Times of change: Lily Malone

Lily Malone’s book, The Waterhole (Lily Malone Publishing) was shortlisted for the Debut award in the 2022 Davitt awards. It follows a long list of previously published romance books. But it’s The Waterhole that Maggie Baron discussed last year with Lily for Sisters in Crime.

The book opens with the discovery of skeletal remains in regional Western Australia. Marley West—small town detective—leads the investigation, which uncovers complex family secrets and the need for debts to be paid.

To solve the case, Marley must unravel the murky past of three people and gain their trust: two brothers, Bill and Jack, and the then-young teacher Annette, who was posted to their town during the Vietnam War.

The Waterhole has been described as “quintessentially Australian”. What were you trying to capture in bringing this story to the reader? And how do you avoid the writing becoming clichéd?

Thank you for the invitation. I am only a relatively recent member of Sisters in Crime, and I was thrilled to be considered and then short-listed for the 2022 Davitts, double especially as The Waterhole was a self-published story up against a high-quality list of competing titles from the big publishers.

You could literally throw a spear from my verandah of my house and you would lob it in the waterhole—as I describe it in the story. The Australian setting comes from the description of the bush (sights, smells, and sounds) – grass trees, eucalypts, open fields and farming paddocks, red-tailed black cockatoos, kangaroos, lizards, and all the critters that live in this part of Australia.

From the character point of view, I drew inspiration from ‘grumpy old men’ in terms of the warring Ross brothers, Bill and Jack. My dad is the age of those characters now, and he’s a very grumpy old man with a very hairy chest. He gave me a lot to work with! (P.S. love you really, Dad).

Historical crime fiction routinely draws on the events of World War II. You’ve chosen the more recent Vietnam War and tackled its impacts in a more tangential manner. What attracted you to this era?

OMG – I find the Vietnam War absolutely fascinating. I’ve done a lot of reading around that time period and watched many movies of the same. I think it’s my fascination with how unpopular that war was amongst citizens left home . . .  and the prospect of (here in Australia) the birthday-ballot style conscription into the army. My father knew personally of a fellow who was called into the war as part of that birthday lottery, and he was amongst the first soldiers killed in Vietnam. I think also, I was intrigued by the differences between city people and country folk in reaction to the war. I think it is true that in the country, especially amongst very tough times in my area, people were more concerned with economic survival in tough farm regions, than with goings on in a far-away war . . . unless it directly impacted upon them with somebody they knew, a neighbour or family member, called to serve.

The time period also coincides with my mother’s own journey from Perth to the country southwest as a school teacher . . . She inspired that part of Annette’s story, but I have promised her no more of her secrets would be revealed! (And she never nursed kangaroos . . . or chased poachers through the bush.)

The sixties were such a time of change, at the base, I think, that’s the attraction to that period. The Vietnam War also gave me opportunity to remove the character of ‘Bill’ from the scene in a time period that worked for my story. So, in many respects, it worked for me as a plot device.

The Waterhole unravels the lives of the Ross family over three generations. How did you approach the complexity of telling a story with multiple characters and timelines?

It was tricky! I needed lots of notes about the age of my characters during the different time periods, to make sure I had it all correct. Thank goodness, because at one book club event I attended, a lady had made a diary of characters and times herself as she read, and she showed it to me! If I’d stuffed anything up, I would have been found out for sure :).

The timelines I chose were also for reasons such as already explained. The Vietnam War/late sixties was the era when my mother moved to the area. She and my dad (who are long divorced) both told me about what life was like as a young single person in small country towns at the time. What cars they drove, where they would go to blow off steam, things they liked/disliked/remembered. The timeline in the nineties worked for me as I remember the nineties well and was living in this area during that time – although no doubt I was doing my best to damage my brain cells in the pubs!

And, of course, the present-day timeline of the cold case mystery is a simple one – it’s just writing about things in the now.

You include the activities of a serial rapist, as an element of the backstory. What was your approach to ensure the reader understood the severity of the assault on one of your characters, without requiring them to read explicit details?

I guess that’s all about the dialogue, and the reaction of Tracey and the other women – although we’re seeing this through Greg’s perspective (very warped and sadistic perspective). Possibly, by putting the worst of the assault into Greg’s view, it may take some of the emotional & physical assault on Tracey out of the picture. We then get to see Tracey’s anger/fear/fright/reaction in the aftermath.

It was important to me to show the long-range impact of that aftermath though, because Tracey was part of covering up what occurred in the nineties and could then not talk it through and assist her own mental recovery via support methods. Although in some respects in the nineties, I am not sure those support methods would have been as thorough as what they are now.

As an established romance fiction writer, what drew you into writing about crime?

It’s an interesting question this one! Crime is what I prefer to read. I love the stories of Jane Harper, Dervla McTiernan, Sarah Barrie, and others, but I also love the writing of an American author called John Sandford who writes the ‘Prey’ series. Even in my romance writing – I found when writing the series, I’m probably best known for – the Chalk Hill Series – that progressively the three books entered darker territory. The Last Bridge Before Home (Book 3 in Chalk Hill) had themes of domestic violence, intimidation of a Filipina partner, and an absolute arsehole of a father character. Jaydah (heroine of that story) had to really fight to get through to her happy ending from a romance perspective, and literally to survive and thrive.

So, I think that it’s just been a matter of writing what I like to read.

The Waterhole is self-published. Can you give aspiring writers some insights into the path you took; the benefits and challenges of self-publishing and what one lesson would you hope no one else has to repeat?

That’s another interesting one. When I finished The Waterhole (version 1), I had an agent representing me. She loved the story, called Waterline at the time, she gave me some great feedback to help the story structurally (a bit of mixing up the timelines more as a way to create greater tension through the novel). But otherwise, she felt it was in great shape and ready for submission with those timeline tweaks. Unfortunately, despite trying for some time, she wasn’t able to sell it to any of the publishing houses.

I think there was some issue around me being a ‘romance author’ and my author brand . . . but, at the end of the day, I still think it comes down to the story not being quite right. So, more reworking, rewriting, and revision followed over about 18 months. I introduced new characters, including the storyline of Jed, the young Indigenous boy, and his interaction with Jack. I upped the police procedural level around Marley and Brigit substantially. I did a lot of work on Jack’s character seeking redemption for him, and I also think I’ve changed the ‘killer’ about six times through these rewrites! (Well, maybe not six . . . but definitely a few).

At the end of all this, I truly felt the story was worth publishing and from a financial perspective after all that work, I didn’t want to stick it back in a drawer. I felt I had enough of a ‘fan base’ through my romance writing that my readers would buy the book from me personally, or through the e-publication sites (Kindle/Apple, etc.), whether or not they could get it in a KMart/BigW/Target store, or see it on the shelves in their regular bookstore.

And so I forged ahead and I’m really glad I did so. The Davitt Shortlist gave me a huge sense of satisfaction that my decisions and path had come out on the right track with a book that deserved its nomination and shortlisting and was a good crime/mystery read.

In the interest of sharing – it’s also made me $10,485 in profit and counting . . . Because that is another thing about self-publishing – you have to pay for the printing, cover design, postage etc, etc. But profit is profit! I’m happy . . . and I control everything about the book.

As for lessons not to be repeated? I think I learned that mixing up a timeline rather than making things linear, is an effort worth taking. Initially, The Waterhole ran far more per the calendar with just a few isolated ‘present day’ police timelines intersecting the sixties/nineties/2022 periods.

Also, although I think this is incredibly difficult to do: if you are going to seek an agent or publisher you really, really, REALLY have to make sure the book is the best it can be when you submit. You only get one shot. It’s really hard (how many times can I say REALLY in a sentence?) to get a publisher to take a second look at a story if they’ve seen it once. So, when my agent shopped my early version of The Waterhole around without success, it made it almost impossible for me to get it picked up again, even with all the revisions that have no doubt made it a better book. And then, once you make the decision to self-publish, unless it turns into a runaway best seller, it’s very unlikely you’ll get a publisher to pick it up in ‘hindsight’. I think The Martian was a self-published book that got picked up this way, but I don’t know of others.

So, give your book every chance of being signed up by a publishing house first, but if it’s not signed and you believe in it, then we are extremely lucky to live in a time when publishing it yourself is an option.

Can you tell your readers what you’re currently working on?

I haven’t been writing much this year. I had a new romance short story out with HarperCollins in October 2023, as part of a HarperCollins Christmas anthology. It’s called A Country Vet Christmas, and a new book is always exciting. Otherwise, I do have another crime/mystery story on my computer, about 30,000 words in. I haven’t touched that since about March or April, but it’s there waiting and I will get back to it once life permits!

Thanks again for the invite to chat here.

More info here.