection Bay.
As a teenager, I wrote the usual bad poetry, read the usual good books and listened to the not-quite-so-usual good music. I wasn’t into punk, or grunge or even jazz and blues – I loved classical music. I was drawn to its nuanced sounds and carefully crafted phrases, its finesse and fire. My understaffed high school didn’t run to a music programme, but my parents found a nearby music school that offered tuition in a handful of instruments. I tried the clarinet and fell in love.
I went on to become a professional clarinettist, playing in everything from chamber concerts, to the Phantom of the Opera orchestra and arena concerts with José Carreras. I loved being a musician, but by the time I reached 30 I was missing writing with a quiet desperation. Eventually I grew so sick of myself, that I decided to write a book. I had a long history of childhood short stories and half-finished novellas, but that manuscript was my first attempt at writing a novel. It was terrible. I didn’t know how to fix the writing, but I did know how to practise. I kept going, writing short stories and another full-length manuscript, and slowly came to realise that words were just a different kind of music.
I started reading my work aloud, listening to its rhythms. I added passages here, and entire chapters there, writing and rewriting until the words flowed smoothly. Eventually, I felt confident enough to begin what was to become Resurrection Bay, a contemporary crime novel featuring the wry, stubborn and profoundly deaf investigator, Caleb Zelic. Everything went smoothly for a while, but I came to a grinding halt after a few months. I had no idea how to write a deaf character. After a lifetime dedicated to sound, how could I write about silence? I tried to make Caleb hearing, but it didn’t work. The seeds of his character came from a profoundly deaf girl I’d known in childhood. She’s been appearing in my writing in one form or another ever since, but never as clearly as in Resurrection Bay. Caleb was deaf, not hearing, and unless I wrote him that way, I couldn’t write the novel. After months of agonising, I finally summoned my courage and began what would turn out to be a five-year journey of writing and research.
I began by reading books and speaking to people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Caleb’s character began to take shape as I learned their stories. I soon decided that he’d become deaf as a child, was a skilled lipreader and that hearing aids gave him only minimal hearing. But that was just background information: I needed to get inside his head if I was going to make him feel real.
After doing an online course in lipreading, I bought a pair of foam earplugs and ventured into the world to try out my skills. It was a disaster. I missed train announcements and inadvertently ordered strange coffees in cafes, experienced a range of attitudes from pity and irritation, to anger. And the more I experienced, the more I understood Caleb. His stubborn streak and inability to admit defeat, his bone-dry sense of humour. It also made me wonder if he should use Australian sign language (Auslan). Because Caleb is so determined to live in the hearing world, Auslan wasn’t an obvious choice for his character, but the idea intrigued me. Lipreading is hard, inexact and tiring; Auslan could be a good way of showing Caleb at ease in one area of his life.
I enrolled in an Auslan course and knew within minutes that I’d found the final key to his character. Not only is Auslan a beautiful language, it’s expressive and emotional. So Caleb became bilingual, speaking English most of the time, but signing with those he loves. I went on to study Auslan, and began to see how the people around Caleb would communicate with him. That his estranged brother would speak English these days, but change to Auslan as they grew closer; that his adored ex-wife would sign fluently; that others would insist on speech, or attempt rudimentary sign, depending on their closeness to him.
I’ve just finished the second Caleb Zelic novel, And Fire Came Down, and have learned a lot along the way, including the unexpected benefits of writing a deaf character. After decades of focusing on sound, I’ve learned to notice much more. Like Caleb, I watch people’s expressions and body language now. I pay attention to the light in a room, and the colours and scents and textures. It’s added untold layers to my writing, and to my life.