New Plymouth writer Jacqueline Bublitz said, “It’s a very odd situation to find yourself in when you haven’t been up for any kind of award since the third form.” She means the spectacular fact that her debut novel Before You Knew My Name is shortlisted for the world’s most prestigious crime writing awards – announced at a ceremony in London, held tomorrow morning New Zealand time. The CWA Gold Dagger award is huge. It was founded in 1955, and past winners include a rollcall of crime greats - John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, James Lee Burke. She’s the first New Zealand writer to make the shortlist since dear old Dame Ngaio Marsh, in 1957. Bublitz has good commercial instincts – she wrote the book to be read on a flight (“You know, that kind of book you pick up at the airport, where you start reading before the plane takes off and don’t even realise when you’ve landed, because you’re so absorbed in the story? That has always been the dream”) – and it’s sold over 90,000 copies in Australia and New Zealand. Little, Brown has published it in Britain. The honour and distinction of winning the Gold Dagger would provide a considerable boost. This exciting possibility called for an interview, conducted over email on Monday evening.
The inspiration for your book was the murder of a woman in Melbourne in 2014. Her body was found by a jogger. Do you now know much more than that?
Renea Lau’s murder really was my lodestar for this book, and though I was careful not to come too close to her real story when writing Before You Knew My Name, I did spend a lot of time researching the case, especially with regards to the perpetrator. His so-called motive, how he was caught, what his background was – I needed to understand this, even if none of it was going to make it directly into the book. There was also a lot about Renea’s murder that triggered my interest in whose stories get told, and why, because this case definitely didn’t get as much media attention as other, similar crimes had or would get in Melbourne. As to the jogger who found her body, I know nothing about them other than the circumstances of how Renea was found, but I think about them often, and hope they are doing okay.
You later moved to New York, and described your research for the book as “hanging around morgues and the dark corners of city parks (and the human psyche)”. Please describe.
Regarding the morgue, the key here is the ‘hung around’ part. I wasn’t actually allowed to go in. I wasn’t represented or published at the time, so simply having an idea for a book wasn’t going to open any doors, especially in a place as necessarily regulated as The New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner. Essentially, I lurked about in the lobby, watching people come and go, which ended up working perfectly for Ruby’s character in the book, as she wouldn’t have had permission to enter these spaces either. I did however have some wonderful notes from a mortuary assistant I’d been introduced to. Words that stand out in those notes include chemical and clinical, along with her insistence that nobody drinks coffee or eats a hamburger when they’re doing an autopsy.
As to dark corners of city parks, they’re easy enough to find if you go running in the rain, and unfortunately, the dark corners of the human psyche are often just as readily found. I’d describe both as alarming and intriguing. And the most fertile ground for a writer.
Similarly you’ve mentioned roaming Manhattan’s Upper West Side “looking for somewhere a murder could happen” and discovering “a creepy spot by the Hudson River surrounded by construction and a massive Donald Trump sign”. Did the Trump sign add to its creepiness?
I can remember encountering a part of Riverside Park South where there were these huge ruins of what I now know to be an old railway transfer bridge, and all these rotting remnants of old piers sticking out of the water, and it had such a creepy, cinematic vibe compared to the rest of the park, which was mostly shiny and new. When I was scouting about that area, I saw Trump’s name emblazoned on the side of an apartment building looming over the river, and in mid-2015 it was just like “ugh, that guy again”. I knew he was an egomaniac, but at that stage, I could not have imagined what was to come.
I chaired Dunedin writer Liam McIlvanney at a literary event and grilled him about the graphic violence towards women in his books. He’s a top man and a thoughtful writer but I wonder that it’s always women who get it in pretty much every crime novel. You’ve spoken about “gendered violence”; what are your thoughts on this?
Get it, as in women are the ones to die? The Dead Girl is basically its own genre, right, and the issue of what might be too much/too far is an interesting one, especially when you consider that women are so often drawn to true crime stories, many of which offer up a lot more gruesome detail than you’ll find in fiction.
Is this fascination with true crimes committed against other women and marginalised groups about confronting our own fears, or making sense of this sort of perpetual sense of danger we live with? Is it over-exposure to these kinds of stories, or is it more about having an outlet for latent rage and a permissible tapping into our aggressions? And if that’s what we’re consuming on the regular, what does that mean for the demands we make on crime fiction?
I find it all so fascinating, and I’m not sure I have my thoughts fully formed on this one. I do know that, personally, I wanted to do everything I could to avoid turning what happened to Alice Lee [the victim in Before You Knew My Name] into something titillating or exploitative, and I really didn’t want to traumatise any readers, so hope I got the balance right.
I gather your next book is set in small-town NZ. What’s it look like? Does it have a Sunday drowsiness? Does it have a menswear store, and a late-night burger bar?
Part of it’s set in New Zealand, in a small town I imagine to be the size of Eltham, or similar. I don’t think there’s late-night anything in this town, other than some murderous activity.
You’ve said, “I’m a capital F feminist but … I don’t want this book to be like a sign I am holding up at a rally.” But if you were at a rally against the Supreme Court decision, what sign would you hold?
Oh my god, right now I’m so frustrated, so it would probably just be a picture of my middle finger. Or maybe the evergreen: I Can’t Believe We’re Still Protesting This $H*T!
Though I haven’t felt much like laughing these past few days, I did also see a funny tweet on the weekend that about sums it up: “I’ve had Crunchwraps more supreme than this court.” I’d hold that one up high for sure.
Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz (Allen & Unwin, $33) was named one of the best novels of 2021 at ReadingRoom, and is available in bookstores nationwide. The 2022 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award will be announced tomorrow morning New Zealand time, at a ceremony at the Leonardo City Hotel in London. Good luck Jacqueline!