Helen Fitzgerald’s latest novel, The Cry, looks set to be one of 2013’s most talked about psychological thrillers. It’s he story of a young couple who suffer every parent’s worst nightmare, the disappearance of their baby. But are Joanna and Alistair as innocent as they seem? The Glasgow-based, Australian-born author was kind enough to join us today to talk about it…
Where did the initial inspiration come from?
Two nightmare flights to Australia. The first was 10 years ago. A few hours after my Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour, I jumped on a plane with my two children, then five and two. I was upset and worried, and not particularly in control of my toddler, who was having great fun running up and down the aisle while I was sobbing in my seat. When the air hostess approached me, I was expecting her to ask if she could help in any way, but she leant down and said: “Your children are upsetting the passengers.”
I went a bit nuts. This is basically what happens to Joanna in the first chapter of the book. Nine years later, I was doing the same trip for the same reason. Dad had recovered first time round, but it came back and there was nothing they could do. I had no children with me for this flight, but the woman in front of me had three under five. They screamed for eight hours, and I wanted to kill her. How quickly we forget… Despite the screaming children, I wrote the final scene of The Cry on that flight.
It’s one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read, how was the experience of writing it?
I hated it. Joanna’s head was a horrible one to be in, and I was SO far in it. I tweeted a lot for support from fellow authors when I was writing. I was obviously sounding so weird and tortured, that my agent emailed me to ask if I was okay as my tweets ‘seemed quite distressed.’
I only introduced the point of view of the ex-wife, Alexandra, because I needed to get away from Joanna and the awful situation she was in. I’m glad I did. Readers need a break too.
Joanna is presented quite sympathetically, in contrast to how real life mothers in this situation are treated by the media. Why do you think they get a rougher ride than the fathers? Was is something you deliberately chose to rebalance?
Absolutely. The crime story I grew up with was the Azaria Chamberlain case. Baby Azaria was taken by a dingo from the family tent at Ayers Rock. Everyone talked about the mother, Lindy, for months – years. She was hounded on TV, in the paper, at bus stops, at dinner parties. She didn’t look right. Not motherly, you know. She was condemned, found guilty, and spent three years in prison. I was in Australia when Kate McCann was getting a hounding and Lindy Chamberlain, who was eventually pardoned, came to her defence. Few people even remember Lindy’s husband’s name, including me.
You got me firmly on Joanna’s side, even when I knew I should be condemning her. Did you want to test your readers moral compass?
I love testing moral compasses, and test mine all the time! But I was always firmly on Joanna’s side. I felt desperately sorry for her. In previous books, some readers have hated my female main characters. ‘She’s a bad mother. She’s nuts. She’s a slut.’ I get quite protective – she’s just honest! I’m expecting some mixed opinions about Joanna too.
What drew you back to your homeland Australia for this one?
I wanted to start with a long-haul flight, so Australia was a natural destination. But also, I’ve wanted to write about the landscape I grew up in for years. As a new writer living in the UK, I was discouraged from doing this at first. I guess I have freer reign now. Writing about Melbourne, Geelong and Point Lonsdale; about the bushfires and the scorching heat, the flatness and the beaches and the never-ending roads, was so emotional. And it was easier too – it just came. I’d love to do another one set there soon.
You’ve had a much more direct experience of criminality than many authors through your previous work with high-risk offenders, how has that informed your writing?
It’s probably made me more empathetic and less judgemental. I don’t have goodies and baddies, just characters.
You can read our review of The Cry here.