Q&A with Karen Herbert

Article | Issue: Oct 2022

KAREN HERBERT is an Australian writer who has worked in aged care, disability services, higher education, Indigenous land management, social housing and the public sector, and is a graduate member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. She is the author of The River Mouth. Her latest novel, The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall, is a cosy crime novel that follows the residents at a retirement home.


Where did you get the idea for The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall?

Josh and the research mice were a story that that been in the back of my mind for a long time. Research mice are bred under special conditions and are quite valuable. I’d been wondering what would happen if any escaped their secure laboratories and what sort of dilemmas they might create. I’d also been been working in aged care, so it seemed obvious to put the mice in that environment and see what might happen. Of course after working in aged care, I had some wonderful inspiration from real people and places that could help the story along.

What can you tell us about the characters – Josh, Harley and Bobby?

Josh is a sweet, gentle, young man who is finding his way in life. He is a university student and works part-time in aged care. As a young person, Josh is absorbing the world around him. He takes book recommendations from his elderly client, observes his older brother’s entry into corporate life, and is still working out how to talk to girls. When he impulsively liberates the research mice, he’s at a bit of a loss as to what to do with them. He finds his way with the help of some online research, but he has a problem to solve and the clock is ticking. I really enjoyed charting the way he found a solution while keeping out of trouble.

Harley and Bobby are like all of our furry friends. They have their own distinct personalities and agendas. Bobby’s is mostly about food and comfort, and Harley, being a cat, is curious and patiently manipulative. His curiosity and cat’s-eye observation of life in Harewood Hall let me see the story from a whole new perspective.

How has your degree and work in aged care influenced the plots and themes of The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall?

They were the starting point. Working in aged care, it was very obvious to me that the most useful way I spent my time was not balancing budgets or reviewing care plans but just sitting with people and listening to their stories. It seems to me that as we age – especially after we retire – we lose the daily reinforcement of our value, our contribution, to society. We want people – especially younger people – to know who we are, that we were engineers, or accountants, or builders, or teachers. That we raised kids, coached cricket, and served on boards of charities. That we have knowledge that is still useful.

In The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall I wanted a cast of characters who are not just little old ladies who can only talk about their diabetes or interfering, belligerent old men. For me, avoiding stereotypes of older people is as essential as rejecting stereotypes of people of colour or people with a range of sexual preferences or people with disabilities. No-one should be reduced to a one-dimensional representation of a category.

The Cast Aways of Harewood Hall unfolds through multiple perspectives; why did you choose to tell the story this way?

It was accidental! I started out by creating characters, discovering who they were, their relationships, their interests, and walking with them through their day. I worked out that each character witnessed different parts of village life and had a different take on what was going on. The result is that the reader hears different parts of the story from different characters and becomes the only person who can put two and two together.

What additional research did you do to understand the dynamics and conditions of care homes?

I drew mainly from my personal experience working in aged care and retirement villages, and I did quite a bit of checking in with colleagues when I was covering something where I hadn’t had direct personal experience. It’s important to say that aged care and retirement homes vary enormously in the type of facility on offer and the type of care provided. I created Harewood Hall as an independent living facility, which is what I know best. Some of the residents there have assistance from carers, but not all. Residential aged care facilities are very different, with a much higher level of care.

Your debut novel, The River Mouth was also a crime novel – what do you love about the crime genre and how has the writing process differed between your first and second novel?

When we were working on The River Mouth, my editor told me that writing crime is a great lesson in plot and structure and she was absolutely right. Working out how the different threads of a story fit together is a real piece of brain work. As a reader, I used to be in awe of how crime writers laid crumbs through their books for us to follow and brought them all together at the end. As a writer, I now know that those crumbs are not always deliberately laid. Sometimes mine are carelessly dropped early on, and I stumble across them again in later chapters and realise that they are important parts of the story. I wonder about that. Maybe our subconscious mind knows what it’s doing. Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know much about the psychology of the creative process but I do know it is great fun.

I think both my second a first novels were quite organic in that way. I had a sense of where I was starting and where I was finishing and what some of the main events would be along the way. Kind of like a road trip. But the actual writing of each chapter revealed smaller details and the personalities of the characters and often the story took turns that surprised me. I inserted a bit of discipline with Excel spreadsheets, and that turned out to be critical in keeping track of storylines. I’m still using them in my third book.

Which writers or books do you greatly admire?

At the moment I’m reading a lot of Australian crime – Dave Warner, Josh Kemp, Sara Foster, Jane Harper – as you’d expect. I’ve also taken a bit of a turn into historical, true crime, which I’ve never read much of before. It’s quite something. Leigh Straw, a Western Australian historian and true crime writer, specialises in Australian female crime figures, and has just released The Ballroom Murder, about a fatal shooting on the dancefloor at Government House in 1925. I’m still not sure how Leigh does it, but even though as a reader you know the identity of the murderer and what happened in the court, the book is a real page turner. It pulls you through to the very end. And David Whish-Wilson’s new book, The Sawdust House, is breathtaking. The story takes place while James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan is being held in jail in San Francisco in 1856. He is visited by a journalist, Thomas Crane, who’s boss expects Sullivan to be lynched by the baying crowd outside the prison. The conversation between the two men is about life, love, tragedy and triumph and, like Leigh’s book, has kept me up at night turning pages.

What can you tell us about your next novel, Vertigo?

In the first chapter of Vertigo, a public investigator disappears after Friday drinks, presumed murdered. His body is never found. Was it a random attack or somehow connected to the public inquiry he was working? Eric’s successor is Frances Geller, diligent accountant and self-appointed Queen of Invoice Reconciliations. Frances has a theory about her beloved team leader’s disappearance. She thinks Eric found that police forensic evidence was compromised, putting thousands of criminal convictions at risk. She thinks someone in power had him killed to prevent scandal in the justice system.

Frances does what she does best – pouring through files and tallying up numbers to uncover the truth. But her nemesis, the snarling Director of Homelessness Strategies, Dr Duncan Wolf, is determined to bring her undone, she is battling a chronic disease that quite literally has her on the floor at inconvenient moments, and the candle she holds for Eric burns as brightly as ever. Will Frances uncover the truth about Eric before she too, is made to vanish? Vertigo will be available in October 2023.

Author: Karen Herbert

Category: Crime & mystery, Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Fremantle Press

ISBN: 9781925816990

RRP: $32.99

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