Regional NSW author, Sarah Barrie, spoke to Maggie Baron for the April Author Spotlight, about what motivated her to write about child abuse and how she copes mentally and emotionally with such confronting material.
Hello Sarah, I’m here to shine a light on Retribution, your second novel featuring former vigilante, now a cop—Lexi Winter. Lexi is a talented hacker, former escort, and enjoys a dram of whiskey. She’s also a newly recruited police cadet. In her spare time, she works covertly piecing together complex linkages between a notorious crime family, to which she has a personal connection. Let’s delve into this gritty story, without giving anything away. #BuckleUpReaders
You’re the author of nine novels, including your print debut, Secrets of Whitewater Creek, the Hunters Ridge trilogy, and the Calico Mountain trilogy. With degrees across the arts, science, and education—as well as working as a vet nurse—what drew you to writing and why crime?
Reading and writing have always been my escape from work and study. As a child I was the kid who hung out in the library at school, who read under the covers at night when I was supposed to be sleeping and who filled countless notebooks with early attempts at story writing. As I got older, I stopped writing but kept my love for reading until I quit teaching –another occupation I held for some years – to accept a position as a magazine editor and contributor, which got me writing again. Article writing was fun, but that reignited the drive in me to pen a novel and everything flowed on from there. I find the topic of crime, who commits it and why as well as how authorities go about solving it, fascinating, so I’d always hoped to create a crime series of my own in which I could explore this.
Lexi has obviously had a challenging childhood and still finding her way as a young adult. How did the idea for this character come to you, how did she talk to you about herself and why did she become such an important character to write about?
The idea for Lexi came about while I was struggling with an admission from a very close friend of mine that she had been abused as a child. I was so angry for her and the worst part was knowing there was nothing I could do about it. I had no idea until I looked into it, how staggeringly high the figures on child abuse in this country were, nor the extent to which the often horrific results of child abuse impact survivors for the rest of their lives.
I was immediately obsessed with shining a light on the issue through my writing. I read countless stories from survivors of child abuse and other trauma and took something away from each of their accounts to help me create Lexi Winter. My goal with Lexi was to mould a believable, flawed character, stack the odds against her, then create a pathway for her to eventually, with lots of detours along the way, find a measure of success, of peace, and purpose within herself.
From this came the first book, Unforgiven, and it was through the journey of writing Unforgiven, that the motivation for the second book, Retribution, and the rest of the series became clear: Lexi was to be a champion to the cause of those in society so many of us too readily judge, label and turn our backs on.
This was never going to be an easy path. To make these stories work, I realised the customary good cop versus bad criminal style crime novel wasn’t going to work. Lexi was going to have to break through traditional stereotypes and push the boundaries of what commonly constitutes right and wrong, good and bad, hero and villain if readers were to connect and empathise with those we’ve been, so often, conditioned not to
As set out in the introduction here, you write gritty works. Can you share with the readers three aspects of this:
Where does your motivation to write gritty content come from?
I don’t set out to write ‘gritty,’ I set out to portray the reality of a crime and the motivations and actions of those on both sides of that crime as accurately as I can. My philosophy is that crime shouldn’t make for a comfortable read, nor should it be unnecessarily graphic or violent. It should read real and feel real and ask tough questions, while giving the reader just enough light-hearted breathers to make the story palatable and as a whole, satisfying to finish.
How do you research graphic and violent content as part of your story?
The same way I research any other elements of the story. As thoroughly as I can. There’s only so much you can mentally prepare yourself for and separate yourself from the content so you need to stay focused on the information you’re after while not allowing yourself to go down too many unnecessary rabbit holes, prolonging the time you spend in those dark places.
How do you ‘wash yourself off’ afterwards, to separate yourself from the trauma?
I follow up every writing session with a complete change of task. Between the farm, the orchid nursery, and being a mum, there’s not a lot of time to dwell. When the computer closes, my mind is immediately elsewhere. If something does refuse to stop niggling, I’ll read or watch something from a lighter genre to put me in a different headspace. But honestly, there are some things that, no matter what will always stay with you.
This story seems set for another chapter. Did you have the intent to write a series from the outset? Or was it more that the story evolved and there remain areas to interrogate?
Initially, my only goal was to write Lexi’s story through Unforgiven. But Lexi’s character was so complex it became impossible for her full potential to be reached in the course of one book. I could see so many more paths to explore as part of her character arc and she is so enjoyable, if not challenging, to write that a series just made sense.
Unforgiven was highly commended in the 2022 Davitt Awards (Best Adult Novel).