Probably best known for writing the award winning Joe O’Loughlin series of crime novels, Michael Robotham has now taken the decision to write a stand-alone thriller – Life or Death – which tracks the story of escaped convict Audie Palmer who has gone over the wall just one day prior to release. Here, Michael speaks with Chris High and explains what lay behind the story, the O’Loughlin series and past and future projects.
How aware are you now that there has been a bit of a spate in the UK of hardened criminals – most notably a guy nicknamed the Skull Crusher – escaping with very little time left to serve? None of them have quite the same incentive as Audie Palmer though. How difficult was it coming up with such a workable quest scenario?
I had no idea about the UK escapes, but the idea for Life or Death came to me almost 20 years ago, when a man called Anthony Gerard Sebastion Lanigan, a 47-year-old convicted killer turned model prisoner, escaped from Malabar Training Centre nursery and ran away. Lanigan had pulled the same stunt two years earlier. He escaped from jail, took a train to Katoomba, spent a night under the stars and the next day waved down a paddy wagon and gave himself up. So when he escaped for a second time nobody bothered ringing the police. The warders thought Lanigan would spend another night away and then knock on the door saying, "let me back in" only he didn’t show up. He’s never shown up. He’s never been seen since. There are no reward offers, appeals or fresh leads. Tony Lanigan is probably Australia’s least most wanted fugitive, but it’s still a mystery. And like all crime writers I can’t resist a mystery. Life Or Death is my tenth novel and one that I am immensely proud of.
Audie is an extremely rounded character. Other than after Audie Murphy, what made you choose his name and was the balance between determined and stubborn difficult to create?
I don’t know if he’s well-rounded. I think he’s like a lot of people who doubt they could survive true hardship but find incredible resources of courage when put to the test. So much of Life or Death hinges on an outrageous piece of misfortune, but also relies on people falling in love with Audie and caring deeply about what happens to him. I chose the name Audie before I discovered the story of Audie Murphy and his heroics in the Second World War and I love it when something serendipitous happens like that. I don’t believe in fate, but some magic is at work.
FBI Agent Desiree Furness, equally, is a fabulous character who has come through certain adversity to arrive at the place she is in life. Is she a conglomeration of people you know or was she someone that just came to you?
I try to create characters who live and breathe in my imagination. If they seem real to me, they’ll hopefully seem real to readers. One way to make a character memorable is to give them quirks and foibles – a particular way of speaking or dressing, or a telling phrase that sums them up. I decided to make Desiree very short. She makes fun of herself, but her stature has fired her with a greater determination to be tall in other ways and to stand out in a male dominated profession as a special agent with the FBI.
Is Desiree somebody who is likely to make a return in the future?
I don’t know. I’d like to set another book in the States, so she may crop up again. Whenever I write from a female perspective I fall in love with them. When I wrote The Night Ferry completely from the first person female point-of-view of Alisha Barba, my wife had to come to terms with the fact that I spent a year having an affair with another woman. The characters grow as I write them.
After a succession of Joe O’Loughlin novels, does writing a standalone away from the series standpoint alter the way you work at all – and when can we expect Joe O’Loughlin to return?
I love writing Joe O’Loughlin, but if someone told me that I would have to spend the rest of my writing life doing nothing else, I think I would probably put a gun to my head. One of the reasons Life or Death is so important to me is that I want to be able to create new characters, set stories in different places and to take my readers along for the ride. There is another Joe O’Loughlin book coming and I don’t think he’s ready to retire just yet, but I don’t want to write one book too many. It has to be fresh. It has to excite me.
Your descriptive prose are also astonishingly good and add to the pace of the novel in a way many others don’t. How much research into the settings did you undertake and is research something you particularly enjoy?
I spent about six weeks in the US, travelling through Texas, Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana. Initially I was going to set the novel in the Ozark Mountains, but settled on Texas because I had a greater feel for the legal system and better contacts. I also had contact with a prisoner serving a life sentence in a Florida jail. He reviewed one of my previous novels and ran a blog called Books Behind Bars. He was really helpful in answering questions about the prison system and day-to-day life. I also read a lot of prison memoirs and spent months listening to audio books of people like Cormac McCarthy, Philipp Meyer, James Lee Burke and William Faulkner, getting the rhythm of the language.
You live in Australia but set Life or Death in the USA. Why, and is there an Australian set novel in the offing?
I get asked that question a lot. I did consider setting Life or Death in Australia, but chose the US because it has a great history of prison based storytelling with books like Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The US also has a political system where voters elect local officials such as the county sheriff and district attorney, which makes these men enormously powerful.
How do you plan then begin to execute your novels and how early in the process do you know whether your story has the legs to see it through to the end of 400+ pages?
I don’t plan the story in advance. About half my writing time goes in creating the first third of the book, introducing the characters and setting up the story. The last third comes in a rush. I can normally tell if a story has legs because I have dozens of possible plot strands I could follow. If all I can see is one – then I get frightened that I’m going to go straight off a cliff or run out of road.
Ghost writing and journalism made up a great deal of your early writing career. Are such activities something you would recommend to aspiring fiction authors, how did you start out ghost writing and which has been your most rewarding and / or challenging assignment?
Ghostwriting taught me discipline and proved that I had the patience and stamina to spend long periods of time working alone, writing one story, motivating myself to get back to the keyboard rather than doing a thousand other things. It was also valuable to my fiction career because it showed me how to capture a voice. Everyone is unique and we have a particular turn of phrase or way of speaking or sense of humour. If a ghostwriter does his or her job well, their fingerprints won’t appear anywhere on the manuscript. It will look and sound and feel as though their subject has written every word or just dictated the whole story.
Ghostwriting was rewarding financially and creatively. The people who counted, the publishers, knew who was responsible for ghostwriting a particular book and they were the people who would offer you the next commission and I still get asked to ghostwrite today because of my earlier work and reputation. The most rewarding book was Ricky Tomlinson. The most challenging book was one I can’t talk about.
If there was one aspect of the publishing industry you would like to see changed, what would it be?
I would like to see more done to protect bricks and mortar bookstores, which have almost vanished completely in the UK. I would also like to see challengers emerge, who can take on Amazon and provide competition. It is never healthy when so much power is in the hands of a single company, particularly one that claims to only care about customers, but really only cares about creating a monopoly where it controls every aspect of publishing.
I’m writing another Joe O’Loughlin story. My wife says I can’t possibly contemplate leaving Joe unless I sort out his personal life. After that, I think it might depend upon the success or otherwise of Life Or Death.
Life or Death by Michael Robotham is out now from Sphere.