New Zealander Cleave’s Cemetery Lake pits an ex-cop against a cunning killer.
Without spoiling the ending, can you expand on having to retrofit the killer’s identity into the plot?
Cemetery Lake was an interesting book to write. Back in 2006, I had 20,000 words of the novel and no direction, and at the same time I was spending my days renovating my house. I sent the 20,000 words to my publisher to see what they thought—I’d never done this before, having only submitted completed manuscripts. A week or two later I had a NZ contract for the book, and two international contracts for it. So it was the first time I had to write a book under deadline and with no idea where it was heading. It was scary, but it also got me out of renovation mode and into writing mode. I worked on that book for10 or 12 hours a day and it just started working. It worked really well. The problem is I didn’t have a direction, but for me that’s always the case, however in this case I was 90% of the way through, and even though the plot had developed, I still didn’t know who the killer was going to be. I either had to introduce somebody, or chose somebody from the book. For most of the first draft, I did have two people in mind that it could be, but that didn’t pan out because of where the book led me. So I chose somebody else—and then it took a couple of rewrites to fit that person better into the book and set them up.
Given that you don’t plot very far in advance, how do you interlock the timelines of your novels?
It can be difficult, certainly. When I first wrote The Cleaner, I had no idea of what was going to follow. Then as the books progressed, I was able to take background characters from each of the previous books and thread them into the story. So sometimes you’d struggle because things wouldn’t line up, or you’d forget you’d said something, but that I’ve created a time line for the novels I’m far more on top of it. The hardest two were The Cleaner and Cemetery Lake as they take place at the same time. Of course when I wrote The Cleaner, I didn’t know that, so didn’t set any of that up, but when I wrote Cemetery Lake, I was able to refer to The Cleaner. But then, of course, Atria started releasing the backlist—and this is six and seven years after the books originally came out in NZ, and the newly released US versions had some editing done to them, so when I worked on The Cleaner last year I was able to tweak it a little and make references to Cemetery Lake. I think the books complement each other really well, while still being stand-alone novels.
What has been the reception of your fiction in New Zealand?
I have a fairly small but loyal audience back home; around 1000 people who buy the books. The worst reviews I’ve ever had for my books are in New Zealand, and up until a year or so ago most bookshops wouldn’t stock my books because they felt they were too dark—so the reception hasn’t been great. I went around three years without ever seeing any of my books in any bookstore in Christchurch, which is where I live and where the books are set. If I’m ever involved in a writer’s festival back home and there’s a book signing afterwards, I’ll have a queue of maybe two people, and one of those people will normally be a friend of a friend. So over the last seven years, at social functions or parties or any of those environments where you’re meeting people for the first time, I’ve been asked plenty of times “So what do you do for a living?” And not once has the person I’ve been talking to ever heard of me or the books. So these days I just tell people I’m retired. You simply couldn’t make a living as an author if New Zealand was your only market. But despite all that—I am thankful for the loyal audience I have, and often it’s those people I’m thinking of back home when I’m writing.
Do your books share a theme or themes or do you view them as pure entertainment?
A bit of both, really. I used to think only about the entertainment side of it—and even now if you asked me, I would say that’s all I’m trying to do: entertain. But there are themes in the books, themes that just started to appear as I was trying to entertain. With Christchurch, the books explore crime, poverty, mental health problems, religion and politics and the media—the media tends to be a big one. The last few books have hinted at the death penalty, which becomes a big theme in Joe Victim later this year when you learn that, after 40 or 50 years, the country are calling for a referendum—they want to vote on whether to bring back capital punishment, and of course it’s very divided.