Interview with Larry Writer – author of Underbelly Razor

MD of Boomerang Books, Clayton Wehner recently caught up with biographer Larry Writer to talk about the impending Underbelly Razor TV series, which is based on Writer’s 2001 book, Razor.  A new TV tie-in edition of the book has been released as Underbelly Razor.

Thank you very much Larry, for the opportunity to speak with you about the upcoming release of Underbelly Razor.  The book Razor was first released in 2001 and it has now been ‘rebranded’ and re-released as ‘Underbelly Razor’ to coincide with the new 13-part Underbelly series on Channel 9.  How is it that your work has come to be adopted as an Underbelly ‘franchise’?

Last year Screentime, the producers of Underbelly, approached me and said they had been looking for wonderful Australian crime stories, and that Razor was one. I was delighted because the 13-episode format of Underbelly Razor has allowed the story of Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs between 1927-31 to be told properly with justice done to the fabulously rich characters and events that took place as well as to recreate the world of Depression-era inner Sydney where these people lived and loved and did battle.

Razor was your first foray into true crime (although you have written several crime-related books since).  You’ve previously written biographical accounts of sportsmen and entertainers, like John Newcombe and Chrissy Amphlett – why did you choose to delve into the world of true crime with Razor?

Rather than specialise in a genre, either sport or crime or show business, which admittedly are all passions of mine, I simply enjoy researching and writing about interesting people doing interesting things. Newc, Chrissy, Bumper Farrell, Kate and Tilly all fit the bill. I specifically chose to write Razor because I have lived most of my life in Sydney’s east, in the suburbs where the razor gangsters of the ‘20s and ‘30s existed, and I wanted to write about what I knew and loved. In 1997 I started doing a little research, then became entranced by the subject and three years later, after I had finished my research and interviewed many of the survivors of the era who were all in the last years of their lives, I turned all of the background I had accumulated into a book, Razor.

The Underbelly television series has been wildly popular in Australia.  Australians seem to be fascinated by gangsters, mafioso and underworld figures – why do you think that is so?  Are you similarly smitten by this fascination?

Like many law-abiding people, it is a guilty pleasure to allow myself to take a vicarious interest in people who do break the law. I enjoy true and fictional crime, and love crime films. There’s nothing nicer than curling up in bed with the latest Thomas Kelly or Don Winslow novel or watching Goodfellas on the VCR. That said, I have a responsibility when writing about law breakers not to unduly glamorise them, and I have tried hard not to do this in Razor. Rather, I attempt to portray them as real people and while not being reticent about describing their crimes, if they are good parents and true friends, donate to charity or whatever I have no problem in saying so. It’s about portraying them as accurately and multi-dimensionally as I can.

I understand that you went to school in Darlinghurst and you clearly have an affinity with the eastern suburbs of Sydney where the razor gangs ruled in the 1920s and 30s.  Today, this area of Sydney is significantly different – what remains there today that evokes the memories of the area’s colourful past?

The inner east is vastly different today: where once there were slums and poverty there is now multi-million dollar homes, galleries and restaurants. About the worst thing to befall someone walking the lanes at night is to step in designer dog poo. But back in the ‘20s the only people who lived in so-called “Razorhurst” were the criminal or those too desperately poor to escape to the new garden suburbs. But it doesn’t take much imagination to experience the miasma of the razor gang years. Visit Kellett Street in Kings Cross, Riley Street, Kippax St, Devonshire Street. Touch the old bricks on the Strand Hotel in William Street (where Tilly Devine’s gunman Frank Green shot Kate Leigh’s men Barney Dalton and Wally Tomlinson), the East Village pub in Palmer Street which was once the notorious gangster blood house the Tradesman’s Arms. Walk through the lanes that slither around Palmer Street. You’ll get a sense of the bad old days.

Your book centres around the rival crime matriarchs Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, who each controlled extensive prostitution, gambling, drug and sly-grog rackets.  Both were remarkable entrepreneurs of their time, both were high profile members of society, and both were charitable in spite of their criminal activites (more so in Leigh’s case). Having studied their lives, do you have any respect for Devine and Leigh?

I have respect of a sort… only because Tilly and Kate were very good at the business they chose to be in (running brothels, and selling sly grog and cocaine, respectively) and they were more ruthless, more ambitious and much smarter than the male criminals who tried without success over the years to divest them of their empires. They were pure spirits.

The Underbelly series to date has been the work of Melbourne journalists Andrew Rule and John Silvester.  Now that you have joined the Underbelly family, have you collaborated with Rule and Silvester?  Has your original book been adapted in any way to meet the requirements of the Underbelly brand?

No, apart Andrew and John’s title “Underbelly” being used in the new series, I’ve had no contact with these excellent writers. My book is a social history, the Underbelly writers have obviously created dialogue so that the characters rather than a narrator can advance the plot. Every word the actors utter, to me, rings true and is what the real life people in Razor said or would have said. The plot and events depicted are all true, as recounted in my book. The Screentime researchers went to enormous lengths to get it right. There is violence and sex in the series, as per the Underbelly template, but it would be strange if a story about gangsters and brothels didn’t have violence and sex.

Did you have an active role to play in the screenplay and is the series a true reflection of the book?

I was a consultant on the series, and my book receives a nice “based on” credit, and I spent many hours talking to the writers and actors and directors and sound people and props people about the characters and the era and what inner Sydney was like circa 1927-31. Yes, the series is a wonderfully true depiction of the book. It’s common for writers to grizzle about what “film makers” have done to their book, but to me everyone involved is a true professional with such respect and love for the source material. I could not be more delighted with the series.

Much of your biographical work has centred on rugby league figures – Kevin Walters, Rex Mossop, ‘Bumper’ Farrell –  but I note that you also ghost wrote the biography for AFL coach Paul Roos and his wife Tami.   How do you think the new Greater Western Sydney AFL team will go and will it have an impact on the dominance of rugby league in Sydney’s western suburbs?

Do I detect an AFL fan behind the question??? Well, I’m sorry but, as lovely as Paul and Tami Roos are, as a rugby league fan from childhood, who loves the game’s traditions and its role in our city’s life for a hundred years, I don’t welcome the AFL incursion, and while Australian rules has the potential to be a minor code, and a very minor code in Sydney’s west, I don’t believe that it will ever challenge rugby league in Sydney. Attendances at games, memberships at clubs and huge TV ratings back me up. That’s just the way I feel, and I’ll stand by my feelings.

Yes, you guessed right – I am an AFL fan 🙂 – Can we expect more true crime offerings from Larry Writer in the future?

I have no plans to write another true crime book. I’m happy having contributed Razor and Bumper to the genre. Still, if a good story drops into my lap and I feel I can do it justice, and electricity and phone bills keep on rising…

Thank you very much for your time, Larry.  I wish you all the best of luck with the release of Underbelly Razor.

It’s a pleasure, Clayton. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about what I do.