Catherine Lea is a thriller writer whose latest book, The Water’s Dead, is New Zealand’s answer to Vera Stanhope. It’s the first in a new Kiwi crime series, a thriller with surprising twists.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and on Binge Reading today Catherine talks about her new character, Detective Inspector Nyree Bradshaw and her race against time to solve a murder where everyone has something to hide and no one is telling the truth. If she fails, it’s likely a child dies. It’s the first in a new series.
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Links to information mentioned in the show:
Ann Cleeves: https://www.anncleeves.com/
Ruth Rendell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Rendell
Ngaire Dawn Porter: https://www.nzonscreen.com/profile/nyree-dawn-porter/biography
Elizabeth McClaine Mystery series: https://www.authorcatherinelea.com/books
The Dry by Jane Harper: https://janeharper.com.au/books/the-dry
Where to find Catherine Lea:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now, here’s Catherine.
Introducing thriller author Catherine Lea
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Catherine and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Catherine Lea: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be there with you.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s wonderful, almost a novelty to have a fellow New Zealander. I don’t deliberately choose or not choose Kiwis. I choose people who fit the books we’re doing, but it’s lovely to have somebody who’s writing those books in New Zealand.
Catherine Lea: Thank you. That’s why I decided to write the books in New Zealand. I’ve got some set in the States. When I started writing – I put my first book out in 2013 – somebody said, don’t set them in New Zealand for goodness sake, nobody will ever read them. Set them in the States. So that’s what I did.
And of course, then the process began. I decided to set a politically based thriller and boy, their politics are quite different to ours. It was such a lot of research. I thought, you know what? I know far more about New Zealand. We have got such an amazing country, such diverse cultures, so much flavor, so much brilliance and the country is so beautiful. Why not set them here?
Jenny Wheeler: To backtrack a bit, you write thrillers with heart, as your website says, and you have done several international page-turners. We will get to those a little later on because they are worth talking about, but your latest book, the one we’re focusing on because it has just come out, is called The Water’s Dead. It’s a police procedural set in the far north of New Zealand where you live.
Writing a police procedural a new game
That is a bit of a change for you, and it’s good to get in right at the beginning and talk a little bit about why you it made that. Was it different writing a psychological thriller to a police procedural?
Catherine Lea: Yes, it is a lot different because you’re looking at your main character coming at a crime from a different angle. I had to do a lot of research on police procedure in New Zealand because it’s quite different to procedure overseas in very subtle ways. We think that the police just do this job and get out there and drag in suspects, but the amount of background work that goes on that you never ever get to see is amazing.
But if you wrote a real police procedural – and I think most police would agree with this – it would be absolutely boring because they put so much work in that we never see.
Jenny Wheeler: So much need to follow procedure.
Catherine Lea: Yes, whereas when you’ve got an amateur sleuth they can make up their own rules. They can do whatever they want, but they are not a party to a lot of the information that the police have, so it’s how you approach the story. It has got to hit all those notes and have something to say.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. It has been described as a New Zealand version of Vera Stanhope, referring to Ann Cleeves’ bestselling British crime series, the popular TV show, Vera. Was Ann Cleeves any sort of inspiration to you or is that just serendipity that happened when somebody thought, oh gosh, this is like Vera.
Ann Cleeves’ ‘Vera’ an inspiration
Catherine Lea: I did think that. I thought, this is kind of like Vera in New Zealand. I was so influenced not just by Ann Cleeves, but by all the great British writers. Ruth Rendell I’ve been reading those for years, Colin Dexter. A lot of them are police procedurals, and I love that.
I love a lot of the American writers as well, but this could be likened to Ann Cleeves because I want to get that small town feel, the police dealing with all kinds of people, and bring in the feeling of the towns.
Jenny Wheeler: Your central character is a detective inspector called Nyree Bradshaw. She is a battle-hardened cop, she’s experienced, she’s working in a beautiful but impoverished region of New Zealand. Now, even that picture of New Zealand might clash a bit with people’s general touristy ideas of New Zealand because it’s a part of New Zealand the tourists probably wouldn’t ever see.
I’m correcting that because you do have a couple of tourists who find a body, but they are not really part of the community, they’re just passing through. Why did you choose this aspect of New Zealand to make as the background for it?
Catherine Lea: It was a hard decision because I’ve got to be honest, when I started writing it I thought, do I want my overseas readers to see that part of New Zealand, because we’re clean, we’re green, it’s beautiful, the people are lovely. But it’s really not a realistic picture of New Zealand. As you say, it’s the tourist idea of New Zealand.
Making the New Zealand setting authentic
I wanted to get the real New Zealand. I wanted New Zealanders to recognize themselves and their towns. A lot of towns go back in time a little bit. They haven’t got traffic lights. The small towns have got that community that the big cities don’t have, and I wanted to bring that in.
An example. I went over to a small town not long ago and next thing we had the Tribesmen come in, all on their motorbikes, all racing in. I thought, oh my goodness. They were waiting in line at a fish and chip shop and I thought, oh my God, I have to cut through the line. There was this young man, patched up, tattoos, and I said, excuse me, can I get past? Oh, sorry, ma’am, sorry. I thought that is an aspect of some of the people you don’t get. There’s good and there’s bad, and I wanted to give that feel of these are all people in a community.
Jenny Wheeler: The Tribesmen, for people who aren’t so familiar with some of the local scenes – there is a gang scene in New Zealand, in rural and urban areas, that attracts the underprivileged young men into a kind of family environment. The Tribesmen are one of those. This community you deal with in The Water’s Dead has a strong Maori element to it. There’s a Maori community who are, unfortunately, in many rural areas, the poorest of the people living there, and they’ve got all the vices and wants that poverty and lack of opportunity present.
The fun of on-the-ground research
How did you get into that kind of world yourself? I know you’re living in the town of Kerikeri up north, but Kerikeri is probably the most white middle-class town in all of Northland, isn’t it?
Catherine Lea: Yes, but you don’t just stay in Kerikeri. You go around, you look at small towns. I love talking to people, finding out about other people, the Maori culture. I’ve worked with Maori up here who come from the small towns to work in Kerikeri, and they are the loveliest people. They will tell me stories and tell me about the person down the road.
If you want to hear it, it’s there. You can absorb what’s going on around the country if you’re interested. Everybody knows there’s poverty up north, but you need to know why it’s there and the people it effects. That’s what I’m interested in too.
Jenny Wheeler: This is intended as the first book in a series. There are certain things left open regarding significant relationships in Nyree’s life. We won’t do a spoiler by spelling that out too clearly, but I wondered if you’re already working on book two. Do you have a big story arc that you’re already working to?
Catherine Lea: A big story arc that will go along the series. It’s very much involved with that relationship you spoke about. That is certainly brought to the fore in the next book.
The intricacies of organising a series
Jenny Wheeler: When are you expecting that to be out?
Catherine Lea: I don’t know. I lay in bed last night. I’ve put the book in a setting and I woke up – I’m about quarter of the way through – and I thought, no, it’s not right. I’ve got to rip out the setting. I’ve got to set it somewhere else. I’ve got to take out some of the characters, put in some other characters, change a few. That’s probably about half of what I’ve written gone.
But it’s not going to be right. I know it’s not going to be right, because it’s ended up feeling a little bit like Auckland or even Kerikeri, and I don’t want that. I want it to be small town, so it’s going to have some doctoring. That’s what happens.
Jenny Wheeler: Even in this first book, there are a lot of characters because when you’re investigating a crime like this, there are people who appear as potential suspects or witnesses and then they fade out again. The police have to deal with a lot of people who may not have a major role. Do you have a kind of Bible where you keep all those characters and all their names?
Catherine Lea: No, I don’t. I’m absolutely hopeless. I need to do that because I end up thinking, oh my goodness, what was that character’s name? I’ll go back into the manuscript and have a look. So I need to do that. I’m a terribly lazy writer.
Jenny Wheeler: Also, I feel myself that we are drawn to certain names without even knowing why. There are certain names that resonate with us. I find that for these very secondary characters, you think, I’ll call him Bill. Then you think, hang on a minute, didn’t I have a Bill so-and-so? Is that going to be confusing for the reader? Some of these people who don’t have very big parts still can get confusing if you choose similar names.
Named after a well-known actress
Catherine Lea: That’s exactly right.
Jenny Wheeler: I wondered with Nyree if that was a little play on our very well-known Ngaire.
Catherine Lea: Yes, it is.
Jenny Wheeler: Tell us about that.
Catherine Lea: Ngaire Dawn Porter. Fabulous and I think largely forgotten in New Zealand. I thought, I want some background for my Nyree. What if her mother was a huge fan of Ngaire Dawn Porter? That’s the reason I’ve done that. I love the name.
Nyree is European, she’s Pakeha but she’s working in this area with Maori detectives and Maori suspects and Pakeha as well. I really wanted that mix going on.
Jenny Wheeler: Because 60% of our audience is overseas, expand a little bit on who Ngaire Dawn Porter was.
Catherine Lea: She was an actress quite a few years ago. Her name was Ngaire which is a Maori name. I was originally going to call her Ngaire with that spelling. I asked one of my American readers – and this is exactly what happened to Ngaire Dawn Porter – what do you think of the beginning of the book? She said, it’s great, I really like it. I said, how do you pronounce her name? She said, it’s Nigier. I thought, no, that’s not going to work, so I’m going to have her a Pakeha whose mother was a fan of Ngaire Dawn Porter and she is going to have that same name.
Jenny Wheeler: There also is another funny link, and that’s with Ngaio Marsh. I wondered whether there was that as well. Ngaio Marsh was a really well-known New Zealand writer.
And honoring Dame Ngaio Marsh
Catherine Lea: Internationally known, yes.
Jenny Wheeler: We have mentioned your international thrillers. I read The Candidate’s Daughter and I loved it. I love American political stories anyway, so I was probably a good candidate. It’s called the Elizabeth McClaine series and there are three books in that series as well.
In this story, Elizabeth McClaine is the wife of a Senate candidate whose child is kidnapped just as they’re coming up to an election. She turns into an amateur investigator because she gets frustrated about what she sees as the lack of progress in finding her daughter.
You seem to have quite a soft spot for children. Children appear in a number of your books. In The Water’s Dead there is a child involved as well. That seems to be quite deliberate because it is in a lot of your books. What does it bring to the story, do you feel?
Catherine Lea: The Candidate’s Daughter was my first thriller out, and I had a disabled daughter who passed away in 2014. I cared for her, and that’s a long story. I’ve actually written a memoir which I will edit at some stage. I wanted to bring to the fore the mixed feelings of a parent with a disabled child. When I had my daughter in 1981, I can remember people crossing the street so that they wouldn’t have to talk to me. There was a huge stigma at that time.
Elizabeth Mclaine’s daughterPersonal
Having a child with disabilities is still tough, so I wanted to have my child who is kidnapped as a child with disabilities so that you could see the struggle of the mother. I hadn’t deliberately put the kidnapper in there, but she kind of popped up. I write as it comes. I don’t plot. When Kelsey turned up and she had this amazing relationship with the child, I kept running with it. I thought, this is what Elizabeth, the main character wants, but can’t seem to achieve until she realizes the value of her daughter all the way through.
I guess that’s a little bit of a journey I went through. It was so tough in the early days. When my daughter eventually came home to live – because she’s been in shared care for a while, while I worked and tried to make something of myself – I realized what I’d been missing by not having her at home. It’s that story I wanted to put through.
The child in the second book, Child of the State, is also disabled. I wanted a theme of disability going through. When I started this series, I don’t know why, but I had the young woman in the pool. Then I thought, what if she was looking after a child when she was murdered. That’s where that came from. I didn’t think, what’s going to make this really good? That just popped in.
Jenny Wheeler: In The Candidate’s Daughter I’m not at all surprised you did have that backstory, although I didn’t know anything about it, because the feeling of understanding with that mother is so strong in it. She’s got a real sense of guilt and failure about the fact that she didn’t manage to produce a beautiful child. They’re quite upper-class and they’ve got absolutely everything else in the world, and she feels as if she hasn’t delivered on her part of the bargain as the candidate’s wife.
Personal experience helped make it real
Then, as you say, after her daughter goes missing she starts to understand how she didn’t know very much about her daughter at all even though she lived in the same house because she paid somebody else to care for her. She actually held her at arm’s length emotionally speaking because she couldn’t face her own failure. That came through in a very touching way in the story.
Catherine Lea: Thank you.
Jenny Wheeler: You also write under another pen name of C J Lea. I wondered how that happened because they look like they are fairly similar books.
Catherine Lea: That’s about a serial killer. I love the book. I just don’t know whether it resonated terribly well with readers. Some readers loved it. The main characters is Raymond. He is in a wheelchair and he’s a psychopath. He makes his living – and it was quite feasible at the time – by entering competitions and selling off the proceeds. But he wasn’t too proud, if somebody else had won the prize, something expensive, to go and kill them and sell their prize online.
He is ruthless, he is a psychopath. He discovers a $10 million treasure hunt and decides to go into it, and then he discovers he’s not the only psychopathic killer in the competition. That was a lot of fun, but it’s quite brutal, so I thought I’d better distance my other writing from that. The Elizabeth McClaine books sold better. I loved the first one, but they sold better, and there’s no point in carrying on a series if nobody’s interested in it.
What drew Catherine Lea to writing fiction
Jenny Wheeler: Turning away from talking about specific books to a little bit about your wider career – what drew you into writing, and what did you do before you became this full-time writer that you are now?
Catherine Lea: I worked in recruitment and I worked in the IT industry. I’m not an IT person, but I worked in sales. For a short while I worked for Barry Colman when he had the internet. He had invested in some international satellite capacity, and I ended up working for him and selling the transponder space.
It was tiny. It was basically three of us in the company, and while I was there, he put us into the NBR offices of the National Business Review. I got to talk to journalists and people of words and writers and it was lovely being around them, and so I did a creative writing course. One of my dear friends, Deborah, who was an editor there, said, you’ve got some talent. This is really good.
It really wasn’t. It was rubbish, but it was fairly well-written rubbish. I think that’s how most writers start out. They have usually got a few books under their belt that will never see the light of day, but it gave me the feeling that I could do something and I could achieve something. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Writing with a family and fulltime job
Jenny Wheeler: How long is that?
Catherine Lea: That’s the mid to late nineties. I’ve been writing since then.
Jenny Wheeler: We like to talk about your taste in books as well, because this is The Joys of Binge Reading. We like to give readers recommendations for things they might like apart from your books, and we focus very much on the popular genre fiction end of the publishing world.
What do you like to read? I imagine you have always been a big reader, but in the past or now, what are some of your favorites?
Catherine Lea: The Dry by Jane Harper. I was overseas with my sister and I saw it in the airport bookstore. I started reading it and after a while, she’d go, what are you doing? Are you still reading that book? I’d have it down here. No, no. I love Jane Harper. Chris Hammer. I read his Scrublands. That was brilliant. I absolutely loved that.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve had Chris on the show.
Catherine Lea: Yes, I know. He’s so good – the two of them. What I really loved is how the place was actually a character in the book. And I loved Morse. I never forgave him when he killed Morse. I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone.
Favorite books – what Catherine is reading
Jenny Wheeler: It happened quite a while ago now.
Catherine Lea: Yes, it did. Another of my favorites, funnily enough, was an author that my mother loved. It was Ed McBain. I loved him. Years ago, his 87th precinct was behind the Hill Street Blues series. That’s what it was based on – Ed McBain’s stories. That is one of the things I wanted in this book – not just having one main character, but I wanted the reader to slowly get to know the team. I will keep the same team together as much as possible so that they get to know the other characters as well – the other investigators and detectives.
Jenny Wheeler: A lot of them you’ve knocked out already – without giving anything away. It was a great twist at the end.
Catherine Lea: Thank you. It’s the sense of community within the team as well. That’s what I wanted to keep.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking back down the tunnel of time, if there was one thing about your creative career that you’d change, what would it be?
Catherine Lea: I’d write faster. That’s the only thing I’d change. You really need to write to learn to write. I know a lot of people want to put out their first book and have a bestseller.
The 0ne thing Catherine would change
Some people do, and that’s fantastic. But honestly, after writing so many books, you know where the beats are and the pinch points and where the arc is going and where the crescendo is, and when you’ve got to tie up all those loose ends. That’s the fun of writing the book, taking the reader along on that journey. But it takes a lot of time to learn to do that. Or maybe I’m just a slow learner.
Jenny Wheeler: I think it the old Malcolm Gladwell thing of 10,000 hours, however you put them in.
Catherine Lea: Unless you’re Ben Saunders.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. What is next for Catherine as author? When you look over the next 12 months, what do you have coming up in terms of your writing?
Catherine Lea: The second book in this series. It’s important that I get this right. The first one was a mission to write, but the time I took bedded down the type of book I want to write. I’m hoping to get this next one out within the year. Boy, I really am hoping to get it out and carry on the series.
I’ve also got others that I put on the back burner. One is a girls series of mysteries, but it’s girls from the age of 9 to 99. I call them The Mysteries of Mosey Blaine, and I’ve started a rewrite on it.
Where Catherine can be found online
It’s a comedy, it’s humorous, and it’s about two girls who are complete nerds solving mysteries at their school where nobody knows them. It’s incorporating all those typical characters you get at school – the gossips, the meanies, the ducks. I would like to bring that out because it’s a fun ride. But I have got to not take on too much.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Catherine Lea: They can find me on Facebook and I love interacting with readers. They can message me through my website at www.authorcatherinelea.com. I’m planning on doing a few road trips around New Zealand, popping into stores, doing some book signings. I love meeting people and hearing about what they like to read and meeting people who have the same interests as me. Twitter as well. I reignited my Twitter and I want to have a little bit more interaction with Twitter.
Jenny Wheeler: We will have all those links in the show notes for the episode, so people will be able to find them online. Catherine, it has been wonderful talking. Thank you so much for your time.
Catherine Lea: Thank you.
If you enjoyed Catherine you might also enjoy…
If you enjoyed Catherine you might also enjoy New Zealand crime writer Nikki Crutchley’s small town crime series. https://thejoysofbingereading.com/nikki-crutchley-country-crime-thrillers/:
Next week on Binge Reading, we have Regency romance queen Stephanie Laurens. She’s won the top 100 Romance of the Year book many times over and is one of the most successful and popular novelists of our time with over 70 works of historical romance, including 40 New York times bestsellers. That’s Stephanie next week on The Joys of Binge Reading.
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