10 Questions With… Michael Robotham

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Michael Robotham, to discuss his journey as a writer and how his novel The Secrets She Keeps went from computer screen to television screen.

Over to you, Michael…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with any particular book that made you go ‘Wow!’

I wanted to be a writer from about the age of eleven when I discovered the books of the late great Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and many brilliant collections of short stories. I wrote to Bradbury when I was still in primary school and he wrote back to me, sending me four books that weren’t available in Australia.

Years later I recounted this story for a US magazine, quoting Ray Bradbury, who once said: ‘Jules Verne was my father. Mary Shelley was my mother Edgar Allan Poe was the bat-winged cousin we kept locked in the attic.’ I wrote that Ray Bradbury was my literary father and Steinbeck and Hemingway were my over-achieving older brothers.

About a week after the story was posted on the website, I had an email from Ray Bradbury’s youngest daughter Alexandra. She told me that her father was now in his nineties, still living in Los Angeles and almost totally blind.

‘I read him your story and it made him cry,’ she told me. ‘Dad wanted you to know that you are his son.’

I have never been prouder to be a writer.

2) Did you enjoy English at school?

I think it’s in my blood. My father was an English teacher and taught me in my first year at secondary school. I grew up in very small country towns where there was only one school so I couldn’t avoid my father. He could recite Shakespeare by heart and quote from famous works of literature. We didn’t have the money to buy books, but we always had library cards.

3) Are you a full time writer? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing full time?

I have been writing full-time since I was 17 years old when I was awarded a journalism cadetship on a Sydney newspaper and deferred university to try my hand at being a reporter. From journalism I went to ghost-writing. I collaborated on fifteen autobiographies for well known people – ranging from pop stars to soldiers, politicians and adventurers.

I never forgot my dream of being a novelist so in 2001, when I was between ghostwriting projects, I wrote the first 117 pages of a novel, which triggered a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2002. Within three hours it had been sold into more than twenty translations and my dream of being a full-time novelist came spectacularly true. It was like winning the lottery. That first book THE SUSPECT truly changed my life.

4) What advice would you give to the unpublished author?

Write, write, write and when you’re sick of writing, keep going. But if you really have to stop, then begin reading. Do so very critically, deciding why a particular scene, or character, or story works. Could it have been better? How would you have changed it? It is not the truly great novels that inspired me to write. When I read them, I want to weep because I realise I’ll never be that good. What inspired me were the books that had flaws and weaknesses. I can do better than that, I thought…and set about trying.

5) Where did you find the inspiration from for The Secrets She Keeps? Can you briefly describe your writing process for the novel?

I never use the world inspiration if it involves a crime, so I like to tell people that THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is seeded in a case that I covered many years ago. A newborn baby was abducted from a hospital in Nottingham by a woman dressed a nurse. The kidnapper had faked her pregnancy and reached the point where she either came home with a baby or her boyfriend realised she’d been lying. Abbie Humphries was missing for seventeen days before was safety recovered.

The idea had been marinating in my mind for years, but I couldn’t work out how I would tell such a story, until I realised that I should narrate it from both points of view. In doing so, I could look into the minds of two women, one who has a lost a child and the other who has stolen one.

It was perhaps the most difficult book I’ve ever had to write because I had to dual narrative, swapping between Agatha and Meghan. I had to make sure that both of their storylines progressed at the same speed and were equally compelling. 

6) How many drafts did you do before you sent it to your agent and editor?

I normally write between ten and twelve drafts before I show it to my agent and another one before it goes to my editors in the UK, US and Australia.

7) The Secrets She Keeps is currently being shown on BBC1. Did you see yourself having a role in the script? What was the process like of seeing your work from computer screen to television screen?

The novel of THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS was set in Barnes in South London but the TV series has moved the action to Sydney. For me this was a bonus because I could get involved in the production, sitting in the writing rooms, storyboarding the novel and commenting on the scripts. I also spent some time on set during the filming and had my Alfred Hitchdock/Stan Lee moment, a little cameo playing ‘man in cafe doing crossword’ (hint: it’s in episode 4). I think the writers, directors and producers did a wonderful job at bringing the novel to the screen. It is fast-paced, suspenseful, and totally binge-worthy. Yes, there are probably worthier and more profound dramas to be watched, but this one is like eating a stcky, sweet calorie rich dessert because you deserve a treat.

8) Can you name one fiction author that you admire, and why you like their particular style of writing? Why do their stories intrigue you?

There are so many I could name, but the most influential writers in my career have been Ray Bradbury and John Irving. Bradbury for the breadth of his imagination and Irving because he could make me laugh and cry on the same page; or drop a telling detail into a paragraph that would land like a punch to the stomach.

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

I don’t have weekends. I write every day, even Christmas and New Year’s Day. But the first thing I do when I leave my ‘Cabana of Cruelty’, which is what my three daughters call my office, is to pour myself a glass of wine before I start preparing dinner. My wife looks after me wonderfully, but I do all the cooking.

10) When you write, do you prefer music or silence? Do you have a favourite genre of music or band/artist that you like to listen to?

I work in silence. The kookaburras and cockatoos make enough noise. But when I do listen to music, I love singer songwriters. My daughter, Alex Hope, is a very successful songwriter producer in Los Angeles, and she’s always sending me demos of the stuff she’s writing.

My new favourites are all the ‘Bens’: Ben Platt, Ben Abraham and Alec Benjamin.

Thank you so much for your time, Michael. It has been a real pleasure to interview you. I really enjoyed the television series of The Secrets She Keeps – brilliant can’t cover it!

Bio: Gold Dagger winning and twice Edgar short-listed author Michael Robotham was born in Australia in November 1960 and 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.

For the next fourteen years he wrote for newspapers and magazines in Australia, Britain and America. 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 nearly fifty years until a cleaner stumbled upon a cardboard box that had been misplaced and misfiled.

In 1993 he quit journalism to become a ghostwriter, collaborating with politicians, pop stars, psychologists, adventurers and showbusiness personalities to write their autobiographies. Twelve of these non-fiction titles were bestsellers with combined sales of more than 2 million copies.

His partially completed first novel, a psychological thriller called THE SUSPECT, caused a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2002. Soon afterwards it was  chosen by the world’s largest consortium of book clubs as only the fifth “International Book of the Month”, making it the top recommendation to 28 million book club members in fifteen countries. 

Michael’s novels have since been translated into 25 languages and have won or been shortlisted for numerous awards including:
The Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger (won) LIFE OR DEATH 2015 (shortlisted) SAY YOU’RE SORRY 2013.
The Australian Book Industry Association ABIA General Fiction Award 2018 for THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS
The Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel (won 2005 and 2008) LOST and SHATTER.
The Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel (shortlisted) 2016 LIFE OR DEATH (shortlisted) 2019 GOOD GIRL BAD GIRL)
The Crime Writer’s Association Steel Dagger (shortlisted) THE NIGHT FERRY and SHATTER.

Michael lives on Sydney’s northern beaches, where he thinks dark thoughts in his ‘cabana of cruelty’ – a name bestowed by his three daughters, who happily poke fun at the man who has fed, clothed and catered to their every expensive whim. Where is the justice?

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