Marele Day: Author of crime fiction

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image-mareleday200Marele Day is the author of 10 books, including the four-book Claudia Valentine series of crime novels. Her latest book is The Sea Bed, about a Buddhist monk who leaves his monastery to carry out a fellow monk’s dying wish.

She has won several awards including the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement, 2008 and won international acclaim for her 1997 novel Lambs of God. Other books include Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife and Shirley’s Song. She has also written two non-fiction books for writers, Successful Promotion by Writers and How to Write Crime.

Marele is also an experienced writing teacher who has taught all over Australia. She has travelled extensively and lived in many different countries including Italy and France. She even survived a near shipwreck in the Java Sea. She now lives on the NSW North Coast.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.33

The Sea Bed


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Thanks for joining us today, Marele.

I‘m very pleased to be here.

Now you seem to be able to switch between genres very easily from crime fiction, to which you are very well-know for, to historical to non-fiction. Is that difficult? Do you have to get yourself into a different zone or something before you do that?

I don’t know if I have a low boredom threshold but I don’t like doing the same thing again and again. I did four crime fiction books and enjoyed very much that experience but for me writing is a bit of an adventure.

It’s like travelling somewhere to some new territory and that’s where I want to go each time with a new book, is to travel to some new territory. I feel for me that it’s actually easier than going over ground that I made before because then I feel that I might be tempted to go into familiar tactics and it would be repetitive. It does require a huge amount of research I have to say but I am willing to go there.

Now when did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it from you were very young or was it later in life?

Absolutely not when I was young although I have to say that I was always strongly aware of the power of language. When I was about three for example my aunt was getting divorced and the word was spoken in such hushed tones I felt that it had such power that if you said it out aloud that something might explode. So I was always aware of the strength and power of language.

But I didn’t start writing. I had no conscious desire to do it. I was even actually writing before I was realized that was what was happening. Again it had to do with travel and instead of taking photographs of places I’d write a little something because perhaps I felt that taking photographs was intrusive.

I do remember my very first line of what I think is probably writing,

“Spring dotting the grass like Claude Monet.”

That was an observation that I must have made somewhere. It sort of popped out and I thought, “Well I wouldn’t actually say that so this must be writing.” but it very much started with doodling and little poems and little descriptive pieces.

How did you nurture that? How did you develop your writing skills and hone your creativity?

I enjoyed this little exercise and I think when you are travelling it is a way of hearing your own language. I don’t mean by that just English but one’s individual language. So there was certainly that and once I realized what I was doing was writing then I realized that I had to more than just those little descriptive bits.

I started with poems, as I said, but I felt that I wanted to go to longer pieces. In fact I feel so much more comfortable with a novel because it is a much more robust beast for me than a poem. If a poem didn’t come almost to me almost straight out, almost born in one go. I didn’t feel that I had the facility to go back and edit it which I know poets go over a poem 30 or 40 times.

I felt that I could sort of cut and paste and change a novel around because it was robust enough to put up with that. Really I have been writing for more than 20 years now and back then there was not a lot of what we might call help for writers. There weren’t the creative writing courses. There weren’t institutions like yours. There weren’t workshops. There weren’t that sort of thing available to writers. So you just feel your way into it.

It takes a lot of effort when you don’t have those resources. What’s your favourite genre to write in or do you have a genre that you find more challenging than others?

I probably wouldn’t have a favourite genre. I feel that the kind of writing skills are the same whatever genre you are doing. You still have to take care of the narrative drive, making sure that the characters lift off the page, paying attention to detail and structure and pacing. All those things you might do in one genre also apply to another. It may be a different focus as to how important the story is in relation to language and imagery but certainly all those things are the same.

When you were writing crime how did you research the crimes?

I’ve probably started with newspapers and books, etc. You need to develop research skills and when I was doing that it was very much at the beginning and Harry Lavender for example, The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender which was my first, I think I was winging it a lot. I think that I’m probably as the novels developed and you would guess from letters from readers too that this is not right or that is not right. I became far more precise with the detail in the crime research. I obviously didn’t go out and murder someone myself.

But you read court reports and I visited the morgue, rang people, poison experts, forensic detail, all that kind of thing. For a writer I find that research out in the world far more enjoyable than the Internet, for example. Because there is so much time that you spend by yourself, it’s great to get out there.

Of course there is location research too that is extremely important with crime fiction because location is such. There is always such a strong sense of place in crime fiction.

When you research crime you obviously come across some fairly unusual and some dark and disturbing things. Was that something that fascinated you throughout your life or is that something that was a necessary part of your fiction writing?

More a necessary part of I would say. When I first decided to write crime fiction it was not the crime so much as that sense of place that’s depicted in crime fiction, which is what I just said. I wanted to write a novel about Sydney. Two things, I wanted to write a novel about Sydney and I wanted to practice writing plot because, as I said, most of my experience had been with poetry. It seemed that a crime novel would kill these two birds with one stone.

It’s obviously plot strong and it has a good sense of place. So that’s the motivation in doing it. It wasn’t necessarily an interest in crime but that develops in a sense. You sort of wonder about people’s motivations and what’s actually going on inside them because criminals are human like all of us. You just wonder what it takes to step over that edge.

A particular crime that interested me were those four Claudia Valentine mysteries was the one depicted in The Case of the Chinese Boxes which was based on a real crime that occurred in Chinatown in Sydney where the criminals spent about two days inside the bank. They took safety deposit boxes in the end. But it was quite a well executed crime and I was able to see a lot of police evidence of that particular crime.

They were smart enough to have done it on the eve of the Bicentenary when there were lots of fireworks going off and people weren’t paying particular attention to a few extra noises, etc. As far as I know they still have never been found. So they were smart enough to not brag about it too much afterwards either.

Tell us about your new book, The Sea Bed, which is about a Buddhist monk and his journey away from the monastery. How did this book come about?

The book came about probably there are two main prongs to it. To write about the sea but not necessarily the sea in the view that you get from the beach but submersion in the sea, what if felt like to be submersed in sea water. I’d started doing some snorkelling and I was just absolutely fascinated with life below the surface.

One, that fish, etc., they seem to just swim with you. They don’t seem to swim away from you so much as when you are thrashing about on the surface swimming. And also that very feeling of fluidity that you have in water. Somehow you are buffeted by the water and you don’t feel the pull of gravity so much. So that was definitely one thing.

The other thing was again to look for a different world. I’d been to Japan on a promotional tour with Shane Maloney and Peter Doyle, two fellow crime writers, was for translations of our crime books into Japanese. It’s a highly organized ten days there and it fascinated me. What particularly fascinated me I suppose was that every minute of our day was organized and I only caught brief glimpses of what this country might be.

It seemed that setting a novel there by the sea would have been a good idea. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think I’d always know about the ama, that’s a Japanese word for the traditional women divers of Japan, and I thought that’s it. And also to what really gave the thing some urgency was that I met a Japanese woman here in Australia who said when I told her that I was thinking of doing of that, “Oh, I didn’t think that there were any still left.” When I started to do research into it I realized that their numbers were diminishing and so there was that sense of urgency to go there before they disappeared completely.

Fascinating. Is that how your ideas come about? Something that just sort of peaks your interest and then you want to explore it or is that how it works for you?

More or less. It’s not even something that you are particularly looking for. It comes to you and so you need to sit with it for a while. That can take months or even years. It’s often, as I described with The Sea Bed, it’s often two things that come and you think is there enough for a story here. Is there enough to go the length of a novel?

Also I tend not to act on it straightaway. I let the ideas sit there. I do a bit of exploration in my head before I actually do any research. I look at possibilities because you have to live with a novel so long you want to know that you are going to be interested by it for the time that it takes to see you through it.

So when you are in that writing process can you tell us about your typical writing day then? Do you have a routine or a ritual at all when you are writing a novel?

It depends what draft that I’m up to and I just briefly say that I do three drafts. The first draft is very loose and rough. I never read the material back because I know it’s bad. The second draft is when I’m looking at what I call the macro unit’s structural level like when and where do you give certain information. Are the characters consistent? Pacing, have we had enough of this thing and do we need to go onto something else. The third level is where I really pay attention to the words on the page. Is this the right image, etc.? Really make those words work for you.

But on a daily practical basis by the second and third draft I’m obsessed and there is no discipline problem whatsoever. I get up and I want to do it. In fact it’s in my mind 24 hours a day there. You are kind of somewhat removed from the real world and you hope that you are not burning the house down because you have left something on the stove or whatever.

But in the first draft that’s the one that I find excruciating, that tyranny of the blank page. I try and aim for 1000 words a day and real life intervenes and you can’t actually often work every day. You can’t actually write every day. I can start that as soon as I get up or I can procrastinate and clean the frig and do all of that as we all writers know so well. And think, “My God, it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. I better start doing something.” I try and aim for a word goal.

I do my first draft long-hand. Out of the now seven novels that I have written I did two straight on the computer and found it quite dissatisfying a process. I wondered why this was and I think it’s a couple of things. I work in big foolscap books, hardcover. They are fairly portable so I can go outside and write on them because the cover is fairly hard enough to lean on.

I think that it’s you are much closer to the material when you are handwriting. The idea occurs in your brain. It sort of comes down your arm out of the pen and you are actually touching the page or touching the place where the word’s coming out. It’s all a lot more organic and tactile. I think that the wavy movement of handwriting comes from a different part of your brain than the kind of on/off digital movement when you are tapping keys.

I love the computer for subsequent drafts because it’s as if you are doing this tapping and the words coming up on the screen are somewhat disassociated from you. That allows me to better edit the material because it has more objectivity. I didn’t actually put those words on the screen. They came there through the machine. So that’s the sort of difference it is for me.

I have to say too in addition with this novel because it’s got three main characters. This novel, The Sea Bed, it has the Buddhist monk, as you pointed out, and it has Chicken and Lily, two women divers who are sisters. Chicken is the one who has remained in the community and Lily is the one who for her own reasons we end up discovering through the course of the novel, left and took up a city life.

Doing the first draft I had different colour pens for them as well. The monk was green, Chicken was just a regular black pen and Lily’s pen was purple. So that allowed me to sort of somehow go from one narrative point of view to another. Plus it was easy to see on the page how much space each of them was getting. So if I thought, “Oh, I’ve probably done quite a lot of the monk now perhaps I better switch over to the other character’s point of view.”

Also you are a very experienced writing teacher. Why do you do that as well?

I love doing that and I’m very pleased to do it and still feel enthusiastic about it after a number of years. I have to say probably that’s what I always wanted to do when I was a kid. I wanted to be a teacher and that’s in fact what I did do for some years after leaving school, primary school teaching and university teaching.

To teach something that you love like writing is just a joy. I love the mentoring process. I do teach workshops, etc., but that one-on-one mentoring when you actually go into the world of somebody else’s novel. And a novel that is still at its potential and not finished, to go into that world and just sort of see what it might be and to see what’s the positive aspects of that novel, the distinctions, the distinctive voice of it.

Also to sort of think what’s not working and how can you make it better. And of course it’s not up to me to make it better. It’s up to sort of the writer to sort of take on board suggestions. It’s quite a remarkable process I think when that happens. To see what a writer actually does with suggestions.

What for you personally has been one of the hardest parts of your writing process?

It is that first draft. It’s making up the story I think. Because what I loved about writing in the first place was that doodling aspect of it. The feeling that you might get with morning pages for example if you are just free writing. Nobody is going to see it so it doesn’t have to have a structure. It doesn’t have to have a particular shape. But that onward going story structure for me has always been difficult. I have to say that it hasn’t got any better over the course of the books.

After that difficult first draft you say that you become obsessed with the second and third draft. Are you very exhausted by the end and what is the feeling like at the end? Is it relief or exhaustion?

When the whole book is finished?

Yeah, when you know that you are done.

You are sort of at the top of your brain all the time. There is this great adrenalin charge when you are obsessed and you sort of know what you have to do and everything is racing which is fantastic. Even in a fairly contemplative novel like The Sea Bed. But I did feel with that I felt like I had given birth to an elephant. Because it took four years, it’s a book that has taken me the longest to write. Yes, I just felt like I have to lie here for a while and recuperate.

It’s a great feeling though because it must be a feeling that someone who has run a marathon has at the end. You are exhilarated that you have hit the finishing line but then you just have to lie around for a while as well.

But fortunately with a marathon there are only living with it for 42 kilometres. When you live with a book for four years do you feeling slightly bereft at the end that this thing is gone now?

I think that you do. You have this big hole which is why the resting period. You have got to rest and get over it. You’ve also got to rest and wait until your well fills up again if you like, your well of ideas. But it’s interesting because it’s a sort of gradual process. There is that defined special moment when you hand it over to the publisher, when you hand the manuscript over.

But there are inevitably other stuff to do with the book. It gets edited, etc. So it comes back to you. But it’s gone to other hands in a sense. It’s being looked after by others as well and there is this wonderful process as well when the manuscript is transformed into a book with a cover and beautiful design inside, etc.

I suppose that’s the moment when you feel it can live on its own and that may be akin to the day when your child first goes to school. You feel okay it can have that time at school away from the parent. It can be looked after by others and it can manage on it’s own to some extent too.

What a great description. What would your advice be for aspiring authors who are listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I’d really like to have a go at that one day. I’d really like to finally get that discipline.” What would your advice be to them?

Sit down and do it. I know that sounds trite but stay seated. Stay seated for as long as it takes. I think what you need to do is to prioritize it because I know myself too you will willingly do enough other things and just procrastination. If somebody asks you to write a particular piece or review a book or do a workshop or whatever you will always say yes to it and think, “Oh well there will be another day to write the book.”

But the writer is the only person who can write this book. Everything else in your life can be taken care of by others in a sense. Even if you die, let’s go to an extreme. Other people can look after your family but no one can write this book. So you need to prioritize it and see that’s its important and sit down and give it the time for as long as it takes. It might take as I said four years.

I love it. Sit down and just do it. It makes perfect sense. And on that note thank you very much for your time today, Marele.

Thank you it’s been a pleasure.

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