The Africa Scene: An Interview with Bestseller Joanne Macgregor

Dark Whispers CoverBy Michael Sears

Bonus ​GIVEAWAY: Scroll down and ask Joanne a question or post a comment for a chance to win a copy of DARK WHISPERS!  Comment within a week and you may be the winner chosen at random!

Joanne Macgregor lives in Johannesburg and her background includes teaching English at high school, IT training, management consulting, and being a theater dogsbody. Perhaps the most intriguing job was being an in-store frozen vegetable demonstrator. Surprisingly, all this led to her current career as a counselling psychologist in private practice, dealing primarily with adult victims of crime and trauma, a very large change from frozen vegetables!

She is a successful author of books for young adults, and I guess that provides some counterpoint to what she deals with in her day job. But her first adult novel, DARK WHISPERS, is filled with psychological tension and is as dark as the title suggests. South African thriller writer Mike Nicol, whose standards are very high, says, “It’s gripping—so shocking you won’t be able to breathe until you get to the end.” He’s spot on. I asked Macgregor about her writing transition to DARK WHISPERS.

You are a successful writer of young adult fiction. It’s quite a giant step to DARK WHISPERS! What drew you to this new genre?

I didn’t set out to try my hand at adult fiction. It was really the story idea, sparked by a news report on a deranged Australian doctor, a story that wouldn’t let go of me and demanded to be explored and then written. And quite clearly the subject matter was not appropriate for young readers, so that’s how I wound up writing a psychological thriller for adults.

I did enjoy the challenge of tackling a different genre and enjoyed the freedoms that come with writing for adults, such as being able to use more advanced vocabulary or the odd swear word, the characters can have sex, and exploring some dark and existential themes. But it’s a misconception that young adult novels are easy to write. Good fiction, whether for teens or adults, requires clever plotting, complex characterization, and intriguing conflict. So, for me at least, it was a step sideways rather than a step up.

Thrillers tend to be driven either by action or by psychological tension. DARK WHISPERS is very much in the second category. What led you to this battle of wills between two medical practitioners?

I’m so glad you highlighted that, because for me the battle of wills was very much at the heart of this story.

Often my stories start with a clear visual image of a pivotal scene, and for DARK WHISPERS it was of these two very intelligent professionals engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of trying to find out more about the other while revealing less about themselves. I clearly saw them in a therapy room, “dancing” around each other, talking at multiple levels, dealing with hidden meanings, probing silences and nuances. Who would slip up first? Who would win?

Joanne Macgregor
Joanne Macgregor

As a writer and a psychologist myself, I was also fascinated by the power of language, and wanted to pit the word against the sword (or, in this case, the scalpel). Which would prevail? And does the work of a therapist really reveal and heal? That’s a question I begin exploring in the quote that precedes the first chapter, an extract from Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street”: “There in the midst of it, so alive, so alone, words support like bone.” Megan Wright believes that—in fact, she stakes her life on it.

As a reader or TV/film viewer, I’m bored stupid by car chases, gun-fights and physical battles. I’m engaged by the clever fight, the intellectual, emotional, and moral battle of wills—both between characters, and within the psyche of the individual. So yes, the action is more brain than brawn.

I can no longer read graphic violence in books—the sort of “torture porn” that puts you in an almost complicit ride-along with the evil serial killer as he mutilates and brutalizes—so DARK WHISPERS is not that kind of thriller. Rather, I tend to show “the afterwards”—the psychological and emotional consequences that victims of trauma are left to deal with. That is an aspect which I believe is too often neglected in genre fiction—characters are bereaved, tortured, assaulted and experience all kinds of dramatic agonies, but are up and running, and pretty much back to normal, by the next chapter. Take it from someone who listens to pain for a living: that’s not how it works in real life.

How have readers responded to DARK WHISPERS?

It’s been fascinating to me as a writer how the book apparently speaks to readers in very different ways. Some readers, like you, hone in on the battle of wills and wits, but others respond to the fear, calling it chilling or breathtaking. Not unexpectedly, many female readers have commented on the exploration of vulnerability and the consequences of being violated. Many say that they’ve enjoyed the funny parts—all my books, even this one, have a sense of humor.

Trotteur is a complex and believable character, yet much of his motivation remains obscure. Does he fit a psychopath template (if there is such a thing), or did he simply develop with the story?

In the real world of psychology, as opposed to the dumbed-down and over-simplified tropes that dominate TV and many novels, people are always, always complex and profoundly individual in their make-up. Every person is unique, no person perfectly matches the textbook template of symptoms, and there is no standard nature-plus-nurture combination of factors behind any “type” of presentation. Patients are not their pathology and it’s inaccurate to think of them that way. We never say, for example, “He is measles” or “She is diabetes,” but it’s common to say things like, “He is depressed,” and “She is bi-polar.”

So Trotteur is complex and not easily understood. Yes, he has sociopathic and antisocial aspects, and he decompensates into more psychosis as he unravels over the course of the story, but there is no easy, linear, this-made-him-that, because that’s not how humans are. Shakespeare captures this so well in Hamlet’s “you would pluck out the heart of my mystery” soliloquy.

I loved writing the chapters from Trotteur’s point of view. The words and voice just poured out in a vivid and intense present tense. I revelled in the luxury of writing from such a deeply flawed and increasingly unstable character who, to his own mind, is vastly superior to the lesser beings that surround him. Actually, I was a little worried at how easily his perspective came, and at how much I enjoyed writing him. Those scenes just flowed through and out of me, and I’ve already had some family and friends giving me concerned, sideways glances after they’ve read the book.

You are a practicing psychologist, and you chose your protagonist to be in the same profession. Did you start with her and build the plot around her, or did you start with the premise and decide that a psychologist was what was needed to make it work?

I started with the premise, but writers always bring themselves—their hopes, fears, experiences—to their stories. What, I asked myself, would I do if a client reported such an experience to me? What if she related it while in a state of hypnosis, and neither of us was sure it had actually happened? (Unlike what you’ve seen in the movies, hypnosis isn’t an objective “video recording” by the brain of everything that has ever happened to you.) What if the extraordinarily stringent ethics of my profession hampered my efforts to discover the truth and do something about it? And what if, all the while, this doctor was continuing to practice and wreak havoc with women’s lives and bodies? There, in the what-if labyrinth of my writer’s imagination, this rather sick and scary story grew.

I will say that I did consciously want to write an ethical, sane, and empathic psychologist and get away from the usual psycho shrink cliché. It has always bothered me that psychologists in books and movies are so often portrayed as severely dysfunctional, sexually predatory, and unethical. Most of us are really nice, compassionate, responsible, and mostly sane professionals!

Did you have any problems separating your real-world patients from your fictional ones? I’m sure the latter aren’t directly based on the former, but they must come from your experience in your practice.

I had no problems keeping them separate. My parallel jobs of writer and psychologist occupy very different head-spaces in me. I do them in separate physical locations, use different parts of my brain, and even do them on different days of the week. My clients’ accounts of their life experiences are sacrosanct. They stay locked up in a vault labelled “therapy” somewhere deep in my brain, and I do not and would never use them as a fertile field from which to harvest story ideas.

Of course, in more general ways, my training and experience shapes all of my writing. My characters are always informed by my knowledge of personality types, psychological traumas, and psychopatholgy in general, and for this book in particular, I was able to give a realistic idea of what actually happens in therapy because of my day-job.

There are some chilling scenes in the novel and no one escapes unscathed—not even the reader. Yet Megan is a deep character. Do you foresee a different and wiser Megan facing new challenges in future books? Or is this a stand-alone?

Yes, Megan does her best, she cocks up, she tries harder, and inevitably she is changed by the weight of the pain and cruelty she hears and absorbs on a daily basis. Some of her deepest beliefs are challenged by what happens in this story and at the end of the book, she is not who she was at the beginning. I’m not yet sure, though, if she’s wiser or just more cynical. Maybe that is something to explore in another book. I wrote DARK WHISPERS as a stand-alone, but there has been some interest in a series, so watch this space!

*****

Bonus ​GIVEAWAY: Scroll down and ask Joanne a question or post a comment for a chance to win a copy of DARK WHISPERS!  Comment within a week and you may be the winner chosen at random!

 

Michael Sears

Michael Sears writes with Stanley Trollip under the name Michael Stanley. Their novels, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The mysteries are set against current southern Africa issues such as the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari (DEATH OF THE MANTIS, shortlisted for Edgar and Anthony awards, won a Barry award in 2011), the pervasive power of witch doctors (DEADLY HARVEST, shortlisted for an ITW Thriller award in 2014), blood diamonds, the growing Chinese influence, and biopiracy. The latest book in the series is DYING TO LIVE.

Michael has lived in Kenya, Australia and the US, and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Find out more at www.detectivekubu.com, www.facebook.com/MichaelStanleyBooks and Twitter (@detectivekubu).

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5 Comments
  1. I live and self-publish in the U.S. How can I get my thriller ZAMBEZI RIVER BRIDGE published in South Africa? The story takes place during the Zimbabwe liberation war in the late 1970’s.

    1. I suggest you visit http://www.publishsa.co.za/ and examine the preferences and requirements of the different publishers and then start the submissions process. You can loads of information on how to submit to publishers online. Just a hint – it’s no easier to get published in South Africa than anywhere else, and the percentage of the population who read and buy fiction is very small. Good luck!

  2. When you have a job, how did you find the time to write your novel? I have always wanted to write, but find I’m so tired from my day-job to be able to write.

    1. I suggest you visit http://www.publishsa.co.za/ and examine the preferences and requirements of the different publishers and then start the submissions process. You can loads of information on how to submit to publishers online. Just a hint – it’s no easier to get published in South Africa than anywhere else, and the percentage of the population who read and buy fiction is very small. Good luck!

    2. Sorry! I wound up posting a response to a previous comment under yours.

      It’s hard to do both a day job and write in your spare time. Some years ago, I restructured my day job so that I could have Thursdays off, and I was ruthless about protecting that time for writing. I wrote my first published book, Turtle Walk, on Thursday mornings. Now I alternate work and writing days.

      I will say that if you wait until you have time to write, you will never write. You have to make time – whether it’s waking up an hour earlier than the rest of the family, writing on the bus or train commute to work, or during your lunch break, or putting your butt on the chair and your hands on the keyboard on a Saturday night.

      Try not to think all-or-nothing – in other words that you need to write for a few hours at a time or else it’s not worth doing. If you don’t have large chunks of time, then set yourself a goal of writing just 250 words per day. That’s nothing, it’s just a paragraph, maybe fifteen minutes worth of writing. Done regularly, though, the words accumulate into chapters, and eventually into a book.

      All the best – if I did it, so can you!

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