Leah Giarratano: Author of crime thrillers

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image-leahgiarratano200Dr Leah Giarratano has been a clinical psychologist for many years – she’s therefore well placed to write convincing crime thrillers. Her latest book is Black Ice, the third in the series of Jill Jackson novels.

Her background in psychology focuses on trauma, sex offences and psychopathology. She has worked in hospitals, and has consulted to the defence force and the corrections system, and has worked with both offenders and victims.

Her first novel, Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, was published in 2007; her next, Voodoo Doll was published in 2008. She has also worked in television – in 2009 she was the host of Channel 7’s Beyond the Darklands.

Click play to listen. Running time: 26.01

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Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Leah thanks for joining us today to talk to us.

Leah
My pleasure. Thanks for calling.

Valerie
Now tell us, you see all of your books have been very well received critically. How did it feel to find success as a writer so quickly?

Leah
It was a shock. It was great obviously but I’d read from other writers that usually you have a few books under the bed before you’re published. So I was expecting my first book really to kind of be just a cathartic experience for me and a practice go. I was really shocked when five different publishers wanted it before I had properly edited it.

Valerie
So tell us why you started writing it in the first place. You have a background as a clinical psychologist. How did you then decide that I would really like to start writing fiction?

Leah
I’d always wanted to write a novel. You know a lot of people feel like they’ve got a novel in them but I was really full in the middle of psychology when I was doing this book. I was finishing my doctoral placement at Long Bay jail and I was working with people with severe personality disorders, some of them psychopaths.

Some of the things that I saw and learned there were so awful, not that I hadn’t seen enough trauma in my work. But there was a lot. So I came out and really just started writing Vodka Doesn’t Freeze as a way to sort of dump some of the things that I had seen in there.

Valerie
So was it sort of a therapeutic experience for you initially?

Leah
Yes it definitely was and it still is. Some of my psychologist friends say to me, “You know how can you go home after having heard this all day and then write about it?” But writing traditionally is therapeutic for a lot of people. Some therapies actually use writing as a way, diarizing to try and get your feelings out and for me it definitely works that way.

So going over and over some of the dreadful things that I’ve seen and putting it into fiction, it allowed me first of all to make the story end how I wanted it to end. And that doesn’t always happen with my patients. But it’s also a way, I guess, of processing what I’ve seen and dealt with.

Valerie
Do you ever think, “Am I putting too much of reality in this story?” You say that you have experienced and heard such terrible things. Do you ever temper that because truth is worse than fiction?

Leah
I actually do. People ask me the opposite question usually about that. They say, “Things aren’t really that bad are they?” all of those things can’t possibly happen to one person. In fact one of the criticisms about the lead character, Jill Jackson, in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, a lot of people loved her but a few people are incredulous that one person could go through so many things.

But I actually do hold back from some of the things that my patients see. I have clients who live in some of the most poor and dangerous areas of our country who if they go to bed that night without getting bashed or robbed or home invasion or sexually assaulted, then they had a good day. I actually do hold back with my work.

Valerie
Have any of your clients or people that you have worked with ever contacted you and identified themselves?

Leah
I haven’t had that happen. I’ve had ex-clients contact me and say, “Great book, I loved it. Keep going. You are doing a great job.” certainly some of the police that I’ve worked with and some of the veterans that I’ve worked with. But I’m really, really careful to make sure that none of my patients picks up my book and says, “Oh, my God she’s making my story into entertainment.”

So even though the stuff that’s in my books is based upon things that have happened I twist them and change the facts in such a way that my clients will never see themselves there. I’ve changed stories so much that one client can feel like that’s them.

Valerie
You write about some pretty dark stuff. Do you ever wonder to yourself, “Who likes reading this? What strange people likes reading this?”

Leah
That’s another question that I get asked a lot. Why are people so interested in crime and in the dark side of life? It is one of the biggest selling genres in fiction and I’ve also done this show for Channel 7, Beyond the Darklands, where we are looking into the minds of killers. I think that all of us have a shadow side and maybe some of us are attracted to that side of ourselves, that dark side of ourselves.

But for other people that has had experiences like this and they know of people like this, some of the people who read my books say, “You know I read Vodka Doesn’t Freeze with my eyes half shut but it really helped me to know how paedophiles think, how to keep my children safer and I’m glad that I read it for that reason.”

So I think there are a lot of different reasons. Sometimes people, a lot of women read crime and it can give them a feeling of power at the end when the baddie is vanquished and often the female has saved the day. So I think there are a lot of reasons.

Valerie
Your books do feature some difficult things like paedophilia and abuse. How difficult is it to research these things and then write about it in such a way that’s not too exploitative or voyeuristic or anything like that?

Leah
So those two questions for me are really very different. Researching and writing both two things are very different in this case especially paedophilia. Researching, I don’t have to research it at all. Unfortunately I know pretty much every angle of paedophilia that there is.

From the victims and how they can recover or not, and all of the various courses that they can take after they have been abused. The offenders, why they do what they do, how they think and how they groom kids and how they find them. The courts, the police, the whole lot, the families and how they cope and what they think about themselves when it has happened to their children. I really do no research at all when it is something like that with paedophilia because I’ve got so many horrible stories.

But writing about it was very different. It was very important to me in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze not to actually write a scene where a child is being sexually abused. One reason is that I just wouldn’t want to write that. That just would be horrible for me to write. But secondly I would hate for any offender to pick it up and almost use it as porn really. Some offenders will do that with police statements and stuff.

Even though some people say to me, “Oh God, it was so hard to read about a child being abused in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze.” There isn’t actually a scene in there where you see that happen. You see what the offenders might be thinking and how they are planning to get children but you never see a child being sexually abused.

Valerie
So you have been a clinical psychologist for a while. What finally made you decide that I’m going to sit down and write now? What finally pushed you to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard?

Leah
It really was doing that placement in Long Bay jail and coming home with a headache every day and the first scene that I wrote in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze was violently killing a paedophile. I had been interviewing a man who had killed his three children and sexually abused one of them. So it was actually just a release to write that first scene and then the book just built around that. So I just kept writing because it felt good to write. At the end of that I finished my doctorate and I was starting to finish my first novel and really again I didn’t think that it would sell and was shocked when it did.

Valerie
At any point did you get writing tips or did you just let it all flow out?

Leah
As the book started to become a book I started to read other writers, not fiction but other writers on writing and started to get some idea about. I had no real idea about how to write a novel. I studied English at uni with psychology but not in any way did I study fiction writing. It was just reading other authors.

I did then go and look at plotting and milking a scene, that kind of thing. I did look at other writer’s advice on that sort of when I was about three-quarters of my way through the first novel. That did help.

Valerie
You’ve told us how you wrote that first scene for Vodka Doesn’t Freeze. Was there an equally or just as much a catalyst for writing your other two books? Did something happen that then made you get an idea or start writing the other two books?

Leah
Vodka Doesn’t Freeze was my main kind of burning hate really and that’s paedophilia. Once I had written that book I felt a lot better about that. But then others sort of cropped up. I’ve worked with quite a few victims of home invasions and they seem like some of the most terrifying things that you can go through as well.

It doesn’t sound that bad, home invasions. But imagine being asleep and waking up and somebody is in your room in your house. The terror that people have is just immense so that’s one of the themes of Voodoo Doll which is the second book. But there is also a veteran in there and I’ve worked a lot with war veterans. This particular veteran is a Rwandan veteran. Some of the patients that I’ve seen who went to Rwanda to serve our country have been some of the most traumatized people I’ve seen. So those two things came out in that.

My third book, Black Ice, there are villains in this book. This is the book that is out at the moment. But the main villain really is destiny or fate because a lot of my clients in such situations like I was saying earlier there is danger and threat around them all of the time. It may be somebody who is living in a house with them like domestic violence or just in their housing estate. There is somebody there who wants to attack them.

So the lead character, Seren, comes out of this environment. The stakes are very high for her because she has a son. She doesn’t want him to suffer the same way that she has in her childhood and so she tries to take on I guess the biggest target she can imagine and that’s a really powerful man and a really wealthy man who’s used to getting what he wants. She is a woman without a lot of power, without a lot of education but she’s also taking on fate and we need to see whether she will get there or not.

Valerie
What’s been the hardest part of your writing journey so far? What’s one of the hardest things that you have had to tackle as a writer?

Leah
As a writer the hardest thing is having too many jobs and then all jobs aren’t alike. So I can’t just throw one away. In the first year when I got a two-book deal with Random House and they wanted a book a year. Very quickly after Voodoo Doll or after Vodka Doesn’t Freeze went well they signed me up for another two books.

So I had this four-book deal with a book a year. I’ve studied for ten years to be a psychologist and I do well in psychology so I didn’t want to give that up. So the hardest thing was trying to figure out when I was going to write and when I was going to work because it’s very hard for me to do both on the same day. So I’ve got to a point now where I take month blocks off from psychology.

I don’t do therapy a lot anymore for clients. I’m doing a lot more assessments so I’m not leaving clients in the lurch for months. It’s a lot easier that way. I find I know a lot of writers will write every day but I can’t. I need that whole month to saturate myself in writing and then I’ll go back to psychology for a little while.

Valerie
So you take off a month. What do you get done in a month?

Leah
Quite a lot. I write a lot every day so I get a lot done each day. I can write up to 3000 words each day so you can get a lot done in a month. But there is a lot of plotting. There is quite a bit more research with the current book that I’m working on because there is an arsonist in there. I know how arsonists think but I need to know about incendiary devices and the boiling point of certain accelerants and that kind of thing. Yeah, there is a lot of that going on as well.

Valerie
When you have that month off and you are in that writing mode describe to us your typical writing day. Do you have a routine or how do you go about it?

Leah
I get up. I set the alarm which I usually don’t do. I set the alarm for 7:00 and I get up and feed my five cats with my husband. Then we usually watch some kind of crime related DVD because that just sort of stimulates my mind a little bit. We’ve got some great shows out there I think like The Wire is one that we are watching at the moment. So I watch something like that and then I come into a really nice room that we have set aside and usually there are one or two cats around me and then I write pretty much non-stop until I’ve got the word limit that I’ve set for myself for that day.

I take a break in the middle of the day for about half an hour but I’m pretty militant. When I take a month off psychology I really need to make that month count. So for me that’s a really effective way of doing it. Every day is like a day that I’m spending away from my other career and I’m putting into this career so I put a lot of work into it.

Valerie
Do you ever plan to write full-time?

Leah
I wouldn’t mind taking a year off. That would be great to actually take a year off. I don’t know if I will ever stop being a psychologist though. Obviously one day I will retire but at the moment I don’t think that I will stop doing psychology. I’ll always do it in some capacity.

I wouldn’t mind doing some volunteer work and writing full-time. I’d love to work with juveniles, female juveniles offenders because most of them are traumatized and trying to help them a little bit would be good. But at the moment I’m not looking at full-time writing just yet.

Valerie
You are surrounded at times with some pretty horrific things and then you write about some pretty horrific things. You start the day with a DVD of sometimes some pretty horrific things. Do you go through your life at all feeling a little bit stressed out and paranoid at what can happen in the world?

Leah
I have gone through periods like that definitely Valerie. What I try to do is change out my life a little bit when I get like that so it’s a really hard burnout area. I’m a trauma specialist as a psychologist and there have been periods where I have been close to burning out so that’s why I have such a varied life. Like going in and doing TV and getting your hair and makeup done, that was a really weird thing last year and I did that for most of last year. So that was a part of my job and I cut back on psychology while I was doing that.

The hardest thing for me is not the writing. It doesn’t traumatize me at all. It makes me feel better and doing things like TV is not traumatizing at all. Even though I’m researching psychopaths, that’s interesting to me. The hard thing is seeing clients and hearing their pain and they are real people and it’s not a story. So that’s what I try to have boundaries on. I don’t do that. I used to see eight clients a day, five days a week. I don’t do anything like that anymore. So I only see clients one day a week now but I write reports some days as well. I just try to keep limits on that kind of thing and see friends when I can and try and take breaks when I can.

Valerie
Now particularly with crime fiction the plot is so important but so are the details of the crime, the credibility. Do you sit there and let the plot unfold? Do you actually plot it all out? Do you go for a walk and let inspiration come? How does it all come to you?

Leah
The plotting is the hardest for me. I know some writers who say the plot comes easily, it’s the characters that are hard and I’m the opposite. For me the characters become so real and I really understand them. Whether their back story is in there or not, I know what they are thinking, how they would react so they can stay consistent throughout the novel.

But the plot is hardest for me, getting a plot. I know the content of what is going to be in the book. I know the crimes that are going to be in the book. Is it going to be a whodunit? Are we going to know the killer at the beginning and it’s now going to be a chase.

Those kinds of things are harder because I’m doing a whodunit at the moment and so we can never be inside the villain’s head. I really love writing from the villain’s perspective. Being the offender in the book is really fun for me. But in this book I can’t be, in this one that I’m writing at the moment. We have to keep him hidden and how to do that is always a challenge.

I do try to plot from the beginning but I inevitably find that almost all of that gets changed halfway through. I don’t scrap scenes. It’s just that my characters take me some other way and I start to realize something and it hits me. It can be scary and it’s a bit like having a tiger by the tail trying to rein it in and control where it’s going. But I just keep going and keep working and keep plotting as I go.

Valerie
You are currently working on your fourth book which I assume is a crime novel.

Leah
Yes.

Valerie
Have you got any plans after that? Have you already thought about what you’d like to do?

Leah
This is the fourth in the series for Jill Jackson and Random House is really happy with the series so that will probably continue with the series. I would like to write a fantasy novel next but it will be an adolescent fantasy. I’ve always wanted to do that and in fact that was the first book that I thought I would write. So I think my fifth book will be an adolescent fantasy but yeah, I just have to get through this one first.

Valerie
Tell us a little bit about Black Ice and what it’s about.

Leah
Black Ice sees Jill Jackson undercover. Detective Jill Jackson is working in the western suburbs of Sydney trying to crack down on the ice trade, the methamphetamine trade. She’s getting to know local sources and she’s living in the area in a rundown housing commission unit so she gets to meet all the characters. She collects CI for her boss, Lawrence Last, and together they put together busts for the bigger dealers up the chain rather than the users.

She comes into contact again with Gabriel Delahunt again who is a Federal agent and the Feds are also interested in methamphetamine trade on a larger scale. They come across a larger dealer and supplier and so they target him.

In the meantime Jill’s sister, Cassie, who is a fashion model has always sort of been dabbling in drugs and caught up in the high end of drugs, cocaine use and that kind of thing. But she actually gets caught up with this powerful drug baron through different circumstances. And so Jill’s undercover life and her sister, those two worlds collide.

The sub-plot is I guess is Seren Templeton who is a young woman who was born into a really happy family initially and she had a loving mother and father and a little baby brother. Her father died and her mother found herself with a very, very violent man and Seren’s life pretty much fell apart when all of that happened. So by age 15 she was a young single mother and then she also gets caught up in this drug world. Not using drugs but she pretty much gets set up and is jailed.

Following her release from jail she determines that she is going to get revenge on the person who set her up and she is going to get out of this life and protect her son or she is going to die trying. These plots twist together by the end.

Valerie
Wow, gripping.

So tell us what your advice is finally to budding crime writers out there who are listening to this and thinking that they would like to write their own crime novel.

Leah
I think that the most valuable thing for me is I read a book called The Right to Write and it might not be the best book for everybody but for me it was all about the inner critic and how to turn that off. When I’m writing if that inner critic starts to come in that’s when I really get constipated I guess. That doesn’t happen to me very often because I use some of the techniques that they suggest to turn off the critic.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else and don’t think that this isn’t good enough. Just write. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. So set your goal and just go after the goal. Those three tips really helped me a lot.

I guess the other thing would be know your character really well. Whether you put the back story in about your character just really work on the character so that you know what she likes, what she was like at school, what car he might like, what his mother might have said to him. Did he have a kind auntie? All of those things are really important whether they go in the book or not because that helps you later on when you’re stuck at a certain point. It can help you know what would he do in this point, what could happen here.

I guess then once you’ve got something written then I would research the publishers really carefully. Know what they want and how they want manuscripts submitted. There are these slush piles that I have been told about that Vodka Doesn’t Freeze was pulled out of.

Apparently once a book gets put in there it is very hard to come back out. There is where most of the unsolicited manuscripts come if you don’t have an agent or where they end up. So if your book is written the way that they want, not the content, but the way that they want it set out, the number of pages that they have asked for you to submit, the person that they wanted it submitted to, then you are more likely to be read rather than just looked over.

Valerie
Great advice and on that note thank you very much for your time today Leah.

Leah
Thanks Valerie.

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