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  • INTERVIEW

How do you feel about having your first novel published?

I think anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel and finally gets the green light from a publisher is going to feel pretty elated. I certainly did. There is so much hard work, it takes so long, and it’s such a solitary endeavour that you are inevitably plagued by self doubt and a desperate need for validation. When that validation comes, in any form, you feel like giving an enormous hug of appreciation to the entire universe.

What made you start writing?

I’d grown up writing songs. Then when I stopped playing with a band and didn’t have an outlet for that, I decided to have a go at writing fiction. I didn’t think much about it because I never expected to get published.

How is it different from working in advertising?

When you work in an ad agency, you are paid by clients to produce work to their brief. They make all the rules. The thing I love about writing fiction is the freedom to go in absolutely any direction. There are no rules. Go where you want with whomever you choose with as much or as little action as you feel like.
And if someone reads what you’ve written and tells you they’ve got something out of it…I think that’s incredibly uplifting.

Was Shallow Water your first manuscript?

No. The first crime novel I wrote had a working title of The Manipulators. The narrative was about two guys who seem similar on the outside but are very different on the inside. They work for a couple of ad agencies engaged in a pitch for a major political party (in 1997 I did actually pitch for the federal ALP account). Before long you realise there are links between the advertising world, the political world and organized crime.

Did you get any encouragement with your early writing?

Yes. And it was hugely important to me. I was working as a strategic planner for Saatchi & Saatchi London and out of nowhere came something called, London Literary Week. An email went round to all 600 staff asking if we’d written anything we would like to share with a visiting author. I emailed off the first 78 pages of my first manuscript with the expectation that my work would not even get a glance from the agency’s guest.
But the author, Blake Morrison, did glance at it. In fact, he read it thoroughly. He told me that while there was lots of work to be done, I was writing in a genre that was popular. Crime fiction. A murder mystery come psychological thriller. And he gave me praise. Enough praise to make me feel like it would be ridiculous not to finish the manuscript. Blake’s simple act of encouragement was hugely motivating. And he said something very similar to what a popular Sydney musician had once said to me many years before. That success was 90% perseverance and 10% talent.

What happened to your first manuscript?

When I’d finished my first manuscript and was waiting to hear back from the handful of publishers it had been sent to, I began writing my second. I’d only written a very rough outline and the first few chapters when I got some feedback from an editor that it was, in her view, significantly stronger than the first. So, with a heavy heart, I put the first to one side and got stuck into the second. I’d have keeled over if I’d known then that it would be another nine years before it would be published.

Where did you get the idea for Shallow Water?

The idea came from a conversation I had with a friend about a family we both knew. The siblings were not talking to each other because of an argument that had developed over the way the oldest one was managing the family’s money. There were two things that fascinated me here. One was the way the family members communicated with each other (or didn’t at this time), and the other was the way they felt about money. The way money fitted into their value system.
When we are growing up, we often assume other families interact in a vaguely similar way to our own and we assume most people have a similar attitude towards money. It can be shocking to discover they don’t. Money has such a strong rational economic meaning that we can easily forget its emotional weight.

Shallow Water has been called a ‘psychological thriller’, but is it also a love story?

It is in the sense that the relationship between Brad and Jemma is at the heart of the novel. As in any marriage, they have obstacles they’re not entirely sure how to overcome. You may or may not have the same obstacles in your own relationship but I think we are all hopelessly imperfect and that means we sometimes struggle to resolve our differences. That’s the difficult thing about love. But it’s also the beauty of it.

Why set the novel in London and Far North Queensland?

A key theme in the novel is aspiration. And I think it’s easier to observe people aspiring to move from one level or class to another in a city with a strong class consciousness. London fits that bill. And it’s easy to write about because I’ve lived there and been inspired by its people.
Moving the cast of characters to a town like Port Douglas gives us a chance to observe them in a very different light. And like London, it’s a place I’m very familiar with. So, it’s easy and fun to write about. And of course there’s another major plus…there are so many ways one can die there…the crocs, the box jellyfish, the spiders and snakes…the list is endless. And yet on the surface it looks so pretty. A bit like one or two of the characters in the novel – beautiful on the outside but lethal on the inside.
And from a murder mystery point of view, Port Douglas’s isolation makes it useful as the alternate setting to London.

How do you run an ad agency and write novels?

It’s hard. Or if I was resorting to a cliché, I might say, ‘It’s a delicate balancing act’. I care enormously about the agency because I care about the people who work there. I started it with some friends who I am very close to. But I love writing. I’d like to think the two roles complement each other but maybe I’m kidding myself.
The downside to doing both is that I don’t have much spare time. The upside is that in the world of advertising there’s always a lot going on and that’s stimulating for a writer. I like to write about intriguing people and in the ad game you come across plenty of them.

What’s next?

I’m working on three new manuscripts and I’m not entirely sure which one I’ll finish first. They are all stories that are of interest to me and the one that is the most exciting as I get close to the finish will be the one that comes out next.

Are you sticking to the thriller genre?

For the moment, yes. And while the other manuscripts I’m working on are quite different to Shallow Water, I’m not going to write a ‘blowing up the world’ type of book anytime soon. I like characters with a bit of depth. But I also like stories with a bit of tension and where something happens (ie. there is at least some action).