Last month I reviewed the book LIFE OR DEATH by the Award winning author Michael Robotham, in a follow up to my enjoyment of the book, I wanted to ask the author some questions directly about the creation of his CWA Golden Dagger novel. Mr. Robotham was very forthcoming with his time and here are his answers.
Follow him on twitter @MichaelRobotham
What was the genesis of the novel?
Almost 20 years ago I read a few paragraphs in a newspaper about a man escape from prison on the eve of his parole. The idea stuck in my head. The big question was why?
The actual story involved a convicted killer turned model prisoner called Tony Lanigan, who had spent most of had adult life in jail for violent crimes, only to escape from the Malabar Training Centre days from his release. In real life, Lanigan has never been seen since. It has now been 19 years since his escape and he’s probably Australia’s least wanted fugitive, but it’s still a mystery. And like all lovers a crime fiction – I can’t resist a mystery.
I kicked this idea around for ten years until I came with a reason why someone might escape from prison the day before his release. Then it took nine novels before I felt I the skills to tell the story properly. I needed to practice. I needed to learn. I needed to get better.
Most writers will tell you that the story in their heads is never quite the one that makes it to the page. They can never quite capture exactly what they envisage. With LIFE OR DEATH I think I’ve come closest to matching the two stories. It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s very close to what I wanted to achieve.
Why write a stand alone novel when you've enjoyed such success with a recurring character? Was it a new challenge to yourself?
If someone told me that I would have to spend the rest of my career writing only about Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz you would have to keep the sharp objects away from me. I love them as characters, but there is a limit to how long I can keep them fresh and create new stories for them. Another problem is that I have aged them both in real-time and given Joe Parkinson’s Disease. There is limit to how long they can both keep going.
Writing a stand-alone was important to me because I wanted to prove to myself and my publishers that my readers will come with me regardless of whether Joe or Vincent are part of my novels.
What does your normal writing day entail?
I start work at about 9.00 a.m. working in my garden office, which my daughters call ‘Dad’s Cabana of Cruelty’. Apart from periodic coffee fixes and lunch or a walk along the beach, I’ll work until 6.00 p.m. This happens every day, including weekends.
I usually begin by writing long-hand, to get me away from the Internet and the computer screen, often working in local cafes. Later I’ll transfer these words to the screen and do my editing.
How many drafts did you have of the book?
Usually six or seven. I spend seven or eight months on the first draft, which is very close to the finished product. Each subsequent draft takes less time, until the final few take only a matter of days.
How hard is it to write a book with this pace and drive, the momentum of the book is a wonder of plotting, yet how can you maintain control of the plot without it becoming far-fetched?
I don’t plot in advance, which surprised a lot of people. I begin with the premise and the characters and let the story unfold from there. It is a very organic and exciting way of writing, where I am constantly surprising myself with the twists and turns. It also means I end up throwing a lot of material away. Writers have to be prepared to ‘kill their babies’. Cut often and cut hard. Don’t fall in love with your prose. Storytelling is about conflict and pace.
You won the CWA Golden Dagger Award for the book, how did that recognition feel?
It is enormously gratifying to win one of the world’s great crime writing awards, particularly considering the shortlist and the past winners. I keep looking at the trophy, expecting them to call and say they judges made a mistake and they were supposed to announce Stephen King.
It was particularly gratifying to receive dozens of wonderful messages from other crime writers like Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Linwood Barclay, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on two novels – one featuring Joe O’Loughlin as the main character, who discovers his father has a second family; and the other featuring Joe in a minor role, investigating the theft of a newborn baby from a maternity hospital.
Would you be involved if Life or Death was adapted to the screen?
The film rights have been optioned by a Hollywood company and I will hopefully be involved in script development and approval, but I have no great desire to take on a larger role. I don’t really care if my books are made into films or TV. I became a novelist because I love writing books and I don’t feel as though my career will be topped off or made complete by having someone make a film our of my work. What if it’s terrible?
You've worked in television, what crime shows do you watch?
I wrote for newspapers rather than work on TV, but I do like watching crime shows. The first series of True Detective was outstanding, but the second series a major disappointment. But the two truly stand-out crime series have been THE WIRE and BREAKING BAD.
And finally, what are you reading?
The best recent crime novels I've read have been The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly, The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt) and Cartel by Don Winslow.
Life or Death is published by Sphere in the UK
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