Small-town secrets: Nikki Mottram

For the June Author Spotlight, Poppy Gee spoke to Toowoomba author, Nikki Mottram, about her twisty plots, the rollercoaster ride of the publishing industry, and the thrill of visiting her publisher’s office for the first time.

Nikki’s second novel Killarney has just been released, following her debut breakout novel, Crows Nest. Both novels feature a woman who is extremely good at her job, the highly likeable child protection officer, Dana Gibson. In Killarney, Dana tries to track down a missing foster child as a series of sinister crimes unfold. It’s a gripping, small-town mystery with the kind of tightly crafted surprises that make you flick back the pages to see the plot mechanics with fresh eyes.

In this conversation, Nikki explains why Dana is so popular with readers, and she reveals some of the key ingredients that go into her crime fiction  – atmospheric landscapes, relatable characters, and more than a dollop of intriguing crimes.

You’ve published two books in quick succession with UQP. Your author origin story seems like it might involve a fairy godmother waving a magic wand . . . can you tell us about your path to publication and the importance of your writers’ group The Dead Darlings Society?

It might seem like a fairy godmother waved her magic wand, but the truth is that I’d been immersing myself in courses at the Queensland Writers’ Centre, going to my writing group, and submitting for many years before I was published. My breakthrough came when I took part in the Australian Society of Authors Literary Speed Dating event. I pitched Crows Nest to Benjamin Stevenson at Curtis Brown during an online Zoom session and he asked to see the manuscript. Sydney was in lockdown at the time so he was able to read it very quickly. He got back to me saying that he’d loved Crows Nest. Shortly afterwards he sent it out on submission and I was absolutely thrilled when it was accepted for publication by UQP.

My writing group the Dead Darlings Society has been a huge part of the reason that I’ve kept working on my craft for so many years. It’s always such a comfort to know that whatever is going on in my life I’ll always have these wonderful people to celebrate and commiserate with.

The beautiful landscape in your novels includes the farmlands and small towns of south/west Queensland and the lush rainforest and misty hinterland around Queen Mary Falls. What is it about these locations that intrigues you?

I set my books in my hometown of Toowoomba and the nearby Crows Nest and Killarney not only because the setting was intensely familiar, but I was also interested in exploring community relationships and the sometimes misguided presumptions of outsiders. The insular world of the small rural town and its customs and secrets felt like the perfect setting for a crime thriller.

You’ve created a beloved character in child protection worker Dana Gibson. Readers adore her – what is it about her that they find so engaging?

Readers generally tell me that they love that Dana is good at her job, caring, and not afraid to ask the hard questions. But she’s also a bereaved mother who is struggling with issues that have arisen from the loss of her child.

When I was starting out in child protection, there were very few positive role models in the media–unlike these days now that we have Brené Brown [American professor and social worker]! Quite often the social workers I saw portrayed in books and movies were bumbling, ineffectual, and lacking in intelligence. I wanted Dana to be the antithesis of those things so I set out to create a character who was incredibly smart, hard-working, and ruthless when it came to the protection of children.

In your day job you work in child protection. How has this career influenced you as a crime writer?

The seed of an idea for the Dana Gibson series came about when I began my employment at what was known as the Department of Families in 2003. Like my protagonist, Dana, I was working in the front line in child protection and knocking on doors, often with the police in tow. Sometimes people were happy to see us, but often they were stressed and fearful and it would take some time before they trusted us enough to speak openly.

By the time I started writing Crows Nest I’d been working for many years in the field and a number of ideas had been bubbling away in my mind. I wanted Dana to research a case in the same way I would if I was working with a family—she analyses the family’s child protection history, undertakes home visits, works on an investigation and assessment, and writes case notes about her observations.

Failure and rejection are an unavoidable part of the writer’s experience. What’s been one of your biggest failures, or disappointments, and how does that shape your perspective now? And what’s been a highlight?

After writing a manuscript that was never published, I started writing a new story (Crows Nest) and organised a “twenty pages in twenty minutes session” with an agent when I was in the early stages of writing it. She really loved what I’d written so I promised to send her the full manuscript when I was finished. I was envisioning it would take a year to finish, but due to having two babies in quick succession it took another four years! Over those years I occasionally thought about giving up but then remembered the promise I’d made. When I eventually sent the full manuscript the agent was kind enough to read my submission but said it was not for her. I had my heart set on her being my agent so I was quite despondent for a while. Six months later I ended up being signed by Benjamin Stevenson at Curtis Brown, so it goes to show that it only takes one person to love your work.

A highlight for me was the first time I got to visit the University of Queensland Press (UQP) office in Brisbane. I met many lovely people who worked there including my editor, Jacqueline Blanchard, who let me choose some UQP books to take home with me. I remember chuckling all the way to the car thinking about how surreal it was that I was going to be an author and that I’d just had my first meeting with my publisher. 

What is the best quote/piece of advice you’ve heard another published author say?

“Done is better than good” – Elizabeth Gilbert.

Fast Five Questions

Plotter or pantser? Plotter

Do you write every day? I’d love to but it doesn’t really work out that way.

Do you have a word count goal for a writing session? No, I try to focus more on getting something written and enjoying the process.

Writing ritual? Exercise is helpful.

What are you working on? The third book in the Dana Gibson series.