Ep 226 Kicking out a first draft fast. And meet true crime author Campbell McConachie.

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In Episode 226 of So you want to be a writer: Allison Tait’s The Book of Answers is nearly here! HarperCollins announces a new fiction prize for Australian writers. We share tips for kicking out a first draft fast. Find out more about the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. And meet true crime author Campbell McConachie.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

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Shoutout

KylieWrites:

Al and Val are the perfect writing pick-me-up. In between day jobs, school activities and kids sport, I crave something that will keep my writing on track. This podcast reminds me that my writing goals are worth pursuing, and may even be possible. It helps that these knowledgeable ladies are also hilarious! Sending you love and words-of-the-week from Bris Vegas.

Links Mentioned

 

The Book of Answers (Book 2 of The Ateban Cypher) out March 27!

HarperCollins announces a new fiction prize: The Banjo

Kicking Out a Fast First Draft

ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize

Writer in Residence

Campbell McConachie

Campbell McConachie grew up in Sydney, Bahrain and Papua New Guinea. He has worked in the finance industry for twenty years.

He studied Post-Graduate English at the University of Sydney and completed a Master of Arts (Creative Writing) at Western Sydney University.

He interviewed Lindsey Rose in prison more than twenty-five times for The Fatalist, his first book

Follow Campbell on Twitter

Follow Hachette on Twitter

(If you click through the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

 

Competition

Caption competition – WIN ‘Scandal in Bohemia’

 

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Connect with Valerie, Allison and listeners in the podcast community on Facebook

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Campbell, thanks so much for joining us today.

Campbell

Thanks for having me.

Valerie

Now for listeners who haven’t read your book yet, tell us what it’s about. The Fatalist.

Campbell

The Fatalist is a true crime biography. It’s about a man named Lindsey Rose who committed five murders in Sydney between 1984 and 1994. And I was prompted to write his story because it turned out that I used to drink with him when I was much younger at the Burwood Hotel in Sydney. I was unaware that he was a criminal at that time, and we didn’t find out until many years later when we saw his mugshot on the news.

Valerie

Now you actually, before you started writing this, you had a day job, correct?

Campbell

Yes. I work in financial services doing IT stuff.

Valerie

But what made you think, I’m going to write a book now about Lindsey?

Campbell

Well, I’d always planned to be a writer. I was just really bad at organising my life to get around to it. So I did a Master of Arts in Creative Writing, and produced a novel. I did that in about 2000, but I never thought it was worth trying to get that published. I did some post grad study at Sydney Uni as well. But it’s been my objective since I was ten years old.

And basically when this opportunity, or when I freed up some time to be able to write and give it attention and decided what project I’d tackle first, then this opportunity was right here in front of me. It fell in my lap, as it were. So that was my choice of first project.

Valerie

So this fell in your lap. When you found out that Lindsey was the person that you had been drinking with all those years before, you had some connection, was it an immediate thing? Oh, there’s a book in that! Or did you decide that later after you went to visit him in prison? Which I understand you did in 2004, you started a series of visits to Goulburn, to the Supermax at Goulburn. Is that right?

Campbell

Yeah, that’s right. Look, I don’t remember for sure. I think probably within a few days. It was just such a shock to see his face on the news, wanted for two murders. And I think probably I would have remarked around that time, imagine writing his life story. And in a semi-serious way, because that was 1997; it wasn’t until 2004 that I pulled my finger out and actually started doing something about it.

Valerie

Yeah. So then you decided okay… How did you make contact? How do you go, hey, I’m going to visit this guy in Supermax? Just tell us a bit about that initial procedure and that initial meeting.

Campbell

So I rang the Department of Corrections to ask how these things work. And they explained that you need to apply to be an authorised visitor into the Supermax. I had to have a police check done. And then I had to apply and the governor had to approve it. And as a courtesy, I rang through and the intel officer in the prison asked Lindsey on my behalf if he’d be happy to accept my visit. Which he was. And then it’s just a matter of ringing on the appropriate day to book for the following weekend.

And then there’s quite a lot of palaver when you get there. So being Supermax, they took my photo, they scanned my iris, they scanned my thumb print. I was led through five different locked doors and had my thumb print scanned another three times. And finally I was all the way through into Supermax and let into the visits room with him.

And it was, despite my apprehension, having never been near a prison or had anything to do with the justice system, once I was in the room with him it was kind of relaxing. You know, I relaxed with the familiarity of the person who I’d known.

Valerie

And so were there other people in the room? Is it a big communal room? Or do you get a private room?

Campbell

I think it was designed as a communal room. There’s little tables and chairs that would fit four or five groups. But it’s just one at a time, is how they’ve arranged it. It’s like a tiny cafeteria. So only one prisoner at a time is visited. So someone can take their family in to visit the one prisoner. But there’s only one prisoner per visit room.

And there’s two side-by-side, so I did see some of the other celebrity inmates in the adjoining visits room when I was visiting Lindsey.

Valerie

Were you scared at any point?

Campbell

Not scared for my physical welfare in any way. I was certainly… The day before I was due to drive up to Goulburn for the first time I was having beers with my friend at lunchtime and said, you know, I’m a little anxious. It’s a long way out of my personal experience.

Valerie

And so at that point, that first meeting, did you say – ‘hey Lindsey, I want to write a book about you’? Or, just tell us how that process evolved, and then what the steps were that you took to get information, to talk to Lindsey and get his point of view.

Campbell

I did mention it at that first time, because it was in my mind and I didn’t want to have any false pretences about me. His first reaction was… Well, the first thing he said to me was he had started scribbling some notes himself about his early life with a view to maybe writing a book himself. But it had amounted to nothing in the end.

But at first when I put it to him, he said he’d have a think about it. He wrote to me and said, ‘no, I’m not interested. There’s a contract on my head and my family have been threatened. The people who you’d have to interview would probably rather shoot you than be interviewed by you. It’s really not a good idea.’

But I persisted with visiting him, and we exchanged letters, and after a couple of years he sort of trusted me and decided he would tell me his story after all.

Valerie

So it took you a couple of years of courting, really, and then he decided to say yes. Is that correct?

Campbell

Yeah, look, I wasn’t actively courting him. I mean, we went and spoke and he did tell me parts about his life. I suppose you could call it courting, but I was more visiting out of… I suppose hoping to develop a friendship to the point where he would agree to participate.

But I guess I was also visiting in a compassionate way to him. No one else visits him. He has declined to let any of his family members visit him because he’s concerned for their welfare.

Valerie

And so he… At that point where he agreed, when did you then think, oh, I’m going to go to a publisher? Was it shortly after that? Or did you decide to write a whole chunk of it before going to a publisher? Just tell us about that process.

Campbell

Yeah, look, I went solo. I decided all the guidance you read about how to be a writer is, you know, you want to get your manuscript as good as it can possibly be before you start getting in front of people. And I know now that publishers will give people book deals for high profile cases before they’ve even started writing it. But I don’t think I knew that at the time.

So I went on my merry way. I was working long hours in stressful jobs and having other commitments, so I took a long time. I was ‘finished’ I think in about 2013. And then I engaged an editor out of my own pocket to review it and give me feedback and give me a manuscript evaluation. And he gave me some great tips and advice and said it’s certainly publishable if you can cut it back. Because there was still a lot of fat in it at that time.

And then I spent a few months pitching to agents. And they all declined. But I managed to hit up an agent… It’s actually the Australian Society of Authors conference I went to a couple of years ago and I bailed up an agent in the lunch break. And I guess, I don’t know, I found that pitching the story to people face to face they go, oh my god, you knew this guy, had a lot more impact than writing it down on a piece of paper and mailing it out.

So he was interested straight away and he signed me up. And he pitched it to a range of publishers and two of them were interested, actually. And they actually had to, there was a couple of bids each, and Hachette ended up being the final bidder. So they published it, and it was released August last year.

Valerie

And so what was your aim with this book? Was your aim to tell Lindsey’s point of view? Was your aim to do an investigative piece? What was your aim with the book?

Campbell

My aim was biography. It’s marketed as true crime, for obvious reasons, but it really is a biography. And the arc of his life from being an innocent child, as we all are, to being an ambulance officer early in his career. And then he became a private investigator and got mixed up with all sorts of nasty people. That’s sort of the physical element of it.

But his psychological development is something that is revealed through the telling of the story, as well. So that was my objective, was to say, well, how could this person I knew, who many of the people I spoke to still feel a great love for him, the person I knew who was well-loved and who was also apparently a successful ambulance officer, which was before his criminal career, and had compassion for people and saved many lives – how could it be that he changed into this other person that could commit five murders?

So that was my objective, was to understand it and obviously make it understandable for other people.

Valerie

And it is fascinating because as you say, he was an ambulance officer, which is something that is helping other people and requires a great deal of compassion. And you do talk about how he was one of the first responders to the Granville train disaster, and played an important role in that tragic event. And then now, to do this.

At any point did you kind of think… Did you have to reconcile with yourself why am I spending this time or writing this book about this person who has murdered five people?

Campbell

Yeah, I did. I lost a lot of sleep over it. Yeah… Do we really need to hear about another criminal and the terrible things he did?

I kind of solved it in my mind by saying well look, my objectives are good. I’m hoping that by illustrating how he came to be this way, we might learn something from it. Maybe we can make the world a better place and not produce these kinds of people.

So that’s speaking on very general terms. But this is not a… This is not exploitative or tabloid or pulpy in that way, I hope. That was my objective. And so that was kind of how I… Maybe I talked myself around it for my own ends, but that was what I told myself anyway.

Valerie

What else did you lose sleep over? In the process of writing this book?

Campbell

Well, the tricky one was one of the double murders was… A lot of the stuff he told me I couldn’t verify. They were things that were personal to him. One of the double murders, his belief was that this particular woman had terrorised his business, which at the time was a brothel and a massage parlour. They’d had a business dispute, and he believed that she had embarked on a campaign of intimidation, that she’d hired a bikie gang to threaten his staff. There was a car bombing involved. There was graffiti, threats to staff, assaults. And he blamed all of these things on her.

Now to tell the story, and it’s written as narrative non-fiction, so it reads like a novel, so it was a challenge to say, well, how do I tell the story of his point of view, but at the same time I don’t really have any… I have a miniscule of anecdotal support for what he said, but no proof of it. So that was a real stumbling block. And I thought, maybe I should give it up, or just cut that whole thing out, or turn it into straight exposition rather than trying to tell it in a novelistic form.

But in the end, I kind of cheated. What I did was I left it in, and then I just put a chapter in there that says, I went on to remind the reader now that this is what Lindsey told me, and you can believe it or disbelieve it. The victim, his victim, which he has described in this way, was loved by her family. And so I just put a big fat disclaimer in there, which was perhaps a cop out, but that is what I ended up doing.

Valerie

So for that one you couldn’t verify, but there were obviously other things that he told you that you could go and verify. Can you give us some examples of what some of those things were and how you verified them?

Campbell

A lot of the details of his crimes… So I tracked down the lead investigator, the detective inspector who led the taskforce, which ultimately caught him. And he kindly arranged for me to have access to the public record police files.

And so that was a great boon. It was literally hundreds of pages of documents related to the investigation. And forensic evidence, and all the stuff you really want when you’re writing this kind of story.

So the circumstances of the murders, and the circumstances of some of his other criminal career, I could line up what he told me with the evidence that the police had collected.

And another aspect of that was his married life. Because he was married and had a daughter. And I interviewed his ex-wife and his daughter, who their… With a couple of exceptions, which I’ve kind of included both sides of the story in the book, but other than those their accounts pretty much lined up.

Valerie

So were his daughter and his ex-wife, you know, yeah sure, I’m happy to be interviewed? Or did that take some time to get them to trust you as well?

Campbell

I contacted the daughter first. And she was hesitant at first because she’s a practising lawyer and had not told anyone about her father. It had caused her problems, and obviously she was 13 when she found out about her father. And it was something that would have been a challenge for anyone to deal with and she was able to successfully.

So yes, there was some hesitancy at first, but she kind of at the same time felt the burden of carrying this secret through her life. Australian Story actually did a profile on her late last year, talking about the fact that she’d kept this secret and then this idiot came out and wrote a book about it and kind of forced her out of cover.

But she’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. And she then… I think she then sort of introduced me to her mother, who was happy to answer some questions as well.

Valerie

Now you said that the detective gave you access to all these police files that are on the public record. How does that actually work? Do you just get access to them in a physical location? Do you get to take them away? Are they electronic? How does that actually work?

Campbell

In my case, I was kind of shielded from that because he just arranged access. He had them at his house. He’d arranged for them to be there, and I accessed them there.

Valerie

So you had to go to his house to look at them physically at set times? You couldn’t have them on your computer and do research at 2am?

Campbell

Well, just quietly, he let me borrow them. But look, I don’t think that’s the normal process. That was, he very kindly made the arrangements for me. Because this was the highlight of his career, in a way. He was very closely involved in this for more than two years.

Valerie

Right, so they were physical files?

Campbell

Yes.

Valerie

And so you went through and analysed these physical files. Was there a system to it? Were you looking for something in particular? Or how were you using them?

Campbell

The system was that there was one box per investigation. So there was two double murders and a single murder. So there were three boxes.

It contained print outs of his interviews with the police that were on tape. And transcripts of interviews with other witnesses who were either involved or who had witnessed some of these criminal acts. There were copies of faxes between agencies and reports describing the arrest plan. Because they had someone to arrest the next morning, and things like that.

So I was not hunting for something. I was treading my way through trying to see what would be useful in telling the story.

So what I ultimately did was, I created a timeline in a spreadsheet. And I had the date – because it wasn’t in date order – I had the date and what happened and then as the police went about their investigative steps, processes, so that on this date it went to forensics, and the next day they went and interviewed so and so, and a week later the forensics came back. And then someone said the weapon’s over here. And then they went and got the weapon, then they got it checked, and the ballistics did or didn’t add up. And then they got the witness in and he said, no, actually that’s not the weapon after all. Things like that were all on a timeline.

And then the last… Well, the police investigation is woven into the story. So he was on the run for nine months, and I’ve got what the police were doing and what he was doing swapping backwards and forwards during that nine months.

Valerie

And also, when you’re in a prison and you are interviewing someone, you can’t take a recording device in, can you? So how do you remember all the stuff?

Campbell

Yeah, with difficulty. I don’t know if it’s the case in every prison, but certainly in the Supermax and the maximum security, I couldn’t even take one little yellow sticky note with my questions on it. But that was okay.

So I had a database of unanswered questions. Some of them I could write in letters. Other types of questions were a bit sensitive and he’d asked me to not put certain topics in. So I prioritised the ones I needed answered next, or the more bigger, ask more significant questions, and I’d write them down and then memorise them as I drove up to Goulburn. And then I’d just to do my best to remember the answers.

So I had a voice recorder, so on my drive back from Goulburn to Sydney, I’d just read out into the voice recorder everything I could possibly remember. Then after I got home, I would then type it all out and add in anything else that I remembered in between.

So that was my research pile. They were part of my research pile. And some of those trip reports I ended up including in the story as well. Just the experience of visiting a prison for the first time and what it looks like and what the atmosphere is, and things like that.

Valerie

Now when you’re writing about crime, especially huge serious crime like this, there are potentially risks involved because of the stuff you might portray, the messages you might convey. When I was talking to James Phelps who wrote Australia’s Hardest Prisons, and he’s been to many prisons around Australia and written about them, he was saying that there was a period that he was driving around with a baseball bat in his car, in his boot. Did you ever consider that?

Campbell

Oh, constantly. Yeah. It was hard to judge how real that threat was, because even though Lindsey tried to put the frighteners on me, it was a long time ago. The perspective of someone in his situation is not necessarily accurate.

I mean, for example, he still has a view that virtually every detective in the NSW Police Force is corrupt. And I’m convinced that’s not the case. And read through the findings of the Wood Royal Commission and what the Police Integrity Commission reports every year. I just don’t think it’s true. But his view of this is tainted by what it used to be like.

So it was always on my mind. And I took a few simple precautions, like having my address suppressed on the electoral roll and other things that I won’t go into. But I’ve not had any threat or hint of a threat as a result of it. But I did have to be wary. There are some quite a few unsavoury characters mentioned in the book as well. So I took what I thought was appropriate precautions.

Valerie

Did Lindsey get to approve the manuscript?

Campbell

No. In fact, to my knowledge he’s still not even read it. So as I alluded to before, it’s kind of an upside-down world in prison where the crimes you’ve committed are kind of a plus for you. Anything you might have done that’s good might actually count as a negative against you in prison. So there were certain things he didn’t want me to send to him, which I respected.

So look, I did send him chapters to review along the way, but they were mostly things about his early childhood, or his days in the ambulance service. Very little to do with his criminal career.

And I can’t send him a copy of the book because it’s a prison – you can’t send stuff in. He said he would make his own arrangements to get a copy, but to my knowledge he hasn’t.

Valerie

So I’m not really understanding your comment about anything that you do that’s good might be a negative. I’m not sure how that relates to what you were just saying.

Campbell

Oh….

Valerie

Is having a book written about you good or something?

Campbell

No, what I mean is… Because he was a private investigator, there are certain things you might do as a private investigator, as a lawful private investigator, that are reminiscent of law enforcement, shall I say.

So if I’m sending him a chapter where he’s describing an investigation where he’s catching a thief, and someone might take a poor view of that if you’re in prison. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the point.

I just wanted to err on the side of caution and say, well look, I don’t want to give you any suggestion of anything that might trigger some irrational criminal who might accidentally get your letter. Things like that.

Valerie

So he never… Sorry, go on.

Campbell

I’m being a bit vague on purpose because by telling you things it defeats the purpose of not having…

Valerie

Sure, I understand. So did he… He was happy for the book to go out without him seeing the final product? A story about his life?

Campbell

Look, it was never really a discussion. It was always my project. I mean, he’s… There’s no contractual arrangement with him. Prisoners can’t benefit from the proceeds of crime. And it was always understood that I would be writing what I thought matters, good or bad.

And he was getting pretty sick of it by the end, because it took me so long. And he said, look, the only reason I’m still doing this is because I promised that I would.

Valerie

Yeah, right. So now that you’ve got the taste of it, you’ve released the book successfully, you know what it’s like, going to visit Supermax is pretty easy for you now – what’s next for you?

Campbell

Look, I have dabbled over the years, so I do have a little bottom drawer of barely started projects. So against the advice of my handlers, who recommend I write another true crime book, I’m working on a novel. And that’s really to challenge myself and say, well…

Someone said to me at a writing event after I told them this story and said, well, anyone could write that story. It’s such a good story. Any idiot could have got that published. Which I don’t think it was meant to be an insult, and I think I’ve done it more justice than…

Valerie

It’s also rubbish. It’s a rubbish thing to say, because it’s simply not true. Because of course the story is a great story, but the access, the trust, the research, that all goes into the writing. So whoever said that is crazy. Anyway, go on.

Campbell

I wouldn’t put it that way necessarily. So I thought, yeah, I’ll challenge myself and do a novel, do some fiction next, which was kind of always my interest anyway, to be honest. That’s what I read mostly. And as I said, I only really stepped into true crime because this project kind of fell in my lap.

Valerie

Yeah, well, hey, it’s a pretty fascinating project. All right. Wonderful. So what was the most challenging thing about the whole experience?

Campbell

Oh gosh. Um. Look, in the writing of it, I got the logistical tangle of getting the scenes in the right order. Because I’ve kind of got three narrative threads. I’ve got his life story is the main one. And then I’ve got, I dip in and out with my little contributions describing my research process and how he told me things. And then I’ve got the police investigation woven in as well. And just getting the flow correctly was the challenge.

In the end I split it into three separate manuscripts, and each one of those three had to read top to bottom as its own sustainable consistent story line. And then I was able to thread the three into one. And then it didn’t read right.

So I ended up, I think it was a tip that Kate Grenville told me in a writing workshop, I just got out all the little cards, I wrote out all the scenes on dozens and dozens of little white cards and colour coded them and put them all out on the carpet and shuffled them around until it kind of made sense. And then did that to the manuscript. And then it didn’t work and did it again. So that was, from a writing point of view, that was a big challenge.

Valerie

And finally, what was the most rewarding thing about the whole experience?

Campbell

Look, I suppose every published author – I don’t know if they will – but just getting, being published. I mean, that’s something that gives you…

Having worked for 10 – 12 years on something and really not seeking any feedback, just going, well, who knows, it could just be garbage. You just don’t know. You can’t be objective about your own writing.

So to get the agent on board, and then to have two publishers bid for it was very gratifying. That was definitely the most rewarding thing.

Valerie

Yes, well congratulations on it as well. And so on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Campbell.

Campbell

Thank you. It’s been great.

 


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