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Q & A: The inspiration for Caleb Zelic and Those Who Perish

What inspired you to write Caleb as a deaf character? 

Caleb’s deafness adds a lot of natural tension to the novels. There’s a constant danger someone could sneak up behind him, or that he could miss an important clue because he’s lipreading. But it goes a lot deeper than that. Some of the inspiration for his character comes from my own outsider status, and some from my grandparents who were Croatian immigrants. They didn’t speak English and I wasn’t raised to speak Croatian, so when they came to live with us when I was seven or eight, our inability to communicate loomed pretty large in my life.

Despite all that, it took me months to start writing the first Caleb novel, Resurrection Bay. I was a professional clarinettist for many years, so I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about sound. Writing about deafness felt too far from what I knew. But I couldn’t get Caleb out of my head, so I eventually began what ended up being five years of writing and research. I spoke to people in the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, did an online lipreading course and tried out my lipreading skills in the world. Quickly realized I didn’t have anyI missed buses and received the wrong food in cafes, couldn’t understand anyone with a beard. My mishaps helped me understand Caleb’s stubborn streak, and also wonder if I should make his life a little easier by occasionally letting him use Australian sign language (Auslan). Where lipreading is exhausting and difficult, Auslan is a natural and expressive language. I enrolled in a class and realised within minutes that it would also be the perfect way to show Caleb’s closeness with other characters. So I continued learning Auslan and Caleb signs with the people he loves. 

Caleb Zelic is a true outsider. Is this something you identify with yourself?

It’s a bit of a cliche for a writer, but I have to say yes. I’ve often had my feet in two different worlds: a working class kid who became a classical musician, an author whose grandparents were illiterate. But where my experiences most line-up with Caleb’s is that I’ve got ADHD. Although the name conjures up ‘annoying kid who can’t concentrate’, it’s a lot more complex than that. It makes a lot of day-to-day things challenging, as the ‘normal’ world doesn’t quite make sense to me. But it’s also a gift as a writer. Just as Caleb’s deafness makes him an astute investigator, ADHD makes me very observant – when you don’t instinctively understand the rules of the world, you tend to become a keen people-watcher.

What new challenges does Caleb face in THOSE WHO PERISH?

After a few rough years, Caleb’s life is finally back on track  –  he’s reconciled with his beloved ex-wife and is looking forward to his impending fatherhood. Even his recent commitment to only accepting safe cases is keeping him entertained as he investigates the ‘kidnapping’ of his hometown’s cherished footy mascot, Ned the Numbat. But his new-found happiness is threatened when he receives an anonymous message that his estranged brother, Anton, is in danger. A man has been shot and Anton might be next. Caleb reluctantly leaves his pregnant wife’s side and tracks Ant to a remote island. When the sniper starts terrorising the isolated community, the brothers have to rely on each other to survive. 

Were you happy with the finale to Caleb’s journey?

Once it fell into place it felt exactly right. I wanted to capture the feeling that Caleb and his friends would still be there, going about their lives long after the reader had closed the book. But I haven’t quite said my final goodbyes yet. Although it feels right to end this series here, I love writing Caleb’s character, so I can see myself revisiting him in a few years to see how he’s getting on.

How do you go about building a series while ensuring that each title can also be read as a standalone novel?

It’s a bit like designing a building. Each book in the series is a self-contained room. You can walk straight in and explore just that space, or start at the front door and explore the entire building. My job is to make all of it architecturally cohesive but still interesting, whether it’s for a first time visitor, or an old acquaintance. 

To keep the story flowing I give readers the information they need by threading it through the first few chapters. The tricky part is to do it in a way that’s meaningful. I often pin a memory to an object or place. I might link Caleb’s past marital woes to the kind of tea his wife drinks, or show his childhood closeness with his brother by describing a game of dare they used to play in a neighbour’s garden.

I did make things a little hard for myself, because I wanted to avoid the cliche of an investigator who lurches from case to case, book to book, incapable of change, so Caleb’s evolved a lot over the series. I’m always rapt when readers message to say that they jumped in at book 2 or 3 and understood him immediately.

Which writers inspired you when writing this series?

I think every book I’ve ever read has influenced me in some way, even ones I’ve hated (No, I’m not going to name names!) Some writers I’ve loved and reread in recent years are Dorothy Porter, Peter Temple, Jock Serong and Kate Atkinson, along with many non-crime writers from Melissa Lucashenko to Elizabeth Strout. All very different authors but their writing jumps off the page.

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