25 March 2019

Interview with Jack Heath, bestselling Australian author of Hangman and Hunter

Author Jack Heath, Credit Ben Appleton
Australian author Jack Heath
(Photo credit: Ben Appleton)
Jack Heath lives in Canberra and is the bestselling author of more than 27 acclaimed fiction titles for middle‐grade and YA readers. His books have sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide and been translated into several languages. First published as a teenager, in the course of his research Jack has trained with firearms, performed street magic, visited morgues and prisons, travelled through eleven countries and read only books by women for a year. Heath’s debut into the adult crime genre, Hangman, was a huge success with rights sold across the globe as well as TV option.

A hearty welcome to Carpe Librum Jack! Congratulations on the release of Hunter, the second in the Timothy Blake series, and thanks for including an excerpt of my Hangman review in the praise section. I was ecstatic when I read it and it’s a thrill to interview you today.

Tell me, do you have anything in common with your cannibal protagonist, Timothy Blake?
Much more than I like to admit. I’m a nail-biter, I lie too easily, and I’m prone to a cynical or even nihilistic worldview. I regularly swear off meat (or coffee, or alcohol, or social media) only to indulge at the very next opportunity. Unfortunately, Blake has strengths that I don’t share. He’s observant. Brave. Cunning. He has a good memory. In fairness to me, though, I never ate anybody.

Hangman by Jack Heath cover

Hunter by Jack Heath cover
How do you balance Blake’s dark proclivities with the need to make him likeable?
I’m always walking a tightrope, trying to shock the reader as much and as often as possible without compromising their affection for Blake. Readers are willing to forgive him because he’s so skilled, because he has suffered so much, because he feels so guilty about his sins, and because the people he eats are mostly as bad as he is. Thistle helps make Blake likeable, too. She brings out the best in him, and he would do almost anything for her.

What was your inspiration for the character of FBI Agent Reese Thistle? She’s such a great character, and how did you come up with such a brilliant name?
I wish I could take the credit for the name! It was my wife’s idea. At first I wasn’t sure about it, but the more I wrote, the more it seemed to suit her. She started out, like most of my characters, as just a plot device. In Hangman I needed a counterpoint to Blake—someone who had suffered as much as he had, but hadn’t turned into a monster, and therefore made him morally culpable for his crimes without even knowing about them. But the more backstory I gave Thistle, the more human she became. She’s harder to write than Blake, but I’ve been able to borrow from my own experience to make it easier. Thistle has my taste in—and knack for—music, my history of troubled relationships, my obsession with my job, and my fondness for The X-Files.

Oh, I love The X-Files! Are there any plans to write a crime novel based in Australia? Is the Timothy Blake series set in Texas because (unlike Australia) they have capital punishment, thereby giving Blake access to death row cadavers?
When I was younger I knew the USA mostly from TV, so I thought of it as violent, corrupt, lawless and desperate. Whereas Australia seemed like a pretty nice place, perhaps because I was a middle-class white male living in Canberra. So I set my crime novel in the United States because that seemed more convincing to me at the time. Now I have a more nuanced view of both countries, so I’d like to write a crime novel set in Australia, but not right now. It would look like I was chasing the trend kickstarted by Jane Harper and ably accelerated by Chris Hammer, Sarah Bailey, Emma Viskic and Benjamin Stevenson. People love Blake and his noir distortion of Texas, so my plan is to keep doing that.

I’ve noticed that since the launch of Hunter, you’ve been incredibly generous with your time responding to reader reviews on social media and websites like GoodReads. In fact, the only other Australian bestselling author I’ve seen thank individual readers on such a grand scale is Kate Forsyth. Do you enjoy the publicity and engaging with readers on multiple platforms? Or are you secretly waiting for the time you can bunker down with your writing again?
It wouldn’t be much of a secret if I told you! I’m a bit of a social media addict, so chatting with readers gives me the excuse to log on. Their feedback is very useful in shaping future books, and it makes me happy that they seem so excited to hear from the author. But I feel that social media is an unhealthy distraction from my writing and editing. So I’m looking forward to when the publicity dies down and I can focus on what I really enjoy. Kate Forsyth, by the way, is generous both online and off. We first met at a festival, when I had literally zero dollars in my bank account because the preemptive charge for incidentals at the hotel had cleaned me out. With no other way to pay for food, I was so hungry. Kate convinced her publisher that I—again, a stranger—was a rising star, and they shouted me an amazing dinner at a very fancy restaurant.

Is it true you have a weak stomach and once fainted reading a book by Paul Cleave?
Fainted and vomited. In public. Not a pleasant experience, but very memorable. Words have power! People don’t believe this story, because Hangman and Hunter are so gruesome. But every murder I write makes me a little less squeamish, a little less afraid. Writing is therapy for me. I recently made it through Paul Cleave’s new book Trust No One without losing consciousness, and was very pleased with myself. Maybe I was better prepared.

What’s with the riddles at the beginning of each chapter in Hangman and Hunter?
Blake has a side-hustle slash money-laundering scam solving riddles for cash. Hangman was full of riddles, and my agent suggested putting one at the start of each chapter. I themed them, so a clue to each riddle is hidden within the chapter that succeeds it. This turned out to be a great idea—readers always tell me how much they love the riddles! They’re infuriated if they can’t work out the answers, though.

No way! I never noticed the riddles were themed or that each chapter has a clue. I'm going to have to go back and check now. Having written more than 25 books now, what’s your favourite part of the writing/publishing process?
Every stage of the process—daydreaming, outlining, writing, editing, proofreading, promoting—has its joys and its frustrations. These days my favourite part tends to be the final proofread. That’s when you can see the book as a reader will and marvel at how well it all came together, despite the clumsy, fragile process that led here. I’m proofreading my thirtieth book now—LIARS: Lockdown—and while I’m making plenty of notes, I’m also loving the ride.

Do you have any writing rituals?
If I’m struggling, I go to my local café and sit at the same table, if it’s available. I put my headphones on even if I’m not listening to music. I have a perfectly good office at home, but I spend more than $2,000 per year at that café, and it’s worth it. I can get more done in an hour there than in three hours at home.

What’s your secret reading pleasure?
I try to read as diversely as possible, in terms of genre, era and the background of the author. I also try to avoid bestsellers, knowing that everyone else is reading them too, and fearing that I will start to write like everyone else. I even try to limit myself to reading only one book per author, so I can discover as many writers as possible before I die. But my guilty pleasure is the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. I’ve read more than twenty of them, maybe all of them. I don’t even know why.

One book per author is something I do too but for a different reason. If a book is an average read I'm unlikely to read anything further from that author given there are so many great authors/books out there waiting to be discovered. However, if I adore a book, then I keep an eye out for their next one. What are you reading this month?

I just finished Home by Harlan Coben and Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood. Now I’m reading The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers, and next will be Injustice: Gods Among Us, Year Two by Tom Taylor.

Do you have a favourite bookshop in Canberra?
I used to work at Dymocks Belconnen before my writing career really took off—which it did in part because of the support they gave me. I still love the store, and I go in at least once a week.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I just had a quick look, and Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela S. Choi is probably the one which would seem most out of place. Then again, the main character is a psychopath, so maybe it’s exactly what you’d expect.

What's next for Timothy Blake?
I just submitted an outline for another Blake book, this time with a more remote, claustrophobic setting. An Agatha Christie-ish limited-suspects whodunnit type thing. If the publisher goes for it, I’d hope to have it written by the end of the year and published in 2020.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks, but I have to get back to proofreading!

Thanks Jack, and fingers crossed your outline is given the stamp of approval. I'm sure I'm not alone in needing another Timothy Blake taste fix next year. Find out more about the author at jackheath.com.au and read a sample chapter of Hunter here.

Would you like to comment?

  1. What a fantastic interview! Loved this. I haven't read any of his books but this makes me want to. I've always been quite partial to a Texan setting too.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Krystal and Theresa, I hope you decide to pick up one of his books.

  3. I really enjoyed this interview Tracey, and Jack, I have Hangman on my TBR list and Hunter on my Wishlist.

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

  4. Thanks Shelleyrae and hope you enjoy Hangman.


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