Where are you from? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in bland, sunny Perth, the second of four sisters. Mum’s side of the family came from Malta, Dad’s from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and my stepmother from Indonesia. There were always two homes. There was always swimming and 40°C summers. I was always bad at sports, good at words. I won a writing contest when I was seven for a story about our tropical fish. In my early teens, I mostly read DOLLY. In my late teens, I started on stuff like Dostoyevsky. I went through a lot of weird obsessions, like enneagrams and Objectivism. I yearned to rebel but I had ‘cool parents’. I graduated high school young. I did a semester at UWA, then spent the rest of the year stacking shelves and borrowing my sister’s ID to go clubbing. In 2008, I started a BA at Melbourne University, gravitated toward creative writing, and haven’t really looked back.
What was the editorial process for this book like?
My editor, Marika Webb-Pullman, sat down with me and discussed the collection as a whole, but also individual stories. She was great at articulating – or helping me to articulate – certain shortcomings, and giving concrete suggestions on how to deal with these. A lot of the time, this involved clarifying motivations, making characters more active, less opaque. There was a level of opacity that I wanted to keep though, and Marika was respectful of this. Some stories we barely changed beyond a few words and commas. Others were extended and enriched. I hadn’t looked at the stories for several months before editing started, so I had some critical distance, which helped.
How did you come to write these stories? What drew you to them?
After finishing my first novel, The Wood of Suicides, I started casting around for new subjects, reading about legendary women, historical women, criminal women. I guess I knew that I wanted to write about ‘women and violence’, ‘women and power’, ‘women and history’. I reignited my interest in the Moors Murderers, who I first read about in high school. I became interested in fundamentalist Mormon women. I became interested in Eva Braun, who died alone in a room with Hitler but who no one really talks about. It occurred to me that I had a collection.
What kind of research did you do?
It wasn’t particularly hands-on or organised, but it was extensive. I started with books like Raven by Tim Reiterman and One of Your Own by Carol Ann Duffy—well-written, in-depth true crime. I read some trashy true crime. I read memoirs by survivors like Jaycee Dugard and Colleen Stan. I watched some excellent documentaries, run-of-the-mill miniseries, and half-hour TV specials with spooky title fonts and booming American voice-overs. YouTube blessed me with things like Eva Braun’s home movies and Brian David Mitchell’s FBI interview. There was also what I call “immersion” – collecting images, listening to music, watching films, and reading books specific to certain characters and the times/ places they lived in.
Most of the stories in The Love of a Bad Man are set in the US but there are also some set in Canada, England and Australia. Why is this?
America is the land of true crime. I don’t know why. It probably has something to do with Hollywood or all the guns. I was afraid of the collection becoming monotonously US-centric though, and of Australian readers thinking, “she’s trying way too hard to be American.” I sought out other stories – everything from Sawney Bean to Futoshi Matsunaga – but, in the end, restricted myself to the 20th-century west. It was what felt most accessible to me, in terms of culture and language and the amount of research I was capable of.
Each woman has a very distinctive voice. How did you find a voice for each of these women?
Immersion, as I mentioned above. Music was especially important, and I had particular songs and albums that I listened to repeatedly for particular stories. Whenever possible, I watched video footage of the actual women I was writing about, listened to their voices. This was an advantage of keeping my focus on the 20th century. I read court transcripts, letters, diary entries, and got a feel for their voices this way too. I used resources like the Historical Dictionary of American Slang for era-specific colloquialisms. Finally, there were calculated stylistic choices, such as using present tense for certain narrators and past for others.
What about these women were you trying to convey?
Subjectivity, above all. Media depictions of these women, and criminal women in general, tend to skew toward certain stereotypes: the hag, the femme fatale, the brainwashed victim, etc. I didn’t want to absolve these women of their crimes but I did want to add nuance to their depictions, to present them as subjects. I’m interested in conveying subjectivity, in a broad sense; the complexity of selves.
What about masculinity were you trying to say?
I wasn’t trying to come to conclusions about masculinity so much as using it as a tool to explore other themes. I saw the bad men as archetypes, supporting characters, the light and shadows casting the female narrators into relief. That’s not to say I didn’t think of the men as individuals; it was interesting to read about their idiosyncracies, their unique modes of manipulation. Most of the men I wrote about were power-hungry and resembled each other on this level, however. The women often didn’t fit this mould, or not so obviously anyway. I’m intrigued by power, generally, and the different ways we seek it out and define ourselves in relation to it.
Do you think there is pressure put on writers to write what publishers think will sell? If so, how did this affect your choice of form/content?
It’s widely accepted that most writers are doomed to be poor. For me, “selling” has never been my first concern. I write about things that I find interesting, and I’m confident enough in my own mind to believe other people will be interested too. While writing The Love of a Bad Man, I was told that “short stories are a hard sell” but also “this is a really cool idea”. So there was a sense that it could go either way. Writing is always a huge gamble, in terms of time spent vs. the likelihood of concrete rewards, so you may as well write what amuses you.
Can you tell me briefly about the next book you’re writing?
A novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, about a newly-wed couple who become involved with Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in the summer of 1968. It follows them all the way to the Jonestown massacre of 1978. It actually originated with a story about Jones’ mistress, Carolyn Moore Layton. I didn’t end up including it, as she was a character who didn’t quite make sense to me on a first-person, narrator level (I did include a story about Jones’ wife though). I tried pursuing the idea as a TV pilot for a while, but I prefer the poetry and expansiveness of third-person prose. It’s a little over half-written and already longer than The Love of a Bad Man, so it’ll be a doorstopper by the time it’s done. Feminartsy actually published an excerpt last year.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s debut short-story collection The Love of a Bad Man is out now.