Deadly Descent: Q&A with Robin Bowles

Robyn Walton, co-convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia, spoke to Robin about her new book, Into the Darkness: The Mysterious Death of Phoebe Handsjuk (Scribe).

Robin, your book deals with real-life investigations that were accompanied by a lot of suspicion, puzzlement and apprehension. It’s up to you how much you want (or dare) to tell us about the personalities. My questions concentrate on how you went about creating a book out of this raw material. I’m sure your responses will interest both writers and readers.

You write about a death in 2010, an inquest in 2013, and the announcement of coronial findings in 2014. Why this case?

I first read this story in The Age, stating that the police considered Phoebe’s death falling 12 storeys down a rubbish chute was suicide. I suspected there might be more to the story, as news outlets don’t usually publish stories about suicide. It seemed a highly unlikely thing for anyone to do, especially as there was a balcony, which would have been much easier, if the intent was there.

When and how did you begin your research?

I decided to attend the inquest to gain a better understanding of what had happened to Phoebe. This was the beginning of my serious research period.

Did you collect most of your material before you began to write?

Mostly. I do sometimes need to do extra interviews/collect more data, but I try not to break into my writing cycle too often. My process, broadly, is to collect as much information as possible, do the interviews, attend the trial/inquest, visit the prisoner, if there is one, to get his/her story, then start writing. In the writing phase, I write 3000 words a day until I’m finished the MS. If I realise while writing I need more info, I don’t stop, but I put xx in that place and keep going. When I’ve finished, I find all the xx spots, write a list of what I need to know and gather that info and back fill the gaps.

How long did it take you to write a first draft, and what was happening during that period?

My first draft is always my only draft. The process is: Day 1, write 3000 words (don’t get up from desk until done); Day 2, re-read yesterday’s, explain bits that might need more info, tweak and tidy up, fix typos, missed words, etc.; this gets my head into where I left off, write another 3000 words. Day 3, repeat, Day 4, repeat, etc. When finished, check the xx marks, infill (or sometimes re-write that passage if it looks like the info is going to be too hard to get, or irrelevant), go on any long trips that I need to e.g. Mallacoota, Milawa in this case, to fill in any gaps and send to publisher.

How much time was taken up by editing, legal checking, rewording, etc.?

Usually this process takes two to three months, depending on how busy my editor is! This is when a degree of re-drafting is part of the process. We edit first, she emails me ‘homework’, i.e. rewrites of bits, or checking something for accuracy, taking out or moving a slab, for relevance, repetition, sequence, etc., and when we are both happy, the edited MS then goes to our legal expert (defamation) and he checks it, makes a few suggestions (a lot fewer than I used to get, as I’ve learned how to write carefully over 13 books!) and back to the publisher, for sign-off, typesetting, printing, sales and distribution. This takes another two to three months, during which I’ve usually started another book.

During the editing process, I collect and collate the photos, get copyright permissions as required, work with the publisher and the designer on the cover, write the ‘blurb’ and the media release (which also needs to be ‘legalled, as do the photo captions). I’m very careful, which probably explains why I haven’t had one letter in 13 books over 19 years!

So, in all, the process of creating this book and seeing it through to its launch in late 2016 took about how long?

About two years. But I wrote two other books whilst waiting for the Coroner to hand down his finding—Smoke and Mirrors and Jail Birds. So actually I researched and wrote three books in just over two years, after a gap of over two years whilst moving house, downsizing, renting, etc.

For you, was this an “emotional rollercoaster” experience? What are the pros and cons of detachment and involvement?

All my books are ‘emotional’ and very absorbing of my time and my feelings. I deal daily with grieving and/or angry, bemused people (the ‘living victims’, I call them) who, suddenly, in a previously ordinary life, have experienced murder, abduction, police incompetence, actual or perceived failure of the legal system to deliver justice, media intrusion, and so on. I struggle at times to remain objective and keep a reasonable distance. At times my old profession of nursing and looking after people vies with my current role of ‘hard-boiled crime writer’! It is not my role to solve a crime or console the survivors, merely to report the story, and becoming involved to too great an extent is something I must monitor carefully during the writing of every book. So a degree of detachment is important.

But, I still visit or write to/send parcels to prisoners from previous books; meet up with family members from other books and am often, to my husband’s dismay, the person they turn to, even years later, for advice or information. Some of them have been to my home. I think the reason so many people trust me and tell me things that sometimes they haven’t told their lawyers or their families is because I do develop relationships with my ‘characters’ and I give them a voice. So involvement is also very important.

In addition, the media contact me on anniversaries etc. for comment or an ‘update’, because many of them know that my protagonists keep in touch. I sometimes think half of Australia has my mobile number or email address. So I continue to be involved in these cases years later, whether I choose to or not!

In the prologue and opening chapters you move forward chronologically, describing events from various participants’ points of view. So, for instance, we have the concierge finding the body: “Beth screamed and ran to the office. Without thinking, she …” Did you consider other options for telling that part of the narrative?

Not really. Beth’s discovery of Phoebe’s body was always going to be the opening scene. This was partly because it took place by chance. If Beth hadn’t needed the brush and pan to sweep up some crumbs, Phoebe’s body may have lain undiscovered until the next day, which could have completely changed the course of the investigation.

For the bulk of the book, chapters 9-25, we’re with you at the inquest. Did you always intend to give detailed attention to this coronial court stage?   

Yes, I did. My readers love trials and inquests and they are a device which allows the writer to say things which are ‘privileged’, which means you can’t be sued for repeating anything that is said in court, so long as you use the exact wording. And you don’t then go on and give your own opinion.

E.g. Witness gives evidence that ‘Robin Bowles is a dirty rat.’

Writer says, ‘I agreed with that. I have also thought so for ages.’ Or similar.

I generally start my books with a high/dramatic point in the story. Then go back to the beginning of the story for Chapter 1. This is a marketing ploy, as research has shown buyers of books look at the front cover on the shelf (this is why it is important to have your book facing OUTWARDS on a bookshelf, and a good cover). I spend a lot of time after a book is released going around bookshops and quietly moving my books into an eye-level, outward facing position; then if interested, prospective buyers take the book down and read the blurb on the back, then, if still interested, they read the first page or two. Then they make a buying decision. (This doesn’t necessarily apply if they have come specially to buy that book). You can watch bookshop customers, they all do it!

So a big opening is important.

In this book, I tried a new writing device, which didn’t work! My editor was freaking out! I wrote the first part as third person reportage, then in first person from the inquest. I wanted to show the discrepancies in what actually happened on the night and what evidence was heard at the inquest. My editor decided this made the book too long (it’s still 100,000 words!) and worse, too repetitive. So we cut big chunks from the early parts and let the inquest tell the story, thus inviting the reader to make their own assessment of the evidence presented to the coroner.

In the closing chapters and epilogue you move out of the city, catching up with some of the participants in the inquiry. You also report on another criminal case, raising fresh speculations. As the storyteller, how do you decide where and when to end your narrative? And can it ever feel finished when it’s a real-life matter?

Good question! It’s quite a challenge to write a book with no ending and many of my books are never really over. Even my book Blood Brother, which I thought had ended with a double life sentence for Jeffrey Gilham, had a new chapter when his conviction was overturned three years later on a technicality at appeal. Who would have thought?? You’ve also answered your question at the end, because life goes on and sometimes new facts emerge and the ball starts rolling again! The only way to end a book like I write is to choose what seems to be a logical endpoint and finish the bloody thing! When you’ve written 100,000 words about a story, a time comes when you need to STOP! It’s like doing a PhD every year!

Going on the country trips changes the mood of the book from court room to real life, sometimes a much-needed break for the reader. Also, reporting on the other criminal case in this story was made possible by the arrest and charging of a drug dealer and I had a firm belief the cases were linked. Her arrest made it possible for me to speculate on that possibility.

Have your readers come up with any new hypotheses about how and why Phoebe died?

My readers always have hypotheses! They ring, they write, they message me on Facebook! I love it, as it shows they have been interested by the story and are using their ‘little grey cells’. The old writing adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ is very relevant to crime books. I give the reader the information and let them do some work. I get letters from cops, lawyers, judges, truckies, doctors, and so on, as well as my crime fans.

You include snippets of information about your own life (husband, dog, apartment, nursing background). Have readers of your previous books given you feedback concerning how much they do or don’t enjoy a personalised narrative?

All the feedback I have is positive. People who know me say they can ‘hear’ me talking to them as they read, telling the story and those who don’t know me, but who are regular readers of my books, write to me to ask ‘What happened to the Op Shop bit in this one?’ (taken out by editor GRRR!), or saying they were sorry my Peke Ninja died, or happy I have a new sleuthing companion, asking after my husband’s health —or commiserating with him(!) and so on. I’ve used this device, i.e. putting myself into the story, since Day 1, on advice from my then publisher—excellent advice, I must say, as I’m a storyteller and being in the story makes it easier to tell it. Her advice was to take my readers by the hand and lead them on my journey, by my side. It seems to work. Also, it humanises me, as at times I can be a bit scathing! (My editor watches out for the scathing bits, as she doesn’t want people to think I’m a smart-arse, even if I am!)

Some writers include information about participants’ backgrounds (schooling, ethnicity, culture, faith, politics, and so on). In this book, you rarely do this. And you don’t attribute the conduct you observe to people’s backgrounds. Any thoughts on this?

Re the first part of your question, I do try to include background on the victim, the perpetrators and their families. This makes them more real to the readers. Sometimes it’s not relevant, or might be seen to imply prejudice e.g. rich Jewish lover from posh family would be gratuitous. I also try to let the protagonists’ characters emerge through the story, through the eyes of friends, family and my own research.

As to attributing behaviour to people’s backgrounds, ever since my days working as a volunteer with the Drug Referral Centre at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney throughout the 1970s, I have known that a person’s background is not always a good indicator of their expected behaviour and that good people do bad things and bad things happen to good people. Every story is different.

Appealing a coroner’s finding is shown to be extremely difficult and financially risky in Victoria. Should we be concerned?

Yes, we should. The Coroners Act of 1985 was changed in 2008, precluding appeals in the coroner’s court and forcing relatives to bring an action in the Supreme Court and only on a point of law, not if the overwhelming evidence was that the coroner got it wrong. Or being able to appeal on new information. The ordinary person cannot afford the prohibitive costs of the Supreme Court. They can’t afford a Senior Counsel, and if they lose they can’t afford the costs which would be awarded against them to pay Senior Counsel for all the other parties, police, coroner and any other interested party who is represented.

Anything more you’d like to say about Phoebe’s story?

It’s a very sad story. Phoebe’s family is grieving twice over, because they don’t know what happened to their girl and the coroner’s finding is speculative and ludicrous and an appeal is blocked by legislation and cost. There are signs that there may be a review of the Act undertaken by the State Government. This is welcome news and should be supported by all of us. If you feel that you would like to lend your voice to those calling for a review, please write to the Attorney General saying so. Also, read my book, Into the Darkness. An unexpected death in your family could happen to you. And listen to The Age podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, which also investigates the mysterious death of this lovely young girl.

Thanks very much, Robin.      

Note: Robin Bowles will be speaking at Who dunnit and why did they do it? at St Kilda Library on 16 February. The event is booked out but you can go on the waiting list through Eventbrite or ring 03 9209 6655.