Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Story Behind the Story: “The Sound of
Her Voice,” by Nathan Blackwell

(Editor’s note: This is the 80th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from New Zealand police detective-turned-crime fictionist Nathan Blackwell, whose first novel, The Sound of Her Voice, was released in 2017 and is a finalist in two categories for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards. [The winners will be announced on September 1 during the WORD Christchurch Festival.] Blackwell lives in Auckland and had a 10-year police career before turning to crime writing. He was a detective for several years, investigating cases ranging from drug manufacture and child abuse to corruption, sex crimes, and murder. Because some of his work was conducted covertly, the author has adopted the name Blackwell as a nom de plume. Subtitled “one cop’s descent into darkness,” The Sound of Her Voice is said to take readers into “the real world of murky, disturbing, and downright terrifying policing.” Here’s the plot synopsis: “For Detective Matt Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He has probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s 14-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. Those innocent girls he just can’t get out of his head. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in start to crumble. He’s forced across that gray line that separates right and wrong—into places so dark, even he might not make it back.” The Sound of Her Voice has recently been picked up for overseas publication by a major multinational publisher, and will be released in Britain and elsewhere in 2019. Below, Blackwell recalls how his book came to be.)

I’m definitely not the writing type … which is why I’m more surprised than anyone that The Sound of Her Voice came into being. At high school I was very average at English, and my reading experiences consisted of battling my way through The Hungry Caterpillar and The Little Yellow Digger. (I’m almost finished with the latter, but it’s tough going). The police never entered my head as a career option. I always wanted to be an air force pilot, but that wasn’t to be: when it came to the crunch, my eyesight wasn’t good enough. (No doubt my brain wasn’t good enough either, but I didn’t get far enough to find out). I was in the New Zealand Army Reserve, but was convinced I didn’t want to be wet, cold, tired, and hungry for a full-time job—so I looked around, saw a police recruitment ad, and thought I’d give it a go.

My time in the police is really how Voice began; my own experiences, my own thoughts, my own opinions—all contributed. I wasn’t a blue-flamer setting the world on fire in my early days. I went to 111 calls, I wrote traffic tickets, I loved some parts of the job and hated others. I never wanted to be a detective, didn’t like the look of the paperwork, the hours, the pressure. But as usually happens when you don’t want something to turn out a certain way … before you know it, it’s happening. My recollection is that I spent two weeks photocopying several dozen reams of paper for a senior boss. Literally two weeks on my feet, staring at the paper tray, pressing that big green button. I’d probably have preferred shoving a fork into my eye several hundred times over. But although I was young, I’d come from the army, so I didn’t cry about it. A month later I was on the detective selection and induction course, as a reward of sorts. I was totally unsure of myself, although whoever had nominated me obviously didn’t share my lack of confidence. (Either that or they got some names mixed up—I guess I’ll never know.) That course was an academic beating, offering a lot of information to absorb. Statutes, policies, serious crime procedures—all had to be learned and regurgitated word for word. I managed to get through it somehow.

What followed in the years after were some of the best moments of my life, and a few I’d rather forget. I got to travel the country working murders and other high-profile cases. I chased leads, examined crime scenes, interviewed people from every corner of society. I drowned in paperwork, but I really did love it. And I learned a lot about people in the process. When I started to realize that the prostitutes, the gang members, and the drug dealers were all much more helpful and nicer to me than the rich North Shore kids whose parents were doctors, my worldview was flipped on its head. The way I policed changed. There was no such thing as “us versus them” or black and white. There was a lot of gray. I empathized a great deal. There’s a lot of that in Voice—bad people do good things, and good people do bad things. That’s what drew me into the covert side of the job; that type of work is all people-oriented. How people think and feel, what influences their behavior. Some of that training, and some of that work definitely helped me create the character of Matt Buchanan. It helped me make the inside of his head a realistic, though sometimes cringe-worthy place to be.

Outside of the job, I found myself constantly explaining to mates and family that police work wasn’t like it was portrayed on television, or in books, or in films. It was just people doing their job. But a job where you’re directly exposed to things most people only ever read about or watch on those same TV shows. It bugged me for years, the lack of true information out there … and eventually I had this idea to write something, to show what actually goes on. Reality, though, is boring. So an initial idea to tell the story of police work in a factual way morphed into a single line on my bucket list: “Write a novel.” That was probably seven or eight years ago now, and at the time that’s as far as I could get. (Bucket lists aren’t actually achievable, right?) Every now and then I would type paragraphs, but they were crap. The Sound of Her Voice began as a weird revenge story, and it just wasn’t going to work. I tried to come up with this whole elaborate plot before I even started writing, and it was terrible. I got disheartened, and forgot about it. In the meantime, I worked some cases that left little seeds—cold cases, missing people, suicides. They sat there in my head, waiting for something to shake it all loose again.

The novels vying for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards.

That “something” came years later when I had a beer with a former workmate, Simon Wyatt. He would go on to publish a crime novel called The Student Body in 2016, but this beer meeting I’m talking about took place a good 18 months before that, so sometime in 2014, I think. Wyatt mentioned that he was working on this book, and the idea hooked me. He gave me a lot of advice around writing, and how important reading was, and I went away thinking, “Yup, let’s do this, give it a proper go.” I took a different approach to storytelling this time, though. Rather than try and come up with the whole complicated plot first, I just wrote various unconnected scenes that I thought I’d like to read in a story.

Around that same period I began reading in earnest—novels by Ian Rankin, Lee Child, Val McDermid, Stephen King. I’d been a big military-thriller fan before that, consuming works by Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. I became a sponge, worked out what I liked reading and what I didn’t. I liked dark, psychological crime stories, but I also loved the first-person narrative of the thriller writers. Voice morphed from third-person (which I’d been struggling with) into a first-person narrative, which came far more naturally to me.

This was also a time when I was watching some gritty television shows—The Killing, True Detective, The Wire. Those shows helped me write. I learnt that setting is important, that dialogue is important, but most of all, that what goes on in people’s heads is important. I wanted to write something dark, where the characters and their thoughts carried the grisly story. And I wanted the main character’s head to be an uncomfortable place to hang around in, but I also wanted him to be someone readers could relate to.

Eventually, I ended up with a few-hundred-odd scenes written down, and from there it wasn’t a stretch to stitch them together with the bare bones of a story line. Of course I got rid of plenty of scenes, added others … but once I had an idea of where the story was going, I just couldn’t write enough. I was really enjoying it, joining all the pieces together. It was a bit like an investigation: I have these pieces, how do they fit together? How do I get from here to there? I tried to be hard on myself, always critiquing my own work. I’d break for a week, come back to the book, and read what I had written before. I’d delete things and start again. If I thought what I had written sounded too corny, or too implausible, I’d rewrite it. I had to keep some fictional conventions in there, but for the most part I just wanted an interesting story that might be difficult to read in places, but would be a credible inside view of the New Zealand Police. Many of the police characters in Voice were inspired in some way by my former colleagues, either individuals or combinations of them.

I farmed out early drafts to a few trusted people, people who I knew would give unrestrained feedback. I went back and rewrote a lot after that. When I thought I was pretty much done, I got ahold of Auckland-based Mary Egan Publishing, which had produced Simon’s The Student Body. I thought that company had done a great job with his novel, and I didn’t think my story was near good enough for a wide audience, so I didn’t even bother showing the manuscript to anyone else. Mary Egan and her daughters did a fantastic job working over my manuscript, and The Sound of Her Voice is the result. I still can’t quite believe the book exists. But my efforts showed me that pretty much anything can be done, if you have the time and the desire. There are plenty more stories to tell. And if you’re still struggling to read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, because it’s above your reading level, just think of me. I’m still on page 4.


Rick Robinson said...

It sounds wonderful, and I’d very much like to read the book, but it seems to be completely unavailable. Even Amazon doesn’t have it, and the publisher's link goes to a NZ bookstore where the page says “item not found”.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, Rick:

From what I can tell, Blackwell's The Sound of Her Voice is set to be released in Great Britain in April 2019. That's according to Amazon UK:

Meanwhile, the online book retailer Fishpond has the original edition of that book on sale for $28.88. Here's the link:


Rick Robinson said...

Thanks! I'll look forward to the UK edition.

Kiwicraig said...

Hey Rick just a heads-up that the UK version of THE SOUND OF HER VOICE comes out this week, on 18 April (in trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook), so hopefully you can grab a copy more easily then.