In Episode 269 of So you want to be a writer: Allison and Valerie talk about how your book covers can impact your sales. And they chat to J.P. Pomare, author of the psychological thriller Call Me Evie on plotting, setting and how shaving your legs can help you get into the head of your character. Discover examples of great author Facebook pages, find out how you can win a copy of Candice Fox’s new thriller Gone by Midnight and much more.
Writer in Residence
J.P. has always been drawn to the dark. He grew up on a horse-racing farm in small town New Zealand with two brothers, a sister, two cats and two border collies.
Eventually he would find himself leaving Rotorua and landing in Melbourne, Australia. For three years he has produced and hosted a podcast, interviewing guests from Joyce Carol Oates and Dorthe Nors to John Safran and E. Lockhart. He also worked in marketing but in the evening he was always writing, contributing to a number of Australian publications and beginning to draft what would become CALL ME EVIE.
A first love for literary fiction quickly developed into a taste for sharp, fast paced story telling. Stories that surprised him, stories that tied a cold knot in the pit of his stomach.
His work has been widely published in journals including Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, TLB review of books and The NZ Listener. He has also won, and been short-listed for a number of prizes.
CALL ME EVIE is his first novel and was released in Australia and the UK in January 2019 and the US and other territories later in the year.
J.P. lives with his wife, splitting his time between Melbourne city and Clunes.
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Thanks so much for joining us today, JP.
No worries. Thanks so much for having me.
Congratulations on your book, Call Me Evie. For those readers who haven't read the book yet, can you tell them what it's about?
Yeah. Sure. So Call Me Evie is a psychological suspense novel. It's about a young woman who emerges from a stupor in a country she's never been with a man she's not entirely sure if she can trust. And she begins to suspect that some of the things she remembers may not be exactly how it happened and loses trust in the man she's with.
Now if I speak too much more about it, Valerie, I might begin to wade into spoiler territory.
Sure. So it is gripping from the first page and it just compels you forward to turn the page and to read on. But even just based on that little bit of information, that teaser that you've given us, I'm always fascinated by people who write crime and who write thrillers and psychological thrillers. Because I just go, where do they think of this!? So how did this idea, this premise form? Were you thinking about it for a long time? Or did it strike you like an epiphany?
I guess it's a combination of both things. I had this idea for a little while to write about a place I know really well called Maketu, in New Zealand, which is where I'm from. So I always wanted to set a novel or a story there at the least. And I had this character Kate who is a very Melbourne character. She's very neurotic and introverted but outwardly super cool and relaxed.
Oh yes, very Melbourne.
Very Melbourne, yes. So I had these two things. I had my character and my setting. And I sort of thought how if she's in Maketu, how does she get there? And the second question I asked is who is she with?
So just with those two bits of information, I guess I began to formulate something of a plot. And from there just in working through the years and developing the story it kind of emerged and I realised it was a psychological suspense novel. So that's basically how it came about.
So you started off with this character and a setting, a place. And the plot emerged out of that. Did you plot a lot of it out before you started writing? Or did you start writing and let the plot unfold as you were discovering it yourself?
I'm definitely more of a pantser rather than a plotter. I tend not to plot too intricately because I find I write best – and I think this is true of most writers – when I begin to go off and explore and let the characters act naturally and do their own thing. And quite often I'll be writing and I'll have to go back and rewrite because I've just been meandering and it's not contributing or pushing the story forward.
So it can be quite excruciating if you do a lot of writing like this and the story's not really moving forward, it's just a case of editing it all back.
But when I had, because I'm working on book two at the moment, so I've got a bit more insight into my approach, but when I had the bones of the story, so after I've done all that pantsing and just writing and exploring to find the story, then I go back and I say, what's the story about? What's really important to the plot? What can I tease out more and what can I cut away?
And that's when I look at the framework or the architecture of the story and I can begin to really plot and begin to find these little intricate twists and things I can weave into the narrative as well.
So I'm a bit of both, but I definitely do not plot my story out as much as some writers do, that's for sure.
So with this, there are a couple of timelines. There's a before and then there's after. Before a certain thing and after a certain thing. Did you consciously… How did you approach that? Did you write one and then write the other and then interweave them together? Or did you just write bits of whatever and then put them together? On a practical level how did you determine, how did you write these two timelines and determine which order they were meant to happen in? The reader was meant to read them in.
It's a good question because I always wondered about this and I still wonder about other writers' processes, particularly when there's dual narratives or dual timelines. Because I think it's so much easier to write one and then write the other and then splice them. That's how I always imagined it would happen. But when I actually wrote it, and in every draft I would always do it basically in the order it's in. So I'd do one or two before chapters and then one or two after chapters.
So part of my brain, logically I think it would be so much easier just to fully immerse in one narrative, get that complete and then do the after sections. But it bored me when I tried to, when I thought to do that. Part of reading it, I think, is the excitement of finding out the effects at the same time as the causes. And that was so fun to write and I thought, if I want it to be fun to read I have to be loving the writing process. Even though it was tortuous at times.
I think the structure was something that particular excited me from very early drafts. That's another thing where I know writers do it certain ways. I think it was a bit more of a natural process for me. I wasn't thinking too much about how I'd go about it. I just wanted to write the most compelling and exciting story. And so when I was writing, I just wrote the parts that excited me the most. And then just tried to make it all come together and work in the editing process.
When you're reading a psychological thriller like this, as a reader you experience a certain amount of tension and a certain amount of stress for obvious reasons. I don't write psychological thrillers. I'm curious to know, as a writer of one, do you also experience that kind of stress and tension? And does that low level stress and tension for such a long period take its toll in any way? Or do you not?
Yeah, absolutely. It's another really good question. Because I mean, this novel, as opposed to what I'm working on now, I wrote a lot at night because I was still working fulltime. So I wrote alone, at night, basically in the dark, because it was in the same room that my wife was sleeping in. I tried to be as quiet as possible, of course.
But you are quite alone and lonely and you want to kind of scare yourself. So you have this really low level anxiety for your characters. And I often get asked the question, what surprised me? Did any of my characters do anything that surprised me? And it's the same thing. When you're writing, I'm like, don't do that! What are you doing? Please! You want to protect your characters and you also want them to have their own agency.
But when I wrote it it was the exact same experience for people who would read it. There were moments where I was crying, almost, or just feeling this deep depression for some of my characters who had some really horrible things happen to them.
So absolutely. It's this really… I don't know. By the time you finish writing it, it's this really deep relief that you've managed to get it all out there, and you've managed to be as true to the characters and their motivations as possible without protecting them or without shying away from some of the darker elements of the story.
So it was a pretty strenuous and pretty tough writing process. Book two has been easier, I'll put it that way.
Yes, but here's the thing. You say that there's a relief when you're finished. But the thing is, you've gone back for book two. So is there some part of you that's a bit addicted to that tension and stress?
Yeah, I think so. You know, I was never big on scary movies and that sort of thing. And it's really funny because I guess for some people it's ultimately a parallel experience reading a thriller and watching a thriller. But I could never watch a thriller. I never really got into them as much as writing them. So I can't… I'd love to psychoanalyse myself and see why can I create this sort of atmosphere but I can't necessarily experience it in a film.
The thing is it's story more than anything that attracts me to this genre, or even this form. You've got so much room to explore the interior world of your characters and their motivations.
And character and setting, it doesn't matter what I write, I could write more literary fiction or romance or whatever I end up writing, it'll always be an exploration of character and I'll always be obsessed with my settings. I think my settings, particularly in Evie, but also in book two, really drive the narrative. In the same way, there's writers like Jane Harper is a really good example, Australian fiction whose settings ultimately drive the narrative and really come first and leap off the page, probably more so than anything else.
So I think I'm addicted to writing, but there's only certain things that interest me enough to actually fully explore and lots of that is psychological stuff.
Well, your bio states: “JP has always been drawn to the dark”. Now what kind of dark is this? How have you always been drawn to the dark? I mean, that's obvious, obviously in what you've just said and in your writing. But in life, what have you been drawn to that's dark?
I'm endlessly fascinated by really normal people, people who are like you or I, people who aren't obviously damaged, finding themselves in situations where they have to do extraordinarily horrible things either to survive or they're programmed to do that. But on the outside appear completely normal.
I mean, more so in the arts than me actually going to prisons or whatever. So I'm more attracted to stories that deal with darkness. And also historical accounts. So Lizzie Borden… So Sarah Schmidt, who's an Australian author, wrote See What I've Done which is about Lizzie Borden, and I adored that book. Because it's just a seemingly normal person doing something horrific.
And the capacity that normal people have for usually violent acts, these things have always attracted me. So even if I find myself a news story, I'll read over and over again. And like I said, some film, but definitely, absolutely books.
I also, I mean, I've never really visited people in prison or anything like that. But I have in the past just gone and sat in courtrooms and listened in on crimes. Part for inspiration, but partly just a morbid curiosity of what sort of clicks in the brain. I don't know. I guess I'm sounding probably quite strange right now.
No, well, most people go to Westfield's to hang out if they've got a spare afternoon. You go to court rooms.
Okay, so you mentioned that you wrote a lot of it at night, because you were working in the day. Can you just give us some kind of idea of the timeline for production? When you first got the idea, or first started really getting into it, how long you write for at night, when you then started talking to a publisher, up until publication. Just a bit of a timeline so that listeners can get an idea of that.
Sure. So I guess I wrote this around 2015. I always forget. But when I started writing it there's a scene in the book where Kate, I think it's the first scene in the book so it's not a spoiler, but she shaves her head. And so I shaved my head as an act of research when I was writing that scene. So I always look back at photos on Facebook and it's kind of time stamped when I started.
So I think it was around 2015. So about four years ago I started writing it. And then I think I wrote for about two and a half years or so, maybe three years, before pitching an agent. And all this time I was also writing short stories and articles, and I guess just trying to get a bit of publishing history behind me, so when I did approach agents and publishers, I would have that.
So then after a few short stories and things, I had my heart set on my dream agent. So someone I knew who'd represented other young or relatively young authors and done really well in Australia and abroad. So I contacted her and just pure luck and timing she'd just come back maternity leave, which was really, really exciting for me, because I knew she was on maternity leave and like an idiot I thought I'd still send a query letter through, hoping that when she got back she'd read it. And she literally had just gotten back. So she responded I guess after a week or so and it just went back and forward.
And then when she was pretty happy with it – so I made one or two edits based on her suggestions and things she wanted me to tease out a bit more or work on. So I went away and did that and when she thought it was ready, we sent it off to a number of…
How long did it take you to do that?
Just those edits? Probably a few months. The thing is, agents are very busy people. So you send it, so she sends me the notes, and I go away for a couple of months and work on it, and then I send it back and then I hear from her in a couple of months with an agency agreement, and then I sign that. So that process from when I initially queried her to when we submitted it was probably at least six months.
Then we submitted it to a number of publishing houses in Australia. Just editors and publishers that she knew and worked with in the past. And fortunately, we received some offers from a few publishing houses.
And then we finally settled on Hachette Australia. So I met with Robert and I really liked his vision for the book, and everything. So after that, I mean that was October 2017. And it was published in December 2018, at the very end.
So even after I signed a publishing agreement, it was still slightly over a year by the time it actually hit bookshelves. Which I think is quite long. But there was a whole bunch of reasons for that.
But I guess, that's about roughly four years from when I first put pen to page and when it hit the shelves.
Yeah, sure. And I think a year is actually pretty normal. It's not too long.
You mentioned how you shaved your head, because your character had her head shaved. And in that scene, I remember reading the detail and thinking, wow, that's just so realistic. What else did you do… So obviously it was useful for you to shave your head so you could feel what it was like, you could see what it was like, feel the slipping on the hair. What else did you do that was like that to as research for the novel?
I mean, it was such a sort of funny process of research. I say research, but it was sort of building character as much as anything, and understanding my character as much as anything. So I hate the idea of research. I'm so lazy with research. I always do it retrospectively.
But that research was kind of fun because I'm like, I wonder what my head looks like, my skull underneath all this hair.
So that's probably the most obvious example. But I did things like I shaved my legs. Because I am writing a young woman. And I hadn't, and since I was very young, I haven't had nice silky shaved legs. So I wanted to experience that. And there's certain things that come with that. Because it's one thing to shave your legs, and the act of shaving your legs, and it's really routine for most young women. So I couldn't dwell on it too much because it's totally normal.
But then there's things you notice when the hair grows back. So one thing we had in common was Kat stopped shaving her legs. And I obviously didn't continue shaving my legs. And then I noticed things like how it itches and when you put on pants, just that feeling when the hair's growing back. And there's just certain little things I could observe that I never would have known about it otherwise.
I also researched the setting. So I took my wife back to the setting, Maketu. She'd never been there before. And not in a creepy way but just observed or noted her observations.
Not in a creepy way!
I wasn't hiding out watching her walk around this town, how Kate would. It wasn't like that. No, I was with her. I guess I had my notebook and we went for lunch at the fish and chip shop and anything she observed or noted, I would make a note about.
So yeah, that was quite interesting. Because I had only experienced this place as a young man. And I was really familiar with it so things that I thought were cool or interesting, she found at times almost distressing. So there's a prevalence of a local New Zealand gang in the area. So very early on we saw a gang patch and facial tattoos. Some of the kids kind of just stared at us both. But for me, it was almost like a greeting. I wasn't particularly affected by it, but my wife certainly was.
And even just the smell. Just things that I wouldn't observe because I'm looking at it through the lens of my own experience of being to this place so many times, as a first time visitor from someone from Melbourne inner suburbs, I got to experience via her interpretation, her perspective.
So there were so many things that I wouldn't regard as research, but so much that was so important for me to make sure that that character was really authentic. Just things like that.
You said you're on book two. So can you tell us what that's about and how far into it you are?
Yeah. I'm working through edits from Hachette. So my publisher in Australia have picked it up. We haven't taken it to my publisher in the States or the UK just yet, but we are working through a pretty decent edit at the moment. So that should be out in 2020 if all things go smoothly from here.
It's the story of a woman who lives in Warrandyte State Park. So she lives in Victoria. I haven't actually gotten around to talking about this one yet, so I'm just trying to make sure I don't say any spoilers. So it's about a woman who lives in a state park in Warrandyte. And another, a young lady who has been kidnapped and taken into a cult. And it's about this collision of worlds.
So Donna, who lives in this park, she's worried that people are watching her and she's got this real claustrophobic sense that something's about to happen. And Aisha, who has been kidnapped by this cult, is just trying to escape and trying to understand what's happening to her.
So there's two stories. It's that same sort of parallel narrative. And about half way there is a ginormous twist and everything from there it's more of a thriller and lots of crazy things happen.
Wow. Did you spend a lot of time in Warrandyte? In the state park?
I did, yes. So fortunately my brother actually lived out there, him and his partner and their kids. And they had a beautiful property very close to the river. And I spent a lot of time just walking along the river and just writing about the place.
I think it's such a great setting for a thriller as well, because it's close enough to the city, but you can also experience isolation out there. Cell phone reception is not always the best and you're quite far from the police station. So there's all sorts of opportunities to ratchet up the tension.
But the research for this book was quite interesting. I actually managed, through a psychologist who helped me with Evie, I got to interview an extremely damaged woman who was a member of, who grew up in a cult in Australia. So that was one extremely insightful and very generous on the part of my friend who's a psychologist and the young woman. But also, I was just so inspired by this woman's strength and the way she's learned to adjust to the world outside. So so much of the story is about that, as well. The idea that you never really leave the cult. And you're always making concessions and shaping your life around this world that you didn't grow up knowing.
So that was the research for it, essentially. And it's going really well, so far.
So are you still writing late at night while your wife is asleep? Or have you chucked in your day job?
She's got some respite. Now I do tend, I feel I do my best work at night-time. I'm more creative, more of a night owl than an early bird. But I have found a bit more balance. I have left my work at the moment just to see how we go. I know it's a really scary thing to throw in your day job and chances are I'll probably pick up work again at same stage. But at the moment, I'm writing a lot during the day. I've tried to adjust my habits so I'm not up until 2am giving myself the anxious feeling and you're all knotted up and you don't sleep properly.
I'm trying to write more so throughout the day and then unwind a bit more at night.
Yeah. So you are originally from New Zealand, but you split your time between Melbourne, as you mentioned, and Clunes, which is a country town in Victoria known to be a bookshop town. A bit of a literary town, isn't it?
Why do you split your time?
We live in South Yarra. So anyone who knows Melbourne knows it's very central, very busy. And I'm a country boy. I grew up on a horse farm. So my ideal world would be, I guess, a place where I have enough land that we can move around and we can go for nice walks, but then I can have a great latte and live that metropolitan life as well.
And there's not many places in the world and not many people with the privilege of having enough land close to inner city Melbourne to have both those things at once. So we thought we could look at possibly moving out of time, or we could possibly look at potentially getting a property where we could go away for weekends and I could set it up as a writers retreat and have friends stay and stuff like that.
So we've got a teeny little apartment in South Yarra still which we love. And we spend half our time here. But we get away probably more and more these days to Clunes. And we've sort of become real locals up there. We know loads of the others and we'll go up for a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and then come back Monday.
And yeah, I mean, it's just so much more conducive to creativity as far as I'm concerned, being away from all the distractions of the city. I can walk a couple hundred metres and I've got 30 restaurants and ten bars. And the MCG's a stone's throw away and all the sports in the city and everything's so close and everything's so busy. But those distractions definitely don't help when you are trying to find the unbroken time required to write a really long project like a novel.
So I love Clunes. If I had to choose one or the other, I'd probably, I'd be leaning more and more towards living up there fulltime.
Right. It got a starring role recently in that television series that was on recently called Bloom. Were you an extra in that or anything?
I wasn't. It's funny, because we were up there when it was filming. And you never know how popular these things are because they've filmed a few things up there since we've had the place.
The most exciting thing to hit Clunes since we've been there, actually there's been a couple of pretty cool things, but when they were shooting that, the very first scene of the show is a guy sprinting down the street naked.
And they had to shoot that like ten times. And all the people from Clunes were gathered at the local cafe on the corner, just watching this poor actor, I think it was August, so it was the middle of winter, just sprinting down the main road being chased by a cop.
So that was pretty exciting. I wasn't an extra, although in that scene he does run up the alley way which is right beside our place. And there's a pie shop which actually was our place. So if you do watch Bloom.
Karen's Pies. So they dolled up out little shopfront and they turned it into this cool little pie shop.
What do you mean that's your place?
We've got a shopfront. So it's like this terrace house thing.
Oh my god!
Yeah. So they used that, which was really cool.
Oh that is so funny! Wow. Okay. Yeah, I have watched the show and I know exactly what you mean. So I've seen the inside of your place.
Yeah, you have.
That's bizarre. All right. So finally, what are your top three writing tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you one day, published, second book on the way.
I think the first thing is to just keep developing your craft. You never know how close or how far away you are, but just assume you need to put in a lot of work. So things like obviously through the Australian Writers' Centre. But any sort of tuition or mentoring, mentorships, you can get is fantastic. But also just any resources where you're going to get that really high quality feedback, you're going to get people reading your work and saying honestly what they like and perhaps the things you could make stronger. So I think that would be my first bit of advice, would be just engage the writing community and enrol yourself in any courses or anything that you believe is going to help you grow and develop as a writer.
The second thing I would say is, depending on who you're writing for, familiarise yourself with what work is out there and available. Read the books that you want to write. Not everyone likes to do this, but reread them. So that's something that I did. I reread a couple of novels. The second reading, I wasn't even hoping to enjoy it, but I did. I always do. But it was just for an eye for structure and just trying to unthread this big tangle of a story to find out why it works the way it does, and to understand the mechanics of plot and that sort of thing.
And it's not as active as that. You can passively read for the second time and you're going to notice things you didn't notice the first time as well. If you've got a pen or pencil handy while you're reading or rereading, I always make sure that I am making notes of what works and why, and what perhaps didn't have such a strong response from me, as well.
And the third one – you're really putting me through my paces here, but I do have one more. Really simple piece of advice that I've received quite a lot, so that is, when you submit a work, anything, particularly if there is a deadline, just keep writing and working and rereading it for as long as you possibly can, especially if you're submitting it to someone you don't know or someone who is not expecting it.
So if you're submitting for a competition for short stories, or a manuscript competition, an unpublished manuscript competition, use as much of the time as possible. I think what I used to do is I'd see a competition and I'd send it off and then I'd reread the story and I'd notice all these mistakes. Because it's funny, your brain changes as soon as you've sent it. You can read it with a bit of objectivity in the same way other readers will.
But I would implore anyone who is entering anything like this or submitting for magazines or anything, just to reread it and work on it. You never know. You might be able to squeeze in one more reread or line edit before the deadline. So don't send it in until as late as possible to make sure you've given yourself every opportunity to read it as many times as possible.
Really good advice. And congratulations on your book. And on that note thank you so much for your time today, JP.
No worries. Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.