Born in Australia in November 1960, Michael Robotham grew up in small country towns that had 'more dogs than people and more flies than dogs'.
He escaped in 1979 and became a cadet journalist on an afternoon newspaper in Sydney. As a senior feature writer for the UK’s Mail on Sunday he was among the first people to view the letters and diaries of Czar Nicholas II and his wife Empress Alexandra, unearthed in the Moscow State Archives in 1991. He also gained access to Stalin’s Hitler files, which had been missing for almost 50 years until a cleaner stumbled upon a cardboard box that had been misplaced and misfiled.
In 1993 Robotham quit journalism to become a ghostwriter, collaborating with politicians, pop stars, psychologists, adventurers and show business personalities to write their autobiographies. His novels The Suspect and Lost won worldwide acclaimation and the latter an Australian award; his eighth novel Say You're Sorry is a dark psychological thriller that marks the return to centre stage of clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin.
In your career as a journalist did you ever cover a story similar to that in Say You’re Sorry and, if so how did you cope with the stress of the detail?
Most of my novels are seeded in real life events, although I never use the word ‘inspired’. Some I covered as a journalist and others I followed as an interested bystander. Say You’re Sorry is a psychological thriller about two teenage girls who go missing from a small village in Oxfordshire, but no trace of them is ever found until three years later. One of the emotional themes I wanted to explore are the differences between public and private grief; how some stories capture the collective imagination and create a phenomenon that psychologists have labelled ‘mourning sickness’.
Many people will remember the tremendous outpouring of public grief ten years ago when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman disappeared from Soham after a family barbecue. There is a famous photograph of them in matching Manchester United shirts, taken beneath a clock at Holly’s house. They were dead almost within an hour, but for the weeks before their bodies were discovered the nation hung on every scrap of information. There were memorials, prayer vigils and a huge search organised. Holly and Jessica didn’t just belong to their families. They had been adopted by the nation.
How did you go about researching the police procedures that takes place in Say You’re Sorry?
Most of my research came from reading newspaper accounts and books about missing children. The novel has echoes of real-life cases such as Sabine Dardenne, Elizabeth Smart and Natascha Kampusch – girls who were kidnapped, imprisoned and abused before being freed. I read their accounts and tried to imbue Piper Hadley with the same sort of strength and fortitude to survive her ordeal. With the exception of Joe and Vincent and Piper, each character has a sinister edge to them.
I don’t plan my novels in advance. I begin with a scenario – in this case, the disappearance of two teenage girls – and then see where the characters take me. I had no idea who the villain was going to be. Right up until penultimate chapter I still wasn’t sure – which is why I created a series of suspects with a ‘sinister edge’ as you call it. Perhaps this is why the novel works so well. The reader really doesn’t know who to believe or who to trust until the shocking final twist.
You say in the acknowledgements of the book that your wife is your 'designated reader'. How much input does she have?
My wife doesn’t read each book until a solid first draft is finished. She hates me discussing aspects in advance because she doesn’t want to know the twists and turns. And she won’t let me stay in the same room as she reads; I can’t even watch from the doorway to monitor her reactions - instead I’m banished to my office, where I pace the floor. Usually, at some point she runs down the stairs and thumps me on the chest, tearfully demanding that I bring a character back. ‘You can’t let it happen. I won’t let you. Change it, please?’ Although I’m happy to be edited, I take it as a badge of honour if I can write a book that nobody wants to change. This novel is exactly how I wrote it. My publishers around the world didn’t want to change a thing.
What were the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of writing this novel?
The novel has two first-person narrators – Piper Hadley, a teenage girl who has been missing for three years, and Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist, who becomes convinced that Piper and her best friend Tash might still be alive. The most difficult aspect of the writing was controlling the release of information and slowly building the tension. Creating Piper Hadley’s voice was one of the great challenges and joys I’ve experienced as a writer. She’s a strong character and some of her dialogue was lifted straight from real-life – conversations with my teenage daughters, who are equally, opinionated, funny and feisty.
Do you have any writing routines or superstitions?
It’s tough being a full-time writer. I live on Sydney’s northern beaches and I have to wake up every morning without an alarm clock. Then I have to decide if I’ll have breakfast on the sound end of the beach or the north end – and will I have the poached eggs on sourdough or the full English breakfast? And my kids are at school and my wife is at home, so shall we have morning delight, or afternoon delight? I don’t have any writing superstitions, but I knock on wood every day because I’m so bloody grateful to be doing what I always dreamed of doing.
You have also ghost written for several celebrities including Ricky Tomlinson and Geri Halliwell. What were the most challenging aspects of being a ghost writer?
The greatest challenge of ghostwriting is you capture a person’s unique voice so that nobody, not wives, family or friends, will recognise the hand of a ghostwriter at work. This takes weeks of interviews and then transcribing the tapes before I sit down to write. Then comes the moment of truth. It can come easily or take days, but eventually a sentence is written and you realise the ‘voice’ is in my head. From then on, I could rewrite War and Peace and make it sound like Rolf Harris or Lulu or Geri Halliwell.
What is next for Michael Robotham?
The next book follows Marnie Logan, a young mother whose husband has been missing for more than a year. It’s a stalking story based on a case I once covered as a journalist. The pitch is simple: imagine someone has been stalking you for your entire life.
Say You're Sorry is out now, published by Sphere.