Writing The Human Psyche… An Interview With Michael Robotham
Writing the Human Psyche
By Nicolette Ferreira
I was recently the victim of crime. I first noticed the bruised plant on our kitchen windowsill, and then I saw, GASP… the cooling lemon meringue pie was gone! (Okay, the pie was actually my cellphone). The criminal of this horrendous deed was never caught, but, if, on the other hand, I were the famous, best-selling crime and mystery author, 49-year old Australian born Michael Robotham, the mystery of the meringue would have been solved. Stephen King – yes, the Stephen King whom you probably have a entire section devoted to on your book shelve, describes Robotham’s work as “exceptional”. So dust off your book shelve and make way for Michael Robotham’s psychological thrillers: ‘You won’t just bite your fingernails, you’ll be eating your whole hand!’
Being the eager beaver journalist that I am, I ask Michael Robotham the first appropriate question: Why crime? Surely not the first time hearing this question, he explains his fascination with the human psyche:
“When Mozart wrote his symphonies, when Hitler ordered the Final Solution, when a serial killer murders young girls, or when a teenage mother abandons her baby in a rubbish bin – it all comes back to some aspect of human behaviour.”
Maybe I can write a crime novel, I think to myself. Imagine: I can go to Mug and Bean every day with a funky beret, big black glasses, and an even bigger cappuccino! Oh wait.. this could be time-consuming and once I’m a famous writer there will be, of course, so many social events that I will simply have to attend (publicity, publicity!). I check with Michael: How long does it take you to do research for a book?
“I tend to distrust plotting. I’m more inclined to take the ‘headlight view’ of writing. I make sure I can see just far enough ahead to navigate through the darkness, but have very little idea where I’m going. The advantages of this are tremendous spontaneity. I surprise myself. Hopefully I surprise the reader. The disadvantages are that sometimes I drive straight off a cliff!”
This sounds like a dangerous business. Hmmm… I am scared of just cycling down the street in case a car will hit me, or worse, hoot at me! I quickly move on to the next question I have jotted down. I see a scribbled note: “I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it” (Charles Dickens). I ask Michael whether he finds that the characters of a new book he is writing consume his life:
“My characters live and breathe in my head and I think of them as real people. This sense of attachment is even stronger because I tend to write in the first person. Sometimes I feel as though my narrator is sitting at my shoulder, whispering the story to me. When The Suspect was sold around the world on a 117-page part-manuscript, none of the publishers asked me how it ended. Eventually, I neared the end and the main character, Joe O’Loughlin, was in terrible danger, about to lose his wife, his career, maybe his life. I suddenly realised that if I were to hit by a bus tomorrow, Joe would be trapped. His life destroyed. I was the only person who knew how to save him. I wrote manically for three days to get the story down…just in case. That’s how much characters take over your life.”
As I sip my frothy coffee and listen to Michael, I slip back into my reverie of being a crime writer. This could be glamorous… I wonder what a day in the life of a writer looks like? So I ask the man himself. When Michael tells me he writes while dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, sitting at an outdoor café at a beachside cafe, having ordered poached eggs and a large coffee, I am completely sold on the idea. It wasn’t his mentioning of shorts and a T-shirt, but rather my overactive mind imagining a little floral dress, a pink bicycle and a basket full of apples. The idea gets even more romantic when he tells me that he writes longhand in bound notebooks to protect his eyes from the computer screen and because there is something about pen and paper that leads to shorter sentences and sharper dialogue. “It’s as though the mind edits more effectively when it knows the result has to consume ink and rainforests.”
Even though Robatham spends most of his time in shorts at a beachside cafe scribbling away at his next crime novel, he feels that there is nothing more important than family life. When he was younger, he was desperate to leave his mark on the world – to write something that would outlast him. Since he had a family, that desire has gone. His children will be his legacy and everything else is just window dressing. Wow – now that’s a jewel to meditate on! I wonder whether I will be able to keep my feet on the ground once I start mingling with the celebs…
Michael Robatham clearly has more noble ideas of what is important in life! He is passionate about Africa and also about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers around the world. His youngest daughter was born in Harare in 2000. He moved from Sydney to Harare while working on a non-fiction book, which was set in Rhodesia. Unfortunately, the farm invasions began after they arrived, which made things more difficult than they expected. He has recently been involved in collecting clothes, blankets and tools to send to Zimbabwe.
At the end of our interview, I order a coffee to take on my way (just to look a little bit more like a writer) and I decide to go to the nearest bookstore for one of Michael’s books. I ask him which one is his favourite:
“I am supposed to answer, ‘my latest book, of course, Bombproof’. But there will always be a special place in my heart for The Suspect, because it was my first and because it changed my life. The Drowning Man (first published as Lost) was the hardest to write (Could I do it again? Was I one hit wonder?). Then there is Shatter, the darkest – my wife would only read it during the daytime and said afterwards that we’d never be invited to dinner again, because nobody would have a sick bastard like me in their house! Lastly, Bombproof is the most fun – an old fashioned criminal romp – fast, funny, violent and sexy. It didn’t feel like work at all.”
I decide to do all aspiring writers out there a favour and ask Michael what advice he has for us:
“Write, write, write and when you’re absolutely sure you can’t write another word, pick up a book and read. Dissect books. Take them apart. Try to understand what makes them good or bad or how they could be better. The truly great books can’t be dismantled. They are seamless. Perfect.”
Perfect…as I think of this word, I think of God’s kingdom and master plan (perhaps for me to be the next Robotham?!). I go home, inspired by Michael Robotham, to write more books for the kingdom’s library: to give joy, to change lives and perhaps add…a little bit of mystery!