YA Erskine: Police officer turned author

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image-yaerskine200After working for 11 years as a police officer in Tasmania, YA (Yvette) Erskine decided to leave the force and pursue her writing career. Her first book is The Brotherhood, a fictional account of what many police officers experience daily in their working lives.

The novel follows the investigation of the murder of Sergeant John White, and all-round good guy who is killed during a routine callout. Despite their squeaky-clean reputation, the Tasmanian police service is forced to ask – just who can you trust?

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.16

The Brotherhood

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Yvette, thanks for joining us today.

Yvette
Oh, thank you for having me.

Valerie
Tell us about your book, this is your first book called The Brotherhood. Tell us what it’s about.

Yvette
Valerie, it’s the story of the murder of a police officer, set in Hobart, which is where I policed for a little while. It’s not a who-dunnit, not a typical one, it tells the story of the murder straight up, and then proceeds to tell the next twelve to fourteen hours following the murder, through the voices of ten other characters. So, you’re basically getting their points of view, and along the way there are a few twists and turns, and you find that perhaps the Sergeant wasn’t such a good guy after all.

Valerie
Why did you decide to write this book?

Yvette
Why? I actually began, Valerie, many years ago, back in 2003, when I was policing myself. I’d had a couple of nasty experiences, I had been assaulted a few times. And my partner, who was a police officer at the time, he was charged with assault in relation to a typical arrest situation on a Saturday night. The person in question made a complaint and he was charged with using excessive force.

That basically took out twelve months of our lives with court appearances and what have you. And it was a really stressful time in life. And he was eventually found not guilty, or actually the case was dismissed, but nevertheless it was really an unpleasant situation. After that I became very angry with policing, and with the hierarchy, and with the way we had been treated. And, so I started writing, and it was auto-biographical, and it was very black, and it was very negative, and dark, and kind of reflected where I was in life. That was the first thing I wrote.

Then, slowly, as the years went by and my frame of mind became a little bit better, I tweaked it and then fictionalized it. But I still knew it was kind of missing a certain something.

I’d send it out there into the publishing world, but got a bit of, “Thanks, it’s really, really interesting, but no thanks.”

And basically The Brotherhood came about in 2009 when I was reading an online paper and saw that one of my ex-colleagues had been involved in a rather nasty situation down in Tasmania, involving a crook with a firearm. I was really quite shocked, I wasn’t policing at that stage and was mentally quite removed from the situation. But it still hit me pretty [inaudible; 0:02:46.5], because he was a good bloke, and I thought, “What if he had have died on that day?” So, that’s the question that essentially set about The Brotherhood was about my fifth book at the time.

So, long story, but that’s how it came about.

Valerie
Wow, it was your fifth book, did you just say?

Yvette
Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

Valerie
What happened to the first four?

Yvette
Oh, they’re still sitting there if anyone’s interested. As I said, the first one was the auto-biography, but I look back on that now and go, “Whoa, that was really dark.” And the second, a lovely agent’s request that become fictionalized, and then I worked on another version of that. And then I did a sequel to that, but as I said, it was still missing something. So, by the time I got to The Brotherhood – yeah, I did have those writing experiences behind me. And, The Brotherhood just kind of clicked. When I had the topic, and I had the question, I just thought right from the very start, “Yes, this one’s going to work!”

Valerie
At the very start when you thought that, what was the gestation period after that? How long did it take for you to write that first draft?

Yvette
That one came about in three months, which was actually – it was quicker than anything that I had done previously. It just, as I say, it just really worked for me. I really enjoyed the writing process and couldn’t actually wait to sit down everyday and do it.

Valerie
What do you enjoy about the writing process? Like, why did you keep on doing all of those books?

Yvette
Well, dare I say that I was motivated by the greatest motivator of all. I knew if I didn’t make it as a writer, I was actually going to have to go back out into the real world and get a real job.

No, I say that with all great humor, but I knew I couldn’t go back policing, and, as I say, I ended fairly badly with policing, and basically had a bit of post traumatic stress syndrome. And really the thought of going back into another workplace actually left me cold. So, with my wonderful husband supporting me, I’d asked him to give me twelve months. I said, “I know I can produce a book,” and he said, “Yeah, no worries, go for it, go and live the dream.” Five years later, he’s still waiting, but it seems to be happening which is great.

Valerie
Great, and so just take us back, why did you want to become a police officer in the first place?

Yvette
Well, my motivations probably weren’t the best. I knew I wanted to do something good, I wanted to contribute to society and help out. However, it had never been a burning ambition for me. You go through the academy with so many people who say, “Oh, I’ve wanted to do this since I was four years old,” and, “I can remember playing police cars,” and locking up the next door neighbor, and all that sort of stuff.” That was never me, and perhaps that was my downfall, going into it for the wrong reasons.

Basically at 21  I’d finished uni, I finished my arts degree, and was looking around going, “Oh my God, what do I do next with my life?” I never had a clear cut direction in life. I am so envious people who do, but basically got to 21. I was reading a newspaper on a Saturday morning, saw an ad in the jobs section that said, “One job, 100 careers, come and join us.” And thought, “Yep, I can have a crack at that, that looks alright.”

Valerie
Wow.

Yvette
So, I got myself fit and managed to get into the academy. And, I think I always knew it wasn’t going to be for me right from the word go when I got out on the streets, but I hung in there for a long time, probably a little longer than I should have. But, I gave it a reasonable go, so you can’t ask any more than that.

Valerie
You really seem to enjoy writing now, and you did do an arts degree. Did it occur to you to pursue writing earlier?

Yvette
A little bit, Valerie, yeah, I did English as a part of my arts degree, did a few English subjects and loved it. I was always very in awe of literature, some of the greats we studied, and perhaps I always thought I could never write like that. But, no, it didn’t really occur. I suppose I am like everyone, I’ve written stuff as I’ve gone along in life, only I started out with the childhood stories of gosh, Mergatroid the Martian, and something about gigantic Guinea pigs taking over the world, I remember writing in primary school. But, no, it didn’t really occur to me at that stage, no.

Valerie
When you wrote that auto-biographical piece, did you just spew it all out, your thoughts, and your feelings, and just what you went through, what you were going through? Or was there some kind of structure to what you were writing?

Yvette
In the beginning, Valerie, yeah, it was a general rant, a very angry, a very black rant. As time went by, I did work on that for a couple of years. I tweaked it a lot. It became not only chronological, but quite somatic, and I thought jolly clearer at the time. Anyway, I was pretty impressed with what I’d turned out, and it finished, obviously with the way I felt I had ended up and how I turned into a bit of a monster, about how I was looking forward to the next chapter in my life.

Valerie
Do you feel that that resonated with people or not?

Yvette
It never saw the light of day, Valerie. I did send it to a friend who was associated with policing at the time; he wasn’t a police officer, but he’d had a lot to do with policing. And he felt it was spot on, and it certainly would have resonated with a lot of people. However, he said it was far too angry, and there’s no way on earth anyone would take it on because it was too litigious, and would put a lot of people in a lot of trouble. He recommended toning it down a little bit.

But, I can only say that it was my journey. I hate to use the word ‘journey’, it’s terrible. But, it was my story and it was how I felt at the time, and it might have been politically incorrect, but it really was the frame of mind that I was in.

And, I can say that since that time, I resigned in 2006, but since that time there’s been a raging change down in Tasmania Police, and I believe things are much, much happier. Morale is fantastic, the new commissioner is much beloved. So that’s great news, and it’s not going to have been everybody’s journey, but I can only say it how I saw it, yeah.

Valerie
Was it therapeutic for you?

Yvette
Oh, absolutely, yes. I wanted everyone to read it, I really did. The day I had to put it away and admit that it wasn’t going to happen, I was a little bit sad. But, on the other hand, by the time that day had come, I was in a much more positive frame of mind. And was really enjoying life and no longer being in the blue uniform.

Valerie
If that was like therapy for you, and it served a purpose in your life at that time, how about this book, The Brotherhood, which is fictional – that’s not therapy, what have you gotten out of this experience?

Yvette
A few of the characters in the book, and you might recognize it when you see it, they have a little rant, they have a little dig. I’ve managed to slip a few comments in there in relation to how I was feeling and perhaps the bigger issues, like how I felt about the justice system and how let down we were. Whilst, it wasn’t cathartic in the way the first one was, I still had a little bit of fun with it and got a few things out.

I don’t know, that’s an interesting question, I just really enjoyed the process, Valerie. It was a very challenging process for me; it was complex; it was mental. It was just sitting down and thinking about how all the characters all tied in with one another. And, it was just fun, I guess, which is a great thing, and I’m really, really lucky.

Valerie
Much of the book focuses on a clash between Aborigines and the police. What inspired you to write this?

Yvette
Ooh, getting into murky waters now.

Really, the way my criminal had started out, he was just a normal white Anglo-Saxon Tasmanian kid like so many others I had dealt with, so many kids I’d arrested over the years. Really, I only made him part-Aboriginal because it made the storyline a little more interesting and enabled me to branch out and incorporate some of the issues, and some of the politics, and some of the feelings that do go on when there is a real life situation.

Valerie
What are you working on now?

Yvette
I’ve finished the sequel to The Brotherhood, I was lucky enough to have a two-book deal from the wonderful Random House.

Valerie
You always knew you were going to write the second book?

Yvette
Actually, no. I had started it, but I didn’t intend it to be a sequel as such. I had hoped I would be able to write a second book and essentially it’s not a sequel. The only way it is – is that it incorporates a few of the same characters, and is written in the same narrative structure, however, I’ve introduced a whole new cast of characters and it’s a completely different topic.

I had obviously hoped, we all hope that we can get the twenty book deal, but Random House saw the synopsis for that and loved it, which was fantastic. So that’s all been done, and I’m currently working on the third.

Valerie
Wow, so when is the second one out?

Yvette
I believe we’re scheduling it for August next year, so probably twelve months or so.

Valerie
Okay, and is the third one still part of the series?

Yvette
It is, I hadn’t intended for that to happen at all, Valerie, but my wonderful sisters-in-law who had read the first two and gave me some great advice were a little bit concerned and wanted some nice closure for a couple of the characters.

Valerie
Right.

Yvette
So, I thought, “Well, why not? I can give one or two of them a happy ending.” It’s not too black,” so that was why I decided on the third. I thought, “Well, better keep going.”

Valerie
Crime fiction is often characterised by, well, obviously crime, but also with some darkness. Is it hard for you to write about that darkness, or is that something that has really come naturally to you because you were exposed to it on a day-to-day basis when you were policing?

Yvette
That’s absolutely correct, Valerie. It’s frightening how easily it came to me. It never occurred to me to give it a happy ending, which might be a bit sad. I do get a little – I read a lot of crime fiction, and sometimes I think, “For goodness sake, why does it all have to be tied up nice and neatly with a pink ribbon?” You know, the criminal gets caught and there’s the video interview, and there’s a full confession, and everyone goes away happy with their day’s work. I think, “Damn it, that’s not how it happens 99% of the time.”

Valerie
Yes.

Yvette
Often the criminal doesn’t get caught, often the criminal walks away from court, even though you’ve presented the best possible case you can. And it’s not all happy endings, and perhaps that’s where my darkness comes in, and perhaps that’s why I wanted to deliberately make it a little different to a lot of other writing that’s out there.

Valerie
What did you do to improve your writing skills and to assure yourself that you were on the right track when you were writing in the last few years?

Yvette
Really, I just wrote – that sounds really simple. I didn’t go to any writers’ centres. I’m a bit of an introvert. I’m not into the group scene, which could well be to my detriment. But I would like to start going to a lot more things like that.

Really it was just a matter of sitting down, and writing, and identifying what worked and what clearly didn’t work. Obviously, being a fairly full on reader myself, I can hopefully identify what’s working and not working. But also putting the manuscript out to those individuals who can have a bit of a look at it, and who I know are fantastic readers and writers themselves, and can give me valuable feedback. That really helps to have the independent eye running over it.

And you miss so much because you become so immersed in your own story, and you’ve taken bits out and added bits in. Sometimes when you get to the end of it you can’t remember what you’ve added in or what’s come out, and you’re writing things that really aren’t applicable because you think you had that back in chapter two, but you really didn’t.

Yeah, as I say, again, my fantastic sisters-in-law, who are both great readers, filled me full of valuable advice.

Really, I think it’s just practice, practice, practice, and being honest with yourself, perhaps. I think as I said, I knew with number two or three that it wasn’t working, it was certainly lacking something, I just didn’t know what. But, it was only with a lot of thought that I finally managed to hit on this idea and thought, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s going to work.”

Valerie
What do you think is so appealing to readers about crime fiction? Because crime fiction is so very popular.

Yvette
Gosh, I don’t know. It’s perhaps a lot of us, deep down, would love to be involved in that sort of thing? I read Lynda Le Plan. I love her detective, and she was a great detective. And I often think, “Wow,” even having been a police officer, I would have loved to have been like that.

Valerie
Yes.

Yvette
Yeah, I’m not sure, I guess it’s like any book. A good book will take you on a journey and will let you get away from reality, and I like a good story. That’s what I like to read and write, I’m not much of a literature fiend, perhaps to my detriment again, I like a lot of commercial fiction.

Valerie
Tell us about your writing routine. When you’re actually sitting down and writing, do you start at a particular time of day? Do you have breaks at specific spots? Do you set a word count that you are trying to aim for? What’s your routine to get the discipline going?

Yvette
To get the discipline going, when I’m in first draft mode, I treat it like an absolute work day. I will have my coffee, I will scan the papers for the news, and then I will sit down from 9:00 to 5:00 and write, and write, and write.

Valerie
Wow.

Yvette
I’m a fan of filling up the page. I read, no I heard at a writers’ festival once that you can always edit a bunch of crap, but you can’t edit a blank page. I’m a firm believer in that. Even if it’s not happening for me, if I know it’s crap, I’m still going to write it, it’s just a matter of putting the head down, and bum up, and getting on with it.

Valerie
Do you have a word count that you aim for?

Yvette
I generally, try — not a word count so much, I generally try and do ten pages a day when I am in first draft mode.

Valerie
Great. Finally, what’s your advice to budding writers out there who are considering a career change, really, like yours?

Yvette
If you have the means to do it, do it by all means. If you don’t, take your nights, take your early mornings, before you go to your regular job. Get up and hour or two earlier and just pump out what you can.

It’s the same old advice that everybody gives, Valerie, you just have to do it, and that’s all there is to it. Sit down, plunk yourself down in front of the computer, open up that blank page and just write. Because otherwise it’s not going to get done. And, I guess if you have a passion like I did, it doesn’t become a chore, it becomes fun.

Valerie
Great advice, and on that note thank you so much for joining us today, Yvette

Yvette
Thank you for having me, Valerie.

 


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