Q&A. Cath Ferla spoke to Robyn Walton, a National Co-convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia, about her debut novel, Ghost Girls (Echo Publishing, 2016).
Spoiler alert: Cath speaks openly about her book so if you haven’t read it, maybe wait to read this until you have…
Hi Cath. Let’s start with some questions about appearances and disappearances. Viewed from a distance the cover of your book resembles a few other crime fiction covers: it’s all red and black, with gappy white lettering. I’m thinking: red lights, dark alleys, sputtering neons? Or blood, black hair, broken bones? I look closer and see intriguing details. What meanings does the cover of Ghost Girls have for you?
This is an interesting and appreciated question because, although book design plays such an integral part in the marketing and selling of a novel, designers are so rarely acknowledged publicly.
So, I thank you for this question and take it as an opportunity to acknowledge my designer, Sandy Cull.
I felt Sandy’s design was brilliant in that it communicated the force of my novel in an astute, sensitive and commercially considerate way.
To go back to your question, for sure, shades of black, red and white feature often on crime fiction titles. For Ghost Girls, I felt that these three colours were applied particularly well for a) the dark horror of the story (black); b) the Chinese narrative threaded through the story (red); and c) the themes of lost innocence, haunted pasts and the shroud that hangs above all that turn a blind eye to suffering (white).
For me, another important aspect of this cover is its references, via the red spotlighting, to my favourite film, Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994). This is worthy of note in that this film was a major mood and tone influence for me in the writing of Ghost Girls. I communicated this influence to Sandy and, while I cannot say for sure whether she tried to invoke that film directly, I feel she captured it anyway. You can see Sandy’s work at: https://au.pinterest.com/sandycull/
From the outset wintry Sydney presents its “ugly face” and clanking “soundtrack”. Did you feel you needed to defy the typecasting of Sydney as a naturally beautiful coastal place? Maybe each new generation of writers feels this need?
I absolutely felt a need to represent the Sydney that I knew and loved best. And this was not the Sydney I’d seen represented often in fiction or on film.
I lived in Sydney for six years in my early 30s and I experienced all those classic places: Bondi, Paddington; Surry Hills; Newtown.
The thing was this: these suburbs surrounded the city but were not part of its CBD. As an outsider, I wanted to know the actual beating heart of Sydney central. I investigated and discovered that, for the most part, the Sydney CBD was dead after 6pm. It turned out that the only place that continued to display a pulse after that early hour and until well into the night, was the Haymarket area at the top end of George Street: Chinatown.
I hung out in Chinatown a lot, and had so many good times. This was where the hip kids of Seoul and Tokyo and Taipei and Beijing hung out, and this was where vibrancy existed from very early in the morning until very late in the night.
As I started to think about writing a novel set in Haymarket, I observed that Sydney central continued to maintain its reputation as dead after five. But where was the literature to counteract this? I felt that Sydney continued to be represented in literature as a city where glamour and riches and top nights happened in gorgeous, uber-cool locations that catered to a particular breed of financially unburdened Australians.
These representations are real – in Paddo, Bondi, Surry Hills, Rose Bay, Newtown. But Sydney has more to it. The vibrancy of Sydney’s CBD after dark is alive in Haymarket. And the international students that frequent that area are the life givers. I wanted to write about this part of Sydney – its core.
Sophie comes to suspect a number of her associates of involvement in subterfuges and crimes. Even a photo Sophie is shown on a phone is not what it initially appears. Is this a city perpetually full of deceptions small and large? Or is it simply the case that Sophie is on a learning curve when it comes to identifying impostors?
I think the latter. In regards to the former, I think all cities are full of deception and honesty and failure and success. That, to me, is the nature of a city.
In this book, though, I feel that Sophie is learning that nothing is what it seems. I think this is because of her age and because of the various heritage/trust/human faith issues that have contributed to her life thus far. As an example, Sophie’s father never told her the truth about his business and I know she felt betrayed by this. The fact that her mother never owned up properly to her Chinese heritage no doubt had an impact on Sophie also.
I also think the idea of a ‘deceptive’ world reflects our current world generally. Who is to know, now, when a photo is legitimate? Or that an image of a smiling woman in a sexually explicit pose has been taken consensually? Who is to know that anything we see on a screen is real? These questions are disturbing for me. I played with them in Ghost Girls, but I am interested in exploring them further going forward.
Sophie’s increasingly alertness to absences and false appearances perhaps originates in her family upbringing (vanished mother, troubled father who “removed his mask”). And you could say that a sense of doubleness is lodged in her body. What were your thoughts as you devised Sophie’s background and identity?
I felt a strong connection between Sophie and her father from the beginning. I knew they had had a close connection and that his words and assurances still echoed through her. The relationship between Sophie and her mother came later. For a long time, I wasn’t sure who Sophie’s mother was. It was only after a few drafts, and a visit to Hong Kong, that I realised she had come from Kowloon Walled City (and that she had been potentially triad-connected). My editor, Kylie Mason, requested that I ‘name’ Sophie’s mum. This was a stroke of genius because it brought Sophie’s mother from a shadowy, unnamed, figure into herself as ‘Helen’.
Sophie’s backstory includes a lost child. Australian literature and social history is known for the trope of the lost child. Did you have any consciousness of continuing this tradition?
None whatsoever. This storyline just happened via my characters and the narrative that began to dictate itself to me.
Strange, but the chapter involving David’s disappearance remains my favourite in the whole book, and also virtually unchanged from the original draft. I saw this scene in tunnel vision, like a revelation. I can still see it very clearly – the erhu player, the play equipment, the kid with his hands in the dirt, the two boys, Sophie’s fear, her heart in her throat, the dust, the desolation, the hat, that perfect green cap. So devastating.
Now some questions more closely related to the story content and genre. I’ll try not to give away too much of your plot.
Working at one of the city language colleges, Sophie teaches EAL (English as an Acquired Language) to overseas students, most of them from East Asia. For the students, the Chinatown area is effectively their campus. Did you mean to write a campus-plus-crime novel?
I really just wanted to represent a portion of Sydney’s population that is largely ignored. Education is Australia’s fourth largest export. People come here from all over the world but international students are rarely embraced and often must suffer racial abuse and exploitation. I wanted to make some of these people ‘real’ as characters in a novel and give them some dimension. And, yes, I also wanted to highlight Chinatown.
Various Asian cultures and cuisines have their place in Ghost Girls. This is the first time I’ve encountered Uyghur characters and cooking in Australian fiction. Any precedents you know of?
No precedents that I know of, but there may be some.
I tried really hard to present ‘China’ as diverse – a Europe of sorts. There is Beijing but there are so many other provinces, municipalities and regions; a diversity of language and culture; a disparity of wealth and power and a huge number of minority people, such as the Uyghurs, who struggle for everything. Passport-wise, everyone is ‘Chinese’, but even obtaining a passport can be more difficult for some than others. China is hugely diverse on many different levels and I wanted to make that point.
Sophie shares a house with an Asian chef, Jin Tao. Their relationship is tenderly affectionate, with moments of URST. Most often their bonding involves tea drinking and comforting food. Any comments?
Food and tea bond people in China. Jin Tao has Chinese heritage and so does Sophie. It made sense that they would bond over these things. (Plus, I just loved the image of Jin Tao popping into Sophie’s bedroom with his floral-patterned tea-cup and asking for a serve of Oolong… unresolved sexual tension 101.)
Restaurants, meals, bulk ingredients and cooking utensils don’t only provide atmospheric settings and props for your characters’ activities. In the climactic episode they form part of the solution to the problem you’ve set up. Food as the most powerful weapon of all, more powerful than sex . . .?
In terms of weapons, anything goes, especially for those in immediate threat of rape and murder. If this weapon happens to be sex, then so be it. People who are victims of violence must use what they can to survive.
In the Ghost Girls case, and because of the theme, food (dried chillies) became Sophie’s weapon. In this situation, food became an option because Sophie’s violator was not after her for sex. He was after her body, the images of her tortured body and the money he would make from those images and her dead body. So, yes, within the structures of the story, food was a more powerful weapon than sex.
Your storyline shows an Australian suburban consumer of porn DVDs failing to resist his desire for stronger meat: snuff movies, hurtcore. As the author you must have puzzled how much to show and tell and from which points of view.
This was the issue I worried most about. I knew from the start that the disappeared women in the book would have disappeared into something cruel and horrible. I also knew I would never write graphically about their experience. I don’t enjoy crime novels that describe every bit of a (usually female) victim’s distress in detail. I wanted to raise fear, empathy, horror, worry in the reader but not revulsion or arousal.
I chose to write the ‘victim’ POV via the perspective of the eventual survivor. I believe I conveyed her terrifying experience while also presenting her as a strong and active participant in her own attempt at release.
In relation to the ‘consumer’, Justin, I felt it important to show the perspective of the voyeur, but I also knew it was important to ‘ground it’ i.e. make it real. You can’t make it real if you don’t ‘go there’ in terms of describing his sexual arousal and desire for forbidden things. I think I did – just far enough.
In relation to the character of Justin, I liked writing him because I felt he was so real. I don’t believe I know any men like him personally, but I feel like I know our society and that Justin represents those men who engage in quick gratification without considering the consequence or impact of their actions. I feel like that population of people is growing and I wanted to explore that concept.
Your storyline disrupts an exploitative trade and you’re able to provide an upbeat ending. Classic crime stories provide the satisfactions of disclosure and resolution, punishment and rescue. Did you start out with the intention of writing within the classic parameters, and if so was it an enjoyable process?
No parameters. I came to the genre cold, other than my reading history. I believe reading means so much if you wish to write. Read the genres you like and learn the way to do it. For me, I had worked as a writer for 15 years, five of which were in television script departments. I had learned to recognise a story and how to tell and craft one. But it was through reading that I learned how to apply all those acquired skills to long form fiction.