Why do you write true crime? Isn’t it gruesome and horrible?
Can be. I’m more interested in the motivations and movements of criminals. It’s fascinating why people decide to make radical dangerous life-changing decisions especially when any rational person would look at what they were doing and think: this isn’t going to work. I’m interested in the psychology of the criminal mind, why people do shocking things and think they can get away with it. And why they seem unable to think ahead to the ramifications of what they are about to do. In many of the stories in my books, I find there’s a common thread of a particular kind of mentality: that won’t happen to me. I won’t get caught. He got caught but I’m smarter than him. People who think like that are often not terribly bright. And overestimate how clever they are. And get caught.
When I was researching The Australian Book of Family Murders, I found that one in five domestic homicides in Australia has no known or recorded reason. This indicates that murder and other serious violent crimes are not necessarily black and white. Murderers don’t always plan ahead, figure out the best time to act and things like that. They are often spur of the moment, impulsive, driven by emotion. And then they may be instantly full of grief and remorse. But it’s too late. This aspect of human behaviour – why we are sometimes unable to rein in destructive and hateful feelings – is an interesting one.
That said, my books do have gory bits. I find the story of Dr Rory Jack Thompson, CSIRO research scientist, truly horrifying (I Hate you to Pieces in The Australian Book of Family Murders). He was found not guilty ‘by reason of insanity’ but it is not entirely clear to me whether he was insane or not. Blood and butchery are confronting but sometimes the sheer hate, vengeance and malevolence of a murderer is equally confronting. Andrew Kalajzich, Sef Gonzales, Arthur Freeman who dropped his daughter to her death from the West Gate Bridge…these types of crimes are hard to fathom. And require some kind of sensitivity to write about.
Is truth stranger than fiction?
Yes. Imagine you’re worried that you might be going to go to jail. You don’t want to be separated from your young wife and 3 year old son. So you dig up the grave of a random 80 year old woman, put her in your car, drive up to a cliff top, set the car on fire, and let it plunge over the edge. Then you return home, dye your hair black, tell your little boy that even though you look like his daddy you’re not, wear a baseball cap when you’re out in the garden to hide your face and hope that no one recognises you…
If this was a movie, audiences would pick holes in it, throw popcorn at the screen and walk out in disbelief. But this is a true story A Couple of Ghouls from my book Playing Dead.
Do you only write true crime?
I write lots of things. I write for the stage (under the name Julia Lewis) and have had six plays produced in Sydney. I have written a family musical What’s My Colour? with Berlin-based composer Yuval Halpern which premiered in the US in October 2016. In my dark past I have written corporate training videos (set in outer space), a short film called Hot Water Lover about a man who decides to stay in the shower forever…and an episode of Home and Away.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I am working on a crime/humour novel involving a bogus private investigator called Logan Palmer, who bluffs her way into solving murders by being nosy, talkative and amoral. Something fun. I’ve finished the first one which is set in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and begins with the corpse of Dominic Durie, owner of a funky interior design studio, being washed up at Tamarama beach. I’m working on the second one where Logan Palmer will be in Central Australia with two mad German backpackers, a Japanese business man in a pale pink shirt and a droll architect called Warren. I think it will be fun for her to travel around the country in each novel and not be bound by the mean streets of wherever. When I call it a crime novel, it’s really sort of crime/humour/bit of romance? Sort of like Miss Marple. But much younger. And better-looking. And racier (whoa, watch out for the scene with the surfer…). And pacier. And crazier. And set in Australia. In the 1990’s. But other than that, pretty much identical to Miss Marple.
Have you ever been to Iceland?
Funny you should ask. Yes, I have. I was there in 2013 – Reykjavik, Þingvellir, Akureyri, Mývatn, Goðafoss, etc – and I must say it is the most beautiful, remote, fresh, wild, creative, dazzling country. I also visited Rovaniemi in Finland where I met Santa Claus – the real one – who asked me what I did for a living and when I told him I wrote true crime he asked why. So in fact the first question of this FAQ page is courtesy of Santa Claus. Sensible man. If you find this hard to believe, I do have a photo of Santa and me, taken by his elf helper. I should dig it out…