The title of the book is very provocative and some would say it is open to misinterpretation, was it deliberately chosen for this purpose?
As a child, I was very intrigued by my father’s old storybooks, which had titles like, The Boys Book of Adventure. When I was searching for a title for my novel, I decided to do some literary recycling. Subsequently, the novel has had to be rescued from the children’s sections of many bookshops. (I’ve also turned up to book signings, filled with children whose parents are hoping to interest them in reading.) The title is open to misinterpretation, but I like its double meaning: the “Child” ultimately refers to Lucien, a victim, perhaps, of the adults’ true crimes. It’s for him that the book-within-the-book is, after all, written.
Is ‘Murder at Black Swan Point’ based on truth at all?
Kate, the novel’s protagonist, becomes obsessed with a long ago, local true crime in which a woman, having supposedly murdered her husband’s lover, has disappeared. I’ve read accounts of similar crimes, although it is unusual for women to murder for vengeance rather than in self-defence. Of course, in my novel, whether the missing woman was the killer is another matter.
A Child’s Book Of True Crime is studded with animal imagery. Where did the idea for this unusual theme come from and what do you feel is its function in the story?
True crime books struck me as being ripe for satire: I think it’s extraordinary the way crimes are reported in infinite, lubricious detail, as if this is in the public’s best interest. Unfortunately my initial attempts at satire, however, read too much like the real thing. One night, I was telling some children a bedtime story, when it occurred to me that using a team of Australian animal detectives, to investigate a gory true crime, might go some way towards capturing the genre’s perversity.
There is a dual narrative running through the book with Kate’s story and the story of ‘Murder at Black Swan Point’. Was it difficult to write in these two different voices?
Neither narrative was difficult to write on its own, but it was hard to link the two together. I wanted the faux children’s book sections to work like a rowdy, mutant chorus. Reading through early drafts, however, I’d find myself at a serious pivotal moment, when suddenly this bunch of wild-animal detectives would burst in, singing and dancing, and they’d have to be marched off the page again.
In the book you show remarkable insight into the psychology of children, where did you gain such accurate knowledge of their behaviour?
Unless you have young children of your own, you tend not to have entree into an incredibly rich, surreal world. While I was a graduate student in New York, I worked as a babysitter, and suddenly found myself having very intense, serious conversations about burping, and then the reverse-light-hearted talks about very dark subjects. While writing A Child’s Book of True Crime, I spent time in classrooms with fourth-grade children, discussing philosophy. We covered such topics as: “What is truth?”; “How do we know we’re not really dreaming?”; “What if children’s stories were written by children?”. These Socratic dialogues appear, in condensed form, throughout the novel.
Kate appears to be presented as both a child, who is prone to flights of fancy, and an adult, through her job. Yet she is also shown as both at once in the childlike sexual role she adopts for Thomas. What was your intention in giving Kate so many different roles to play?
Kate is an unlikely mix of innocence and experience. Her great existential dilemma is that she doesn’t want to grow up, and is therefore caught in this strange, willed twilight zone. It’s one of the ironies of the novel that the school children behave like little sophisticates, holding philosophical discussions, while the adults are playing make-believe, and lying, and dodging all responsibility.
Is Kate’s character based on anyone you know? If not, where do you draw your inspiration for characters?
I wanted to write about someone caught between childhood and adulthood, and although I can’t claim any of Kate’s wilder experiences, I have shared this dilemma.
Do you think that the history of the convicts is as prevalent to the lives of Tasmanians as it is to Australians?
I don’t think many Australians wake in the night, agonizing over their cultural heritage, although, of course, this bizarre and brutal form of migration has had extraordinary long-term consequences. Even some years after transportation had been abolished, there was legislation preventing Tasmanian ex-convicts leaving the island; those who could leave, in subsequent generations, faced considerable prejudice. I am not Tasmanian, but when you ask whether convict history is as prevalent to the lives of Tasmanians as to other Australians, the intuitive answer seems to be, ‘Yes, it’s more prevalent.’ Then again, perhaps this is a Mainland obsession which Tasmanians find irrelevant.
Are you writing your next book, and is it going to be another novel about crime?
I am writing a new novel, but as yet no blood has been spilt.
Do you think you will continue to use an Australian setting for your novels or is there somewhere else you’re interested in using as the backdrop?
I’ve banned myself from reading any more children’s books while I write my second novel, but recently I broke down and bought a title from the 1970s, Australian Escape Stories. Basically, it’s about ingenious citizens trying to get the hell out! I am very interested in the Australian obsession with travel, from students who do an obligatory two-year stint away, to ex-patriots, who’ve felt they had to leave permanently. So, perhaps there will be a novel in another location.
Were you surprised when your first novel was short listed for the Orange Prize?
Once the long list was announced, it didn’t seem impossible, but then not for a moment did it occur to me I would win-which was quite right.
What type of feedback did you receive from Australian readers?
The response has been mixed: some people loved it; others didn’t love it. It is an idiosyncratic book and if you don’t have a fairly dark sense of humour it may not appeal.
Full author listing
Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!