You’ve just won the prestigious British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award over authors such as Stephen King and JK Rowling. What do you think made Life and Death stand out from other novels to win?
I think it’s a novel with a lot of heart and it’s quite an underdog story. It’s been compared to The Shawshank Redemption, and I think it has characters that the reader wants to root for.
I’ve also been told a lot of readers cried when it’s finally revealed why this man [central character Audie Palmer] escaped from prison one day before he was due to be released, and that is information that’s withheld until the final few chapters.
I’ve read the book and couldn’t put it down. Is there talk of a movie? And who would you cast as Audie Palmer?
We’ve recently signed the movie rights to the same company that made The Lego Movie and have a scriptwriter working on it now.
Who would I cast? My daughters would want Ryan Gosling to play the lead role and my wife would want Matt Damon to play Audie. I think Ryan Gosling would be about the right age, Matt’s probably a bit too old now but everyone has their ideas about what would suit the role.
Your characters are frequently put through some pretty terrible ordeals and things regularly get worse. How do you balance the terrors they endure against the need to rescue them, to give them some respite – or is it just a matter of finding bigger rocks to throw?
To a degree, I do throw a lot of rocks. I often ask, “What’s the next worst thing that can happen?”, then write it.
I use humour for respite; there are moments of levity which allow the reader to relax. I admit I do terrible things to my characters whom I love, but that’s the nature of storytelling.
You can take readers into a dark place, but you don’t abandon them there. You have a resolution, an ending that may not be happy, but is a resolution that you can live with and readers trust and go with you there.
When crafting perils for your characters, do you ever have to step back from a scene when you’ve written something you think has gone too far? How do you know if you’ve stepped over an invisible line from genuine terror and shock into horror or gratuitous violence?
That’s a difficult one. I know in the book Say You’re Sorry, there was a scene where I was worried I’d gone too far. I had feedback from some readers accusing me of gratuitous violence, but it’s interesting that what I’m accused of doing never actually appears in the book. It was purely those readers’ imaginations and reaction to a scene where the violence is alluded to and it happens off stage. The reader’s mind creates the biggest monster, in a sense.
Where does your urge to write crime fiction come from? Was it prompted by your reporting on some serious and grisly cases as a journalist?
My fascination with the psychology of crime probably came about from my work as a journalist, but I didn’t set out to write crime.
My character Joe O’Loughlin was triggered by a real-life guy called Paul Britton, for whom I ghost-wrote the book The Jigsaw Man. The character of The Cracker is the real-life psychologist who worked on some of the top UK crimes, including the Fred and Rosemary West “House of Horrors” case and the case where the little boy was kidnapped and killed by the two 11-year-olds.
In working with him, I became fascinated by the criminal mind. In a sense, we get the monsters we deserve. Through all of their backgrounds, there was so much abuse and neglect. The psychology of it all fascinated me.
How much do you draw from true crime for your fictional inspiration?
My stories tend to be seeded in real-life events. I never use the word “inspire”. I’d hate to think a real crime would inspire anyone to do anything, but each story tends to have a seed or element of a real-life crime that leads to the story.
Lost was seeded in a picture of a child on a mild carton in America, and the latest book, Close Your Eyes, was based on an unsolved murder in a farmhouse in the UK. Life or Death was seeded in a two-paragraph story about a man who escaped from prison two days before he was due to be released.
How much of the popularity of crime novels do you think stems from people wanting genuine but safe thrills and scares, and how much from a need for some semblance justice which we are often denied in the news stories of violence and crime?
I think both, actually. There’s always been a fascination with ghost stories and horror stories, right back to caveman days, and even when we think how dark those original fairy stories were. We have the sanitised Disney versions today.
I think we also live in a world where the worst of criminals, the most corrupt of politicians, get away with it, and in crime fiction, there’s usually some semblance of justice.
Close Your Eyes is another in your successful Joe O’Loughlin series. I know this book brought many readers to tears. Please tell us this isn’t the end for Joe, that there are more adventures ahead of him?
It’s not the end. Joe will go on. If I’d ended the book more happily, I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go with that character, but now I have to sort him out. For the sake of my own marriage, I have to sort him out!
There will be at least one or two more books, but there is a limit because he has Parkinson’s and it’s getting progressively worse and he can’t keep going forever. I never imagined he’d be in more than one book, that we’d be sitting here 12 years later talking about him.
He’s certainly a character that a lot of readers love.
I know, that’s just it. It’s like with Life or Death, to write a stand-alone, I knew that some readers would be quite upset that it wasn’t a Joe book. But the story was strong enough that I trusted my readers to come along with me.
And Audie is also a very lovable character …
But the initial reaction on tours when I told them this wasn’t a Joe book, the entire audience would sigh!
You’ve been very generous in giving your time to appear at the Clare Writers Festival which, by world standards, is very small. Why do you think writers’ festivals like this are important?
It’s a weird thing about being a writer. In one month I could be in Cologne in Germany and have 850 people in front of me, and then you come to Clare and have 40. But I think particularly rural areas are important – often they’re starved of cultural events, and they’re passionate about their books.
I did an event in WA some years ago at a small town with a population of about 120 people, and 90 people turned up for this event. The entire town, basically!
I love going to these things. I also know that when I started my career, often only three people would turn up, and now I’ll go back there and there’ll be 70.
You put in the hard yards and get to build a career and people appreciate it and I get to keep doing what I love.
You’ve previously said that your first novel was rejected for being “too Australian”. Do you think this attitude is changing, or is it still a better bet to set stories in the UK or US?
It was rejected in the UK for being set in Australia, but that was 25 years ago. The world has moved on a lot from then.
There is still a situation where publishers are trying to be “safe”. They’re always looking for a hook, and some books, like Brooke Davis’ Lost and Found, are doing really well overseas. So it’s not a case of you cannot succeed, it’s just that if you do set a book in Australia, you have to be that little bit better than those books they’re seeing set in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales, because you’re not just competing against like for like, you’re also competing against the tyranny of distance.
To be an author these days, you’re told you need a social media platform. What are your views on social media for authors?
There’s no doubt it’s now far more the responsibility of the writer to promote your own work. Prior to the internet, the publisher did most of it and now there’s an expectation that you’ll blog and tweet.
But in saying that, the absolute first priority of every writer is to write the best damn book possible. If there’s time left over, dedicate it to social media promotion, but don’t let it detract from the quality of the book you’re writing. Your top priority is to write a better book each time.
What’s next for Michael Robotham?
There won’t’ be a book from me in 2016, which hasn’t happened in a long time. And that’s mainly to get my overseas publishers to all line up with release dates.
I’m losing a lot of books to piracy because publishers are releasing eight months behind and readers aren’t willing to wait that long.
I’m writing two books at the moment. One is a follow on from Close Your Eyes and is a Joe O’Loughlin book, and the other is more of a stand-alone, novel but it may feature Joe as a minor character.
I’m writing as quickly as ever, they just won’t be released for a while.
Michael Robotham was a guest at the Clare Writers Festival on November 28 and 29, where the author of this article attended his masterclass. Robotham also gave the Copyright Agency Author Talk in Adelaide last week.
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