Gabrielle Lord: Australian thriller author

image-gabriellelord200Gabrielle Lord has written 15 books as well as a 12-volume thriller series for young adults. She started writing seriously at the age of 30 and resigned from her position as Employment Officer in the Public Service after her third book Fortress. It was picked up internationally and made into a feature film starring Rachel Ward.

Her fifth novel Whipping Boy was made into a telemovie starring Sigrid Thornton.

Her latest book is Shattered, the fourth book in her popular Gemma Lincoln series, preceded by Spiking the Girl, Baby Did a Bad Thing and Feeding the Demons.

Her book Dirty Weekend was the much anticipated third book about Chief Forensic Scientist Jack McCain, which followed Lethal Factor and Death Delights.

She is referred to as “Australia’s First Lady of Crime” and writes about crime in and around Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Gabrielle writes thrillers and crime fiction focusing as much on the character’s personality, lives and flaws as well as the forensics of the crime itself.

Gabrielle delves into the physical, the psychological and the forensic with an intimate knowledge and eye for detail.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.40

Baby Did a Bag Thing Conspiracy 365 Dirty Weekend Fortress lethal-factor

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Gabrielle

Gabrielle:
My pleasure.

Valerie:
So how and when did you start writing? Tell us about that.

Gabrielle:
I had always written stories from when I was quite young. I remember starting to write what I thought was a radio serial, because I was raised in the days of the great radio serials, when I was about nine, much to my mother’s horror because she thought it was rather vulgar, and I think it probably was.

I’d always enjoyed writing. It was the only place that I had a bit of freedom at school. It wasn’t prescribed, you could write about different things that even a set topic gave you a certain amount of freedom, so I’d always enjoyed writing. And then I had a sort of an epiphany when I was about 22 and realised that I would be a writer when I was 30.

Valerie:
Right.

Gabrielle:
So I picked up a Gertrude Stein biography and read one sentence that said, “I decided when I was 30 I’d write” and I thought, “Yes, so will I. That’s what I’ll do.”

Valerie:
Wow.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, it was like a self-hypnosis or something and so at that stage, I had written about 10,000 words of a novel that was going nowhere and I realised I was just too young. I didn’t know anything about life. I didn’t know much except being a young mum in the country.

So when I was 30, I started writing seriously.

Valerie:
So you really did wait until you were 30 and then just went for it.

Gabrielle:
I did. On my 30th birthday I marched up to this newsagent and bought a whole new block of paper and lots of new pens and I started to write a novel.

Valerie:
Fantastic.

Gabrielle:
And then I wrote another one and neither of them were very good, but I learned my craft – I learned the beginning of my craft on those two works.

Valerie:
So private investigator Gemma Lincoln is a character who features in quite a few of your books. How did you come up with that character? What was the inspiration for that?

Gabrielle:
Well, the inspiration of the first Gemma Lincoln book, which I didn’t realise was the first in a series when I wrote it. There’s a book called Feeding the Demons and that was inspired by a crime scene photograph.

I had a close association with a crime scene examiner for many years and in this photograph, it showed the effigy of a female and male figure built out of clothes. And what this offender used to do was break into the houses of women who lived alone and he’d go through their clothing and he would make these strange figures out of clothes, which he’d lay on the floor, and then he’d stab and masturbate.

Yes, so I remember looking at that thinking, “My God, fancy waking up and finding that on your floor,” and that was the beginning of Feeding the Demons, the novel. But then you have to think, “Well, who was the person who woke up?” And that’s when I started the beginning of creating Gemma Lincoln.

A woman wakes up and finds that on her floor, who is she, and so on. Why has she got a video camera? How come? Because when I wrote that, video cameras weren’t all that widespread and I thought, “Well, she’s a PI, that’s why she’s got one, because it’s part of her work.” And that’s really where the character sprang from.

Valerie:
And have you enjoyed shaping that character and letting her develop over time?

Gabrielle:
Yes, it’s part of the business is to grow the character, especially over a series, which means she can’t start off terribly well-developed emotionally and she’s got to start with a lot of character defects that need addressing over the series.

So my plan is to grow her up over, we’ve had four books now.

Valerie:
And why the interest in crime fiction in the first place?

Gabrielle:
I didn’t really have an interest in crime fiction. It’s a funny thing. My first six books are stand-alones and although they feature crimes, they’re more about family relationships, which is my real interest. I often say the family is the original crime scene. This is where so much is laid down in the behavior of people.

So I’ve always been very interested in family relationships and their effects on children and how that plays out. And I think, if you’ve read Feeding the Demons or anyone who has read Feeding the Demons knows that Gemma is the daughter of a murdered mother and her father spent many years in prison and part of the story is Gemma’s attempt to clear her father’s name.

That’s really my main interest: how did children live under the severe circumstances? How did they grow up?

Valerie:
And what kind of research have you done on exactly that? Family relationships or is it something that is experience, that you gather over time or insights and perspectives that you gather over time?

Gabrielle:
Well, everybody grows up in a family so we all have a family to access, to look very closely into, to have a look at the relationship that existed between the parents before you or I were born and how that might have impacted on the arrival of a first child.

Then the first child has to take its place and then, as the second baby becomes along, that baby’s then got to make room in a place that’s already fairly crowded because there were three people having a relationship by the time the second baby’s born.

So all these things impact and if the parents are emotionally immature, which most human beings are, especially when we’re that young having babies, it creates all sorts of interesting challenges for later in life. So I look at my own family, I look at the way I was raised, I look at the way I raised my own daughter and the ignorance that I brought to that and wisdom that I’ve developed over the years and slowly, it becomes more apparent.

Valerie:
And what kind of research do you do for the actual crimes in your book because, obviously, they need to be detailed and credible.

Gabrielle:
Yes. Well, of course, I do a tremendous amount of reading in that area. I had this very close association with a senior detective crime scene examiner with the New South Wales police for many years and he was a wonderful reference and taught me all I needed to know about blood stain interpretation and all sorts of things like that. I’ve spent time in laboratories watching the DNA profilers at work.

I spent a lot of time in laboratories, talking to scientists, doctors, pathologists, detectives, spooks and weapons inspectors. Whatever it takes for the book I’m writing, I go and find out about it.

Valerie:
What’s been your most interesting research project or place that you visited that’s made you go, “Wow.”

Gabrielle:
It’s very hard to say to pick one. All those worlds are very interesting. To the people who live in them, they’re just their workaday world, obviously. But when you are writing, you visit and I’ve found – I really find science very interesting and also very beautiful.

Being able to tell which side a window is broken on can be absolutely essential to an investigation. Is it a break-and-enter from the outside, or has someone broken the window on the inside to make it look like a break-and-enter?

Now science can show you the examination of – the shattering of glass can answer that question and just to see it, it’s beautiful. It’s really exquisite. The rainbow shattering in glass is lovely. So science is very beautiful and interesting.

Valerie:
Have you ever thought of writing a different type of book, maybe one that’s a bit more scientific, in fact?

Gabrielle:
No, because there are scientists who are far more qualified to do that than I and I think there are people who are more interested in true crime who do that sort of work. That’s not an area that I’m terribly drawn to, I guess.

Valerie:
Sure. You’ve written 15 books. Do you have a favorite?

Gabrielle:
Do I have a favorite? I actually like The Sharp End very much, which is my police dog handler book, because going down and researching the police dogs was just wonderful. You were asking me before, something that stood out, well that certainly was a fantastic day, when I went down, watched the police dogs going through their paces. Wonderfully, brilliant, intelligent animals that can go from total ferocity to total docility, on a command and that’s a big ask in a dog. You know how excited they get.

So that was wonderful to watch that and to realise that the dog is part of the family and I said to the sergeant, “I’ll bet you hear at home that either that bitch goes or I go,” and he said, “Oh yeah, and she knows which bitch goes too.”

Valerie:
For somebody who hasn’t read one of your books yet but is listening to their podcast, would you have a suggestion on where they should enter their Gabrielle Lord world first?

Gabrielle:
Probably with either the first Gemma, which is Feeding the Demons or the first Jack McCain, which is my other serious character, the forensic examiner, who’s the next New South Wales Police, now scientist with the AFP and he was based on someone I know. Probably Death Delights, which is the first of the Jack McCain series.

Valerie:
And Death Delights won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Australian Crime Fiction Novel in 2002 and as you say, it’s about Jack McCain. Tell us why you decided to write about Jack.

Gabrielle:
Well, books come to me in different ways and sometimes they come to me in the form of a, if I say vision, that sounds a bit grandiose. But it’s a very powerful, overriding mental image and I was listening to some music, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead actually, and this man just appeared in my mind, in my studio, fully formed, haunted by something terrible that had happened, something he’d failed to stop happening when he was a young boy and I said, “Who are you?” And that’s where Jack McCain came from.

Valerie:
Wow.

Gabrielle:
So that’s how he arose. Feeding the Demons came from the photograph, Jack came from Rachmaninoff; they come from everywhere these people.

Valerie:
So just take us back to when you were 30. You went and bought your stationery and your pens and stuff like that and started writing a novel. The novel you started writing then, did that become a book in the end?

Gabrielle:
Oh, no. It never did, Valerie. The first two didn’t make it to publication and that’s probably just as well but what I did was I just sat down and I started writing. I knew that I had to have a body of work.

At that stage, I was working full time, so I was getting up at half past four in the morning.

Valerie:
Oh my God.

Gabrielle:
And I was working for a couple of hours and then I would get my daughter and myself off to work and school, respectively, and then I’d come home, cook a meal, we’d eat and she’d allegedly do her homework, and I would do another hour or so and then I’d go to bed. And that’s how I lived for a year or two until I had a novel. All weekends, of course, were given over to this and it means I missed out and she missed out on a lot too, actually, come to think of it.

Valerie:
What kept you going?

Gabrielle:
Well, the desire to finish the work.

Valerie:
Right.

Gabrielle:
The desire to have my say, I guess.

Valerie:
And once you had done that, how did you hone it? How did you know if it was good? How did you get feedback on it?

Gabrielle:
I didn’t really. It’s very hard to know. I know now. I’ve just finished the 11th book of a 12-volume crime series that I’m writing so I’ve now written 15, 25, 26 books. I now know how to shape and craft a book but with the first one, one doesn’t. One learns on-the-job, in a way.

So I didn’t know what it was like and I got feedback from readers: some people liked bits of it. Some people didn’t like that – this, that and the other. You have to learn to listen to readers and you have to learn that writing is all about rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and nobody really wants to know that bit.

Valerie:
So what happened when you finally got your first book contract? How did that all come about?

Gabrielle:
Well, that all came about because I’d won a New Writer’s Fellowship in 1977 and that gave me a year off work with an allowance, a fellowship similar to the pathetic amount I was earning in the Public Service, but at least it was enough for me and Madel to live on.

And I’d written these two books and I’d really shaped up the second one that I thought was going quite well, but it wasn’t. And I had three weeks left when the publisher wrote to all of the people who’d won those fellowships and asked to see anything that came out of it, and I showed him mine and he didn’t like it. And I had three weeks left, and that’s when I wrote Fortress and it came from an idea that had been cooking for a long time and I wrote Fortress in three weeks of red-hot writing; I’ve never written like that before or since.

Valerie:
Oh my God!

Gabrielle:
Yeah. It’s only a little book; it’s probably only 65,000, maybe 70,000 words max, maybe 60,000. And that’s the only amount of rewriting I didn’t do any rewriting on that one, actually. I put in an extra 5,000 words for the American market because they wanted to know more about what happens in an Australian rodeo.

Valerie:
Alright.

Gabrielle:
So, the ladies with the tea urns and the pumpkin scones and that sort of thing, so all I did was add an extra 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 words and that was accepted like that.

Valerie:
Sure.

Gabrielle:
So that was enormous good fortune.

Valerie:
So tell us about your typical writing day, and you just mentioned that you’ve written the 11th book in a 12-volume series. Tell us about that as well.

Gabrielle:
Well, that’s with Scholastic Publishing. It’s a young adult crime thriller that is going to start being published next year. It comes out monthly and it follows the fortunes of a fugitive boy who is on the run for crimes he didn’t commit.

He’s 15. He’s trying to find out what happened to his father and also he’s trying to discover the truth about something called the Almond Singularity. His name is Almond – Cal Almond and he has this huge quest to go on for the 12 books, the 12 months.

He’s got to stay ahead of the law. He’s got to stay ahead of not one, but two criminal gangs who are out to not just stop him but also take what information he has and find the secret that he’s after. So it’s thrills and spills, very fast-moving. It’s got a web component because Cal has a blog and readers will be able to connect with him via the website.

It’s a wonderful romp, I must say, and it’s been ball writing it although a huge challenge because it’s a massive work, as you can imagine.

Valerie:
Do you have the story for 12 volumes in your head when you start out or do you treat each one separately?

Gabrielle:
Well, I had already written about a 30,000 word outline of the story arc. Then, you can’t just do a great big book and chop it into 12 pieces like it’s a sausage; each book has to be crafted and shaped. The tension’s got to build; there’s got to be payoff.

There’s got to be a satisfaction point where Cal grasps something enormously important or breaks through to a new clue on the – whatever the Almond Singularity is and why it’s so dangerous to him. And then, it’s all got to go to hell then for the cascade in the last little section into the cliffhanging ending, which will have the readers panting, you see, for the next month’s instalment.

Valerie:
Of course.

Gabrielle:
So each one is a separate, complete book adventure but it also has this component of “God, what’s – how’s he going to get out of that situation?” So, I used the story and then I had to break down each book and that was writing a movie treatment really; a five-page treatment on each book and then from that I would then start storylining and then start writing.

Valerie:
And obviously, you write for adults and young adults. It is hard to make the switch? Do you have to sort of get into a different mindset to do that?

Gabrielle:
I don’t make much of a difference in my mind. I just have to remember Cal’s a bit different because he’s acting like an adult. I mean, he is free and independent but normally, with my earlier YA, Monkey Undercover, I had to remember the children are totally dependent; that they can’t get to places as easily as adults, that they don’t have money, that it’s harder for them to achieve the things that the book needs for them to achieve.

But apart from that, I don’t make any concessions. The problems facing kids are similar to the problems facing adults.

Valerie:
So the perimeters are more what your characters can or cannot do to move the story forward as opposed to writing a different way.

Gabrielle:
Yes. I don’t worry too much about the language because I’ve got a marvellous editor who rephrases things if I’ve made a too-complicated kind of, sub-dependent clause or something. She’ll whack that into shape.

Valerie:
So, what about your typical writing day? Can you describe to use what goes on these days?

Gabrielle:
The typical writing day? It depends what stage I’m at. When I’m out researching, I’m out researching. That means I’m chasing around. I went to Ireland because the end of Conspiracy 365, which is this big 12 volume thing, it takes place in Ireland because it has to finish off in Ireland. That’s where the huge secret lies, ticking away, as it has for the last four centuries or so. And so, I’ll be travelling in Ireland, driving people mad with funny questions or I’ll be talking to scientists. I’ll be interviewing cops and people like that.

When I’m working, it depends what stage I’m at. If I’m at first draft, I try and push the story out as quickly and energetically as I can. So the first draft, I’d be hard at it and I’d do a minimum of 1,000 words a day. I can’t leave the house until I’ve done my 1,000 words. Sometimes I do 3,000 but that’s my darg. That’s what I have to do.

Valerie:
It’s all about discipline, isn’t it?

Gabrielle:
It’s all about discipline. Oh, and also wanting to get the job done.

Valerie:
Well, yes.

Gabrielle:
If you want to get done, you’ve got to do it sort of thing.

Valerie:
Now I’m still fascinated by this whole thing about “I turned 30, I’m going to be a writer,” and you obviously persisted for a while on your own without a lot of feedback initially. Did you always think you were going to make it?

Gabrielle:
I just felt that I was going to be a writer and that if I was going to be a writer, I’d better start writing. So I was constantly writing. I didn’t really think too much about not pulling it off. I had very little doubt that I would be successful.

In fact, when I wrote Fortress, I had the same sort of feeling about it. I don’t know if you’re a pool player but there’s a particular moment of bliss where you line up the cue and the ball and the ball that you want to sink and it might be an odd angle but you just know the minute the cue’s hit the white ball, you know you’ve got to pocket that ball. You just know, even before it’s happened.

And I had that feeling about Fortress, I just knew it was winner and I didn’t quite know why. Probably because it was simple, straightforward, fast-moving, original, you know, no one had written anything like it before. So the long answer is I just sort of knew that it was going to work.

Valerie:
That’s a great description. Do you feel that moment of bliss on each of your stories?

Gabrielle:
No, I’ve never had that complete feeling of “I’m definitely pocketing this ball” with the others. I’ve got to the stage now after 26 books and multiply that by 10 because the draft is so different that they’re almost different books anyway. I really know what I’m doing now as far as setting up and structuring a book. I know what’s going to work; I know what’s not going to work. So I’ve roughly got the big moves sorted; that’s not a problem.

But as far as that sense of confidence, no. I’ve only really ever had that shining sense once.

The others, I know they’re okay and I know they’re probably going to be acceptable, but that’s a different feeling.

Valerie:
But I suppose when you get that experience, you just know you’re going to pocket the ball.

Gabrielle:
Yes.

Valerie:
And that’s it.

Gabrielle:
That’s the one.

Valerie:
And finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers?

Gabrielle:
Look, Bryce Courtney talks about bum-glue as being the most necessary quality for a young writer, and I think he’s right. It just means staying there, at your desk, and removing all romantic nonsense about muses and inspirations and stuff like that.

Get your idea, develop it, and ask questions of the character or the situation until you’re starting to storyline a story. A story has to have a beginning, middle and an end and you can’t really do much until you are in control of that, until you know what you’ve got and you only find that by writing it.

People say “Start off adventurously and write.” Of course you do but eventually, you have to stop and say, “Well, this is where it’s going to end and now I’m going to start writing the book.” I mean, there’s always a time when you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. And the writing of it is actually what makes the end happening, or the worrying at it, like a dog at a bone, until you do work out what’s going to happen at the end.

People often ask me do I know what’s going to happen at the end and that’s a funny question because, of course, I have to. Otherwise, I couldn’t have written it.

Valerie:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
But there was a time when I didn’t, either.

Valerie:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
You know, imagine waking up and finding this on your floor. That’s the beginning.

Valerie:
Yes. So what you’re saying is just let it – just keep writing and let it come out.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, let it come out and, with the sort of genre stuff, like a crime thriller. Obviously, you could pretty much block in the last chapter, Gemma gets her man.

Valerie:
Oh, yes.

Gabrielle:
Now how she’s going to do that, of course, I have no idea. But she’s going to get that guy. The setup is that someone stabbed the clothes in her place and she’s going to get whoever it was, because he’s also a killer. So you sort of know that that will be roughly the end, but how that’s going to come about, a writer has no idea until you start setting up the stages.

Valerie:
And when that finally does come about, what’s that feeling like when it all crystallises, the ending.

Gabrielle:
It’s very wonderful because, I don’t know if this is standard for other writers but I always go through a stage about three-quarters of the way through a book, right about the first draft stage, roughly, and it’s like that transition period in labor where the woman becomes extremely truculent and bad-natured and it’s when you’re at the end of the niceness.

All the niceness is gone and I’m walking around thinking, “How on Earth did I get myself into this mess? This book is hopeless. It’s never going to work. I’ve got these six storylines going nowhere. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? I’m starting a new book immediately.” My publisher always thinks that’s funny that I would be thinking of starting a new book because that’d be easier.

But if feels easy because it’s cleaner; I’m not in the mess. I recognise now, “Come on, you always get to this stage. You just have to walk it out or just let it go. Go for a swim, go for a walk. Go and have a coffee. Talk to the cat, do some gardening.” And after about three days, sure enough, “Hey! Yes! He can do that. He’ll meet them, then I’ll meet them, that’ll go there, this’ll go there,” and then, whack! Off, off we go and I’m jumping up and down and wrapping it up.

Valerie:
Perfect. Must be a great feeling.

Gabrielle:
It’s a great feeling.

Valerie:
And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Gabrielle.

Gabrielle:
My pleasure, Valerie. Thank you.


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