For those unfamiliar with your novels, who is Jill Jackson and what makes her work as a character?
Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson is the hero of my four crime novels. She’s a highly efficient NSW police-officer who is not so effective in her personal life. You see, when she was twelve years of age, Jill was abducted and raped over a period of three days. She spent the next few years trying to figure out how to control the flood of memories and terror she was left with. She tried some of the strategies my real life clients have tried – alcohol or drugs, cutting herself to replace the emotional pain with physical pain, hiding herself away from the world. Jill fights back, however. She finds that one of her symptoms – the ability to block out pain – can actually be harnessed to some extent. Jill uses this ability to learn to street-fight blindfolded. She figures that the beatings she cops while she’s learning are nothing compared to what she lived through in the basement. She’s always ready for next time. She’s always alert, always scanning her environment for threats.
So, Jill Jackson is someone I’d want watching my back or hunting anyone who’d harmed one of my loved ones. But Jill has to learn that these skills don’t come without a price. It’s possible to numb powerful emotions for a limited time only: just as vodka doesn’t freeze, trauma also stays molten, ready to bleed back into your life, no matter how deeply you bury it. So the experience that renders Jill superior to other detectives, also leaves her more vulnerable, and in my novels she learns that until you deal with it, your past comes with you, wherever you go.
As well as being a novelist, you are a clinical psychologist. How has your psychology work helped with your fiction?
What I’ve learned in my ‘day job’ has become part of my fiction. I witness personal struggles, trauma, pain, resilience and the various choices people make to take control of their lives. I’ve met all of my characters – many stories in my books are real – but I’ve plaited and adapted, spliced and merged the things I’ve seen so that none of the people I’ve met in real life can find themselves in my fiction.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you as a reader?
Dexter Morgan [from the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay] is a well-written psychopath. I enjoyed reading his attempts to fake being human (as he would say).
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Before writing each novel I’ve become fascinated by one particular field/ area of research. For instance it was methamphetamine manufacture and supply in Black Ice and acid burns and arson investigation in Watch the World Burn. I then read everything I can find in the area (non-fiction) and make lots of notes. The shape of a story often comes to me this way and then I think about my characters. I like to create a realistic character and throw them into one of the terrible crimes or situations I’ve seen in real life. Then I follow them along and watch them sink or swim. I always start with a basic plot outline, but my characters develop a life of their own and they introduce me to more people. Sometimes the initial research occupies just a paragraph or so in the book as a whole, but it’s a useful stepping-off point for me.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
Like a lot of people, I go through phases. Sometimes I’m caught up in a literary fiction stage where I want to read the books I’m recommended by other writers and people in the publishing world, and for a while I can’t get enough. When I’m tired or overworked, though, I turn to my old favourite, crime fiction. But when I’ve been reading a lot of police reports for my psychology work I sometimes don’t want any more violence in my head. And that’s when fantasy comes in. I’ve read a lot of fantasy in the past, and urban fantasy/magical realism is my favourite sub-genre. I love settings that are completely, almost boringly, familiar, but then with the twist of a key, a side-step down an alley, a sidelong glance, or a wrench in the foundation of the every day, we’re suddenly in another world. I love this genre at all levels: from the very subtle, um-did-that-really-happen-like-I-think-it-did (e.g. Chocolat), to the now-I-know-that’s-magic-but-didn’t-expect-it (e.g. Wizard of the Pigeons); to the blatant parallel worlds of Harry Potter and The Night Watch series. I love true, epic, fantasy novels as well, including all of the usual suspects (e.g., LOTR, His Dark Materials).
What were some of your favourite stories as a child, and do they have any significant influence on your novel writing?
When really young I loved Enid Blyton, and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm was my special favourite. I also read and re-read all of the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. There are no similarities I can see in my crime novels (!) but the ‘special worlds’ of these early stories have always been with me. I guess I’ve always known that I’d write a fantasy novel one day and I’ve just signed with Penguin for a young-adult fantasy series.
Your novels feature what many people would consider extremes of human behaviour. How can exploring these kind of extremes in fiction help a reader to develop insights into broader human thought and behaviour?
One of the most frustrating comments I’ve read about one of the characters in my third novel, Black Ice, was: “all that can’t possibly happen to just one person”. I actually leave out a lot of the dreadful experiences some of my clients have endured. The main character in Black Ice is Seren Templeton, who was born into the world most of us occupy – the one in which kids are safe at night and mum and dad would do anything to protect them from pain. But there’s another world. And when Seren’s dad died she was dumped straight into it. Her mother found a new partner, and this man was violent. Vicious. By age eight, Seren had seen more violence than most of us will see in our whole life. It changes her, shapes her, and when she grows up and someone tries to hurt her child, you can be sure she gets her own back.
In real life, I’ve met Seren a thousand times. I’ve met her at age three, at thirteen, at thirty-five, at sixty. I’ve met Seren at eighteen months old. I’ve met her brothers and sisters who watched, and copped the beatings with her. I’ve met their mothers who fought to protect them, some who jumped in on the violence, some who pretended it wasn’t happening, and some who missed it all, unconscious after being knocked out or smacked out with a needle in their arm or a vodka bottle in their hand. And I’ve met the offenders. In gaol and out. Some of whom were once Seren’s little brother, terrified, watching it all happen to his mum and his siblings.
Sometimes I’m asked the same thing in interviews – there’s so much violence in your books. How can your character endure so much and still function? I wish people asked that question more often about the kids growing up in some of the housing commission units around the country. Our country is involved in several wars around the world, but there are war zones, everywhere in Australia right now. Thousands of people will count themselves lucky if they can climb into bed tonight without having been bashed, robbed or raped. They’d count as a pretty good day in their world.
What advice would you like to give for new fiction writers on using psychological insights to help create satisfying characters and stories?
Take some time to go inwards, I guess. When you’re rocking and rolling along with your plot and something huge happens to one of your characters, don’t just have them pick themselves up and get on with it the next day. At some stage come back to that scene and put yourself in their shoes – really try to imagine yourself going through that. Use all of your senses and try to connect emotionally to imagine how you’d feel the next day, the next week, the next year. If you’ve never really experienced deep loss or deep fear and you’re writing about it, maybe try imagining that you’ve lost someone you really love and stay with your feelings for a good stretch of time. And if you’re really more a thinker than a ‘feeler’ then ask a few people to imagine themselves in the situation and explore their feelings and reactions.
You have the first novel in a fantasy series coming out in 2012. What can readers look forward to in that?
The series is entitled Disharmony and the first book is called The Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius. The publisher describes it as “a compelling, smart and sophisticated urban fantasy series with a psychological edge”. I’d describe it a little like this:
Morgan Moreau was a truly terrible mother. An absolute witch. Literally. And although she spent decades trying to breed the right mix, there were only three children she ever wanted – Luke, Samantha and Jake, known in secret circles by other names: the Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius. But these secrets also extend to the siblings – they’ve never heard these names; hell, they’ve never even heard of each other, and they have no idea what makes them so special. But they’ll have to learn fast. Because, from a gypsy camp in Bucharest, a juvenile lock-up in Sydney and a castle in Geneva, these teenagers are about to face Yakuza assassins, a homicidal gypsy king, brutal wardens and a voodoo warrior. And they’re only their mortal foes.
More on Leah Giarratano and her fiction can be found at http://www.randomhouse.com.au/Author/Giarratano,%20Leah. You can also read about Leah Giarratano’s 2011 Perth Writers Festival workshop Writing Nasty Villains on The Australian Literature Review.
The Australian Literature Review