This story represents a new, exciting direction for you, doesn’t it?
THE MYSTERY WOMAN is my ninth novel. I have built up a reputation as a writer of meticulously researched historic fiction with a page-turning quality. However, while I have kept that attention to detail in the book, the style is very different.
There comes a time in every writer’s life when that ‘other’ novel inside of them starts to itch to come out. My itch had been brewing for a few years: to write a mystery novel as classic as the Gothic romances of Daphne Du Maurier, as rich in atmosphere as Agatha Christie, and as suspenseful as the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Then suddenly the stars aligned for me! A number of synchronicities, life changes and kindred-spirits collided to send me spinning in a new and exciting direction. I was lucky to have the support and encouragement of my long-time publisher, Anna Valdinger from HarperCollins Australia and senior editor, Scott Forbes, and agent Catherine Drayton, to move in this new direction. That support was invaluable, because whenever I found my resolve weakening, they urged me on – ‘darker, murkier, more disturbing’ – while at the same time still expecting me to produce a beautifully detailed, atmospheric and touching story.
You’ve described this book as an ‘Australian Gothic Mystery Romance’. Readers immediately understand the concept of a ‘mystery’ but what exactly does a ‘Gothic Romance’ entail? Does it refer to people in black clothes and dark eye makeup falling in love with each other?
That confusion is understandable because vampire novels are a sub-genre of Gothic fiction. But the true characteristics of Gothic romantic fiction are a damsel in distress, mystery and suspense, a ghost or beast within, a burdened male protagonist; terror and death. I’ve used those elements in the story but put them in a modern feminist context. And instead of a mysterious castle in Europe, the setting is a prosaic Australian country town.
The tagline I gave myself when writing the novel was ‘the dark side of normal’ because the idea that things may not be quite as they seem is a scarier concept to me than an old ruined castle that most certainly looks haunted. When the main character of THE MYSTERY WOMAN, Rebecca Wood, arrives in the town of Shipwreck Bay it seems like a place where nothing of great consequence could happen. Everything seems so sleepy, so staid, so suffocatingly conservative – until she probes deeper.
Another aspect of Gothic mystery fiction is that it should provoke in readers what is described as ‘a pleasurable type of terror’. That turn of phrase makes me smile, but when I reflect on the story I think that is exactly the type of story THE MYSTERY WOMAN IS. There is plenty there to give readers pleasure – the style of the 1950s, the beautiful sea life and landscapes of the NSW South Coast, the elements of romance – but there is also plenty terrify them too.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The story is set in a small whaling town in the 1950s and the research into the history of whaling in Australia was very unpleasant for me. I’m an animal lover and advocate, a vegan, and I’m sensitive to the cruelty that humans inflict on other living beings, and also on each other. Although I don’t go into all the ins and outs of the whaling industry in detail, I do use it as a backdrop to reflect on the underlying brutality and cruelty of the residents of Shipwreck Bay. I also use it to set up the town outcast, Stefan Otto, as the type of human being I most admire: The ‘lone voice’ who stands up against an injustice – or indeed even recognises something as an injustice – long before other people do, and who suffers ridicule and rejection for it.
I’m much more comfortable describing beautiful things – landscapes, houses, clothes, likeable characters and so on. But life consists of light and dark, and to write a story that is true to life, and perhaps even says something about it, you have to include both those elements in all their vivid detail.
Does the creative process get easier for you with each book?
Absolutely not. While certain skills might get easier with practise – self-discipline, self-editing, how to undertake research etc – the creative process gets more difficult for me because I push myself harder with each book. Each new book has to show some sort of growth: It must improve on what came before it in some aspect.
The other issue is that while I have written nine novels now, the writing process still remains somewhat mysterious to me. I know of writers who collect newspaper cuttings and have already planned out the books they are going to write over the next five years. That seems a very sensible way to go about things and I wish I was a more sensible writer. But as much as I try to work and think like that, my novels are more like love affairs: The storylines hit me from out of the blue, sweep me off my feet, entangle me with passion and obsession, and finally leave me exhausted but satiated. Then, they become like lovers who have remained good friends. I think of them fondly but I move on resolutely to the next adventure; and I don’t look back. I blame my Russian genetics for all this drama.
What is the Best Advice You Can Give to New Writers?
Don’t try to obtain your self-identity or self-esteem from being a writer. Don’t go around saying things like ‘as a writer…’ I’ve been in university classes and attended writers’ festivals where people are walking around in black turtleneck sweaters with arty glasses trying to look like writers. These people spend hours sipping lattes in trendy cafes, staring intensely at their laptops, without actually producing anything to a finished or publishable standard.
Writers write. And they rewrite again and again. Any place, any outfit, and usually without an audience (except perhaps their animal companions or sleeping babies). Stephen King wrote his first book in his laundry. I heard Trent Dalton say that he still writes in the family rumpus room. I wrote my first novel while working in a demanding job that involved a lot of travelling. I wrote on trains, planes and in hotel rooms. These days, I write at a desk, not on the back of a unicorn. Writers write because they are passionate about the story they have to tell. Don’t even attempt to do it to impress anyone. You’ll still be expected to take out your own garbage and no matter how famous you become, there will still be plenty of people who have never heard of you.
The other reason I don’t recommend trying to form an identity from being a writer is that it will crush you to do so. Even when you are published and successful the rejections keep coming. Disappointments still occur. New ideas are still knocked back, structural edits can be daunting, people still write nasty reviews, and a heartfelt risk you take on something might fall flat with readers. If you take any of this personally – and not as a professional who listens to advice, learns and adapts, and continues to improve – you will be heading for a breakdown. I heard a lovely definition of wisdom the other day from a friend. ‘Wisdom is reflecting on your life experience without any drama or emotion.’
My advice is to get your self-identity and self-esteem from being the best person you can possibly be. If you strive to be the greatest version of yourself, then the writing that flows from you will be a reflection of that.