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PD Martin: Australian crime writer

PD Martin is an Australian crime writer. Her latest book, Kiss of Death, features Aussie FBI profiler Sophie Anderson.

Her academic career started with a Bachelor in Behavioural Sciences. She then went on to study music full time and it was during this period that she rediscovered her love of writing. She eventually completed a postgraduate certificate in Creative Writing.

Her first published novel was Body Count – the first in a series of books featuring Sophie Anderson. She has since published four more books in the series – The Murderers’ Club, Fan Mail, The Killing Hands, and the latest, Kiss of Death.

Click play to listen. Running time: 31.15


Kiss of Death

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Phillipa.

Phillipa
Thank you.

Valerie
Tell us what were your original career plans, because I understand you started your first degree in psychology?

Phillipa
Yeah. For a while there I was definitely interested in becoming a psychologist. I’ve always been interested in human behavior and what makes people tick, and all of those sorts of things. Certainly, when I started off with my psychology degree that was where I was heading. I was going to go on and do Masters, etc.

Valerie
What changed? What happened? When did you sort of discover writing?

Phillipa
Well, I had actually discovered it early on when I was at primary school. I was really into reading as a kid and started doing my own short stories and things, I guess when I was about eight. So, I was really into then, but then I kind of went away from that and went into more of the Math/Sciences in high school.

When I was at university I started doing quite a lot of singing and started writing my own songs, and got into the writing process again. I went overseas and sort of felt really compelled for that creative side to come out. I rediscovered my love for writing then, and got into writing.

Once I had finished my degree I was interested enough to try writing my first book and to go back and study writing.

Valerie
So, tell us about your first book. How long did that take? How did it come about? Where did you get the idea?

Phillipa
Are you talking about my first published book, or my first ever book? There’s a difference.

Valerie
OK, let’s talk about both. How about your first ever book to start off with? And where did that end up?

Phillipa
Yeah, like most authors I was writing for a while before I got published. My first ever book was really along the psychology line, in that it was actually a self-help book. It was in the ‘90s when those self-help books were big.

I had finish my psychology degree. I had done a lot of criminal law subjects at university, including family law. I had recently had a family friend who was having difficultly going through a divorce and didn’t know about all the laws that I had studied as part of the criminal law.

I thought, “Well, it would be really good to have a book that was for women who had just separated that looked at some of the emotional sides of things, and also the legal side. So, that was my first ever book, it wasn’t even fiction.

Valerie
Right, did that get published- well, obviously not. But, what did you try to do with it?

Phillipa
I sent it around to quite a few publishers and I got very good feedback from it, but most of them came back with the same thing. They felt that because I wasn’t actually a qualified psychologist and that I couldn’t put case studies in there, they felt that kind of style of a book really need to have a Dr. ‘So’ and ‘So’ in front of it in terms of that professional expertise. So, unfortunately that one did not take off for me.

Then I started writing fiction, young-adult fantasy. Body Count, which is my first published novel was actually the fourth book I wrote.

Valerie
Right. Young adult fantasy and fiction is a far cry from how to deal with a divorce. How did you- were  you already interested in that genre? Or was it easy to switch hats?

Phillipa
I think that, what happened for me is I had always thought- when I first started writing that book about divorce and separation, for me that was, “Ah, this is going to be one talk, about having one book,” in my mind I thought, “This is going to be my one book.” But, what I realized was that I really loved the actual process of writing, even though I was writing nonfiction I really loved sitting down and writing. That sort of sparked my interest again in more creative writing, and fictional writing.

So, it wasn’t really that hard for me to switch hats in that- I know it sounds strange probably, but it was still writing and I love the process of writing. Because when I was younger I had read so much, and particularly my two loves when I was younger were sort of fantasy novels and also starting off early crime fiction like Nancy Drew, and Famous Five, and moving onto Agatha Christie. So, I was really going back. My first novels were going back to my love of fantasy and then Body Count was going back to my love of crime.

Valerie
How did you get this love of crime? What is so interesting about it?

Phillipa
I don’t know. I think when I was younger, for me it was the real mystery of it in terms of trying to work out who had done it, a bit like a puzzle, or a longer high-level puzzle and I really enjoyed that element of it.

Now, for me, I think crime fiction has changed a lot since I was reading when I was kid to now. You’ve got a lot of people who’ve come into the genre with backgrounds as forensic pathologists, or forensic assistants, or law enforcement people. So, it’s become much gushier and much more realistic. Of course, the science behind it has changed itself. I mean when I was reading Agatha Christie… Agatha Christie’s books they don’t have DNA, and all the high-tech science stuff.

I think in some ways that actually quite appeals to me, as I mentioned earlier I did go into sciences in high school. I think there’s also a part of me that is interested in that. Certainly when I do my research, I love research all of the forensics and all of the different tests they do to work out a brand of lipstick on a shirt. It’s something that I really enjoy.

Valerie
Do you watch shows like CSI and NCIS and all of that?

Phillipa
I used to. Not anymore. I’ve kind of cut back a little bit on my- I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV so I choose quite carefully the shows I watch. I watch, for sort of enjoyment and research I watch Criminal Minds. I also enjoy Medium. For pleasure I watch, sometimes, Survivor and the Amazing Race.

Valerie
Tell us about your latest book, Kiss of Death.

Phillipa
Kiss of Death started off with the concept- I thought, “Imagine-” and it was few years ago I thought of this before the whole vampire fiction became quite so huge, but I thought, “Imagine if Sophie,” my heroin, who is an FBI profiler, I thought, “Imagine if she had a case where there were two puncture marks in the neck and it looked like a vampire.”

Then I made up this scenario where this was this cult of vampires, or potentially a cult of vampires. Then when I started my research I actually- people who believe they’re vampires- when I started my research I found that there really are quite a few people out there who believe that they need to feed on the energy of others, usually through blood to survive. I call them real life vampires.

So, my sort of fiction premise wasn’t quite as fictional as I thought.

Valerie
You mentioned that Body Count was actually your fourth book. Your first published book was your fourth book that you have written.

Phillipa
Yeah.

Valerie
It obviously must take a lot of persistence and determination to write four books before someone is interested in publishing them. What got you through that?

Phillipa
I think it is very difficult. I think there are a few things that got me through it. One thing that got me through it is I had a day job that I enjoyed, which was lucky because when you first start writing a part of you thinks that your first novel will get published. A lot of writers, I certainly was one of them, aren’t aware the pay that most Australian authors get, which is quite low. So, you have this sort of fantasy notion that you’ll get published within a year or two and then you’ll be earning a living as a writer.

Luckily even though a large part of me felt that was the way things were going to work out. I still had a backup career. So, for me, the fact that it was something that I enjoyed doing- I wasn’t going in to work everyday hating it, and… so that really helped. I think the other thing that helped was just the fact that I loved writing.

I have to admit before I wrote Body Count I actually took a couple of months out and I was seriously questioning whether I would keep writing because I thought, “Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree.” Obviously, I was putting all my energies into my creative writing and into writing books. I was working part time in my job because I had time to spend more time on my writing. So, I had to cut down to a three or four day week at various times.

I wasn’t sort of climbing the corporate ladder. I had friends who I had started out with who were now in management, and obviously had much more responsibility, more fulfilling jobs, earning more money. I was thinking, “Is this what I should have been doing? Have I been making the wrong choice?”

I took a few months off. I started off the first month, I sort of started jotting down, “Well, if I did write another book what would it be?” I had sort of four ideas, and I was thinking, “I really want to do all of these, and I can’t imagine just not doing any of them. And, not writing again, expect for-” my job was actual a corporate writer, so I was writing in my day job, but not writing creativity again.

So, I chose one of the ideas, which was Body Count and started writing.

It’s definitely perseverance.

Valerie
Yes.

People are then always interested in you got the first break. So, can you tell us about that?

Phillipa
The first break, for me, came about… I did exactly what I had done with my other books in that- well, sorry, previous books I had sent to agents. With this book- one of my previous books had done- had got very high up in the process. It wasn’t published, but it was almost published by both Pan Macmillan and Penguin. They both were close to publishing it and said, “Look, in the end we’ve decided not to publish it.” They both said to me, “But, we’d like to see whatever you write next.”

Now with Pan Macmillan and I rang up the contact that I had there and said, “I’ve finished my next book, but it’s not a young adult. It’s not children’s,” and the contact I had was in the children’s publishing. She said, “Well, look send it in. Mention my name in the letter and I’ll pass it on to the right person.”

I had a similar thing with Penguin when I rang them up. It was a little bit harder with Penguin in that they sort of- their two departments seemed to be more separated. So, they sort of said, “Well, that’s not our area.” I said, “Well, would you still like me to send it in?” And, they sort of said, “Oh, OK,” because Penguin doesn’t normally accept unsolicited adult.

Anyway, I sent it and it was the opposite, because with my first books sometimes they were with the publishers for twelve months because they had made it through the first reader, and the second reader, and then they had gotten to an editor, and then a commissioning editor, and then the publisher before the final decision was known.

But, this one was quite different. Within six weeks I had an email saying that they were interested and they, Pan Macmillan, would be bringing up at their next meeting to decide whether they would go ahead and purchase it.

Valerie
Right.

Phillipa
Yeah, it was very quick compared to the other ones. As you can imagine it was very exciting, but I didn’t tell anyone because I had gotten really close before. I’d got to that final stage where they’re all sitting in a room and it’s just a matter of votes, you know? Everyone reads it and they vote, “Yes, we take this on,” or, “No.” Majority wins. I thought, “Well, I’ve been there before.” So, I didn’t tell anyone until I had the actual offer.

Valerie
Great, and is that when you knew you had made the decision and that you could, you know…? You didn’t want to climb the corporate ladder?

Phillipa
Yes. No, no. Definitely not.

Valerie
You talked briefly about your character, Sophie Anderson. How was she created? Did you base her around anyone? Or, did anyone inspire her?

Phillipa
No, actually. Well, sorry, that’s not quite right. She’s not really inspired by anyone I know as such. But, I actually had a dream, or a nightmare many years ago, about six years before I started writing Body Count. In this dream it was kind of like- first of all I walked into this room and someone I knew had been murdered and there was blood everywhere. I actually woke up in the middle of the dream because it was such a bad dream and nightmare.

Then the weird thing about this dream was that- I went back to sleep and I went back into the dream at the same spot. Then I woke up again when I found another body. And, the same thing… I ended up going in and out of the dream four times over the course from 2 AM to 6 AM. In the dream I was kind of investigating the crimes, but I wasn’t just me. I was somehow involved in law enforcement. I had like an official capacity.

So, I guess in many ways Sophie is based on that dream. The whole concept of Body Count is actually based on that dream.

Then once I kind of thought, “Well, because I’m going to have this character who’s in some level of law enforcement,” because of my psychology background- my interest in psychology- it seemed natural that she would be profiler. So, the person who looks at a crime and then decides what sort of offender has committed this crime. So, that was a really natural progression to me for the character.

Valerie
To write that sort of stuff credibly, as you’ve mentioned before, you need to do research and especially on things like scientific aspects of it and forensics. Do you think you spend more time researching, or more time writing? And, do you do the research first then write? Or, do you write and then fill in the gaps later?

Phillipa
I would still spend more time writing than researching. Generally, what I do is once I have the basic premise for a novel I’ll do initial research that might be relevant to that novel. So, in the case of Kiss of Death I started researching real life vampires, and cults, and all of those sorts of things.

Then as I go along I might get to something that I need to research. Sometimes it’s something small like a location. I’ll get onto Google Maps and google it and have a look, and do different things like that.

Other times it’s suddenly I realize that I need to find out about ballistics and guns, or a bit more information about how during an autopsy it would be obvious, or if it would be obvious, that someone had some of their blood drained from them, in the case of Kiss of Death.

So yeah. It’s kind of a combination. I do some upfront and then some as I’m writing.

Valerie
What are some of the best resources for research when it comes to crime?

Phillipa
I think that- when I was first starting out most of my research that I was doing was from books. There are some very, very good books out there that are actually made for law enforcement professionals, and some that are made for other people. So, there is… and even scientific text, or the text books that you would use if you were studying forensics at university.

I have, like, a book that’s from America called Six Related Homicide and Death Investigations. It’s a very gruesome book, but it also goes through a lot of information that you need. It’s got what the first responder does; how they feel out the crime scene, what evidence is gathered, who that all goes to; the general procedure for an autopsy. It really covers everything.

Valerie
Wow.

Phillipa
So, yes. A lot of books. And then also obviously experts, experts in the field. I’ve sort of over the past few years I’ve developed relationships with a few key experts that I always are in contact with. We sort of meet once or twice a year for lunch. I email them questions. At the moment I guess the ones I’m dealing with most would be a forensic pathologist here in Victoria, Melbourne. I usually email her questions as I have them.

I think the other thing that’s key is I make sure that this is really specific information. I spend a lot of time before I go to them researching on the internet, researching my books. If I really can’t find it then I will go to them. Because I think that’s part of the relationship as well. Like, if you’re asking really basic questions that they think, “Why doesn’t this person just get on the internet?” Then maybe they’re more likely to be less inclined to want to help you. But, if it’s obvious that you’ve already gotten to a certain point, you just need to clarify ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’, then I think that really helps.

I’m also in contact with the Victoria Police profiler here.

Valerie
Right.

Phillipa
I’ve managed to meet a retired US cop who now lives in Melbourne, which is very handy.

Valerie
Yes, very.

These days are you writing full time? Or, do you still do some corporate writing? What’s your balance there?

Phillipa
Well, at the moment I’m spending a lot of time… I have a three year old daughter. So, I’m spending a lot of time as her primary caregiver, obviously. So, lot’s of mommy time. So, it’s definitely a juggle at the moment. I’ve just started- I was just concentrating on writing for about- I think probably a year and half, until my daughter came along. Then I’ve been juggling writing with her schedule, and her naps, etc., and night times, and weekends as necessary.

I’ve actually just started three weeks ago, I’ve gone back to doing one day a week in the corporate field, which is quite good to sort of keep me involved in that world. Yeah, it’s a nice break from being at home as well, to be out instead of being at home at the desk and spending your time in solitude, or with a young child… to sort of  be out in the corporate world again.

I’m enjoying going on the train and reading, actually.

Valerie
Yes. Getting away.

Corporate writing is very, very different to crime writing. How do you switch hats with that? Is that fairly easy because you’re in a different zone? Or, is that something you have to consciously do? Especially to get back into the crime writing?

Phillipa
I actually- in some ways they’re very different, but there’s so many similarities as well. Like, I’ve always thought of writing as a craft. I mean you’re communicating a message. Now, obviously in corporate writing you’re communicating a message and there’s a bit of a story in there, I guess. But, it’s more about communicating a specific message. Whereas in creative writing you’re communicating a message, but it’s more the story element. But, the actually process of constructing sentences, making sure you’re using words that work well. There is a similarity there.

The other thing is I actually think my grounding in corporate writing has really helped me because a lot of people, I know a lot of my writing friends, they sort of say they feel I’m really focused. When I sit down and write that’s what I do. I think part of that is because I have done that as a job.

When you go into an office environment and you’re sitting there writing you can’t just kind of get up and think, “Oh, I might just go and have a coffee now.” Or, “Put on a load of laundry…” Or…

Valerie
Yes!

Phillipa
“Oh, I’m not really in the mood.” “The mood hasn’t struck me.” It’s like you have 9:00 to 5:00, or 8:00 to 6:00, or whatever your hours are. You’ve got to write. You’ve got to produce copy for ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’ by the end of the day, end of the week, or the end of the month. So, I think it’s actually has been really good ground work for me in terms of writing to deadlines.

Forcing myself to write.

Valerie
It’s a great discipline.

Phillipa
It is. And, I think too that sometimes it’s easy- when you’re writing creatively and you kind of get stuck, it’s easy just to walk away from the computer, or the keyboard. That’s easier than sitting through it and writing a paragraph of crap that you may end up going back and changing.

But, often that’s the best thing to do. You just sit there, you force yourself through it. And, within, you know, a few hundred words you’re back into it. So, yeah, I think it’s actually really benefited me.

Valerie
Speaking of discipline then, when you are writing your books what’s a typical writing day for you? Do you set a number of hours? Do you work at particular times? Or, do you have a word count goal?

Phillipa
It’s changed obviously since having a young child. I think that when I used to work in the corporate world three days a week and do two days a week of writing I would generally write from 9:00 to 6:00 each day. I would take a 45 minute lunch break. I would aim to get between 2,000-4,000 words done a day.

Valerie
Wow.

Phillipa
2,000 words would be an average day, but I’d be happy with that. But, 3,000 words would be more what I was hoping for. On a really good day I might do 4,000 words.

Now, it’s different because I kind of am writing like when my daughter is having a nap. So, I might only have an hour and half to write. Or, I schedule days where I have longer chunk of time to write. So, it’s quite different now, I guess.

I’m also doing this thing called- well, I now do this thing called 10K Days, where you aim to write 10,000 words in one day.

Valerie
Marathon.

Phillipa
It’s a marathon. It’s quite interesting though, because it’s about your critical side of yourself off and just writing. And, going back and fixing it all up later on. For me, it actually really works.

Valerie
Wow, so you found it effective? Can you actually generate 10,000 words in a day?

Phillipa
The first time I did it wrote 12,000 words.

Valerie
My goodness, that’s extraordinary.

Phillipa
People can google this as well. There’s little things on the web about how to your 10K Day. Sometimes it’s just simple things like- and you kind of wouldn’t think about it, but you turn off your spell check and your grammar check so you’re not getting the little red lines. You don’t correct anything, you don’t read anything you’ve written. The whole aim is to- although it sounds like it’s just a way to write as many words as possible, the actual aim of it is to get into that stream of conscientiousness writing when you’re barely aware of what you’re writing because you’re not rereading it, you’re not over thinking it. You’re just…

Valerie
Racing to the finish line.

Phillipa
Sometimes it can feel that way.

Valerie
Somehow I can now see why you like Survivor and The Amazing Race.

Phillipa
High adrenaline writing.

Valerie
Exactly.

On that note, what’s your advice to budding writers who really want to see their book out there?

Phillipa
I think there’s a few pieces of advice that I would give. One is if you’re just starting out I do strongly believe, and this is really boring… I sound like a parent, but in having a backup career that you enjoy. I’m not saying that you do that because you don’t have faith in yourself. You still have faith in yourself, but that faith is important to have. But, it’s also important to realize that most writers, even some of Australia’s most successful writers, were writing for quite sometime before they got published. And, even longer before they’re actually making a living out of it.

So, that’s my first thing, particularly for younger people starting out. You know? Don’t sort of give up on a career and focus on writing. Do both. It’s harder to balance at first, but if you are spending, if you do end up spending five years trying to get published, or something like that, to know that you’re enjoying your job and not going in and hating your job everyday is really helpful.

The second piece of advice is perseverance and faith. So, even though you have your backup career still believe that you will get published.

And, practice. I mean so much of writing is a craft and something that you refine, and that you can get better and better at as you go. So, I would definitely- the age old advice of write something everyday, if it’s just a journal, or a paragraph about what the weather is like, or anything just to actually be in the practice of writing.

Valerie
Wonderful.

Phillipa
So, I guess that’s my main thing.

Valerie
You’re writing an e-Book. Tell us a little about that.

Phillipa
Yeah. I’ve been writing an e-Book, which is actually the sixth book in the Sophie Anderson series. It’s called Coming Home. Basically what I was doing is I was actually writing one chapter a week and posting each chapter as I finished it, which meant it wasn’t quite as edited and polished as I would have liked. But, I was also posting questions so people could actually go on and vote for what they wanted to happen in the next chapter.

So, it’s quite a challenging environment to be working in, because although I have some control over what’s going to happen in the next chapter, because I pose the questions, I still give people two, three, four, maybe five options and then I just write on whatever the majority rules is.

It’s quite a challenging experience, but I also like the concept of having- it’s a shorter book than most of my books. I like the concept of having a free e-Book on my website that people can download. If they’re big Sophie fans they get a taste of Sophie for free. And, if they’ve never heard of Sophie they get to read this free e-Book and decide whether they want to go back and start the series at the start.

It’s been an interesting experience, a very- I think the people who plan their writing out could not write this way. But, for me, because I don’t do a lot of planning it’s been fascinating and lots of fun.

Valerie
What gave you the idea in the first place? And, why did you want to do it?

Phillipa
There was a few reasons. I knew that a lot of writers in America were writing in releasing free e-Books and thought, “Oh, why would they do that?” Of course the main reason is to sort of almost reward their fans, but also to bring new fans into the series. People who might not buy the books, but they feel that they can get this for free, so they read the first couple of chapters, and then go out and want to start the series.

So, from that point of view I guess part of it is to bring new readers into your series and to give the fans who are really big fans a taste of Sophie- and I think for me doing it week by week people really got into that week by week thing. They couldn’t wait until Monday came along until they got to read the next chapter, and they got to have some say in the plot and how it was going to turn out.

So, yeah. I think it was sort of the two reasons: to bring in new readers and to give my current readers a taste of Sophie. Particularly, this story has Sophie coming back to Australia and researching her brother’s murder. Her brother was killed 30 years ago. So, it was something that I know- I get so many emails from readers saying, “When are you going to do a story about Sophie’s brother?” I thought, “Well, I can give them what they want,” and also have this interesting experience that will hopefully bring new readers in.

Valerie
Where can people find this e-Book?

Phillipa
It’s on my website. The specific Coming Home website is www.pdmartin.com.au/ebook and once the process is finalized it will also be available as a downloadable PDF from my main website, which is just www.pdmartin.com.au

Valerie
Wonderful, and on that note, thank you very much for your time today.

Phillipa
Thanks, Valerie. Thanks for having me.

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