TEN years ago, Scottish author Tony Black was working as a journalist at The Warrnambool Standard when he stumbled on the seed that would grow into his best-selling novel to date.
That seed was in the shape of a Tasmanian tiger (or thylacine) and came via a researcher who was keen to talk to a reporter about recent sightings of the officially extinct animal.
“I remember being handed this story by the chief of staff and I guess he was just happy to get this one off his hands because on the surface it was a non-starter,” Black said.
“It turned out to be the best yarn I’d ever had.
“So many people called up the next day to confirm they’d seen Tasmanian tigers in the district.
“One guy said he hit one with his ute and went out to help but it snarled and showed this massive set of jaws and he just let it drag itself off into the scrub.”
A decade later, these interviews have inadvertently led to The Last Tiger, Black’s latest novel, which tells the story of a family of Lithuanian refugees who re-settle in Tasmania during the early 20th century.
While the patriarch of the family Petras becomes a “tiger man” who shoots the creatures in order to protect the island’s sheep and collect a bounty, his son Myko is drawn to the creatures and is struck by their plight as they near extinction.
Black said he was struck by the “very sad story” of the thylacine’s demise — “a tale of bloodlust and how man’s insatiable greed for land tramples everything in its way” — and soon set about writing the novel.
“The first draft of The Last Tiger was written in Warrnambool but my then-agent didn’t like it much,” he said.
“Publishing tends to like to launch new authors with really conservative stuff, potentially big-hitting genre fiction, so I had to get ten or so of those under my belt until someone took a chance on The Last Tiger.
“Ironically, it’s been by far my biggest seller to date and has been shortlisted for a major prize in the UK.
“The time was certainly right when it landed on my current publisher’s desk because he just adored it.”
Those “ten or so” books have predominantly been Scottish crime novels, aka “tartan noir” — he has a couple of crime series under his belt that have led iconic Scots author Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) to call Black “my favourite British crime writer”.
“It’s hard to describe how big (tartan noir) is at home to another country,” Black explained.
“I’d say most of the books sold in the UK are crime fiction of one sort or another right now.
“It’s been that way for a few years and publishing is a very safe industry, they don’t like risks, so they tend to run on rails.
“I wrote loads of novels, probably five or six, before I was told to write tartan noir by an old agent.
“You could say it wasn’t a natural discovery for me.
“The Last Tiger, and a few other books I wrote then — and will carry on writing — are much more closely related to what I like to write, where I’m at with it all.”
With its shortlisting in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, some strong reviews, and the best sales of his career to date, Black might find himself writing fewer crime thrillers and more books like The Last Tiger in the future.