Based in the Dandenong Ranges, crimewriter Sandi Wallace sets her thrillers in the rural landscapes of Victoria. Her debut, Tell My Why, won the 2015 Davitt Award Reader’s Choice, and now her characters Georgie Harvey and John Franklin are back in Dead Again. We asked Sandi about her research, background as a journalist, and the blog she keeps of interviews with Australia and New Zealand’s brilliant crime and thriller writers.
Dead Again kicks off with journalist Georgie Harvey investigating the effects of a bushfire on the small town of Bullock, two years after the event. How have you seen bushfires affect the rural communities and landscape that you write about?
As someone who lives, works and plays in the Australian countryside, I appreciate that our environment is both beautiful and ruthless, and have seen communities rocked by events like drought, fire, flood and infestation – sometimes consecutively – bringing out the best and the worst in people.
Although I found inspiration from Black Saturday for the backstory of Dead Again, readers will see it through their own experiences of a major bushfire, whether they picture Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, or the fires in Canberra, Perth, along the Great Ocean Road or in the Blue Mountains.
Was there a particular news story or happening that sparked the idea for Dead Again?
I live in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne with my husband and we saw the devastation of wildfires across our state in February 2009. Everyone lost something or someone, some people lost everything, and the impact on each person seemed as indiscriminate as fire that razed one property and left its neighbour untouched. Incorporating this into the backstory of Dead Again was a way I could honour those who fought, survived and died in the fires, and the lessons we learned. From there, my imagination took over, creating fictional parallel stories for Georgie and Franklin, which draws them back into conflict as Georgie’s assignment in Bullock connects with a crime spree that Franklin is dealing with in Daylesford.
For those who haven’t met Georgie Harvey or John Franklin in Tell Me Why, could you introduce us to the two characters?
Georgie Harvey is 29 and a journalist from the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond. She stepped into a regular gig with the Champagne Musings magazine after her experiences in Tell Me Why, and this unconventional entry into investigative journalism leads to situations she’s not expecting or trained for. Georgie is strong, yet fallible, with an edge of vulnerability, and not prepared to dodge her obligations for self-preservation or for her relationship with boyfriend, AJ.
… the devil’s in the detail in crime writing.”
Senior Constable John Franklin is 37, has been based at Daylesford for nearly 17 years, and is impatient to trade his uniform for the plain clothes of a detective. He’s also the single dad of a teenage daughter, Kat, which complicates his life, but he’s not the dysfunctional, hard-bitten, hard-drinking, middle-aged cop we often meet in crime novels. Tough, a maverick and somewhat cynical, Franklin also has a softer side, and like Georgie, he is flawed, relatable, and makes mistakes.
Like Georgie, you’ve worked as a freelance journalist – are there any particularly memorable interviews, stories and articles that you wrote that come to mind? What skills or insights did the profession give you that influence the way you write your crime novels?
My features have been published in a variety of journals, newspapers and online, and I’ve covered a host of subjects via interviews and features, and columns on health and fitness, and the local police beat. One piece I particularly enjoyed writing was ‘A simple but good life at Old Nuggetty’ on Duncan McKinnon and the 77-year-old’s home which has been passed down through five generations of his family, making it the oldest cottage in Victoria still inhabited by the same family. Duncan’s life is a simple existence, and many of us would consider it hard, but he is content and an integral part of the Yandoit community. I met Duncan when I was on a field trip for Dead Again (taking photos that my publisher later chose for the cover) and immediately wanted to write a feature on him.
Mine is a different landscape to Georgie’s work, and nowhere as dangerous, but it has given me good insight into her world and helped develop my research and interview skills. All my writing – articles, short stories and novels – feeds into itself, and the more I do of any of it, the more my work benefits.
What kind of research did you delve into for Dead Again?
With my involvement in journalism, interest in policing (if I hadn’t been a writer, I fancy I would’ve been a police detective), and love of country Australia, I constantly soak up information, gather material and take photos, and it eventually shows its purpose. For Dead Again, I also did specific research, such as fact-checking procedures relating to the crimes that Franklin investigates, and delving into things for texture about the places featured in this book – Daylesford, Yandoit and Bullock (the latter being a fictional town set in the Murrindindi district) – because ‘the devil’s in the details’ in crime writing.
The largest component of research for Dead Again was to supplement what I knew about Black Saturday and its aftermath, via reading reports, transcripts and witness statements, talking with people, and visiting places. It felt important to have a detailed understanding and empathy, although just a little of this backstory is sprinkled through the fictional parallel plots – like adding just enough parmesan cheese to spaghetti bolognese.
Did Dead Again come together in a similar way to your debut novel? What were the hardest parts to get down on the page?
I let Dead Again evolve more organically than my debut rural crime thriller, Tell Me Why. Although I still started with a rough blueprint with various key points, character profiles and background research, everything was open to change and there were times when my characters surprised me by making things happen sooner or differently to what I’d imagined.
I focus on Australian and New Zealand authors as we are rich with crime-writing talent that deserves highlighting.”
While I knew at what point the climax would occur, that wasn’t plotted in advance, and some writing sessions were spent thinking about where the story went next or the bridge between plot points rather than putting actual words on the page. The hardest parts to write for Dead Again were the pivotal scenes for Georgie and Franklin, particularly on a personal level.
Are there any memorable reactions you’ve had from readers of your novels and short stories?
Delighted reactions from readers make my day. I’ve received touching messages in person, by email, reviews and even handwritten letters, many of these from people who live or know intimately the places featured in my stories. A fan named Nolene loved Tell Me Why and told me, ‘I’m going to miss your book when I finish it. It’s like I’m living inside it.’ Priceless feedback for any writer!
You run interviews with other crime and suspense writers on your blog. How does picking the brains of other crimewriters affect your work?
My interviews aren’t so much about picking my fellow writers’ brains as a way of paying it forward, and I focus on Australian and New Zealand authors as we are rich with crime-writing talent that deserves highlighting. I like to share the discovery of writers I enjoy, and my interviews include the writer’s journey to date, their future writing dreams, and a dash of who they are as a person. My guests are generous with tips that resonate with me, give readers insight into the writing world, and hopefully inspire and help aspiring and emerging writers.
Are there any particular crime novels (or books in general!) that you’ve been impressed by recently?
I am a crime fiction addict and read across the subgenres of crime, which makes for an extensive range of books. The breadth of Australian crime fiction over recent years—new and existing talent that rivals our international counterparts—is excellent. A few recent reads I particularly enjoyed or found moving are An Isolated Incident by Australian author Emily Maguire, and Dark Blood from the Logan McRae series by Scotsman Stuart MacBride, but my list could go on and on!
Can you share with us a favourite sentence or teaser paragraph from Dead Again?
This is from when Georgie arrives in Bullock and sums up both her assignment and what I wanted to achieve with Dead Again:
She scanned the street, her editor’s instructions echoing in her mind. A very special story – no pressure or anything.