Monday, February 3, 2014

Watching You: Michael Robotham

I'm a huge fan of Michael Robotham, and he hits it out of the park again with Watching You. It's a suspenseful thriller with a twist. 

Michael Robotham grew up in small Australian 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 first novel The Suspect, a psychological thriller, was chosen by the world’s largest consortium of book clubs as only the fifth “International Book of the Month”.  His second novel Lost won the Ned Kelly Award for the Crime Book of the Year in 2005, given by the Australian Crime Writers Association. It was also shortlisted for the 2006 Barry Award for the BEST BRITISH NOVEL published in the US in 2005. Michael's subsequent novels The Night Ferry and Shatter were both shortlisted for UK Crime Writers Association Steel Dagger in 2007 and 2008. Shatter was also shortlisted in the inaugural ITV3 Thriller Awards in the UK and for South Africa's Boeke Prize. In August 2008 Shatter won the Ned Kelly award for Australia's best crime novel. More recently, Bleed for Me – Michael's sixth novel – was shortlisted for the 2010 Ned Kelly Award. His novel The Wreckage won universal praise and was described by Nelson De Mille as 'one of the best novels to come out of the chaos of Iraq.' In 2012 he released Say You're Sorry – a dark psychological thriller that marked the return to center stage of clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin. Michael's latest novel is Watching You  - a suffocatingly tense story about a woman who has been stalked her entire life. Released in 2013 in the UK and March 2014 (Mulholland Books) in the US, it again features psychologist Joe O'Loughlin and ex-detective Vincent Ruiz

Michael lives on Sydney's northern beaches, where he recently moved house, swapping his 'pit of despair' (basement office) for a 'cabana of cruelty.' 


As a kid I used to sometimes pick someone out in the crowd and secretly follow them, ducking into doorways, taking shortcuts, trying not to be seen. If possible, I followed them all the way home, imagining I was a spy on a secret mission, tailing a Russian sleeper agent or a hitman living under a false identity in a small country town.

A few years later, I used to follow a girl called Madonna Reynolds. I could see Madonna’s house from the branches of a Jacaranda Tree in our back garden. Perched in the branches, I could tell when she left for school or to walk into town. And then I timed my walk so that we accidentally bumped into each and could walk together. This was love rather than stalking, but I always felt a frisson of excitement about watching someone who didn’t know I was there.

Alfred Hitchcock once said: ‘I'll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It's none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.’

Hitchcock was one of history’s great voyeurs and explored his fascination in the classic film Rear Window in which Jimmy Stewart watches the lives his neighbours in an apartment block across the square. Stella, the nurse in that film, states very early that ‘we are a race of peeping toms.’ Even though we feel it’s a violation of our privacy; there is still a strong curiosity to watch others, whether it be on the screen or at the park or inside their homes.

This isn’t voyeurism in the sexual sense. It’s not about spying on someone undressing or engaging in sex. For most of us the thrill is the secretive nature of the act, not the sex or nudity.

How often do we catch a glimpse of someone who doesn’t know we’re watching? They could be sitting in the car opposite at the traffic lights. Maybe they’re crying or having an argument or singing along to a song on the radio. Or maybe you’re walking along the street and you glance into a house where the front curtains are open. We might catch a glimpse of a family having dinner, or watching TV, or simply make a note of how they’ve decorated their front room. It’s a secret glimpse into another life.

This is one of the ideas that I wanted to explore in my latest thriller WATCHING YOU. It concerns a woman called Marnie Logan – an abandoned wife and mother, whose husband has been missing for more than a year. One afternoon Marnie arrived home and found a half made cup of coffee on the kitchen counter and a cooling kettle – Daniel was gone, vanished. There have been no messages, no calls, no sightings, no bank withdrawals; he has simply dropped off the face of the earth.

Because the law regarding missing persons, Marnie can’t access his bank accounts, cancel his direct debits, claim his life insurance or open his office locker. She’s caught in a legal limbo, unable to move forward. Feeling increasingly suicidal, she turns to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin for help.

Joe discovers that Marnie has always sensed – even as a little girl – that someone has been watching her. It is nothing she can put her finger on – it’s a fleeting glimpse of something in the corner of her eye, footsteps behind her, a weight upon her chest, a prickling on her skin. Joe begins to investigate and question whether Marnie is paranoid, or if somebody is truly watching her.

The seeds for WATCHING YOU were sewn a dozen years ago when I was staying with a friend in London – in the same mansion block where I set the novel. It was the middle of summer and the second bedroom was small and airless. I opened the window and curtains to get some breeze and noticed a woman sitting in the identical window opposite, only twenty feet away. She was smoking a cigarette and examining her face in mirror with a bright light in her eyes.

And the look of sadness on her face was haunting. It was as though she could see the years taking their toll. She began to cry and I wondered what had happened. Had her husband left her? Had a parent died? Had she been jilted? It was painful and mesmerising to watch her dab her eyes and then examine the fine lines.

This woman wasn’t naked, but it wouldn’t have mattered because her emotion was as stark and undressed as anything I had ever seen. Yes, it was deeply personal. Yes, I should have turned away. But I didn’t. I kept watching and imagining what sort of life she lived and what had caused her pain.

Maybe I have an excuse being a novelist. The great Ray Bradbury once said: ‘I like to watch people. Sometimes I ride the subway all day and look at them and listen to them. I just want to figure out who they are and what they want and where they are going.’

I don’t think we need an excuse to be fascinated by other lives. That’s why we read novels. It’s why we look at paparazzi photographs in magazines, or watch the latest celebrity trial, or follow the Kardashians, or look at stranger’s photographs on Facebook, or laugh at Judge Judy, or pause when we see a silhouette in a lighted window.

We love to see how the other half lives…and dies. We love to watch.

1 comment:

Penny Grubb said...

Fascinating insight into the way the book came about. Love the way the whole peeping tom issue is explored. I'm not usually persuaded into buying a book on the strength of a blog interview but this looks like being an exception.