Making crime pay, the write way

MICHAEL Robotham’s stories are generally thrillers but  yesterday afternoon in Warrnambool he was telling a small audience about the time Geri Halliwell opened the door in a bikini. 

The Sydney crime author’s beginnings are interesting to say the least — evolving from a nameless ghostwriter to a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. 

Robotham was is the south-west this week to promote his latest novel, Watching You, a thriller following a woman constantly under surveillance. 

The story is loosely based on a true story from Robotham’s previous life as a city newspaper reporter in Sydney and London.

His path to crime fiction was an easy one though. 

“It was almost by accident. I started at Fairfax in Sydney in 1979 and went to London and then became a ghost writer and did 15 autobiographies,” he said. 

One of those belonged to the former Spice Girl. 

“My first reaction was “no way, she’s only 25, she’s got nothing to say,” Robotham said. 

It wasn’t the scantily-clad way she first opened the door, but the desperate tale of fame and pressure that convinced him to take the job. 

“I always dreamed of being a writer,” Robotham reflected. “I thought I’d sell eight copies and my mother would buy five of them and I’ll just continue being a ghost writer.” 

His first novel, The Suspect, became the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2002. Since then he’s seen the crime genre evolve. 

“It used to be literary fiction that explored social issues but now a lot of literary fiction is navel-gazing stuff and it’s the crime writers looking at all those issues of drugs, justice and people smuggling,” he said.

The best example of this has been from the American series The Wire, created by former journalist David Simon.

“I know David and his wife Laura Lippman, who is another great crime writer,” Robotham said.

“Those series are really accurate looks at society and the under-cultures that aren’t exposed.”

Another change has been Australian writers willing to embrace their own country as a setting for their novels. 

“About 25 years ago I wrote a novel in Australia and it was almost published in the UK by Penguin and I missed out. I was told if I’d set that same story in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales they would have published it in a heartbeat,” Robotham said.

Robotham has spent the past week touring the south-west and South Australia after speaking in the capital cities. 

Travelling helps pick him up material — be it a description of a person or a good one-liner. 

“I remember overhearing a one-liner, which ended up in a book called Bombproof I wrote,” he said. 

“Someone was talking about the sex they had. They said ‘the sex was so good, even the neighbours had a cigarette afterwards’.”

His next novel, Life or Death, comes out in August this year. 

s.mccomish@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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