Your first novel, Out of the Silence, was a crime novel which won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel. How would you describe your approach to writing the crime aspects of Out of the Silence or crime novels in general?
I don’t really think about the crime aspects as being separate from the rest of the story. Most of the novels I’ve written have revolved around the characters, rather than the crime – with the crime an almost inevitable consequence of actions, circumstances, and of course personality. In Out Of the Silence, which was based on a true story, I had to get my character, Maggie Heffernan – initially a rather happy-go-lucky girl – to a point of such terrible desperation that the crime could be committed without readers losing their sympathy for her. In my latest novel, The Mistake, it’s almost the opposite – my main character isn’t all that likeable, initially – and the reader is taken through a sort of reverse journey, so that by the end of the novel some sort of understanding of her plight and her action has been established.
Your third novel, Where Have You Been?, has been described as suburban suspense and as a thriller. What was the key to establishing and maintaining suspense throughout Where Have You Been?
I love reading imposter novels, Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar is one of my favourites, and it’s the constant see-sawing of uncertainty that I especially enjoy. In Where Have You Been? I actually simulated that see-saw in the process of the writing itself – heading off without actually knowing where I was going when I began. I kept changing my mind as I wrote, and in fact I didn’t really decide until the last minute – so the suspense was mine as much as the readers. I’m not sure that this necessarily helped establish the suspense (for instance in The Mistake I knew what was going to happen from the outset), but it made for an interesting – and suspenseful – writing experience!
You also have a book of short stories, Why She Loves Him. Many fiction authors strongly prefer to write either novels or short fiction and find the other length much more difficult to write. Do you find it significantly more challenging to write one length rather than the other?
Short stories were my first love – and I wrote them for some years before I embarked on my first novel. Not that they felt like apprentice-pieces, just that some of those first burning things I needed to say could best be expressed in the tightly compressed and highly concentrated form of the short story. Some of my favourite writers are those masters of the short story – Alice Munro, Chekov, Katherine Mansfield, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant.
I wrote the first short story I’ve written for some years earlier this year (‘Sangfroid’ – for Matthew Lamb’s wonderful new Review of Australian Fiction) – and I was shocked at how bloody difficult the form is. I’d forgotten – not how to write – but the time it takes to get everything right. Every word counts – for a short story to work the timing and the rhythm and the sound and the images have to be just so. It’s closer to to poetry than longer works of fiction in some ways. There’s more space to be allusive – you don’t need to know as much about the characters – and the reader gets to do some of the imaginative work. I’m also in a very different head space when writing short stories – much more open to the world around me – sights, sounds, feelings. When I’m writing a novel I tend to feel very enclosed in the world of the novel – which can be slightly claustrophobic…
Your latest novel is The Mistake and, similar to Where Have You Been?, it has been described as a domestic thriller. What can readers look forward to in The Mistake?
The Mistake is a contemporary novel, originally inspired by the Keli Lane case, but moving a fair distance away from that in the writing. As in my first two novels, Out of The Silence and Steele Diaries, The Mistake is concerned with motherhood, and how women’s lives can be shaped – in good ways and not so good ways – by their experiences. I’m very interested in the way our culture views women who are suspected of harming children – how willing we are to jump tot the very worst conclusions – as in the case of Lane as well as Lindy Chamberlain and Kate McCann.
It’s quite difficult to neatly categorise The Mistake – it’s a crime novel, in that there’s clearly a crime at the centre of the narrative; it’s psychological suspense, in that you that you don’t know what has happened to the baby, and don’t find out until the very end; there’s a bit of social and political critique; and it’s a novel about a family. I’m in need of a genre, clearly! Somebody suggested Suburban Noir, which I quite like….
To what extent do you plan or outline each novel before you write, or during the writing process, and why does this level of planning work for you?
A writer friend told men about the division between those novelists who are plodders and those who are pantsers. Plodders plot everything beforehand, pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. Best way to describe the utter chaos of my writing process in these terms would be to describe myself as a pantser who’s somehow managed to get my pants tangled over my head…
What kinds of novels do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I really read every sort of fiction. At the moment I’m having a binge on history. If I had to choose one writer whose novels I would take with me to that mythical desert island, I suspect it would be Jane Austen. Every rereading I discover something new – and she never fails to make me laugh.
Where Have You Been? has been optioned by Australian production company Verve Films. Is there any news on whether a movie is on the way anytime soon?
Nothing’s happening yet – films take such a long time to get up and running – but it’s very exciting! It’d make a terrific film, I think. And the setting – the Northern Beaches suburb of Freshwater, near Manly – is due some filmic exploitation, I reckon.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’m writing a novel called The Aftermath – due out next year. It’s another story about a crime and secrets and families, and how past tragedies cast long shadows.
What is the top piece of advice you would offer for first time novel writers who have just finished the first draft of their novel manuscript?
I would suggest that that first draft be put away for a month or so. There’s nothing better than coming back to your work with fresh eyes. You’re always surprised by what’s working – and what needs to go! If only I followed my own advice….
Wendy James author website: www.wendyjames.com.au
The Australian Literature Review