"Perth is a people's city," David Whish-Wilson says as he sits across from me in a Kings Park cafe. "It's a city where the tension between order and disorder is just about right, and there's space and time for creative people to do their own kind of thing. It's just a great place to live."
Best known for his crime novels set in 1970s Perth, the author and teacher of creative writing at Curtin university has now written a biography of the city itself: one teeming with stories of inhabitants past and present - including his own.
Here is Fanny Balbuk, born at Heirisson Island in 1840, who "expressed her frustration at the development of the Georgian village on her country by stubbornly continuing to follow the tracks of her ancestors" and Ernest "Shiner" Ryan, "Fremantle's pre-eminent lock-picker", who had previously "pulled off Australia's first armed robbery and getaway in a car" in Sydney.
Here is Whish-Wilson's grandfather Ollie, who "worked as a brewer at Swan for close to 40 years, and the Emu Bitter longnecks that my father drank when I was a child - and that I liked to open every night with an Emu Bitter bottle-opener - came from Ollie's generous brewery allowance".
And here is Whish-Wilson, remembering "skirting the southern approaches of the Swan River at night, sleepy and warm beside my brother and sister in the backseat of our mother's Volkswagen".
With the same deft brushstrokes, Whish-Wilson also evokes a Perth at various times in its relatively short history: "In the inner city of the mid-20th century, you could still find weatherboard dwellings in Northbridge, West Perth and East Perth. There were pubs in downtown Perth such as the Ozone and Criterion; the Adelphi and the Palace and Esplanade hotels, each different in style and clientele; and for night owls there were jazz clubs and coffee clubs in the alleys that ran off Hay and Murray streets."
"I had to choose stories of people, aspects of the landscape - things that were important to me - and just hope they resonated with other people as being representative," he tells me. "And then use my own experiences as sinew to hold all that together."
The result is a textured, nuanced portrait of a city still in the throes of growing pains and yet with a distinctive personality born of disjunction and ambivalence.
There are contrarians such as bushranger Moondyne Joe and administrators such as Sir James Stirling. There are killers such as Eric Edgar Cooke and creators such as sculptor Pietro Porcelli. There are the booms and busts that shaped the city's destiny, its suburbs and windy CBD laneways.
There are demolished buildings such as the Perth Entertainment Centre, where a teenage Whish- Wilson would sleep "out front to get tickets for David Bowie and Devo". There is the revivified Brookfield Place, where Whish-Wilson meets a friend "for a beer in the Print Hall, one of the bars and restaurants that are part of (the precinct's) transformation".
And there is that ever-present tension between the built and the natural environment.
"Perth strikes me as a place where the landscape still has a presence," he says. "People have said that that the focus of artists and writers on the landscape in what is otherwise a metropolis can be read at as sign of a lack of confidence in the civic side of the city. But you have all the benefits of a city, yet there's still a texture and a richness that comes through from the natural world."
Crucial to the book's success is a structure that takes account of this tension. As Whish-Wilson writes in the introduction: "Each (chapter) takes its name from a natural formation or feature of Perth - the river, the coast, the plain and the light - that has evoked characters and events, moving backwards and forwards in time."
But equally crucial to that success are the narrative and descriptive powers of the fine novelist Whish-Wilson is.
We find the South Fremantle resident of 20 years kayaking on the Swan River with his uncle Scott, cycling past the Roundhouse, bodysurfing Leighton Beach and spear-fishing at night with his son Max.
We find him still getting "a kick out of picturing Elizabeth Jolley high up in Kranz and Sheldon's Windsor Towers in South Perth...commissioned by Alan Bond in 1969" and remembering as a child "populating Guildford and the Swan Valley...with mythological figures...because of my passion for all things bushranger". And we find him listening to, and then retelling, the stories of the people he encounters both in books and in person, such as author Ron Davidson, "one of the city's great raconteurs".
"It became a matter of going out and talking to people, which was the part I loved best," he says, "of just going out and listening to the stories."
Whish-Wilson says he's always been most interested in ordinary people. "Now I find it impossible for me to walk anywhere in Perth without seeing images of what it was like 50 years ago and hearing the stories I've been told about the people who lived here."
As a result, he has a new appreciation for past lives, especially those that have gone largely unnoticed. "But that's one of the joys of writing: to bring people and places back to life."
David Whish-Wilson will be a guest at the 2014 Perth Writers’ Festival. Perth is published by New South ($30). For other
books in the series, visit newsouthbooks.com.au.