THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CRIME - an interview with Michael ROBOTHAM

Michael Robotham's new novel, LIFE OR DEATH, is published in the US March 10th. It is already available around the world. Probably Robotham's most accomplished book yet, very close to perfection: the plot is brilliant, the characters won't leave you alone for a long time after you've finished reading the story, and the writing is so good my copy is full of post-it notes. If he were living today, Shakespeare would be jealous of Life or Death.
Here's my recent interview with Australian writer Michael Robotham.
HoCaM: LIFE or DEATH is your 10th novel. If you look at the past 11 years, since THE SUSPECT was published in 2004, how do you analyze it all (without going into Freud or Jung territory)?

M.R.—It’s strange to think I’ve been doing this for 11 years. When I started I remember thinking it would be great to get just one novel published. I figured it would probably sell a dozen copies – my mother would buy eight of them – and then I’d go back to ghostwriting or journalism, which were making me a good living.

I am enormously grateful to have made a career out of writing fiction. It’s something I dreamed about from age eleven when I wrote a letter to Ray Bradbury and he wrote back to me. Later I had dreams of winning the Novel Prize – believing as all teenagers do, that my brilliance was indisputable and it was only a matter of time before I was ‘discovered’. Later again, I began to accept my limitations. Just as I was destined never to win Wimbledon, or captain the Australian cricket team, I realised that the Nobel Prize for literature was perhaps a little beyond me. I settled instead for writing books that I would want to read. ‘Entertainments’ as Graham Greene called them. It has stood me in good stead.

HoCaM: You went from journalist to ghostwriter to novelist; how would your fiction be different today if you’d started as a novelist?

M.R.—Twenty-eight years ago, when I was still a journalist, I wrote the great unpublished Australian novel. It was more literary in style and quite worthy in tone, without a murder in sight. The novel was almost published by Penguin in the UK, missing out by a single vote in a final publishing meeting. Looking back, I’m glad that it wasn’t picked up. If I had been published at twenty-five, I would probably have thought I was God’s gift to writing and been quite obnoxious. I would also look back now and cringe at that first effort.

                I am a better writer today for having been a ghostwriter. I know how to capture someone’s voice and hopefully make a character leap from the page and live and breathe in a reader’s imagination. I have the discipline and the tools to be a writer, but I have lost the ego. Every new book is a blessing. Every new reader is a joy. Life is good.

HoCaM: What other experience(s) or job(s) helped your writing?

M.R.—I grew up in very small country towns in Australia, places with more dogs than people and more flies than dogs. I wanted to be a writer – but felt I had nothing to write about, because Mark Twain had stolen all the best plots. That’s why I decided to become a journalist – to gather material. So I started as a cadet journalist at the age of 17 and for the next 14 years worked on national newspapers in Australia and the UK, covering events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

                A journalist is never an expert on anything. He or she is a jack-of-all-trades, learning a little about a lot of things. In the course of my career, I interviewed presidents, prime ministers, convicted killers, terrorists, dictators, grieving families and victims. Ultimately, I had the material to be a writer – I just had to find the patience, the confidence and the right story.

HoCaM: LIFE or DEATH is a special novel for you because it is a story you’ve wanted to tell for a while. Can you explain the hook that caught you, and how you made it your own story?

M.R.—The seed of LIFE OR DEATH can be traced back to March 20, 1995, when I read a small story in a Sydney newspaper about a convicted killer who escaped from prison on the eve of his release. The big question of course, is WHY?        

This intrigued me. I knew it was a great hook for a novel, but I couldn’t work out why someone would do such a thing. Periodically, I would keep coming back to the idea until finally I came up with a reason. Even then, I didn’t write the novel, because I didn’t know if I had the skills to pull it off. Firstly, I was setting it in Texas – a place that I had only ever visited. Secondly, I knew LIFE OR DEATH needed a love story at its very heart. There had to be a reason that Audie Palmer would endure 10 years of horrendous treatment in prison, only to escape the day before his release.

HoCaM: When LIFE or DEATH was published outside the US, last fall, you’ve told me that you thought this was your best novel so far. As writers usually try to write a better book than the previous one, can you explain how you see this one differently, as compared to your previous ones, and why you feel so strongly about it?

M.R.—Every writer will tell you that the story they put on the page is never quite the one they have in their head. It is never quite as good. The imagination is flawless. The intellect is human. This is the constant battle that all writers fight. With LIFE OR DEATH I think I have come closer than ever before in capturing the essence of the story I wanted to tell. That’s why it’s so special to me.

HoCaM: What will you say when the next one comes out?

M.R.—Well, I’ve finished my next book and the answer is no. LIFE OR DEATH is still special to me. It was a magical experience to write and I hope to have that feeling again one day.

HoCaM: Have you ever put a story aside, either because it was going somewhere you weren’t fully prepared to delve into or because your emotional connection to it wasn’t right?

M.R.—Because I don’t plot my novels in advance or write to any preconceived plan, I often have to throw away material or consign it to the bottom drawer. In the past I’ve jettisoned as much as 40,000 words because I wrote myself off a cliff and there was no way back.

Stephen King came up with a wonderful analogy. It’s like walking along and stumbling upon a bone sticking out of the ground. You begin brushing away the dirt, digging deeper, but you’re never sure if you’re excavating a dog bone or a dinosaur. If it’s a dog bone, you have to start again. If it’s a dinosaur you’re in business.

When it comes to the emotional toll, I did once vow that I would never delve into very dark territory again after writing SHATTER, a psychological thriller featuring a particular nasty villain. In particular, I struggled with the scenes written from the killer’s point of view, often curling up in bed, trying to get the voice out of my head.

HoCaM: Of course, when one writes crime fiction, one needs to deal with violence and death. What are the challenges in doing it while terrorism, violence, and death seem to be in the news all the time?

M.R.—I’ve toured South Africa a few times and I’m always amazed at how many crime fiction fans there are. On my last visit I read in that morning’s paper that 52 police officers had died so far that year in Johannesburg. Fifty two! I thought, why would anyone want to read a crime novel when the local paper was saturated in bloody and violent events?

The answer lies in one of the great truths about crime fiction. We live in an imperfect world, where many violent and treacherous people get away with terrible things. But in most crime novels, justice is normally served. The bad guys are caught and the good guys survive, damaged, but living to fight another day.

HoCaM: So it’s important for you to always end on a positive note?

M.R.—I think it’s important to have a resolution that readers can accept and understand. It doesn’t have to be happy-ever-after but there needs to be some redemptive sense of hope or acceptance that survival is victory enough. My characters tend to be damaged by events, but able to endure.

HoCaM: You never know in advance where you’re going? Have you ever tried different endings for the same novel?

M.R.—As I mentioned earlier, I have no idea how a story is going to end when I begin. With LIFE OR DEATH I knew that it would open with a prison escape and a man who should be running from trouble, but instead heads straight into the fire.

I often despair that I won’t come up with an ending. It’s the scariest part of the process – almost like living the story in real time. My characters are hanging on, clinging to the cliff face, and I have to find a way to save them.

HoCaM: I think it is always more interesting when we observe life through the eyes of one person or of a small group of individuals rather than with a global view. This is why I admire how you always take the readers into the characters’ lives, opening a window into their inner thoughts and motivations, and how you take the time to explain the reasons behind their emotional and psychological scars, without ever sacrificing the flow of the story. How do you get the right balance?

M.R.—I think the answer goes back to my days as a ghostwriter collaborating with prominent people to help them pen their autobiographies. I learned that people are not just three-dimensional. We all have countless layers of personality. We all have secrets. We all have fears.

This is something I also learned when I was working with Paul Britton, an acclaimed psychologist, who pioneered profiling in the UK. Even when he was dealing some of the most horrendous killers imaginable, he discovered that none of them were born ‘evil’. None of them were ‘bad to the bone’. All of them had mothers and families and former friends and people who once loved them.

I try to capture this reality in my fiction, creating characters who have many layers of personality, who are scared or scarred for a reason. Society gets the monsters it deserves.

HoCaM:  The decision of creating Joe O’Loughlin as a psychologist, and not a firefighter or a plumber or a bus driver, then became a deliberate one on your part to be able to get a more analytical view of it all?

M.R.—As mentioned above, I was very fortunate to spend a number of years working closely with Professor Paul Britton, a psychologist who had spent his career working in secure mental hospitals and psychiatric units, dealing with some of the dangerous people imaginable. Joe O’Loughlin is nothing like Paul Britton as a character, but he does have the same understanding of human behaviour and the ability to look at a person – the way they’re groomed, dressed, standing, walking, driving, sitting etc… and glean amazing insights into them.

Paul Britton triggered my fascination with the psychology of crime and he was the reason I created Joe O’Loughlin as a character.

HoCaM: Do you remember the Eureka moments, or the ‘births’, of Joe O’Loughlin and of Vincent Ruiz? Was it always with the intention of creating a series?

M.R.—I never intended to write a series. When I created Joe O’Loughlin in SUSPECT, I thought it would be a standalone and Joe would never appear again. I compromised and made Ruiz the main character in the second novel, LOST, and Joe became a minor character. It was only in my fourth novel, SHATTER, that I went back to Joe O’Loughlin because it was a perfect story for a psychologist to tell – a battle between someone who spent his life repairing damaged minds, pitted against a man who enjoyed breaking minds and mentally destroying women. Even then, I didn’t think I was writing a series, but my wife did tell me that she wouldn’t sleep with me unless I sorted out Joe’s marriage. It’s been a lonely few years…

HoCaM: Do you have a personal approach when it comes to trying to connect with the reader, to grab his/her attention, or is it more a question of experience, or instinct?

M.R.—Modern crime novels are very different beasties to those written even thirty years ago. Gone are the days when writers could spend two hundred pages describing the setting and introducing characters before one of them turns up dead.

I think I operate more on instinct than experience. As the story unfolds I can tell when it begins to slow, or when something has to happen. I ratchet up the tension, putting characters I love under enormous stress, hoping I can find a way of saving them.

I don’t agree with writers who say that they never write with their readers in mind. I think that’s a very selfish attitude. I want to challenge my readers and to make them think, but I never forget they’re there. I’m taking them on this journey. They’ve invested their money and their time and their faith in me to tell them an interesting story, which is why I try not to disappoint or leave them traumatised or take them for granted.

HoCaM: How important are the settings, the places, and do you create them more for the characters or for the stories?

M.R.—Some writers begin with place. I begin with characters and the seed of the story and find a place that fits. If possible that location then becomes another ‘character’ in the story.

With LIFE OR DEATH, I felt I had a big story that needed a big setting, which is why I chose Texas. There’s a slogan that says Texas is ‘like a whole other country’ and it’s very true – not just because of its size and cultural diversity, but its food, pride, people and the history. What other state has its own Texas Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede?

The other reason I chose the US is because at a local county level people often elect local sheriff, district attorney and judges. The fate of any suspect is determined by only a handful of people – who decide what charges someone faces, who represents them and what judge sits on the case. I find this quite scary.

HoCaM: Is there an event that you covered, while a journalist, that touched you more deeply or personally and that still haunts you today, or that you think about regularly?

M.R.—There are many events that touched me deeply. Often it was the smaller events that impacted me more than major news stories like the Berlin Wall coming down. In my early days as a journalist, I worked night shift when we monitored police, fire and ambulance radios, dashing off to cover any major event in the city. Stabbings, murders, suicides, accidents, jail breaks, drug overdoses, gang wars and police raids  – all many of stories. One night we went out to a very minor and routine accident, where a truck driver had crashed into a bridge pylon and was pinned in the cabin of his truck. He was uninjured by the crash, but trapped. I chatted and joked with him while we waited for the mechanical jaws to arrive and cut him out. Moments after I stepped back from the truck, it exploded into flames. I heard him screaming as he died. That incident has haunted me for years. Before then I treated the dead and wounded almost like characters in a TV drama – the blood wasn’t real, it was just make-up. But I chatted to this driver. I knew he was married with kids. We made a connection. It still makes me shudder.

HoCaM: Were there events, in the past ten years, that you would have liked to cover as a reporter? Anything specific?

M.R.—For years after I quit journalism, in 1993, I used to see events unfolding on the news and wish I was there. I knew many of the journalists and could picture myself being with them. That all ended on September 11, 2001. I witnessed the towers coming down and had no desire to be there. I knew that journalism was finally out of my blood.

HoCaM: You’ve been a ghostwriter of biographies for many well-known people, but if you could choose one person to interview and write about, who would it be?

M.R.—My wife would say George Clooney, but only if she could sit on his knee and take notes. I would say Jessica Alba, but only if she could sit on my knee and take notes.

Who would it be? I don’t know. I would happily ghost Obama’s autobiography and would love to get into the head of Vladimir Putin and see what makes that guy tick.

HoCaM: Do you have a long-term plan for your series or do you go one book at a time?

M.R.—It’s definitely one book at a time. I finish each one convinced there won’t be another. I tell my wife that every ‘description, one-liner, plot twist, setting and bit of dialogue has been used up, it’s gone. I’m an empty shell, a hollow human being, I will never write again.’ Then I follow her around the house for two hours until she tells me to go away. She finds me a few hours later, back at my desk. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks. ‘I’ve just come up with an idea.’

HoCaM: As a writer living so far from Europe and North America, how do you survive the long-distance promotional tours?

M.R.—Jetlag is a killer. As I get older it gets harder and harder to overcome, but I refuse to complain. A few years ago, I was in Toronto sharing a drink with the wonderful British writer Kate Mosse. I had been seven weeks on the road and Kate had been five weeks away from home. We were both bitching about missing our families and our beds. At that moment, we looked out the window of our stunning five-star hotel as the sun set over Lake Ontario and both of us realised that countless writers all over the world would cut off a limb to be in our position. So we sucked it up and ordered another bottle of Champagne.

HoCaM: What Australian writer –other than yourself—should we be reading? Can you recommend anyone that isn’t published internationally yet but should?

M.R.—Peter Temple is Australia’s finest crime writer, who has won the UK Gold Dagger (THE BROKEN SHORE) and also Australia’s highest literary honour, the Miles Franklin Award (TRUTH).

Another very fine Australian crime writer is Garry Disher, who has a couple of series that are set in Australia. I also rate Malla Nunn very highly. Her main character, Emmanuel Cooper, is a detective in apartheid South Africa – a good man in troubling times, trying to solve crimes and keep above the politics.

And finally, although he’s only a ‘new’ Australian, I recommend Adrian McKinty, who has come to us by way of Northern Ireland and then America, but is now happily settled in Melbourne. His Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are wonderful crime novels.

HoCaM: Can you tell us a little about your next novel and if there is a pub date?

M.R.—The next one is called CLOSE YOUR EYES and sees the return of Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz.

After six years living alone, Joe has a chance to start over when he’s invited to spend the summer with his estranged wife Julianne and their two daughters. But soon there are complications. A mother and her teenage daughter are found murdered in a Somerset farmhouse, one defiled by multiple stab wounds and the other left lying like Sleeping Beauty waiting for her Prince. Reluctantly Joe is drawn into the investigation because another psychologist, a former student calling himself the ‘Mindhunter’ has traded on Joe’s name and jeopardised the police inquiry by leaking details to the media and stirring up public anger.

HoCaM: And as a last question (in fact there are two), this is something that I ask every writer that I interview: let’s say there is a novel written with you as the main character.

A) What would be the first sentence?

M.R.—He said he’d do it and he did.

B) How would your character die?

M.R.—When they found him the keys were bloody and his fingers were stumps. He had typed his own epitaph, quoting Hemingway: ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’

Hopefully, he’ll recover in time to write another novel or two!

A huge thank you to Michael Robotham for taking the time to do this. You can visit his website, follow him on Twitter or Facebook, but more importantly, you should buy his books.

Thank you for visiting the House of Crime and Mystery.

À bientôt,


8 March 2015

A special hello to all women on this “International Women’s Day”.

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