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Louise Milligan has made her name with hard-hitting journalism. This year, she released her debut novel, Pheasants Nest. The award-winning investigative reporter spoke to Kill Your Darlings editor Suzy Garcia about transferring her skills to fiction writing, drawing inspiration from real-life stories and why Ireland always has a special place in her heart.

You’ve published non-fiction books Cardinal and Witness, with some very high stakes involved. Does Pheasants Nest feel different? 

It feels completely different. It was like therapy by comparison! (Laughs.) Those books were passion projects that I felt very strongly about, that I really needed to write. But they were long-form journalism, and you have to be so forensic and careful in your approach to make sure that you get everything right. And that’s not to say that you don’t research things for fiction, but you can let your imagination run wild.

So does that mean you were less nervous?

Oh, not even close to nervous. I just wrote it in a fever. I couldn’t stop. The characters were in my bones, and I just had to keep going. I loved it so much, and I’m now evangelical about writing fiction. I tell people, ‘You’ve got to write a book, it’s so great!’

The plot follows a kidnapping case, and includes the perspective of the victim. How did the story come about? 

The story came about in 2015 after I had covered the terrible murder of Jill Meagher, who worked for the ABC before I did. And I had been the first person to interview her husband, Tom. It was such a tragic situation, and she seemed like such a great person. It started off being a way of coming to terms with that.

At the time, I was also driving up the Hume Highway a fair bit, in that stretch of road that the book is set on. I’ve always found that a very kind of creepy part of the world—a lot of terrible things have happened there. For instance, Ivan Milat murdered backpackers there, and on Pheasants Nest Bridge there were two boys who got stuck in the pylons and died. I’ve known about all of this through my journalism. When I was a court reporter at the Australian years ago, I covered a coronial inquest about a death that had happened at the Pheasants Nest Bridge. Someone had thrown themselves off it. The thing that really struck me when I was covering that was the post-traumatic stress disorder toll that working at this place had on the local police. They had to pick up so many bodies from the bottom of the bridge. So, I remember my husband was driving the car, we had the kids in the back, and this story just started coming to me, about a policeman who was suffering from PTSD, who was in this location and who was desperate to find a kidnapped journalist before it was too late.

I’m now evangelical about writing fiction. I tell people, ‘You’ve got to write a book, it’s so great!’

So that sort of percolated around in my mind, and I wrote some chapters, and then my journalism work got very busy. Seven years went by. The chapters just stayed on my computer, and I wanted to come back. Writing fiction was an escape from my day job. When I decided to go back and look at it, I was like, this is actually good. I got going again, and I’m really glad I did.

In your acknowledgments, you thank detectives who helped you with research on the novel. What did that involve?

Just running things by them. For example, there’s a critical moment that involves CCTV, and I just asked them how that would actually work. They were really lovely and helpful.

Pheasants Nest features the protagonist Kate, an investigative journalist, whose vocation you share. What made you decide to write a character with this career, so close to home?

I had so much to draw from because I’ve been a journalist for twenty-four years. I’ve got so many stories. And not just the stories that I covered, but the stories within the stories, and behind the stories, and the stories of what goes on in the newsrooms. I have been privy to so many things: awful things, funny things, crazy things… And readers generally don’t peer behind the curtain. You just see the story that goes to air or the story that ends up in print. But behind all of that, there are all sorts of interesting things going on.

There were so many reflections that I could bring to the novel about the world of journalism and the way that it intersects with the world of crime. I thought they were quite fresh, a different take on a genre, I suppose. Not that I ever wrote it from the point of view that I was writing a crime novel. I just wrote the book that I wanted to write, and it just happened to have a crime at the centre of it.

Did you find that some of your journalistic skills were transferable in terms of crafting the work?

Definitely in terms of having got into the discipline of writing.

I read that you had a paragraph-a-day writing rule with this novel. As someone who is quite prolific, and used to meeting strict deadlines, do you have any other productivity tips that you swear by?

Working like a lunatic. (Laughs.) Working all the hours. Being completely obsessed with your craft. Not really having a great work-life balance. There’s no magic trick. It’s really just being kind of a bit obsessed with it. I’m not very good at switching off.

The crux of the story is not about finding the perp but rather the effect of the crime. What was your ethos around this approach? 

Because I have spoken to hundreds of victims of sexual crimes over the years, I really wanted the victim-survivor to be at the centre and for her voice to be the loudest voice, instead of the silenced voice, which is so often the case in crime fiction, and TV series and movies. The victim is often dead and depersonalised. And I really didn’t want that to be the case.

I really wanted the victim-survivor to be at the centre and for her voice to be the loudest voice.

It’s not a whodunit. It’s about the people and what they’re going through, because it’s something that I’ve borne witness to in my work. And I’m fascinated by it, fascinated by people, and I wanted to create characters that were real. Flawed but really likeable. People that you wanted to stay with. People you wanted the best for. One of the early reviews said that they were the sort of people that you wanted for your friends. I was so delighted because that’s how I kind of felt about them, like I started to feel like they were my imaginary friends.

Was it important for you to balance the grim elements with some reprieve?

Totally. Lightness and shade. It’s how we get by as journalists doing this work. It’s how people in other industries where they deal with traumatic material get by. Gallows humour. And that’s how Kate Delaney, the protagonist, gets by. She draws on her sense of humour, and she draws on her journo powers to survive in a really awful situation.

I also, personally, don’t enjoy books that are just unrelentingly awful. I think maybe because I have had a lot of secondary trauma myself, I just can’t deal with that. I wanted to write a book that was going to be a fun experience, as well as having some real darkness.

The story also involves a tightly wound race against time. I was wondering how you approach the craft of writing the story. Are you a plotter or a pantser? 

Definitely a pantser. I didn’t plot it all out. I did that more with my non-fiction because it had to be very structured, but with this novel it was just a joy and a release.

People have said to me that the book is really well-structured. I think that comes from the discipline that I’ve had over many years writing Four Corners scripts, which have to have a narrative arc. But it really was just a happy accident. I was just writing it, and this was how it was coming out, and it didn’t change very much at all once I gave it to the publisher.

Did anything about the editing process surprise you?

No, not really, because I had written two non-fiction books. So I was kind of used to the process, and it wasn’t punishing. It got longer, because it started off quite short, because that’s sort of how it wrote itself. But other than that, the general sort of structure remained the same.

I also, personally, don’t enjoy books that are just unrelentingly awful.

My agent, Jeanne Ryckmans, sent it to publishers with the proviso that I knew that it needed to be longer, and we would work on that. And so I worked with Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin, and she and others there made some suggestions. You know, maybe you want to draw out this character more, maybe you could do this or do that—and they just gave me some simple suggestions. So I went away and developed all of those things. It just got my creative juices flowing all over again, and I came up with a whole lot of extra stuff. But it was never a difficult process. It just came really naturally. I really loved working with Allen & Unwin.

Which writers and books helped or inspired this journey into fiction?

I really love Dickens. I’m a bit of a nerd about Dickens, because I feel like he had this really incredible way of crafting character. Characters that were super super vivid and we can still conjure these people hundreds of years later. Like Uriah Heep, for instance, from David Copperfield or a Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I love the way that he describes place and I love the way that he describes people. So he is the writer that I come back to more often than any other. Which is quite strange, considering he was writing in the nineteenth century. But I really love his work.

He’s also one of the most influential social novelists, which lends itself to your work. This story touches on sexual violence and the criminal justice system. What compels you to continue to focus on these themes in your writing?

They just come to me, to be honest. It’s not like I go out searching for those things. It’s the old rule, right? You write what you know. And I know these things. But it was also a way of taking away the heaviness of it by making it a creative process. When I came back to Pheasants Nest, years down the track, I was at a very dark part of my journalistic journey. I was really low, and this was therapy for me, a way of escaping how I was feeling at the time, and it worked a treat. I came out the other side, and I just felt so much better.

Voice and place are strong elements in the book. It feels like a quintessentially Australian book in that sense. How did you go about capturing setting?

I certainly went up and down the Hume again lots of times, and I just watched. I looked for the little details, you know, like how the light changed. At the Pheasants Nest Bridge, for instance, there was discarded disposable nappies and the little roadside tributes to people who had died there. I learned that the fake flowers had been sodden by the rain and had faded. Just all that texture. The plants, the birds, the animals—being set in Pheasants Nest, I sort of had a bit of a bird element that goes through the novel. I just wanted to play with the landscape, make it a character in the book as much as the other characters were.

What are you up to next, and does it involve any more fiction writing? 

Absolutely, I’m writing another novel. I’ve had to take a break to launch Pheasants Nest, and I’ve had a very busy time at work lately as well. But I’m really excited about this next book. It’s going to be set partially in Ireland, my birth country. It’s going to have a lot more of my experience of being a migrant in it.

I’ve already been twice in the past year to research, and I’ll definitely be back again. When I go to Dublin, I just walk around and soak up the place. Whenever I go there, I just feel like these are my people, this is where I’m meant to be. It’s that really beautiful, vivid feeling. The interesting thing about being a migrant is that you’re always stuck between cultures, and so as soon as I open my mouth, I’m an outsider there. I think that’s a really good tension to explore in a novel. And it’s something that has been explored in the literary canon, for sure, but it’s something that’s very close to my heart.

Pheasants Nest is out now via Allen & Unwin.