The Secrets She Keeps
Author Talk with Michael Robotham
Talks / Lecture
From the internationally bestselling author who Stephen King called ‘an absolute master’ of the psychological thriller comes a riveting suspense novel about the unlikely friendship between two pregnant women that asks: how far would you go to create the perfect family?
In association with Hachette Australia
Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Michael Robotham (M), Louise Maher (L)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 27 July 2017
C: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Cathy Pilgrim, the Assistant Director General of the Executive in Public Programs Division here at the Library. As we begin tonight, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their Elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home. I'm delighted to see so many of you here tonight, out in the winter weather, to hear from Michael Robotham as he speaks about his new novel, The Secrets She Keeps.
At the age of 11 years old, Michael wrote to American author, Ray Bradbury, and received a reply including four of Bradbury's books that weren't available in Australia. Michael, do you still have that letter?
M: I do.
C: You do? It was this generosity that encouraged Michael to be a writer. Michael's work has been praised by Stephen King and in 2015 he was awarded the Gold Dagger by the Crime Writers' Association of the UK for best crime novel for the year for the grouping thriller, Life or Death.
Before becoming a novelist, Michael was an investigative journalist, working across America, Australia and Britain. He investigated notorious cases such as that of serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West. He has also worked with clinical and forensic psychologists as they helped police investigate complex, psychologically driven crimes.
The Secrets She Keeps tells the story of two women from different backgrounds who both have secrets. Their lives are about to collide in the most dramatic way and nothing will ever be the same again. Last night, or should I say very early this morning, I finished reading The Secrets She Keeps. I kept telling myself, just one more chapter, but I couldn't bring myself to turn the light off until I had read it all. So to find out more about this thrilling story, Michael is joined by dear library friend and ABC 666's, Louise Maher. Many of you know Louise and we all enjoy her passion for telling true stories about real people. So please join me in welcoming Michael and Louise tonight.
L: Thank you very much.
L: Thank you very much, Cathy. Yes I do enjoy making true stories about real people, but I love reading fiction and I'm a massive fan of Michael's so, so it's a great pleasure for me to be here tonight. Just before we kick off, have any 11 year olds written to you yet?
M: I do get - I get a lot of mail, and the ones I always respond to are the ones from children and the ones from people with Parkinson's or people caring for people with - because the long running series obviously features a character who has Parkinson's. So I get a lot of mail. I can't respond to everyone, but I do like to respond. In saying that I just have visions of people ringing and sending me letters saying, where are the free books, Michael.
L: Yes, where are my books?
M: Where are my books. I would like to think - it's really interesting, that Ray Bradbury story, because when he - sadly I was planning to see him when - we finally touched base and he read - I wrote about that generosity in a magazine article and about a week - in America, and a week later I had an email from Alexandra Bradbury, his youngest daughter, and I had no idea Ray was still alive and she said, my father is 91 years old and now completely blind but I wanted you to make - I wanted you to know that you made an old man cry.
L: Oh, that's so beautiful.
M: And he wanted you to know that you are his son.
M: And I sent him all the audio books, and we made great plans that when I got to America on my next tour that I would go - when I got to LA, that we would have dinner or lunch together and he died about two weeks before I arrived.
L: I'm so sorry.
M: And, which is very sad but what stunned me was the reaction because a lot of people think that Ray Bradbury was - I know he's very famous for Fahrenheit 451, and actually that's his most famous book. He was really a short story writer and many of the early episodes of the Twilight Zone were based on Bradbury's short stories which I think what - that's what attracted me most to him when I was 11. But suddenly when he died people were writing stories and it wasn't just me they were - Neil Gaiman wrote and Steven Spielberg and Joanne Harris who wrote Chocolat and all of them he'd done - Ray Bradbury had done similar things for them when they were young. They'd written and he'd replied and done similar things. I got quite cross when - I talked to Joanne Harris and she got to meet him. She got to LA, to meet her great hero whereas I -
L: And what did she say about that meeting?
M: Oh she said it was amazing. She had dinner with the whole family and it was just - yeah, he was absolutely charming. I think the only - I guess the thing that I - my ease a little bit was that it wasn't just me that loved him and was inspired by him but so many other writers. Also he died a few days after Curiosity landed on Mars, and he would have been fascinated by that because the Martian Chronicles were one of his most famous series of short stories. President Obama announced from the White House that the landing spot of Curiosity would forever be known as Bradbury's landing. So when you get the US President acknowledging you, does he realise that he was hugely influential as a man of letters.
L: The power of words.
L: And the power of connection.
M: And what I love is - actually the other thing I love about him is - if people don't know, it's - he wrote his first short stories at the local library on typewriters. You used to have to put nickels in and you'd go - and you got 15 minutes' of typing before it clicked over and you had to put more -
L: Cathy, don't get any ideas.
M: You had to put more money in. And the idea - imagine the pressure that puts you under -
M: - when you're penniless anyway, he's married, he married very young and he's trying to eek out a living and selling short stories and he's literally every - every minute that he spends typing it's costing him money.
L: I've never heard of that, that is amazing. You're in the middle of a very hectic book tour. You're going all over the country. I've been following you on your website, though I do notice that last week you had two engagements, one in the Barossa Valley and one in the Clare Valley which couldn't have been too -
M: Very nice.
L: - awful really.
M: It's a tough job really.
L: But you are such a well-known author now, you're so highly respected, you're a bestseller. Why do you feel the need to do book tours, what is it about doing book tours, coming to events like this that -
M: Can I just -
L: Yeah, you don't have to.
M: No, but it - you've got to understand that I spend eight, nine, 10 months of my year in the cabana of cruelty, my office.
L: That's what your daughter calls it?
M: Yeah, my daughter's called it that. And it's a very isolating profession. And the beauty of festivals and touring is you get a chance to actually meet other writers and talk to readers. It's almost like once a year they let me out of my box and I run around like a Red Setter puppy bounding all over the place saying hello to everyone. And then you've got me at a good time here because the book's only been out two weeks so I'm still excited by it and I'm not too tired. You ask me in four weeks' time and I'll be so sick of -
L: So over it.
M: - living out of a suitcase, and talking about the same book over and over again. But it's exciting. And from here I think I go to - I go to the States after - to this for a little while, but that's -
L: It's a good way to sniff out new ideas as well.
M: A few years ago I was seven weeks on the road and it as punishing. I was staying - I was in this luxury hotel in Toronto overlooking the lakes, one of the great lakes there and Kate Moss, the author, Kate Moss, who wrote Labyrinth, most famous, she was - we were there and we were both complaining about the fact she'd been six weeks away from her family, I'd been seven weeks. And we looked out at this view and we said, do you know, there are tens of thousands of writers who would cut off their right arm to be where we are. We have to get over ourselves. The idea that we're complaining about someone taking us to the other side of the world and putting us in these lovely hotels and whatnot. You have to get over yourself <laughter>.
L: Okay, yeah we don't feel that sorry for you actually.
L: We will come to the book in just a minute. Last week or the week before, I think it was, I was in the car and Richard Fidler's conversation came on the radio. You were speaking to Richard and I thought, oh, damn, and I listened to the first bit but then I vowed to myself that I would not go back and listen to the interview because I'd just steal Richard's excellent questions. But I was intrigued to hear right at the start of that interview about the Canberra connection, your early Canberra connection.
L: And I wonder if you could just share that for our people here.
M: I don't know how many people with - probably - how many people listen to the Richard Fidler podcast? Oh there's a few there. I'm sorry if I'm repeating myself. I spent most of my childhood in Gundagai and Canberra was obviously - it's where you had to come to buy your school shoes, it was where you had to come to buy anything. If you had - if you needed a television, needed anything, Canberra was the place to come. And we'd make the 101 - I knew it was exactly 101 miles to get to Canberra. I famously, as I think I mentioned to Richard, I was not great as a traveller, I threw up on the way and finished up walking through - there was only Old Parliament House then - wearing nothing but a pair of budgie smugglers but they were Gundagai Tigers budgie smugglers. They were red and black stripes. And I remember we used to come to Canberra to buy our broken Easter eggs and we'd come -
L: Because they were cheap, yeah.
M: Yeah and they were - yeah my folks didn't have much money. Yeah, it was the big trip; this was the Big Smoke. So much so that later on when I went for my first job interview at Fairfax, for a cadetship at Fairfax, and caught the north coast mail train down from Coffs Harbour, and I got to the foyer of the old Fairfax building in Jones Street off Broadway and I'd never been in a lift by myself before. And so I stood outside the lift too scared to get in because I didn't know how - whether you had to shut the doors yourself, whether there was a button to shut the doors. My parents had never owned a telephone so I'd never got used to using a telephone.
L: This is great training for a journalist.
M: I know, well it's so funny because when I first - I got the cadetship and for the first - I remember picking up the - I was given this task, it was as a cadet and I kept picking up the phone and I could not get anyone to talk to me. Until finally I said, the phone - is your phone working? And I checked their phones, your phone's broken too. And I - no, you have to dial to get an outside line. A what?
L: Zero, yeah.
M: An outside line. What's an outside - I thought they were all outside lines <laughter>.
L: Oh I'd love to talk to you more about those and we may come back to that, but let's talk a bit about The Secrets She Keeps. We can't discuss the plot, this is what's so frustrating -
M: Yeah, it's a tough one.
L: - about talking to writers, especially of crime fiction, but it's about two women, Agatha and Meagan. Do you call her Meagan?
M: Yeah, Meagan or Meg.
L: Meg, yeah, and who they - they have a couple of things in common; one is that they're both expecting babies. Where did this idea come from, the idea for what unfolds?
M: The idea - all of the novels have been set at in real life events and normally stories are covered or - and I can't actually talk - again, I apologise about the actual event because it -
L: It'll give it away.
M: It will give it away but it's an event that happened in 1991 in the UK.
L: So did you remember it from 1991?
M: Yeah I - one of the many people that I ghost wrote for when I - three career journalists, ghost writer -
M: - and novelist, was a guy called Paul Britton who's the forensic psychologist that crack was based upon so he worked on the Fred and Rosemary West case and Jamie Bulger. He worked on a particular case which I wrote up for him when we were working on the books, and it always stuck with me because I thought it was a great idea for a novel. And I wish I could tell you more, but if you pick up a book called Jigsaw Man, about the life and times of Paul Britton he was known as the Jigsaw Man because of the brilliant mind that he had -
L: Putting the pieces together.
M: - at putting all the pieces together psychologically. And there's a case in that book which involves a similar sort of crime that takes place in The Secrets She Keeps.
L: Okay, but read Michael's book first, obviously.
M: Yeah, yeah.
L: In this book you alternate between telling the story in the first person from each woman's point of view and you have done this before in your novels, but what appeals to you about this particular way of storytelling?
M: I think - this is only the second time I've done it from a woman's point of view. The Night Ferry, my third novel, was - actually that's not true, Piper, I did have a voice in Say You're Sorry, a teenage girl. I think - I write first person - I think it's very uncomfortable. Having been a ghostwriter, and once a ghostwriter - and somebody did ask me the other night saying, so where do the ghost stories come in? But I'm sure most of you know what a ghost -
M: I was the unseen hand behind autobiographies for The Great And The Good And The Less Good. Thank you, Rolf.
M: And -
L: We are going to come to that.
M: Oh. And - really?
M: Anyway, that's the one book I've taken off my shelf, but it's all about capturing a voice and it's about the first person because I have to become them. When you're ghost writing you have to become those individuals, whether it be Gerri Halliwell or Lulu or Ricky Tomlinson or Tony Bullimore or whoever you're -
L: It's great training for being a novelist, because you're in a habit - as you say, you're inside someone else's head. In the ghost writing situation they're real people but in the novel situation of course they're the people that you've made up so you've got even more licence.
M: You do but -
L: But you learn the techniques.
M: - you know the techniques of making them not just three-dimensional but multi dimensional, having so many dimensions and - well in a sense I went from - I was a feature writer, senior feature writer on the Mail on Sunday, London, when I finally thought, I met a ghost writer. I didn't know there was such a thing. And this guy came in and he'd written - he'd ghost written for Simon Weston, the Falklands hero that was badly burnt, an iconic figure from the Falklands War and Robert Swan, the Polar ice walker. And I remember saying to this ghost writer, how do you do it, what do you do? To me, I went into journalism wanting to be a novelist but having nothing to write about, thinking journalism would get me the material. I became a ghostwriter because I wanted to know -
L: Also it pays.
M: It does.
L: But used to.
M: And I also - and then I went into ghost writing because I thought journalism's an incredibly exciting profession, it took me all over the world, but you're doing a different story every day or every week. Did I have the patience or the discipline to spend a year working on a single project?
L: So it was a test.
M: It was a test to see whether - and having gone from one of the most exciting professions, one of the professions where you spend so much time in the pub in journalism and you've always got people around you telling great stories, to sitting on my own again really, not to completely anymore because you have to obviously live with the subject or work with them and interview them. But it was a test to see whether I could do the long form story, whether I - it's one thing to write a 1,500 word profile on someone but could I write a hundred thousand words and could I capture their voice so it was a test.
L: So at what point did you think, right I've done that, I'm ready to go with my own fiction, and it was The Suspect was your first one?
M: I lived in a golden age of ghost writing because -
L: There was a golden age of ghostwriters?
M: Yeah. Now there are so many unemployed journalists who basically - they're pricing each other out of the market, they're desperate for work. But back when I was working in it they're - there are enormous amounts of money being paid for people's autobiographies and if you were writing it you were getting a third of everything they were getting which made it far more lucrative than journalism, even, and far more lucrative than writing novels would normally be. I honestly thought I was making such a good living as a ghostwriter I'd had 12 Sunday Times bestsellers, I'd sold over two million books. My name has never been on any of them and I thought -
L: Did that annoy you? How did you feel about that?
M: No, the only time -
L: But did it depend on who it was?
M: The only time it annoyed me was - well I shouldn't say this. Are we being recorded? <Laughter>
L: No, there's no-one here.
M: No, it's one of those things because you know that I've won - I won the Gold Dagger. Well in truth I have won another Dagger which I can't reveal the book that I won it for <laughter>.
M: Okay, but it wasn't fiction, it was back when they had Daggers for non-fiction.
L: I'm going to be madly Googling after this.
M: Yeah probably.
L: I'm going to try - we'll all try and work it out, yeah.
M: But that slightly disappointed me. The only other time I got shocked was when they first promoted me as a novelist in the UK. They put massive posters on the tube, with this very moody silhouetted man and the tag was, he's sold - he's had 12 Sunday Times bestsellers and sold two million books but you don't know his name, meet the man behind the ghost.
L: What a great marketing campaign.
M: It was a hugely successful campaign.
L: Do you know where that term came from, ghost writing, who came up - who coined the term?
M: No idea. But I do know, though, when I saw the film, the Ghost or the Ghost Writer, with Ewan McGregor, based on the Robert Harris book. I almost demolished a TV because Ewan McGregor is hired to be the ghost writer and he's got it completely - he says I've got to completely redo this autobiography of this former prime minister based on Tony Blair, obviously, and he said how long do you need and he said, oh I'd need at least three weeks.
L: Oh <laughter>. Yeah right. Getting back to The Secret She Keeps, this is a book that seems to me anyway but yeah, well obviously it's very much targeted at women, it's very much a women's story. And you always do - you do great female characters, obviously, but I wondered if it - was that a really deliberate slight switch?
M: It - no I agree, this falls into that domestic oh-ar area.
L: It's very much like Liane Moriarty and Joe Pichaud.
M: I would - probably more - less than Liane, I'd put it more in the territory of Girl on a Train and Gone Girl. That idea of the unreliable narrator, you don't know - or both these narrators are technically unreliable in this book, you don't know who to believe when. And I guess it's - even though I had the idea for a lot of years - the reason - I had the idea of - it wasn't until I realised I had to have two voices that I realised that I can make the idea work, having the two different characters tell it. But I guess it was partly that reflection of - and, look, I was an enormous fan of Gone Girl, I thought Gone Girl was an amazing book. Girl on a Train I really struggled with and I can understand why it was so successful and people loved it but then part of me thought, okay I'm going to have a crack at doing that.
L: Then we had all the girl books. This could have been the pregnant girl but I'm glad you didn't -
M: Oh no, don't worry.
L: But glad you didn't do that.
M: No I - when it came down to titles I said you are not putting girl on this title.
L: Yeah, thank you.
M: I did have another title; it was called expecting when I was writing it. But no I think - I didn't say that - as you say, all my books have been heavily associated with family and family dynamics and often fatherhood and having children. And that's a strong part of it. This one - I promised myself after I wrote The Night Ferry that I've never talked - I would never write another book from a female perspective because anyone who's involved in writing those, that women are the great readers of fiction. I'm not saying that men don't read fiction, they love fiction, but they often - men prefer non-fiction, they prefer histories and things like that whereas women tend to absolutely love this style of fiction. And you get something wrong and there's a big question mark. Even now it's a huge - much bigger issue now about cultural appropriation but also gender appropriation. Should a man write as a woman, can a man write as a woman.
L: Have you had that put to you?
M: Oh yeah.
L: And your response?
M: I had - well it's funny, when I wrote The Night Ferry which, again was told from the eyes of three guys with a 28 year old Anglo-Indian policewoman, it was short-listed for the Steel Dagger in the UK and got some wonderful reviews. But there was one reviewer form the Glasgow Herald who said that this was so obviously a man pretending to be a woman and it was a man - the author was a man with a breast fetish. And I went back through - I was horrified, I went back through the book and there were indeed six references to breasts. There was a vehicle ferry where five trucks were parked abreast. There was someone who had a name tag on a breast pocket. Someone ate poached chicken breasts. Someone had a police secret microphone taped between her breasts, and there was - sorry, there was one reference -
L: To an actual breast.
M: - to an actual breast that was stroked during foreplay which is clearly where I made my mistake, there was just far too much foreplay in that book <laughter>. And, yeah, it's an interesting area about whether - and particularly this book as a book about pregnancy and childlessness and infertility and all sorts of those issues which are deeply female. I don't think that precludes men from really enjoying the story because it's a cracking mystery at the heart of it but these are deeply female issues and there are people out there that would say that - I personally think as a writer I've got every right to do that as a novelist. So I get it wrong by all means criticise me, but don't tell me I can't do it because what hope have we ever got of achieving true equality if you don't allow men to at least try to empathise and understand what it's like to be a woman and to experience those things of childbirth and pregnancy and all that. If you don't allow a man to do that, or vice versa, how can we ever hope to.
L: So for your research for that, did you base it on what you knew from what your wife had experienced through her pregnancies, because you have three daughters.
L: Did you bounce ideas off your wife or?
M: No, it was a mixture; it was being surrounded by women. Help. There are only males in the Robotham household; myself and the cat and we've both been spayed <laughter>. And so there was that. There was having ghost written for people like Lulu and Gerri Halliwell and Mark Humphries, the Nottingham social worker that uncovered the child migrant scandal which was made into the film Origin Sunshine, that book. So I'd ghosted for about five women and captured their voices. I'm surrounded by women. And then I'd done The Night Ferry and then I just devoured mummy blogs and I talked to mothers' groups and I talked to pregnant women and I eavesdropped on conversations.
And then I gave - it took every woman I knew of every age, those with children, those without, those who had tried and failed, whatever, everyone. And said, I want you to read this and if there is any discord and note, if at any point you feel as though I have not captured these characters the way I should have done, that my maleness is showing through, then let me know.
L: Did you have to change much?
M: Not at all actually. I do say I like telling the story, my - you've got to understand where I'm coming from. My youngest daughter who's now 17 but when she was about seven we were out having McDonald's or something like that and she said to me, you're not like normal dads, are you, dad? I said, in what way? She said, well you don't go off to the office like normal dads. I said, no, no, that's true, I work from home. And she said, and you don't play rugby and go surfing, and I said, no, and you don't go and have a beer after work with your mates and I'm saying, no, no, not often. She said, you're a bit of a girlie man, aren't you, dad? <Laughter> I said, yeah, that probably sums me up <laughter>.
L: Another thing about the book, it's set in London but I could see it playing out in Paddington or Mosman or Manuka or Braddon, that would be great. So why London? The Joe O'Loughlin series is obviously -
L: - set in England, you've a huge readership in Britain as well as in Australia and the US, but why did this one have to be set in London?
M: It didn't really. It's a bit like life or death, the standalone one, the Dagger. That was based up on the two-paragraph story that I read in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1995 about a man who escaped from prison the day before he was due to be released. And I remember thinking about whether I should set that one in Australia because obviously that's where the idea came from. And you've got to laugh at this one. And I finally decided that I really needed a setting for that where there was enormous political corruption, and where you had corrupt politicians and police officers and judges and whatnot. And I just didn't think New South Wales had that <laughter>. Well I don't think - I'm working on it. Little did I know.
L: So is Queensland.
M: That's true. And it was actually a publisher that said to me that - because that was - even though it opens, it's got a really Shawshank Redemption feel, it's got a prison break at the very opening of it. And America has a great tradition of prison-based novels like Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile and things like that. It was a publisher that said, because I thought that my British publishers want it set in Britain and my Americans want it set in America. So my British publishers said you should set that in America. And why didn't I set this in Australia? Do you know, it didn't - I think probably more so I was worried that people that knew me, families and women and whatnot would think that I'd based it upon -
M: - them, and the characters on them. There's another issue as well. When I lived in England, I could remember Australia with an incredible clarity.
L: Because of that distance?
M: The distance. It's like you're homesick and so you can smell the eucalypts and you can feel the salt water drying on your skin. I think that's why - without putting myself in anywhere in the company of the great Irish writers, but the great - Beckett and Behan and Joyce Roach from outside of Ireland, but they wrote about Ireland and they felt that they had something about that distance creates enormous clarity.
So when I lived in London I wrote the great Australian unpublished novel, probably the greatest ever Australian unpublished novel. Still unpublished but - it's still in the bottom drawer.
L: Bring it out.
M: Because when - no, I get asked all the time that, Louise. But when I came back to Australia I had that similar feeling about London and my memories of London and I felt like I could write about the UK from that distance. And also - I should also say, the reason I began my career was, I did, when I wrote that great Australian unpublished novel - did I mention it the was the greatest? <Laughter> It almost got published by Penguin Heinemann in the UK, I missed out by a single vote in the final publishing meeting.
L: Was this before The Suspect?
M: Oh yeah, this was 20 years before.
L: Before your ghost writing?
M: Yeah this was before ghost writing. This is just - I met - the agent had got me ghost writing was the agent that I showed this novel to and he took it out there and I needed nine votes in this publishing meeting and I got eight. And they came to me afterwards, it was set in a small fishing town in New South Wales, this novel. And they told me and I said, why didn't they get the vote, and he said, if you had set that same story in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales we would have published it in a heartbeat. But because you set it in Australia -
L: That's a harsh lesson.
M: And so - and I think the world's changed a lot since then, people are willing to read books from - and they are from all over the world. But in the back of my mind, 10 years later when I sat down to - when I had that space between the ghost written projects - And going back to - I didn't answer your original question, I honestly thought I would write a novel, it would sell eight copies, my mother would buy six of them and I would spend the rest of my career as a ghost writer. I had no idea I was going to be able to make a living out of writing novels.
But in the back of my mind when I wrote that 117 pages of The Suspect, a part manuscript, I thought well the Australian novel didn't get up so this time I'm going to set a book in the UK and see if that makes a difference and it triggered a bidding war at the London book fare and the rest is history.
L: And those posters on the underground, yeah.
L: It must have been such a thrill.
M: It was actually nerve wracking. It's very - when you've written 15 books for other people and your name's not on them, the very first time you see your name on the book, my first reaction was they have made a terrible mistake. Someone has gone and - they put my name on it, they can't do that. I actually thought they'd made - I was really uncomfortable.
L: So when did you start feeling okay about it?
M: I guess the first time I -
L: After the reviews or?
M: The first time I saw it was in Ireland and then the - I was doing a world tour and so I was going to places and seeing my name on a book and people were asking me about it. And so it had never been - I'd never given an interview about a book I'd written because I was always the unseen hand. Other people did that. The reviews still hurt, you read the reviews even though - if you've ghost written it because you want to know they've given you great reviews or not but certainly you want the great ones. It took me a long while to get used to the fact that my name was on something.
L: I know that my ABC colleague, Michael Brissenden, has just -
M: He's just written as novel, yeah.
L: - published his - yeah, he's just written his novel.
M: Tony Jones has written a crime novel as well.
L: Oh, watch out. But Michael, I know he won't mind me saying this but he posted a picture on his Facebook page of seeing his novel at the airport bookshop along with - well it was a shelf below Michael Connelly's crime book, latest crime book.
M: I saw that today, yeah.
L: But he was so thrilled and -
M: Oh, I'd say.
L: - so he would be. So do you still get a buzz when you see your books in stores?
M: I still get - look, I honestly didn't think I'd write one - I was only a one novel publish and people imagined that I'd planned these - the series which are out. I had no idea that Joe O'Loughlin would go past one book let alone being in seven. So yeah I still pinch myself. It's a bit like - I get upset when people - I get upset when I hear writers say that writing is hard. Okay there are tough days but raising a disabled child is hard. There are countless things that are harder than what I - I am so privileged to do what I always wanted to do. The idea that even in - you look out there at the bookshop, look at the library, the tens of thousands of not only their books but every podcast you've never seen, every film you've ever seen, there are so many things to compete for your precious time and your precious leisure time, the idea that someone would choose a story that I wrote and either pay money or borrow it and devote the 14 hours, that's hugely humbling. You can't - you've just to say, wow.
L: Well let's talk a bit about Joe, Joe O'Loughlin, who - and I'm sure most people here would know, but Joe is the protagonist in a whole series of your novels. He's a clinical psychologist, he has Parkinson's disease. As you say at the start, you thought it would be a one-off novel but it's developed into a fabulous series and we learn so much about Joe and his family. In the most recent Joe novel, Close Your Eyes -
M: Don't give away the anec.
L: I know, this is the thing, I'm sure everyone who's read that book wants to ask you, as I do, and I'm not -
M: You can come and whisper it in my ear later.
L: And I won't - I'm not going to go there, of course, but what's happening with Joe, where's Joe up to, where are you up to with Joe?
M: I am almost finished a new Joe book, which will be out -
M: - this time next year. I can give you a little taster for those who - and I don't know how many people - how many people here have read a Joe O'Loughlin book? Okay, and so there are people here who haven't and I'm sorry. He's a clinical psychologist, he's got a brilliant mind but a crumbling body. So he's the antithesis of Jack Reacher or Jason Borne or James Bond. He's a man that's always going to have to outthink people. But in the new book, Joe is summoned to hospital at three o'clock in the morning because his father who Joe has always referred to as God's personal physician in waiting, his father has been injured in either an attack or an accident and he's had to undergo brain surgery. Joe immediately says, where's my mother, your mother's with him in the ICU. So Joe rushes to the hospital, gets to the ICU and there's a strange woman beside the bed and he says, who are you, and she says I'm his other wife.
L: Oh <laughter>, okay.
M: And so the book is to be called The Other Wife.
L: The Other Wife. Right, and when's that due out?
M: This time next year.
L: All right. So do you have a regular way of working? I read a profile on Michael Connelly and he says he starts a book every November - I'm probably going to get it wrong but towards the end of the year and it comes out the following year in November, perfectly timed for the Christmas rush.
L: Do you do that sort of thing?
M: No, actually this one - the reason that this one - it's been two years since my last book, was to get my publishing schedules around the world to line up. Because what was happening is my American edition was coming out eight months after the UK, Australian edition and, as anyone will know, that if you tell a reader that they have to wait eight months for something that they know is already out somewhere in the world they will find some way of getting it legally or illegally. But it meant that the only way to stop that was to publish.
L: But you have been able to do that?
M: Yeah, so this one, The Secrets She Keeps, was published on the same day right across the English speaking world and it's the first time I've managed to tee that up. No, I - look, I aim to do - I will be doing hopefully a book a year. I finish every book convinced that I will never write again, that I've run out of ideas, one liners, descriptions. I will go - I'll press send and I'll go into my wife and say that's it, I'm going to have to get a proper job, I'm empty, I'm a hollow man, there's nothing left in the tank.
L: And she's just hum and walk away.
M: Yeah she hums and ahs and says - until I get on her nerves when I keep wandering around complaining. She says, go out to your office, clean it up. So I go out to the cabana of cruelty and she'll find me two hours later and she'll be, what are you doing, and I just say, I've just had an idea. So literally within hours of finishing one I'll start another, but I don't have a drawer full of idea, I will often finish a book with absolutely no idea.
L: But you don't sit down, you don't say, right, I'm going to sit down and stay and start this new book and I'm going to finish it in six months or?
M: No I just - I don't plot the books in advance.
L: Or will you - or do you just have a patterns that's evolved naturally?
M: Yeah I just - oh, look, I spent my - well having - I wanted to be a writer since I was 11, I collected every article ever written - that I read on writers. And I would read about what time they started writing, what they had for breakfast, where they faced their desk, to his window, away from the window. What was their favourite tipple. I can tell you things. Mark Twain used to get his wife to do the housework naked because it inspired him. I have suggested that -
L: Have you tried that?
M: I did, I've got the bruises to prove it. And so I know about the writers who would only write standing up, the writers that would faint. Voltaire would faint to get rid of dinner guests he didn't like. I've collected material on writers my entire life thinking that there was a formula and of course then discovered there is no formula, you simply - or as Hemingway said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed. But, no, so I just start in the morning and I start - on a good day I will write a thousand words. Sometimes I will throw all of those away the next day and if I can get a single line.
And I remember that opened up in the very first novel, The Suspect, I remember writing a thousand words the first day and I threw it all away but one line remained and it was the line that I got most asked about. It was when Joe O'Loughlin's on the roof of a hospital, trying to talk a young cancer patient down who wants to jump and he describes this cancer patient, Malcolm. He said he's wearing a woollen hat or a woollen beanie because chemotherapy is a cruel hairdresser and I said that was the line that remained.
Little moments like that where you sort of think, hey, I might be able to do this. But it's like - because I don't plot, it's like climbing a mountain and every time I start I stare at that rock face and I begin climbing because I don't plot in advance, I have no idea how high that sucker is and I just keep going and hope there's a top.
L: So you don't plot in advance.
M: No, I just hope that somewhere up there I'll reach an ending that - and the view will be great <laughter>.
L: What do you think about what people are calling the Golden Age of television, because we've just seen the huge success, for example, of Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty's book, and it was so well done, though they changed the location to the US.
L: And The Secret She Keeps, that's - you can see that as a really great, well done mini series so do they come sniffing around your door for that, yeah?
M: Well and at the moment I've got - the Germans have made four films out of the Joe O'Loughlin books and they've got a fifth on the way now, which I was hoping would turn up on SBS. But there's a - Life or Death is - well Life or Death is funny, it was bought - the rights were bought by the company that did the Lego movie. And they decided to give the script to a relatively unknown scriptwriter who'd had success writing a script for a film called Whiplash, he's name's Damien Chazelle. And so he was merrily writing the script for Life or Death and decided - he just put it aside to do a little project called La La Land, which he wrote and directed. Of course Damien Chazelle has now become the hottest -
L: Of course.
M: - writer, director in Hollywood. So Life or Death is not on his radar anymore. But with a brilliant South Korean director who's done a few English language, things like Stoker -
L: But is that for - that's for a film?
M: That's for a film. There are some TV series -
L: Did they ask you if you were interested in screenwriting it yourself?
M: I talked to Sarah Waters who's done the script for the Handmaiden which is just out and so I'm a good script consultant, I will be one of the writers on it but I didn't want to be the sole writer on it. There is a TV series planned. The reason I'm always -
M: For the Joe O'Loughlin.
M: A long form TV series. It's being planned by the same company that did Jack Irish so it's a joint British, German, Australian but the UK will take the lead whereas Jack Irish, the Australians took the lead. It's early days. If I tell you that that first ghost written book took 17 years to get made into Oranges in Sunshine, I know not to hold my breath. But the script is being written for Joe O'Loughlin and they will be - I think they're looking at eight episodes per book to do that long. And you're absolutely right, it is a golden age of TV writing.
L: Have - or do you have in mind who you'd like - you must but are you going to tell us?
M: Oh I used to have in mind because - but the rights were sold really early on.
L: Who should be Joe?
M: Well it's had to change because the very first person I had in mind for Joe couldn't possibly do it anymore because he was then a relatively unknown actor called Damien Lewis, who has obviously become huge with Homeland and Billions. He's a brilliant British actor. My Vincent Royce character has always been the same, I've always thought that Ray Winston would do a brilliant job playing the Vincent Royce character. But I don't know who - I have one - in my contract I put one stipulation. It's so funny, I said, you will not cast a former soap opera star <laughter>.
L: Oh, why?
M: Well because I just hate it when they put some sort of Eastenders star, thinking this will be his vehicle.
L: Oh, his vehicle, yes.
M: You know, his vehicle and sort of -
L: His big break.
M: - from big break into - I think now, though, it's just great because they're pulling in really big name actors who are willing to. We saw that with True Detective and The Wire. Hugely successful film actors are willing to come back and work in TV because that's where the best writing has been done.
L: Yeah. Would you be interested in writing yourself for television?
M: I get approached -
L: It's the only things you haven't done.
M: Yeah. No, I get approached - the ABC has approached me a few times about doing - perhaps getting involved in doing an Australian true detective style drama. And, look, partly it interests me. Another part, it's really - even though I am Australian, and I love this country, it's where my children were born, it's - as a writer I'm - like the Germans feel as they own me because that's one of my biggest markets. And the UK because they feel as though - and so to turn around to all of my other publishers and say, oh by the way I won't be writing a book for the next year or two, I'm going to be working on a TV series in Australia, you've got to massage the disappointment that you're going to cause a lot of other people around you.
L: Yeah and it's not - it's letting down your publishers but it's letting down your readers.
M: Exactly. So you're having to tell them there won't be any books. So it's - if you weigh that up. It's also - and not that it ever influences a writer ever, or it shouldn't do, but if you are really fortunate to be successful you finish up being on top of a pyramid. And I do know a writer, a writer in the UK, that announced the very last minute that they couldn't do - a very successful writer who worked and delivered a book in that November slot for Christmas, and two or three people lost their jobs at a publishing house because the turnover -
L: They were relying on it.
M: - of that single book was so great it could be the entire Christmas bonus for a publishing house could be gone because one author doesn't deliver. And he - that's a real rarity and you're influenced by it but it's in the background.
L: Yeah but then you have people like George Martin who says I'm not going to be -
M: Of course.
L: But he's coming from a certain position. I think we might - because I know the people here will have questions for you too and I'm hogging all the questions. I think Lindsay's got a microphone there, so we've got two microphones moving around.
M: Someone's got to put a hand up, though.
L: Yeah, so who'd like to go first?
M: So, oh there's someone - always got to be a first.
L: Down here.
M: Hello, the microphone's coming.
Audience: I don't need a -
L: Oh, no, we need it -
M: We need it for recording. If someone else puts their hand up quickly they can get the second microphone for the next -
Audience: Yeah, hi Michael.
Audience: My name's Tracey. I just want to know, do you keep an actual file for all those words that you throw away?
Audience: Because you don't actually throw them away, do you?
M: It's really interesting, I do throw a lot of words away because I don't plot in advance. I have a scene with Joe O'Loughlin, one of my - the - my favourite scene I've ever written and I have never managed to get it in a book. And I have opened books with this scene and it gets pushed further and further back and it drops off. I have now - I'm promising myself that it will be the last scene that I ever write into the whole lot <laughter>. But, no, you never throw stuff away.
But by the same token you do forget you've got material there or - I'm always amazed at how well readers remember things because I've started - I started a novel at one point and I had great plans that Joe was going to investigate his estranged wife, then Julie-Anne, she was going to desperately need his help because something happed to her father. So I wrote 20,000 words and went back and read the first novel and saw that Julie Anne's father committed suicide when she was 12 <laughter>. And so, yeah, I think sometimes my readers have a better memory for these things than I do.
L: But it's like - when people used to type on paper back in the olden days, and we've all seen it in the movies, they rip it out of the typewriter, screw it up, throw it in the waste paper basket and then half an hour later go and crawl through and go, oh, this was it.
L: If you delete something on the computer, because I'm presuming you write on a computer.
M: Yeah but then you're getting the advantage that you get the 12 different drafts. I've got libraries coming to you and they want your papers and you go back and think, well you've got the 12 different versions of it and all of it's there because you've saved each draft on computer.
L: Nice, okay.
M: So there's always a version there and you're very - anyone that's savvy would never start changing a version if they hadn't saved it and kept that there and gone draft two or draft three or draft four.
L: Okay. Our next question?
M: God, aren't they a shy bunch? There must be a question there.
L: Yes, we've got a microphone coming from this end.
Audience: Hi, my name's Rowen. I'm just wondering how long you're going to be able to continue with Joe O'Loughlin considering his medical condition.
M: Yeah, I know it's -
Audience: And I know that he's deteriorating in each book but -
M: Yeah. No, it's funny, you're right, I created a use by date with Joe O'Loughlin when I put - when I gave him early onset Parkinson's in The Suspect. As I mentioned earlier, I never intended he was going to be more than a one-off character and he was only a minor character in the second novel. He wasn't in the third novel. I brought him back for Shatter because it was a perfect story for a psychologist to tell. And I joked that I had to keep writing him after that because my wife wouldn't sleep with him unless I sorted out his personal life <laughter>, which I haven't managed to do yet. But, no, each book is potentially the last and for those people who have read or hopefully you'll read The Secret She Keeps, there's a new psychologist introduced in that called Cyrus Haven, who's got a very interesting back story. And I know my American publishers have already sounded me out saying, he would be great to carry on.
L: Had you already thought that yourself?
M: No, honestly. This is shameless. The reason that - Joe was in this book for a while when I first wrote the first draft.
L: In The Secret She Keeps.
M: In The Secret She Keeps.
M: And my agent came to me and said, you know we've already sold the TV and film rights to Joe. If you put another psychologist in we can sell a new lot <laughter>. Typical agents, typical agents. But, no, I thought, oh, do I really want to - but then I love the back story I created for him. Here's this man whose entire family - when he was a teenager, his entire family were killed by his older brother and he came home after soccer practice to find his family dead. That's the reason he became a psychologist. I think there's something in him. Now I may -
L: And that's the reason why your daughters come up with names for your writing studio.
M: I know, I know, although -
L: Citadel of cruelty.
M: And yeah, look, I give myself options because, as I said, I never planned it, even in the new book, or in the last book, Charlie, Joe's eldest daughter, announces she wanted to study psychology. And so I've left it open to potentially have a situation where I might leave Joe for a book or two and then wait for Charlie to almost have graduated and have got where she needs to get to and then bring her back in as a character and have Joe mentoring her.
But I did create - I created a use by date for him and for people that want to ask - you can't ask me why I ended the last book the way I did, the last - Close Your Eyes, the last Joe book, but one of the reasons is because I don't want to write the same book twice. Every one of my books I've tried to make incredibly unique, whether they be standalones or the Joe O'Loughlin books. Sometimes they're third person, sometimes Joe is first person. Sometimes they've got multiple voices. Every one I've tried to make different.
I think one of the great failings of people who write series and there are writers that don't fall into the trap, but one of the failings is that they tend to write the same book over and over and you'll have readers, even though they might love that book, they might - it might be like putting on their favourite pair of slippers and sitting in their favourite armchair. When you ask them afterwards they'll go, yeah, but it was a bit like the last one. I want to avoid that. The moment I write the same book twice I want someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, Michael, time's up, move on, retire now or - that's the aim to - I want to keep exciting -
When I was a ghost writer I got the opportunity to look at the world through a new set of eyes every time I sat down. When I write a new novel I want to be just as excited, I want to be creating something new that I haven't done before and that makes - that gets my creative juices going.
L: Yeah, excellent. Question at the back?
Audience: I was going to ask that Joe O'Loughlin question but I've got a backup question and it's just more a curiosity. Do you have a sense as to why you've become so popular in Germany?
M: Not really, it's really - it's this question about why does anything take - we suddenly hear stories about suddenly some band is huge in Japan, you wonder why that is. I think my first three novels in Germany got incredibly - well reviewed and I was short-listed for an award or two but hardly sold a copy. And they took a huge risk really, they toured me in Germany for my fourth book, which was very expensive because you tour with an actor, often already well known actor that does your readings for you and an interviewer, an interpreter.
L: Interpreter, yeah.
M: And so you're talking - and a publicist and so it's a huge expense to take you to all these cities and do it. And I honestly believe that first trip, that the actor was so big people were coming along to see the actor <laughter>. He was a real - he was the Hugh Jackman of Germany. I had a Miss Playboy October 2011 in the front row. She was nowhere near as attractive as the ladies here but the idea that she came along to one of my events, she obviously came along to see Ralph. Although what I did do in that book, Ralph, he could have - he's a very handsome young guy, his name is Ralph Myer, he could have got laid every night, okay, but I made him read the psychopath scenes in Shatter <laughter>. And by the time we had five cities into this tour he said to me, Michael, perhaps tonight I could read the Joe O'Loughlin scenes. I'd go, no, Ralph, you do the psychopaths so well <laughter>. And there wasn't a woman in the place that wanted to go home with him after he'd read those scenes <laughter>.
L: Do we have another question from the floor?
Audience: Yeah, thanks. My question's about crime novels written, say, in the '80s and then crime novels written today. And I'm reminded of a tour that Australian crime writer, Barry Maitland, did and he - I asked a similar question and it was about the level of violence and description that a lot of crime novels have today whereby if you look at crime novels written 20, 30 years ago, that level of description is much more muted. And he said that - and I'm just asking you whether you agree or have a different view.
Audience: He said that writers are under pressure to put more violence and description and keep pushing the envelope even further because the whole media, whether it's movies or TV series or other novels, they're getting that way that they're competing. Is there a pressure to write that way?
M: No, I don't think there's a pressure, I certainly agree with him that there's no doubt that TV and movies - for anyone that watched any of the Netflix series, there's suddenly - the violence is much more graphic and in your face than it has ever been before. So I think generally community sensibilities have shifted a little bit, people are willing to accept that more graphical low. I still - I remember when I wrote a book called Say Or Sorry. I had people complain to me about a scene in that book where they claim that I had described a teenage girl being mutilated. And I said I didn't, and they said, yes you did, I was disgusted by that scene. And I'll go, no, you go back and read it, I didn't describe that at all. And everything they had described was in their imagination. I had just had people reacting to what they saw but didn't describe what they saw.
But in their imaginations they thought that - they were horrified because I had created - and that's, again, that beauty of someone like Alfred Hitchcock who was so brilliant at creating suspense without putting it on camera, so to speak. So I firmly believe that the best, the most powerful stuff is obviously off camera, it's people's reactions rather than physically describing the violence.
I would never physically describe the rape or the torture or the murder of someone. You see the aftermath, you see the shock, you see the tears, you see that, and people - I let people's imagination go but I wouldn't physically describe it. I know writers like Jo Nesbø, a few books ago, thought - decided he was going to push the envelope and see how far he could go and he described a graphic torture scene and he got so much pushback from reviewers and bad - he realised he'd gone too far. I would never have experimented that way. I do know, though, that the most complaints I've ever had, and I was warned by Peter Temple this would be the case, that when Peter said to me that, we could boil a baby and eat it with truffles, and that would be okay, but heaven help you if you harm a family pet. And so in a book called Bleed For Me, there is a - dog meets a grizzly end and I had hate mail. My mother sent me hate mail <laughter>. My mother demanded I change it. She said I spent the entire book thinking that the cat was going to be next <laughter>.
And so I think it does come down - no I think the - we are watching movies and TV and it's like the Watershed hours and what's allowable in terms of nudity and violence. It has changed over - since - in the last 30 years. I get angry when I see some crime novels, though, that are violent for this sheer sake of being violent. If you read something as beautifully written as Silence of the Lambs which is one of the most beautifully written books, Thomas Harris can get away with it because he's a wonderful writer but if you find a writer who is trying to make up for their limitations as a writer by just making the content incredibly graphic, that I don't agree with.
L: Okay. We've reached seven o'clock. Have you got a question?
L: Yes, let's make this the final question, well two questions?
Audience: Yeah, I had one here.
M: Oh okay.
L: Oh I'm so sorry. Okay -
M: Two more.
L: - let's make two quick questions and then -
M: Is that okay?
L: Yeah. Sorry, Cathy.
C: You're all right.
Audience: Michael, you mentioned that at the start of your careers you read everything you could on writers and writing. I've just been reading Stephen King's book called On Writing.
M: It's great.
Audience: Yeah, and he said he wrote that because on tours like when you're doing, book tours, people asked you about other things like where he got his ideas from but never about the language. So can I ask you, do you have any thoughts, any tips on writing and are you likely to write about writing?
M: Stephen King, it's funny, I don't which edition, if you actually look when you get to the end of that book and look at the reading list, Stephen King's got two of my books now on that reading list. He's actually been incredibly generous.
L: He's a massive fan of yours.
M: Yeah, and I think - I don't - I'm not a lover of three word slogans for all sorts of reasons, but if I were to have one it would be, to make them care and so to me it's create compelling characters that readers care about. Now even if you then do terrible things to them, that's why the reader will stay with you. That would be one of my - if I was going to sum up my major pieces by it, it would be that. And my -
L: Yeah, that's about empathy.
M: It's about empathy, it's about creating - the readers will keep turning the pages if they fall in love with your characters and it might not necessarily be because they're nice people, it could be just because they're loathsome but they're just committed to knowing. The other thing is too - and that, I think it goes back to my work with Paul Britton, the psychologist who Cracker was based upon. He showed me that all - even someone like Fred West, three generations of incest running through Fred West's family, that no-one is just born, or very rarely, someone born evil. If you can give - even your villains, they must have motives that are understandable, they must have come - society gets the monsters it deserves, they've come from somewhere.
And but not only on this, if you're interested in writing, you write and you write and you write and when you're sick of writing you write some more. And if you still have any energy left you read. And the thing that you do when you read and is - my wife is convinced that I don't enjoy books anymore because when I read a book I just take it apart, I can see what the writer's trying to do. And I can see at times where it could have been better, I think, if they'd done this there or this there. But the books I look forward to and the books that frustrate me are the ones that are so beautiful and seamless, I can't get my fingers into - I can't see - they're so perfect I can't see how they were made.
L: The stitching's hidden.
M: Yeah, and part of it depresses me because I think, God, I'm never going to be that good. And another part of it - in many ways I'm inspired by the books that aren't so good, that I can see how they could have been better. That inspires me to write because the perfect ones just make me want to weep <laughter>.
L: And you had a question?
Audience: Oh, hello, my name is Christine. I'm asking a question on behalf of my daughter in law, Caroline. She grew up in Bath.
Audience: She wants to know, did you live in Wellow because she's very impressed with your local knowledge.
M: Do you know what -
Audience: She said she should have - she's sure she should know your characters because she went to Oldfield Girls School about the same time.
M: <Laughter> It's funny, I went to - I got an email a few years ago from the Publican at the Fox & Badger Pub in Wellow which is just a few miles outside of Bath. And she said, have you ever been in our pub, and I said, yeah, yeah, I said I've had the ploughman's and I've had - I mentioned what was on the menu. And she said, why didn't you introduce yourself? And I said, well I wouldn't, would I? And she said, well we only discovered your book when an Australian couple came through and they were using Shatter as their tour guide to the West Country <laughter>. And I said, you're kidding me, and then she said, no, but when you come back will you come down and visit is.
So when I went back to England next I arranged to go down there and the local newspaper got a cherry picker so they could get high enough to shoot down onto the pub because the whole village came out. I'm convinced - they'd all read me, I'm convinced there was one book nailed to the bar and they used to just go in an order a pint and read the one book. But they'd all read me. And the entire village came out. And there's now a corner in the Fox & Badger, there's a corner with - it's my corner. I don't know who I took over from in that corner but there's a signpost and for a while they were convinced that I was going to put them on the map, a bit like James Herriot had put a particular town on the map in Yorkshire with his books but the BBC series never quite made it to Wellow.
L: Michael, thank you so much. I was going to ask you what the highlight of your writing career has been so far but I think that would have to be one of them. So, but we might leave it there. Thank you so much.
M: Thanks, thanks Louise.
L: Thank you.
End of recording