Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
However, even the authors without new releases, anniversary releases or events need our love and appreciation during this crisis, and Tanya reached out to me to appear on the blog. So far, as you may have seen, I have tried to have as many different interviews, authors and genres as possible – it all comes down to who wishes to appear in this series. I still have slots open, and will be going for as long as I can during these hard times.
Hi Tanya, and welcome back to The Book Muse!
- Where did your interest in researching and writing about true crime, particularly historical crimes, come from?
Like many people, I enjoy reading true crime, listening to crime podcasts and watching documentaries. I didn’t initially set out to write in this field though. My background is sociology, but not criminology. My first book, The Suitcase Baby, emerged from my day job. I am a research consultant, and when tracing the history of child protection legislation in NSW I stumbled across an article about a murdered child, cast off into the waters of Port Jackson in the early 1920s. My interest in true crime as a writer began with that article. The harbour is such an iconic place in Sydney. The crime was just so horrible. I needed to know why it happened – who could kill a child?
- So far, your three books – The Suitcase Baby, The Suicide Bride and The Killing Streets have covered crimes that people may have never heard about in today’s society. What is it about these crimes that one could say have disappeared from wider knowledge?
I am really interested in forgotten history or hidden history – overlooked crimes, but also overlooked people. My books aren’t about wealthy people. The people I write about don’t bequeath grand estates. The private letters they wrote were not kept by anyone, and any diaries they may have written are long gone. They weren’t perceived to be significant historical figures, so you won’t find remnants of their lives held in a private collection or in a museum somewhere. My field is labelled true crime, but I focus a lot on family history. I write about death, but I also write about those things that matter most in life: family, love, relationships, tragedy and healing. True crime is fascinating to me, not because it exists at the extremes, but because there is always a family drama surrounding it in some way or other.
True crime also presents a rich terrain for us to explore heroism. I write about perpetrators and victims, but I also write about forgotten heroes who try to humbly and quietly work to make the lives of those around them better. There is villainy in crime, but there are also acts of heroism to be found as well. I think of the grizzled old police officer in 19th century Newtown who bravely tried to save a young boy drowning in a flooded brick pit, despite the fact that the officer couldn’t swim. I think of the farm worker in the 1950s who fought to save the life of his work mate dying of a heart attack, out on a remote and dusty plain of the Australian outback. I think of the single Dad in the 1930s who fought to keep his daughters, at a time when the state deemed the unmarried unfit to parent. Tragedy creates victims, but it also creates heroes.
- True crime is a genre that has seemed to gain traction in the last five or so years with books, shows and podcasts. What is it about true crime stories that people find fascinating?
I wonder about this too. It is often said that the growing interest in true crime is being driven by the dark parts of the human psyche. Some people believe that we delight in reading about those things that we cannot do, and perhaps even wish we could do. I think it is also possible that the interest is true crime is driven by an inherent goodness in people. The vast majority of the more recent true crime writings and documentaries deal with the miscarriage of justice – those who are imprisoned unfairly or trials that go awry. People tune in because they are interested in the discovery of truth, and there is a genuine interest in the pursuit of fairness and equity. True crime is about much more than violence, or gore, or delighting in misery.
- Do you think there is a correlation between the interest in crime fiction – Sherlock Holmes, Rowland Sinclair, Phryne Fisher, crime shows – Blue Heelers, Criminal Minds, the Law and Order franchise – and an interest in true crime amongst readers and viewers, and podcast listeners?
I have drawn a conclusion about this, and it may be entirely wrong as it isn’t based on any marketing knowledge or demographic data. I have always got the impression that there are two very distinct camps. There are those that like crime fiction, and those that like true crime. There are fence sitters, but most people tend to fall on one side of the fence or the other. I feel this in a very real way because I feel the wrath of readers who mistake my work for fiction (eg “I didn’t like the book because I didn’t like the ending”) and those that believe non-fiction must conform to some very set rules and can only be written without emotion (eg “history isn’t a novella”).
- Your stories always have an element of social and economic aspects to what happened and who committed the crimes. Can you briefly outline how this was a feature in each crime you have looked into in your books, and what makes these aspects important when considering any crime?
You have absolutely hit the nail on the head! I like to write about crimes that can tell a big story and a little story at the same time. My books start with a true crime event and that creates momentum for the story to be told, but in truth, my books are social histories.
There is a dark side to crime writing, of course, and issues of gender in this context are of particular interest to me. The Suitcase Baby explores friendship and loyalty. The bond between the two women in that story is remarkable and deserving of a thorough exploration. The relationship between Jean and Sarah was dangerous, and some very conflicted choices were made by both women. The Suicide Bride looks at the institution of marriage at the turn of the twentieth century, and the challenges of mental illness in a society which had little compassion nor understanding for those suffering from it. The Killing Streets examines women as victims and considers one of the most elusive criminal archetypes: the serial killer. They are all true stories, driven by facts, but they are also family dramas. True crime often places greatest emphasis on pathology or the psychological profile of a criminal. I place more emphasis on the relationship profile. The people in my stories do not have money nor power, and they find themselves in very difficult circumstances. Any judgements we might make about their decisions need to be made with that in mind. I am not an apologist for crime, but choice is a loaded term, it’s a relative term.
- When you begin your research journey, where do you start – with primary sources or secondary sources?
I start with both. I go back and forth between the two, checking facts as I gradually build a narrative and decide which characters I am going to focus most closely on. I only select a criminal case if it can provide a platform to tell a bigger social history story.
- How many historical crimes that are potentially unsolved or that have gone largely ignored do you think there are in the archives?
Too many to count, and very few of these will ever be solved. The historical periods I write about were a looong time ago. Police had to work with very limited forensics, so it isn’t like there are blood samples stored in cabinets just waiting to be re-discovered and tested. Many records have also been destroyed over the years as well. The methodologies used to build cases were also often quite skewed. Suspects were often profiled with very racist, and classist overtones and this means it would be impossible to try and solve many of these crimes now. The records are simply too tainted by the biases of the era in which they were created.
- From what I can remember about The Killing Streets, the real killer was never identified – do you think this case will ever be solved?
The murders of women that occurred in parks across Sydney from the 1920s to the 1940s won’t ever be solved. I can understand that some people might find reading a book about that infuriating, but I must admit I find the mystery of it fascinating.
- Are there any other cases that have caught your eye that you would like to write about?
I am writing my fourth book at the moment – on poison in post-war Sydney. I also have three other manuscripts at a slow simmer point on the stovetop as well. My books involve a huge amount of research, and it takes time to prove the dough, so to speak, to see if a fully formed book can emerge. When I find a story that has some great twists and turns, and surprises, that becomes my next book.
- Can you tell the readers a bit about your publishing journey with Hachette Australia, and how you got started with submitting to publishers?
Like everyone, I have experienced rejections by both agents and publishers. I can only say to people who are genuinely interested in writing – keep going. My journey into publishing has been a long one, and I think that apprenticeship has been important. The more you write the more you learn, and the more you learn the better prepared you will be when an opportunity to publish presents itself. It will happen when it is meant to happen, and chances are that won’t be overnight.
- When not investigating these crimes, what do you enjoy reading or doing?
I have a day job, as bills need to be paid. I spend time with family and friends – they matter more to me than anything else. The rest of my spare time is consumed by writing. My books involve a lot of research and endless hours of labour go into them.
- Are there any authors or books, or podcasts you recommend people interested look into, apart from your books, of course?
I listen to so many! I tend to be drawn to podcasts with a history focus. The State Library of NSW produces some great ones. I have just listened to The Burial Files on the history of the Devonshire st cemetery – it was brilliant.
- Have you had any events cancelled, and if so, what were they, or were you planning on attending any events as a visitor rather than hosting something this year?
The Killing Streets is definitely a Covid-19 casualty. The pandemic struck just after the book launch so all of the events we had planned for the book have been cancelled. This is of course, a small disappointment in the scheme of what we are all facing right now. I feel for the entire world at the moment.
- Which booksellers are your favourites to frequent, and do you hope to be able to support them as much as possible during this time?
I guess I can only say – buy local wherever you are. I try to buy from my local booksellers. I also love secondhand bookstores, and libraries. I know that the internet is increasingly playing a role in the way we share and celebrate books. It is also wonderful to have the big chains involved, as they play such an important role in selling, but our local stores and libraries are the heart and soul of book-life and we should support them.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I may have missed?
Thank you, Tanya, for reaching out and helping me with this venture