Authors Clementine Ford, Rose Carlyle and Marian Keyes just can't get enough of Jacqueline Bublitz's debut novel, Before You Knew My Name.
With rave reviews continuing to pour in, including in the Guardian, the gripping crime novel has been sitting tight on the bestseller charts across New Zealand since its release.
We talked to Jacqueline about her runaway success, her obsession with New York City, writing red herrings, how a real-life murder inspired her story and what it's like to have publishers and agents vying for rights to your first book.
What is your day job?
I currently get to write full time and have just finished the latest draft of my new novel.
What is your connection to Vic Books?
Debut author who is very grateful for your support (and needs to come visit!)
What are you working on at the moment?
My second novel is finally coherent - the manuscript is now with my publishers, and we will be working through edits together over the next few months. In many ways, book two is thematically and stylistically similar to Before You Knew My Name, though the setting is small town New Zealand this time around, which has proved to be a unique and exciting challenge for this recently returned Kiwi.
Congratulations on your first book! Before You Knew My Name is a gripping page turner and has been compared to Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones. What was your inspiration for the novel?
Thank you - the support from fellow Kiwis has been amazing, and I feel very grateful! The inspiration for the over-arching story was the real-life murder of a woman in Melbourne back in 2014, that happened just down the road from where I was living at the time. A jogger found her body, and outside of my obvious distress at what had happened to yet another young woman in my supposedly safe city, I couldn't stop thinking about how traumatic that must have been for the jogger. After doing a little research, I realised I wanted to further explore the connection one might form with the victim, and the crime itself, if you were the person who discovered the body. The decision to have Alice narrate the story after her death came a little later, when I understood this would enable me to play with some of the more traditional aspects of the crime genre, simply through shifting the perspective.
As to The Lovely Bones, it was a definite lodestar throughout the writing process, in that Sebold so effortlessly made her posthumous narrator compelling, and somehow, for the most part at least - believable. It was important to me that Before You Knew My Name remained grounded in real life emotions and experiences, even if there is a so-called ghost telling the story.
What challenges did writing as a posthumous narrator bring to your writing process?
I didn't want having Alice tell her story to feel in any way like a trick. I was determined not to 'cheat' by having increasingly fantastical things happen to her, or through her, to propel the narrative forward, which meant I needed to build a set of boundaries and laws for her experiences after death that might help explain why she could do some things, and not others. There was also the challenge of giving away her death on the very first page. How do you keep the tension from there? Equally, I wanted to avoid coming too close to any established notions of life after death; I didn't want to offer up a version of 'heaven' for example. Instead, I wanted readers to be able to bring their own beliefs or comforts to that aspect of the story. I do believe that the dead are never truly lost to us, but I'm not trying to answer any of the big, universal questions with this one!
Were the two women in the novel, Alice and Ruby, inspired by anyone? As women from Melbourne and New York, do they reflect your time spent in these two cities?
All of the characters in Before You Knew My Name are an amalgam of real people and experiences, and my observations of the world, but no one is based on a particular person. I like to borrow quirks and traits from interesting people I meet, and I definitely like to explore patterns I see play out when it comes to human nature, especially around love and relationships; the intention is that there is something recognisable, whether appealing or otherwise, in each and every person you meet in the story. My own time in New York definitely informed the novel. Those five months I spent in New York at the beginning of the writing process, I was getting to know the city and the characters at the same time. It felt like I took them with me everywhere, and a lot of my euphoria, but also my loneliness, made it into the story, as reflected by Alice and Ruby's sometimes equal, often opposite experiences of the city. I call that my 'method' period of writing, ha.
New York City is almost a character in your novel - what are your favourite books and movies about the Big Apple? And any favourite haunts you can share with us?
My obsession with New York City started with the musical Annie. It just seemed like the most glamorous place in the world to a five year old, especially Radio City Music Hall! Then the TV show Fame sent me right over the edge. As a kid, I genuinely thought people danced in the streets, and you either worked on Wall Street - or Broadway. I didn't get to New York for the first time until I was in my 20's, and it was one of the few faraway places that lived up to my dreams of it (outside of people dancing in the streets), right from the beginning. I'm not even sure I can fully explain it, but it does seem people either love or hate New York from the moment they arrive. It's not a city to be neutral about, right?
Regarding my favourite haunts, I loved going for runs in both Central Park and Riverside Park (research!), and it always amazed me that these gorgeous, sprawling public spaces have been preserved, not just for tourists, but for locals who go about their lives, having their picnics, playing their soccer games, walking their dogs, in the middle of this huge metropolis. I also loved going to The New York Public Library (pro-tip - they have the best bathrooms in Midtown), but my favourite place in New York, no question, is the West Village piano bar, Marie's Crisis Cafe. I spent many a late night / early morning there, drinking cheap vodka and singing show tunes with the most joyous, talented people. There isn't anything a night at Marie's can't cure.
Before You Knew My Name is causing a stir in the book world and publishers are fighting over rights to publish your book Internationally. Can you describe this experience!
The whole experience happened very quickly - but only after a very long time, if that makes sense. It took me 5+ years to complete the book, and to get an agent, and then a little over a month for the publication deals to start coming in from there. The offers came in at the exact same time as the first Covid lockdowns, so everything from that time feels inextricably linked. Basically the world opened up for me at the same time it sort of collapsed in on itself, and I do wonder if that's why I still find it all hard to believe at times?! Mostly, I feel very, very lucky to have found my people, and to now be a working writer. It's overwhelming sometimes, yes, and I'm often way outside my comfort zone these days. But I never forget how fortunate I am to be here, and what an amazing team I have on my side.
Before You Knew My Name is not your usual whodunnit - it's part romance, part love story to New York, part crime and a tale of female empowerment. How did you go about subverting traditional crime stories to keep the reader on their toes?
With Before You Knew My Name, I wasn't trying to write a crime novel specifically. Or any type of novel, really. If something felt organic to the characters, if it facilitated their connections and their growth, I left it in, including the romance, and the anger, and the grief. It helps that there is a 'whodunnit' aspect, no doubt, because we all like to solve a twisty mystery. But these characters are just as twisty as anything that happens to them, I think, and they reveal just enough to keep you guessing at their real motives. Alice in particular is all about the breadcrumbs - she's only sharing what she wants to, and her withholding works to create a kind of tension that hopefully makes people want to follow her, no matter how unreliable she can be at times. Though it was important to have her firmly at the centre of the story (as opposed to the perpetrator), I will admit I get a kick out of watching people accuse all the different suspects in the story. I had a lot of fun with the red herrings and little clues Alice left along the way, so there might me more crime in me, yet.
Some quick fire book recommendations please!
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (be prepared to cry a lot). Times Like These by Michelle Langstone (also be prepared to cry a lot). Less by Andrew Sean Greer (I wish I could be that heartbreakingly funny). Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (because it's stunningly written). And every thing you've got on the shelves by Rebecca Solnit (my favourite contemporary writer).
What are you reading at the moment?
My TBR pile is massive at the moment, which kind of makes me anxious (because I know I'll only keep adding to it). I just picked up Animal by Lisa Taddeo and have been powering through that on this rainy afternoon.
What do you like about it?
Lisa Taddeo writes the most exquisite sentences. The kind that (seemingly casually) reflect some kind of essential truth in a way you wish you'd thought of yourself. Thus far, Animal feels like it knows what kind of book it wants to be, because Taddeo knows exactly what she wants to write.
Which literary character do you most identify with?
Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing
She is in a constant war with her heart and her head - and I like to think she's better for them both!
Hardback or paperback?
Latte. Or dingy diner coffee at 3am.