The power of words: Brooke Robinson

Brooke Robinson, an award-winning playwright whose plays have been performed across Australia and at the Old Vic Theatre in London, spoke to Sisters in Crime’s Natalie Conyer re The Interpreter, her debut novel. It was acquired in a six-figure deal and the rights sold internationally.

Natalie found The Interpreter a compelling, twisty thriller. It explores the power of language to bring – or avoid – justice. Its protagonist, Revelle Lee, is a court interpreter in London. She’s supposed to be impartial, in order to change the course of a trial she intentionally mistranslates a couple of words.

The Interpreter is a multi-stranded novel, where a present-day story is underpinned by a slow reveal of past events. How did you plan this layered work and manage to keep so many balls in the air for so long?

I did struggle with this, particularly as The Interpreter is my first attempt at writing a book after many years of writing plays. It took me a while to realise that my first draft of the novel inadvertently followed the structure of a two-act play. When I began querying agents and had feedback from a number of agents who were offering to represent me, I could see that I’d actually written to an interval – I was so accustomed to writing for the stage. Throughout the whole editing process for The Interpreter, keeping all of those balls in the air was the key focus for myself and my two editors. It was a great learning experience. I’m re-drafting my second book now and I’m finding the reveals, the layers, the strands, so much easier to manipulate this time round.

You’re a professional playwright. How is writing a novel different from writing a play, and do you approach them differently?

Without doubt, there are many transferable skills and if you can write drama you can adapt to other forms, but I would say that my playwriting experience hindered as much as it helped. A good play leaves plenty of space for other artists to come in and collaborate: sound designers, set designers, costume designers, the director etc. When you’re writing a novel as a playwright, you constantly have to remind yourself to close those gaps as no one is going to come in and design the weather, or the choose what colour the set should be, or the lights.

With a dramatist coming to novel writing, there is a tendency to underwrite and to leap from one dramatic moment of action to the next without proper context or description. Writing dialogue for the page is different to writing for actors in a way that I find quite difficult to describe. Fundamentally, a novel is for the mind of the reader, an interior space, while a play script is written to be performed live, in a room full of people, so it’s natural that what works in one, won’t suit the other. Theatre is at its best when it’s allegorical and the dialogue is all subtext, but in a novel characters can actually say what they mean, and I do find this liberating!

All the worlds of The Interpreter – for example of the courts, of professional translation, of social services, feel totally real. Where did this knowledge come from and what research did you do?

I started writing the novel during Covid so I wasn’t able to get out and about, but I did actually enrol in a creative practice PhD combining crime fiction and forensic linguistics, and one of my brilliant supervisors is a linguist. Essentially, I read a lot of forensic linguistics textbooks and academic papers, and I also stalked court interpreters on Twitter and on professional online forums where I was able to ask some questions.

There are academics out there, all over the world, who study how the presence of an interpreter impacts upon court cases and police interviews, so the research was already there waiting to be read. I wasn’t expecting to sell the novel to publishers so quickly so I ended up not completing that degree, but for the best of reasons.

Revelle Lee is a very interesting character. She’s flawed, but as readers we want her to survive. Where did she come from and how did she evolve?

Back in 2015, I came across an article in The Guardian newspaper written by a language interpreter who worked in the criminal justice system in London and this is where I first got the idea for the book. Like most monolingual people, I’d never given thought to the fascinating profession of interpreting before. I immediately knew I wanted to write about an interpreter but I couldn’t settle on a story, so I put the idea in my metaphorical drawer and went back to writing plays. In 2020 when I finally picked it up again, I thought about uniting my long-term love of fictional vigilantes with interpreting, and this was when I knew the idea really had legs and it was time to write this story. I wanted to make her a vigilante who is quite different from most vigilantes in that she uses words to get justice, or her idea of justice, instead of violence.

One of my favourite fictional vigilantes is the character of the father in the 2013 film Prisoners, played by Hugh Jackman. We know what he’s doing to investigate and avenge his daughter’s kidnapping is wrong, and it’s difficult to watch and to go along with him at times but, ultimately, we do want him to win. As a viewer of that film, we’re put in such a challenging, squeamish position. I find it addictive. I think many of us do – which is why Dexter is so popular. This is the delicate balance I was aiming for, and I re-read the screenplay for Prisoners a couple of times while working on Revelle.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? If so, can you give us a preview? 

My second book is called The Negotiator and it’s due to be published in mid-2024. It’s about a police officer in London who gets caught up in a siege, as a hostage, while off-duty.

You can read more about Brooke Robinson here.