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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings Debut Spotlight feature. For November that debut is Prima Facie by Suzie Miller (Pan Macmillan). Drawn from the internationally acclaimed play, Prima Facie is a propulsive, raw look at the price victims pay for speaking out and the system that sets them up to fail. We spoke to Suzie about her publishing journey and writing practice.

Stay tuned later this month for a review of the book from Debut Spotlight critic Simon McDonald, and a video reading from the author on our Instagram.

Can you give a brief summary of Prima Facie for those who haven’t read it yet?

Prima Facie is about a young barrister, Tessa Ensler. Tessa hails from a working-class background yet despite socio-economic barriers wins a scholarship to Cambridge, studies law and now has chambers in London running defence cases in the most prestigious courts. She wins so many of her matters because she is quick thinking, cross-examines brilliantly and thoroughly enjoys the performative element of the courtroom. She loves the law and believes in the system of justice until she finds herself on the other side of the courtroom as a complainant in a rape case. The novel tells Tessa’s story, revealing her inner thoughts and self-talk as she moves through the system that once was the basis of her voice and power. This time it is different, and she finds herself questioning and interrogating the very system she held dear.

Your debut novel is drawn from your internationally acclaimed one-woman play of the same name. As a playwright, can you tell us about what it was like to turn this story into a novel? What challenges came up, and were the benefits to this format that you hadn’t encountered before in your playwrighting?

Turning a play into a novel seems like I did things backwards, but strangely there was great power going from play to novel. The play allowed me to understand the entire journey that Tessa went on, and so when I began the novel I could lean right into the character and be robust about revealing so much of her backstory, her understanding of the law, her values and revelations. I also really enjoyed being able to show the vulnerability of her family members yet also reveal the strength they had in the face of her despair. How the family she had left behind as she enjoyed her career and new life in London, were the ones who knew how to stand strongly beside her throughout the long legal waiting period and the trial itself. A family without money but who knew how to love fiercely.

Turning a play into a novel seems like I did things backwards, but strangely there was great power going from play to novel.

I enjoyed the process of writing a long-form story like this one immensely. Firstly, I was writing for an audience of one rather than a thousand people a night in the theatre; secondly, the joy of being able to write deeply into that intimacy enabled me to excavate the complexities of Tessa’s mind and emotional journey by revealing what she thinks as well as what she says and does. This was an exciting move for me—I could lay her heart out and express her inner feelings of anxiety, despair and vulnerability, explore what she found amusing or disingenuous while juxtaposing that against what she actually says in the situation.

The nuance of this process was very pleasing as a writer. The difference in being able to stretch out and write into the story rather than the usual playwright anxiety of knowing there is a short stage period within which the entire story must be told meant that the darlings I had to kill in the play were able to be resurrected and explored deeply thereby adding texture and dimension to the story. I think before I began the story in the novel version I was worried that the tension might not carry through to a long form, but in some ways I think the thriller aspect of the book is very strong in the final product. The pulling back of the curtain to reveal some of the realities and nuances of legal practice made for greater reveals later in the story.

What does your writing process look like? Any particular strategies or philosophies that help you find inspiration or put words on the page?

I write very intensely when I begin to write a story, be it a novel or a play, even a film or TV series. And once I begin I become obsessed with the particular form and story I am writing. People often say ‘the story wrote itself’ but for me I mull over it for a long time and then when it feels ‘cooked’ I start and cannot stop. I always talk about writing as being the process of diving to the bottom of the ocean and sitting on the seabed—you have to be in a particular mood with a sense of limitless time, a buffer from the real world in some way, a sense (real or otherwise) that there are no distractions to take you away. I write and write, then I walk around in the fog of the story, then write some more. It feels that the story then just flows out of me.

People often say ‘the story wrote itself’ but for me I mull over it for a long time and then when it feels ‘cooked’ I start and cannot stop.

You always know when there is enough material in your mind that has formed into a certain shape that allows you to feel ready to begin the story writing, and then it really is just about facilitating the story emerging by using the restraint, flow and craft required. I hasten to add that the period where the story is ‘cooking’ or ‘brewing’ in my mind is a strange magical period. I like walking alone (or with my dog) and letting the story fall into place. I consider that period of walking and thinking as significant to the creative process as sitting at the desk and actually writing.

What’s one thing you know now about the writing and publishing journey that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I wish I had known how supportive and fun the people in publishing are! The love and care they put into making your book the best it can be is unmatched. I also loved touring with the publishing and PR people, meeting readers and being in conversation with others about the story. It was the most fun I have had for ages. I would have done this years ago if I had known this!

What other writers or books influenced your writing (either this book specifically or your writing more broadly)? Are there any great books you’ve read lately that you’d like to recommend to KYD readers?

This book was mainly influenced by my own play, and legal research. The voice is very much my own, and the urgency of telling probably is part of my playwright’s mind. The books I have adored reading recently include:

Anna Funder’s Wifedom is a really smart and brilliantly composed book that is hard to put down.

Andrea Elliott’s (Pulitzer Prize winner) brilliant, albeit long book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City which explores in a wonderfully readable, narrative style the story of one (real) child’s journey through poverty in NYC.

Elizabeth Strout’s books: Oh William!, My Name is Lucy Barton and Lucy by the Sea.

I have also been rereading everything by Richard Ford and, I reread Rebecca Solnit’s Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.

What impact do you hope your book will have on its readers?

I would love to think that it makes people laugh, cry, understand some of the nuances of the legal system and want to place this book in the hands of other people, have conversations about it, think about the issues it raises and consider all our own roles that can contribute to changing the way we think about sexual consent. I would also like to think that anyone who has experienced a situation similar to the main character Tessa somehow feels more confident in their own truth and knows this is never their shame to carry despite the rape myths that society are infected by.

Prima Facie is available now from your local independent bookseller.