I am delighted today to be bringing you an interview with the fabulous author Wendy James, whose multi-layered domestic noir novels, with their gripping, twisty plots, complex characters with brilliantly-observed relationships, and sharp commentary on contemporary life, have earned great acclaim and a devoted readership. I certainly always much look forward to reading her books, because I know I’m in for a real reading treat(and I’m not just saying that because as well as being a fellow author, Wendy is a dear friend!) A couple of years ago I interviewed her when her previous book, the extraordinary novel The Golden Child came out; and today, I’m interviewing her about her brand-new novel, The Accusation, a disturbing, suspenseful read which plunges us into a world of small-town secrets and social-media storms, with at the heart of it, a monstrous accusation which will pit two women against each other. But who is telling the truth? Who is lying? As events unfold with frightening rapidity, everyone takes sides…
First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your new novel! It’s a brilliant, gripping and disturbing thriller and very contemporary in feel, yet as you mention in your afterword, it’s inspired by a classic crime novel, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how the idea developed from that initial inspiration, including how it diverges from it?
I’ve been a fan of Tey’s work for a long time. Then a few years ago I came across a piece by UK author Sarah Waters, discussing the novel as being very decidedly of a particular time and place ( the book was first published in 1948) — and not necessarily in a complimentary way. This sent me back to the original story, the 18th century Canning affair,
and it also really got me thinking — how would such a story play out in the twenty-first century? What was interesting was how so many elements of the 18th century story — and especially the polarising nature of the scandal — seemed even more relevant now.
The novel diverges from Tey’s quite a bit — not only because of the temporal issues, but because the shift in location, a small rural Australian town rather than the UK, changes more than you’d imagine. The class elements, which are very pronounced in Tey’s novel, are still important, but of course play out rather differently in the Australian context. The Suzannah of my novel is very different to the main character in Tey’s — she’s not a quiet, penurious, spinster, but an ex-soap star — rather worldly and world weary. In Tey’s novel Betty Kane didn’t have the option of becoming an instant celebrity as my Ellie Canning does — fame didn’t have quite the same cachet back then.
Do you think social media and the 24 hour news cycle has made people quicker to rush to judgment than in the past? Or not?
I don’t think they’ve made us any faster to rush to judgement — I’m quite sure we’ve always done that — but what they’ve done is given us a platform to air that judgement in public – a virtual town square, if you like. It feels like a return to the days when people were publicly shamed, put in the stocks, publicly pilloried — and in some cases had their lives ruined because of the righteous justice of the mob.
In the novel, the media pits images of women against each other– for example, the young, ‘innocent’ figure of Ellie Canning, as against the ‘corrupted’ figure of middle-aged Suzannah Wells, who is the target of Ellie’s accusation. Why do you think people still respond to such stereotypes?
Ha! I guess it satisfies some primal desire. I suppose we so badly want beauty and youth to correspond to goodness and innocence — and age and relative beauty to represent the opposite. It’s Snow White and the wicked queen, Cinderella and the wicked stepmother. It’s altogether satisfying, and seems only fair. The fact that Suzannah was once in a similar position—young, beautiful, famous, and universally admired—makes it a very bitter pill.
The portrayal of Mary, Suzannah’s difficult mother, who is suffering from an unspecified dementia-like illness, is a tour de force of unflinching yet compassionate observation. How did you create her character?
I’m glad you like Mary. I think she’s one of my favourite characters. She came from two places. I really enjoyed the figure of the mother in Tey’s novel—she was acid tongued and brutally honest in a way that would be almost entirely impossible to make sympathetic these days. I actually didn’t originally have a mother figure — but then I started to think about what someone like Suzannah, who is a single woman of a particular age, might have happening in her life — and a dependent mother seemed just right. Mary also lightened things a little — which I like when things get a bit too intense. She was great way to reveal certain things at just the right ( or occasionally, for poor Suzannah, wrong)
Small-town life is often a focus in your novels. What is it that makes that kind of setting interesting for you as a novelist?
I think the fact that even introverts can’t get away with being anonymous in small towns. And there’s always the fact of not being a local. I’ve had the experience of being both a local (there were five generations of my family in Bourke when I was growing up) and then not a local in other small places — and in both cases there are some interesting dynamics. Being a complete outsider — for Suzannah – and one who has a relationship with someone who’s utterly local – is also an interesting position.
The revelation of the unexpected villain–villains, rather–uncovers a disturbing plot and a gross betrayal. Tell us something about how you put the pieces together.
I can’t tell too much, or I’ll give the game away. I can say that the fact that the villain of the real case remains unclear ( indeed, in the real case both Canning and Wells/Squires were arrested) freed me up when it came to making a decision about who I wanted the bad guy/s to be. It took me a while to decide, to be honest — it could be made plausible either way.
The Golden Child, your previous novel, also revolved partly around the power of social media. What is your view on how it and the fake news that proliferates with it has impacted on society?
I think so much of what we hear now isn’t so much ‘news’ as what people think or feel about the news. And then this in itself becomes and, in many cases, directs the news. And there have been so many changes — good and bad — in how we live and interact, fuelled by technology and social media. It’s a bit like one of those dreams where you’re driving somewhere fast, but your foot is stuck on the accelerator and you can’t quite see over the dashboard: it’s exhilarating — such speed, such power! — but simultaneously terrifying.. You know it could all end very badly.
Finally, I believe that there are TV series plans for The Golden Child. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It’s very exciting. Fox21 and Temple Hill Productions ( Fault in our Stars, Twilight) optioned the book last year and it’s currently in series development at FX Network in the US. Fingers crossed we get that beautiful green light happening!
More about The Accusation:
After eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, her bizarre story of kidnap and escape enthrals the nation. Who would do such a thing? And why?
Local drama teacher Suzannah Wells, once a minor celebrity, is new to town. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, accused of being the monster who drugged and bound a teenager in her basement. As stories about her past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt her innocence.
And Ellie? The media can’t get enough of her. She’s a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?
A powerful exploration of the fragility of trust and the loss of innocence, from the author of The Golden Child and The Mistake.
More about Wendy:
Wendy James is the celebrated author of eight novels, including the bestselling The Mistake and the compelling The Golden Child, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Ned Kelly Award for crime. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. Wendy has a PhD from the University of New England and works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University. She lives in Newcastle with her husband and the youngest of her four children, and writes some of the sharpest and most topical domestic noir novels in the country.