Fires and fiction: a Q&A with author Michael Brissenden

crime novel Smoke

After a successful career as one of Australia’s top-tier journalists, Michael Brissenden has turned to fiction writing.


In his new crime novel Smoke, he illustrates the aftermath of a devastating wildfire that has hit the town of Jasper, California. Here, not only the remains of buildings are recovered from the ashes, but also those of a body. A gripping tale of murder and corruption unravels, that has its origins deeply entrenched in the town’s core and will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Your crime novel Smoke takes place in a fire-ravaged Californian small town. What inspired you to choose this setting?

When I started to write this book I initially thought of setting it in a fictional town in Australia but then it started raining here and the rain just didn’t let up. On the other side of the world California was burning. Clearly the changing climate is having a devastating impact on communities all over the world. I was a correspondent in the US for a long time and have covered fires in California so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to set the book there.

How did you carry out research for Smoke?

After the fires hit the south coast I was struck by the scarred landscape – the forest canopy stripped away, gullies and ravines exposed for the first time. Some of what was uncovered was meant to stay hidden and so many people were traumatised by the experience. That certainly made it easy for me to transfer the setting to California.  I then spent weeks in Los Angeles and the California sierras talking to locals, firefighters and police. 

Smoke explores political themes like environmental catastrophes, corruption and poverty. What do you hope readers will take away about these issues from reading your book?

The themes that thread through the book – corruption, poverty, the challenges of providing health and aged care, and politically charged ignorance – are universal challenges but they are arguably even more evident in the US today than they are here.  This certainly sharpened the premise for Smoke and raised the stakes of the narrative.  The environmental threat is also one shared by us all and while Smoke is set in California this is certainly a story many Australians can relate to.

After a long career in journalism, what made you decide to now publish crime novels? 

The answer to this lies somewhere between the love of words and story, and the power of fiction to speak to people in a more entertaining and engaging way, using character, voice and narrative, rather than beating readers over the head with a didactic essay. Writing fiction has been a challenging, liberating and thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Also, in fiction the characters can say what I want them to say and if I don’t like them, or it suits the story better, I can just kill them off. How good is that!

What do you prefer – fiction or nonfiction writing?

Both have their place but I have to say I am enjoying the freedom of fiction for the moment and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.


If you enjoyed hearing about Michael Brissenden’s new crime novel Smoke, check out this article on Kyra Geddes’ The Story Thief for more Australian fiction.


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