Michael Robotham: Australian crime fiction writer

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Michael RobothamMichael Robotham is an Australian crime fiction writer. His latest book is Watching You, a terrifying thriller featuring clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin who has appeared in many of Michael's previous books.

Michael began his writing life as a journalist, then moved into ghost writing. As a ghost writer, he wrote 15 books, 12 of which became bestsellers. His first novel, Suspect, was published in 2004 and since then he has written and published one book a year.

In 2005 Michael won the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Book of the Year for his second novel, Lost. He won it again in 2008 for Shatter. His books have also been shortlisted for major prizes in the UK and have won praise from critics and writers from around the world – including Stephen King.

Michael lives in Sydney and is currently working on his 10th novel.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.43

watching-you

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle:
Hi, Michael. Thank you so much for talking to us today. First of all tell us about your latest book, Watching You.

Michael:
It’s a psychological thriller featuring some familiar characters that have been in quite a number of my books – psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and former detective Vincent Ruiz. But it also introduces someone new, Marnie Logan, who is a mother of two children whose husband disappear 13 months ago. She came home one day to find a half-made cup of coffee and a cooling kettle and that was it. He had simply vanished without a trace. And it is one of those strange perversions about justice system, both here in Australia or in the UK, where the book is set. If someone goes missing, unless they've been missing for seven years you cannot have them officially declared dead. So in the case of Marnie Logan she is trapped in a form of limbo. She can’t access his bank accounts, or stop his direct debits, or get his life insurance.

She’s increasingly desperate and almost suicidal when she comes to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin for help. And the story that emerges really is a story about a woman who for her entire life has felt as though she’s been watched, but increasingly Joe begins to doubt Marnie the more stories she tells him. And the more he investigates the less confidence he has in whether she’s telling the truth or not.

Danielle:
Where did the idea for this book come from? As you say it’s a psychological thriller, although it’s a very interesting take on the stalker story, I suppose. I’m just wondering where you got that idea.

Michael:
Like most of my books it's actually seeded in a real life event, and there was a case – I was born and bred in Australia, but I spent a lot of time working in the UK on Fleet Street and at one point I was sent back to Australia to do a story about a stalker. And I can’t give you all of the details, because it actually gives too much of the plot of the book away, or certainly one of the big twists in it. But it was based on a real life event. I guess I was – I can’t tell you enough about it, in a sense, but it was a woman who claimed she was being stalked, and may well have been telling the truth, but many people treated her as being paranoid, or wondered whether she was attention-seeking, or wondered if in fact she was being stalked by her own memories, or past tragedies. And, it really wasn’t as cut and dried as what anyone imagined, when the truth came out.

Danielle:
OK, so you mentioned that Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz feature in this one as well. They’re a really interesting team, a psychologist and a retired detective. How did these two develop? Because they’re featured in past books, but not always together.

Michael”
No, I mean I had no intention of writing a series when I began writing. I wrote my first novel, it was published in 2004, and Joe O’Loughlin was the main character, and I never intended to write him ever again. I wanted to write stand-alones, and one of the reasons I gave him early onset Parkinson’s, aside from the fact that I thought there was a tragic irony associated with someone having a brilliant mind like his, but a crumbling body, I also thought, ‘Well, no one is really going to want to have a long running character who’s got Parkinson’s, which is only going to get worse'. I really only brought him back in my fourth, Shadow, when I came up with an idea that was perfect for Joe to tell. So, in a sense it was almost accidental. Initially I think Vincent Ruiz was a minor character in the first novel and became a major character in the second last.

I guess I created a cast of characters that I could use, but probably Joe and Vincent have been the most popular with readers. You don’t necessarily always give readers what they want, and I think most of my readers would prefer if I did a Joe O’Loughlin book every book, but I think that would drive me crazy. I never want to write the same book twice. I think there are too many writers of series that should have probably pensioned off their characters a while ago and created something new, because they get tired and you can see that in the writing.

But they are an interesting team. I guess together I think a lot of… even my wife, who is sort of my designated number one reader, always feels a little bit happier when Vincent comes into the story, because she knows that Joe can’t get himself into too much trouble because Vincent will be there to pull his ass out of the fire, so to speak.

Danielle:
So you mentioned that you didn't think readers would be interested in a recurring character with Parkinson’s, but in watching you there’s another character who’s quite – Marnie’s son… I'm just wondering about why you would choose to give your characters some sort of chronic illness. Is there something about creating more vulnerability there?

Michael:
Definitely. I think it’s one of those things – I didn't want to create a hero who was Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, James Bond sort of, you know, suspend your disbelief and leave all sense of credibility at the door, because this is going to be a romp. All credit to people who write those sort of books. But I guess in a sense I look at someone like Joe O’Loughlin, and in that first novel his world is falling apart, and it’s almost a thing of saying, ‘Well, how can I make it even harder? How can you make someone that little bit more vulnerable or up the stakes that little bit more?' I guess in Marnie Logan’s case she is, as you say… the husband has disappeared, simply vanished, she’s completely broke, she’s got no support, she’s trying to raise two children, one of those children is very sick and it seems almost cruel to give her that added burden, but maybe we’re cruel people we writers.

Danielle:
Perhaps. Your thrillers are quite complex. So I’m making the assumption that you plan quite extensively. Is that case? And do you do a lot of research and preparation before you start writing?

Michael:
That would be completely not the case. No.

Danielle:
There you go.

Michael:
No, which is why I have so little hair, because I rip it out through the writing process. You take a book like The Wreckage, which had about six different storylines, and I had no idea how I was going to wrap those storylines together at the end, because they were set on three different continents and I couldn't even work out how to get three different parties into the one city.

But, no, they do… and people talk about the fact that the plots are quite complex and there’s a lot of twists and turns and there’s an assumption that they are planned in advance, but they’re not at all. I come up with a premise and my characters and I just… it’s almost like saying, ‘What’s the next worse thing that could happen?', ‘What’s the next worse thing that could happen?'. And I just pile pressure on them and see how they react, and hopefully somewhere in the process I come up with a solution as to how they’re going to escape from this predicament that I’ve put them in.

Danielle:
Right. Do you stick with the same story until you’ve come to that solution? Or are you constantly working on a few things?

Michael:
No, I stick with the same story. I liken to writing without any form of safety net. It’s like being a trapeze artist, at times you swing through the air and you let go and you tumble and you hope there’s something to grab onto, swinging towards you. And quite often I crash and burn. I throw away large amounts of material because I've just written myself off a cliff, and there’s no way back. So, I've been known to throw 40000 words away, because the story… I've just realised how the story can work.

But I mean there’s something quite exciting about writing that way. It’s a bit like… Stephen King referred to it as walking along and seeing a bone sticking out of the ground and you begin brushing the dirt away and you don’t know if it’s going to be a dog bone or a dinosaur. Sometimes I dig up dog bones, and they get tossed in the trash, and other times it’s something more substantial. But it’s exciting, and it’s organic to write that way, and I come in on some days and say to my wife, ‘You would not believe what has happened today at…' because a twist will have surprised me, and I think that’s a lot more exciting than knowing on Tuesday week at four o’clock I'm going to be writing this particular scene, which I’ve got it all plotted out ahead of me. I think I’d find that very, very hard to get motivated, if I wrote that way.

Danielle:
Right. You started out as a journalist, and then you worked as a ghost writer, so with the way that you write novels, is this to break away from that structured journalist style? I also wondered if there was a deadline there as well that’s forcing you to just get it on the page first and then…

Michael:
Partly I think it’s a boredom factor. There’s two reasons, Val McDermott used to plot her books out extensively and she doesn't do it anymore, because she found it actually quite tedious to go… I mean it’s the part I hate most, I hate plotting. I mean I know it’s a strange confession to make when so much of crime fiction is sort of I think equally character and plot-driven, but plot is vitally important, but I hate that idea that I have to create twists and turns that readers do see coming and don’t see coming, and I have to do that sleight of hand to make them look one way while I plant the clue with my other hand, that sort of conjuring trick.

It’s difficult, it does my head in. And I think I prefer to just let the story unfold and then during the process think of, ‘Well, what happened if this…' and just investigate the storyline and begin writing it and then let it unfold. I think that’s the best way to do it.

You mentioned research earlier and I didn't really answer that question. All I do is I do enough research initially to make sure that the premise that I'm setting up is workable, there’s not some major flaw in it. And then most of the research I do after I've written my first draft, because one of the great traps of people that want to write is that they can’t get started with their research, or they fall in love with it and put too much of it in the story, or the more research they do they keep changing their story. It is a case of just trying to get it down and then I can check that you can turn right on that particular street, or that there is a restaurant nearby that I can set something in.

Danielle:
So what’s the editing process like for you, then?

Michael:
I think the legacy of journalism is that I write a very, very, very… it sounds wrong to say this because I write a book a year but I don’t regard myself as writing quickly. I mean my first draft will take about eight months, and it will be very close to being the finished product. And even though I might rewrite it again six times, initially a rewrite might only take a week, and towards the end the rewrite will take two days, because I'm changing less and less with each of those rewrites.

I tend to create a first draft that’s very close to the final. I wish at times I was the sort of writer that just throws it down on the page and I'll go back and fix it later, but I tend to have to… it’s a bit like that idea, you've probably heard it in writing terms, people talk about whether someone is a settler or an explorer. The explorer is the writer that charges ahead and just keeps planting flags and keeps going and just gets the story down, and plants flags along the way and then goes back later and creates chapters around those flags, whereas the settler gets to the first little place, builds a town, makes sure they’re really happy with that town, and then they move on and build another town, and I’m more that style of writer.

Danielle:
I mean you just mentioned that you do write pretty much a book a year, nine books since 2004. But, you did mention in the acknowledgements of Watching You that you often feel like you’re out of ideas when you get to the end of a book.

Michael:
Yeah, no, I wish I was one of those writers that had a drawer full of ideas that I could just open up and just pull a new one out, and I’m not like that. And towards the end of a book, I'm sort of almost probably two-thirds the way through the first draft of another book now, and as I get towards the end of that I'll begin to panic about the fact that I don’t have another idea for the one after it. And I will finish exhausted thinking that I've used up every decent idea and clever line and nice description, and all of it’s gone. And, I will be convinced that there’s nothing more that is going to come, that’s it. A few hours later my wife will find me in my office and there will be something I’ll be writing. I literally finished one book and two hours later I’ve started a new one.

Danielle:
Wow. So, it’s just a spark, there’s no strategy or anything that you use to get over that post book funk?

Michael:
I guess the book I'm writing now, which will come out next  year, it’s called Life or Death, and it’s from something that I read many years ago and I cut it out, a little paragraph out of a paper and I found it in a folder, and I suppose over the last 10 years I've thought a lot about it, and it’s about some guy who had served a long prison sentence that escapes the day before he’s due to be released. And I just kept thinking, it kept going over in my head, ‘Why would someone do that? Why would they escape..?'

And it’s taken me sort of 10 years to think of why, but now that’s the novel I’m writing.

Danielle:
On the whole crime genre and thrillers, what’s the appeal to you about writing those books, and why do you think readers love it so much as well?

Michael:
I'm a sort of accidental crime writer. I didn’t set out in that first novel to write a crime novel. I was very fortunate to write 117 pages and have it become the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair. And nobody asked me how it ended, and I certainly didn’t know how it ended, because as I mentioned I don’t plot in advance. And I had no real idea that it was a crime novel. I knew… I knew it was sort of a bit like North by Northwest, that sort of famous Hitchcock film of case of mistaken identity, it was going to be that sort of story.

You get asked a lot the question about why, and I just stumbled into it. It’s not that I don’t love the genre, I don’t read a great deal in it, but that’s more because I find if you’re writing it all the time you tend to read something completely different.

I think there is that… it’s been said a lot… people’s desire for order in their lives, they know in real life that terrible things are done and people get away with shocking crimes. But the one advantage of crime fiction, as dark as it can be, there’s normally a sense of order restored at the end, justice is normally served in some way. I think that’s one reason. I think another reason is we vicariously like to investigate our own dark sides, and I think we all have one, and we’re all capable of murder, in the right circumstances, and there’s a little bit of that in reading these stories as well.

Danielle:
Yeah, there certainly is. Certainly with Marnie, you get a sense there’s a lot more there.

Michael:
And I think in the case as well… I mean I am not someone that likes being scared, I don’t watch scary films. And, you know… but I can sort of see why people enjoy being scared. The adrenaline flows and they get a kick out of, particularly, you know, not genuinely scared, if you know what I mean… when I say ‘genuinely’ they’re sitting safe at home. I love the idea when people talk about the fact that my books can move people, they normally move them to get up and check if the doors are locked.

Danielle:
That’s true, or move to turn on the light… yep.

Michael:
Yeah, just to check.

Danielle:
Just one final question, what is your advice to budding authors?

Michael:
It’s to write, and to write, and to write… I mean I wanted to be a writer from the age of 12, and there is no doubt that you get better the more you do it. The more you write, and the more you read, and the more you practice you'll get better at it. When you read you dissect books, what you do is you should take them apart, you should look at why they work and why they don’t work, and how they could have been improved. And I always tell people the things that inspires me to be a writer aren't the really truly great works of genius, because they’re books that you can’t take apart, you can’t even seen the joints to put your fingers inside of to try to pry it apart. It’s the books that you read and you think, ‘I can do better than that'. They’re the books that inspire me to want to be a writer.

And other than that you just have to do it. You really just have to do it, and not leave all of your ideas out there in the ether and talk about it, but simply sit down and write.

Danielle:
That’s wonderful advice. Thank you so much for chatting to us today. I loved reading Watching You. I’ve had a couple of very late nights this week staying up reading it.

Michael:
If you get a chance, if you haven’t seen it already, but given that you’re involved in the Writers’ Centre, I don’t know if it’s come across your radar yet, but I was involved in editing a book which came out a few weeks ago called If I Tell You… I’ll Have to Kill You.

Danielle:
Yes, I did see that on your website.

Michael:
Keep an eye on that, because it’s got 20 essays from sort of pretty much all of Australia's leading crime writers, the only person I couldn't grab was Peter Temple, who said, ‘Yes', and then pulled out.

Danielle:
Oh, that’s a shame.

Michael
But it’s their experiences of how they do this, why they do this, how they got into writing, their rules for writing, their recommended reads and lots of stuff. There’s some very inspiring essays in there. And what I found with a lot of people that want to write is everyone has got a different way of doing this, but when you read those essays you will find someone actually does it the same way you do it, and you feel a little bit more relieved that you’re not alone.

Danielle:
Yeah, definitely. We will look out for that for sure. Thank you, again.

Michael:
Oh, it’s a pleasure.

Danielle:
It’s been lovely chatting to you.

Michael:
Thank you.

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