This is crime thriller writer, Michael Robotham. (Really – I thought he was older than that!) Well yes, you could add a few grey hairs – but very few wrinkles and lines. This is because writing crime thrillers is very therapeutic and Michael gives other people wrinkles and lines. Mind you, you should see the portrait in his attic. Photo courtesy of Michael Robotham.

Writer Watch

Michael Robotham

How did Michael Robotham go from a childhood living in Australian country towns with more flies than people to being a best-selling author of crime thriller blockbusters internationally?

Michael’s website will tell you his story and you can find his web address in the Website Watch section on the Sessions page. As you trawl through the site you will find descriptions of his eight books and numerous interviews, including some on audio and video, plus comprehensive details of his characters, how they came to be, and their motivations (which in some cases probably don’t bear thinking about).

There is also information on Michael’s writing practices, as well as a rundown of where he might be found on any given day while on promotional tours and attending various writers’ festivals in Australia and abroad.

Suffice it to say, that after surviving several years as an impecunious journalist, Michael Robotham gained anonymity but earned a lot more money ghostwriting autobiographies for the rich and famous, and finally presented his agent with 117 pages of a novel which he thought he might write if anyone was interested.

This promptly precipitated a bidding war, with publishers from many countries almost coming to fisticuffs at the London Book Fair. There was no outline, just 117 pages and no ending, but nobody asked him about this and eventually Michael signed a very nice and lucrative contract. The bidders obviously knew quality when they saw it, because when The Suspect was published in 2004, the book went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide.

Since then, Michael’s crime thrillers have been published in over 50 countries and translated into twenty-two languages, some of which are unknown to him. Two of his books have won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel: Lost (also known as The Drowning Man) in 2005 and Shatter in 2008. Not bad for the boy from Casino.

But I wanted to know about the road less travelled. For instance, what happened when, as a young journalist, Michael arrived in London just in time to see that little Aussie battler, Rupert Murdoch, rearranging the British press and taking on the all-powerful printing unions? He was there. He knew. I asked him to sit down and tell us about it and he agreed, even though his new book Say You’re Sorry is being launched as we speak. True grit!

Michael was born in Casino about 50 km inland from Ballina on the northern coast of NSW? What gave him the idea that he wanted to take up journalism, and how did his cadetship come about? It seemed an unlikely choice for a boy from Casino.

‘I was born in Casino, but moved to Gundagai when I was five and spent all of my primary school years there before we moved to Coffs Harbour when I turned 12. My father was a country high school teacher, who taught English and History and could quote Shakespeare, Chaucer, Coleridge and Donne. I grew up surrounded by books, but like a typical boy spent most of my time outdoors, playing sport and getting into mischief.

'Back in those days, it was almost a given that if you obtained the marks, you had to do either law or medicine. I was accepted into law at Sydney University, but then discovered almost immediately that my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I had two older siblings already at university and my parents were poorer than at any time in their lives.

'My only option was to work for two years and then go to university on a mature-age scholarship. Naively, I chose journalism, applying for a cadetship at Fairfax in Sydney. There were 6000 applicants for 12 positions, but after a long series of exams and writing assignments, I made the intake, starting with the same group of cadets as Geraldine Brooks (now a Pulitzer prize-winner).

‘I knew within weeks that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a journalist. I sat and listened to grizzled old war correspondents and police roundsmen telling stories that made my hair stand on end.’

As a cadet working at night, Michael monitored the police and ambulance radio networks to find out what was happening, and rushed to the scene of anything that sounded interesting, dragging a trusty photographer behind him.

‘There were so many stories, everything from abductions to mining disasters to prison breakouts to bikie massacres and fatal bushfires. I saw amazing acts of bravery from the emergency services and families torn apart by tragedies and violence.

‘I still have scrap books full of newspaper clippings – when I open a page I come to the murder of family court judge David Opas in Sydney in June 1980. We were close by when the radio call was picked up that someone had been shot in a leafy street in Woollahra. So close that we arrived before the first ambulance crews.

'Judge Opas was lying near his front gate as his wife Kristin, a trained nurse, tried to stem the bleeding. He’d been shot at point blank range as he answered a call at the security gate. I had never felt as helpless as I did while I watched paramedics vainly try to save him. It was one of a series of attacks targeting family court judges in the early 1980s, which are still regarded among Australia’s greatest unsolved crimes.’

In 1986 Michael travelled to London with the aim of getting a job on Fleet Street, but he didn’t go alone.

‘My wife Vivien and I have now been married for 25 years. She was the girl next door when I lived in McMahon’s Point, Sydney. She was 20 and I was 23. We went to London together.

‘London completely blew me away. Around every corner was another street or scene that came straight out of movies or famous books. I could walk into a McDonalds in a building that was hundreds of years older than white settlement in Australia. I visited the bars, houses and hotels where famous writers had lived and worked: Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Evelyn Waugh, Dylan Thomas and Arthur Conan Doyle. I thought their talent might seep into my bones.

‘London has changed. It’s still beautiful and shabby and majestic but, like all big cities, the character alters over time. I still love visiting. My heart still surges as the 747 follows the Thames before touching down at Heathrow.’ 

When Michael Robotham arrived in London he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Rupert Murdoch was intent on breaking the power of the print unions and causing distress to the British establishment. When he moved his four national London-based newspapers to a fully-computerised plant at Wapping, he became the first global newspaperman who no longer needed typesetters. What was it like then?

‘I arrived in London only days after Rupert Murdoch, having sacked the printers and ancillary staff, moved his operations to Fortress Wapping. Because I’d been travelling, I had no idea of the ructions and violent protests.

‘I was offered a few nights subbing work on The Sun. I needed the money so I ran the gauntlet, crossing the picket line to get into Wapping. One of the guards said to me, “Keep your mouth shut. If they hear your Aussie accent they’ll rip you apart.”

‘I lasted one night. The only way out of the plant at the end of the shift was on a heavily guarded bus. It was attacked as we drove out the gates, rocked from side to side and pelted with bricks and bottles as water cannons and police on horseback tried to keep the picketers at bay.

‘Eventually, I was dropped at a secret location to make my own way home. I remember looking over my shoulder, expecting to see a car load of printers following me with baseball bats. I didn’t mind being threatened when I was on a story, but this was ridiculous.

'I didn’t agree with the bully-boy tactics of the printing unions, but I also didn’t agree with how Rupert Murdoch sacked hundreds of other employees who didn’t deserve to lose their jobs. I didn’t go back for many years to Wapping. Most of my newspaper career in the UK was with Associated Newspapers.’

The atmosphere in Fleet Street was fraught but exciting. It looked like Rupert was winning the war – his 1986 profits went up by 152 per cent.

‘It was an exciting time to be on Fleet Street, but the world of newspapers was rapidly changing. In Australia I had already had a taste of the new technology that replaced ‘hot metal’. Fleet Street papers were still doing things the old fashioned way.

‘The famous pubs and bars were still heaving. The Cheshire Cheese, Mucky Duck (White Swan), the Old Bell and Punch Tavern. And the famous journalists were still propping up the bars.

‘Things changed within a few years. The rest of the newspapers moved out of Fleet Street. Associated Newspapers went to Kensington and the Express Group crossed the river. An era was over.’

In 1993 Michael had just about decided that he had had enough of journalism when he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. He gave up feature writing for a new career as a ghostwriter.

‘I was acting Features Editor at the Mail on Sunday when I met a ghostwriter, who had come in to work on a story. Naively, I didn’t know such people existed. Through him, I met a literary agent, who loved my “great unpublished Australian novel” and almost got me a publishing deal in 1990.

‘With a change of editor at the newspaper, many of my friends and colleagues left, which often happens. It was a tough decision to leave. I had a house in negative equity and a pregnant wife when I quit to freelance and, hopefully, ghostwrite. Friends and family thought I was crazy. We were certainly a lot poorer.

‘For the next year I wrote freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, before finally getting a gig as a ghostwriter, working on a book called Empty Cradles, the autobiography of Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphries, who uncovered the child migrant scandal. In 2011, eighteen years later, it was made into a film called Oranges and Sunshine, which was released last year [2011].’

Michael set quite a few of his novels in Bath. Why there and not in London?

‘I never lived in Bath, always in London, first at Swiss Cottage and then Shepherd’s Bush. I travelled extensively in the UK, both as a journalist and under my own steam. My agent lived quite nearby and I visit him whenever I’m back in the UK.

‘The reason I chose to set a few of my books in Bath was because I loved the city and also I felt less confident about setting my novels in London because it had changed so much in the years since I moved back to Australia. Places like Bath are timeless.’

Crime writer Mo Hayder, who writes some of the most frightening chillers around, lives in Bath. Did you ever come across her?

‘I have met Mo just the once, very briefly. She’s a beautiful, articulate academic, who looks incredibly normal, but writes some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever read in crime fiction.’

Did you find the British police helpful to you? In Australia they tend to glare at you when you ask about procedures with a ‘What do you want to know for?’ look in their eye, as if enquiring writers are up to no good. Are police in England more amenable about talking to authors? If so, why, and how do you keep up with any changes to the police service in order to keep your books up to date?

‘I don’t have any contacts in the UK police. My knowledge comes from research, normally on the web, as well as my experiences with the police when I worked as a journalist. If I do need specific advice, there are people who can put me in touch with a detective. Usually, this is a case of building a relationship, based on mutual respect and trust.

‘One budding writer once complained to me that she couldn’t find any police officer to help her with her story. I asked her what the story was about. ‘Police corruption,’ she said.’

The BBC seemed to be very keen to make a mini-series of The Suspect. Did it ever get off the ground and have any of your other books been optioned for film or TV?

‘The path of a book to the small or big screen is never an easy one. As I mentioned earlier, Empty Cradles took more than 18 years to make it. The BBC purchased the option for The Suspect in 2004 and there were many attempts to write a satisfactory script, but these came to nothing.

‘A few years ago, the production team behind In Bruges and Becoming Jane bought the rights to all my novels and did a deal with the BBC for a series. Again they began writing a script, most notably for Shatter. More than thirty different re-writes have followed and we’re still no closer to getting the go-ahead.

‘Earlier this year, I signed a deal with German TV for a series based on the books, something akin to the wonderful Danish series, The Killing. I have learned not to hold my breath. I write because I love writing, not because I want to see someone make a film or TV series.'


This interview is continued on 'More Michael' - see next here to go there More Michael...P.2


Out now - December 2013! Book cover photo courtesy of Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.