Michael Robotham Answers Thirteen Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Michael Robotham, author of the novel The Wreckage, played along and answered thirteen questions.  Here is what Michael had to say about reading & writing.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m a small town boy from Australia, who has had three careers – first as an investigative journalist, then as a ghostwriter and finally as a crime novelist.

As a journalist I reported on events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union. I was among the first people to gain access to Moscow State Archives where I uncovered the letters, diaries and family photo albums of Czar Nicholas II and his wife Empress Alexandra. I also viewed Stalin’s Hitler files, which had been missing for nearly fifty years until a cleaner stumbled upon a cardboard box that had been misplaced.

As a ghostwriter I collaborated on fifteen ‘autobiographies’, working with politicians, pop stars, adventurers, actors and soldiers to capture their voices and bring their stories to a wider audience.

Ten years ago, I sat down to write my own novel. The first 117 pages of Suspect triggered a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2002. That novel introduced two of my most enduring characters, Joe O’Loughlin, a psychologist with early onset Parkinsons, and Vincent Ruiz a Scotland Yard detective.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process

If you must know, I write while sitting at an outdoor café by the beach, having ordered poached eggs and a strong coffee. I write longhand in bound notebooks, scrawling completely unintelligible sentences that have to be transferred to the computer within hours or I’ll never be able to read my handwriting again.

I write longhand to protect my eyes from the computer screen and because there is something about pen and paper that leads to shorter sentences and sharper dialogue. It’s as though the mind edits more effectively when it knows the result has to consume ink and rainforests.

Watching me write is not a spectator sport. Nobody queues up outside the café. Instead they give me a wide berth. I’m the weird guy in the corner table who is mumbling to himself.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

Q. What time would you like your full body massage?

A. Four o’clock will be fine.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

All of my novels have been based on real life events or triggered by a news story or an experience. The Wreckage is a big international conspiracy thriller set on three continents, but told through the eyes of very normal everyday characters.

The idea began with a story that I read in December 2009 in a UK newspaper. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime told the Observer that during the height of the Global Financial Crisis, major western banks were on the brink of collapse and so desperate for funds that they laundered $352bn of drugs profits for organised crime gangs.

I then came a second story, a brilliant piece of investigative journalism in Vanity Fair by two Pulitzer prize-winning journalists, James Steele and Donald Barlett. They revealed details of the largest airlift of US currency in the history of the Federal Reserve – 21 shipments over fourteen months – flown into Iraq in the aftermath of the war.  It amounted to 281 million individual banknotes or 363 tons of money. Twelve billion US dollars in total – of which nine billion has never been accounted for.

The Wreckage is based on these and other real-life events and documents even though the characters are entirely fictitious. I have drawn upon the truth to hopefully create fiction that reads like fact.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I’m a huge fan of James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and John le Carré but I try to avoid crime novels and thrillers when I’m writing because it’s very easy to be influenced.

When I read a book nowadays, I find myself taking it apart, looking at the pieces, seeing how it works. Why did I love a particular scene or character? What could have been improved? With the truly great book, of course, I can’t take it apart because there are no joins. Everything is seamless and perfect.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book but ultimately decided not to include it?

I make mention of a bank robbery in The Wreckage – the biggest in history. Three days before the war began Saddam Hussein sent his son and a senior aide to a bank in Baghdad and they withdrew US$920 million. It took two hours and three tractor trailers to carry the money away.

Four weeks later, Baghdad had fallen and Saddam was in hiding. Two soldiers from the Third Infantry Division went looking for a chainsaw to cut away fallen trees from an access road at the new Presidential Palace. They found a bricked up building and inside there were twenty aluminium cases. Another 40 cases were found next door. By nightfall they had discovered 164 boxes – US$656 million.

What isn’t as well known is that three of the aluminium boxes went missing (each containing US$4 million). Five soldiers were involved in the plan. At first they tried to sink two cases in a man-made lake, only to discover it was only two feet deep. When the sun came up the cases were discovered. The third case was found in a tree and five soldiers were disciplined. They were so close to being millionaires.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

As mentioned earlier, I begin my day sitting in a cafe writing in long-hand. Later I’ll transfer the words onto a computer and begin polishing. Evenings are spent doing research and answering letters and emails from publishers and readers.

I don’t plot my books in advance. I come up with a premise and let my characters tell the story. This is a very organic way of writing, but also quite scary. The benefit, of course, is spontaneity and surprise. If I don’t see the twists and turns coming, neither will my readers.

If you could make everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

I’m normally hopeless at choosing titles but  The Wreckage came to me straight away. I think it works perfectly because the action is set amid the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and the Iraq War.

In the past I’ve struggled with titles or had publishers in the UK and US disagreeing. I’ve even had a change a title in some territories. My second novel was originally Lost but came out shortly before the TV series of the same name. My British publishers changed the paperback title to The Drowning Man but in America it remained as Lost, which still causes a lot of confusion.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

When I was in my mid-teens I devoured Ray Bradbury’s novels and short story collections – books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man. Not all of his titles were available in Australia, so I wrote a letter addressed to his US publishers. Months later a parcel arrived in the post. It contained all the books that I hadn’t been able to get in Australia, as well as a handwritten letter from Bradbury himself, saying how thrilled he was to have a young fan on the far side of the world.

I became a writer because of Ray Bradbury.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

I’m definitely a one-book-at-a-time sort of guy. I don’t have a drawer full of ideas and often when I finish a novel I think, ‘That’s it! I’ll never write again. I’ve used up every idea and good one-liner.’

Of course, my wife will find me a few hours later in my basement office (my pit of despair) already toying with a new story.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

After seven novels, I have a cast of main characters. Sometimes they take centre stage as first person narrator. At other times they play smaller roles.

Former detective Vincent Ruiz is the only character to have appeared in every novel. He plays a major part in The Wreckage, tracking down the missing millions in London and investigating the mysterious disappearance of a senior banker.

Of all my characters the psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is probably the most autobiographical. He’s about my age. He has daughters. He has a similar sense of humour and outlook on the world.

What’s next?

I’m working on a new novel for 2012. This one doesn’t have a title as yet, but will feature Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz and will involve the disappearance of two schoolgirls – one of whom is found frozen to death three years later. Stay tuned.

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