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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings Debut Spotlight feature. For September that debut is Four Dogs Missing by Rhys Gard (Echo Publishing), an ‘edge of your seat’ thriller where art theft, revenge and murder play out against the vineyards of the Mudgee wine region. We spoke to Rhys about his publishing journey, writing practice and what wine to pair with the book!

Stay tuned later this month for a review of the book from Debut Spotlight critic Simon McDonald, and a video reading from the author on our Instagram.

Can you give a brief summary of Four Dogs Missing for those who haven’t read it yet?

Four Dogs Missing is a crime thriller set amongst the vineyards of Mudgee, NSW. The story follows Oliver Wingfield, a successful but reclusive winemaker (whose winery shares a name with the book). The story begins when Oliver’s twin brother arrives after a fifteen year absence. From that point on nothing is quite the same, as people close to Oliver are killed one by one. The winemaker becomes the prime suspect, and takes it upon himself to hunt the murderer. Inexorably pulled into a sinister world of poisoned liquor and stolen art, Oliver knows he must solve the crimes—and confront his damaged past—before someone else he loves is found dead…beside a bottle of his own wine.

Can you tell us about what drove you to write this book, and the book’s journey to publication more broadly?

I’ve been writing, on and off, for most of my life. Like anyone learning the craft, it took years and years (and countless rejections) to find my own voice and decide exactly what book I wanted to write. It was during the first COVID lockdown that I really fell in love with crime fiction again—the pacy narratives, the complex characters, the moral and ethical dilemmas examined in each novel. It was then I decided to write a crime thriller, although I didn’t want my protagonist to be a police detective—I was interested in disturbing the balance a reclusive winemaker has set up for himself. A lot of recent Australian noir is set in the outback, and while I often love these stories, I wanted to utilise my own background in wine by setting the novel in the vineyards of Mudgee, where I now live. While writing, I worked with a mentor (an Australian based in New York) and then when it was finished I had offers from two agents. After this, there was plenty of editing and re-writing before the novel found a home with my publisher, Echo Bonnier.

I didn’t want my protagonist to be a police detective—I was interested in disturbing the balance a reclusive winemaker has set up for himself.

As well as being a wonderful writer, we hear you’re also a talented chef! What dish would you recommend for an evening of reading Four Dogs Missing? And what wine would the protagonist winemaker Oliver pair with it?

That’s a great question. Food and wine pairings are something I take very seriously! For many years I worked as a chef: in cafes and wine bars around NSW, before opening two of my own restaurants in regional NSW. Oliver’s signature wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon (I imagine it’s quite dry, spicy, with some lovely plush purple fruits) so I think it would pair well with a leg of lamb smothered in anchovy paste and sprinkled with mint. Plus, some potatoes roasted in beef fat and a green salad with a blood orange vinaigrette to round things out.

What does your writing process look like? Any particular strategies or philosophies that help you find inspiration or put words on the page?

I try to lock myself in the office and write for a few hours at a time, preferably with music. I’ll turn the internet off and eliminate distractions so I can focus on the fictional world I’m crafting. I also escape to the library a few days a week…sometimes I get too distracted at home! I occasionally work in the evenings but try to keep a few hours each night spare to sink my teeth into reading. One philosophy I have is just to write something most days. Actual prose: even if it’s just a couple of hundred words. It’s easy to plan and plot and research but unfortunately that’s not going to produce a novel!

One philosophy I have is just to write something most days. Actual prose: even if it’s just a couple of hundred words.

Each of the characters in this book are complex and interesting with vivid inner lives. How did you go about developing these characters—did they come before or after the plot? And can we expect to see any of them again in a sequel?

Most of the characters were conceived at the same time I was plotting the novel, and like a good wine, I find that characters ‘open up’ the longer you sit with them. For instance, in an early draft, Oliver didn’t play piano. I thought having a connection to his mother and tickling the ivories would round out his character further. So, in my experience, it’s a bit of both. Even if we don’t get to spend too long with a character (which is often the case in a thriller) it’s still nice to hint at the fact there is complexity beyond the surface. While the next novel I’m working on isn’t a sequel, Rocky the barista (who readers have loved) will be making an appearance.

Like a good wine, I find that characters ‘open up’ the longer you sit with them.

What’s one thing you know now about the writing and publishing journey that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

So many things! I think one thing I’ve learned is that no matter where you are in your own publishing journey—at the beginning of a manuscript, approaching agents, entering competitions, or if you have three books under your belt—you have to keep persevering and pushing yourself to do better. There are edits, new books to write, panels to sit on. Even once the book is out in the world, you have to work harder than ever to promote it and meet new readers, and then balance time promoting your last book while you write your next one. I love every minute of it, but I’ve learned you definitely have to be gritty and persevere when it all feels too much—even after you get that elusive ‘book deal’.

What other writers or books influenced your writing (either this book specifically or your writing more broadly)? Are there any great books you’ve read lately that you’d like to recommend to KYD readers? 

Even though I’ve been a sporadic writer over the years, I’ve always been a ravenous reader. Crime and literary fiction are my two favourite genres. I’m a big fan of Australian crime: Candice Fox, Garry Disher, Dinuka McKenzie, Anna Downes, Emma Viskic, Peter Temple, Margaret Hickey, Chris Hammer and Hayley Scrivenor. I just finished reading Matthew Spencer’s Black River and was blown away by how wonderful it was. Thinking about overseas writers, I gravitate to fiction by Attica Locke, Kamila Shamsie, Eleanor Catton, S.A. Cosby and Alan Parks. There are a plethora of other great writers and books I’d love to mention, but this response must be finite.

Four Dogs Missing is available now from your local independent bookseller.