Greg Fleming talks to our newest thriller star J P Pomare.

Seventeen year old Kate enjoys a privileged life in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne, living with her widowed, ex rugby star Dad, but all is not what it seems. Kate's an introvert and navigating the minefield of teenage life - boys, men, peer pressure, social media - while her Dad's nice-guy exterior - masks a trigger temper and controlling nature; then something terrible happens ("Isn't it amazing how quickly plans can derail, how life can break apart like a flock of startled birds") and unpacking exactly what and who is the meat of this whip-smart, psychological thriller.

J P Pomare (why the initials? "my friends always called me J P not Josh, but really it's a marketing consideration, it's gender neutral") powerful debut has been causing waves months before its official release.

Critics have been comparing it to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and the book was subject to a fierce bidding war (won by Hachette) and will be published in the US and UK later this year.

As it opens we find a man shaving a girl's head; the girl makes a failed dash for freedom before the man drags her back by her remaining hair, which he resumes shearing.
We soon find out Evie and Jim are in Maketu - a small town on the Bay of Plenty Coast but it's not clear whether Evie is a captive or being protected by the man she calls Jim. The book then moves back and forth from present-day Maketu to pre-incident life in Melbourne.

Advertisement

It's a stunning debut; the sort of book you don't start late at night if you want any sleep.

The book was started in 2014 and is a move away from Pomare's more literary short stories.

"I was quite realistic about the prospect of publishing literary fiction and being able to make a career out of it, it's bloody hard. And I do read a lot of crime and suspense for pleasure so it seemed a natural fit. I wanted to write something that would get published and get read, something my mother-in-law and wife would read. They pretended to like my short stories but I just don't know that they were really that into them - you kind of sense these things!
"So genre fiction was the smart choice - but in saying that I had to be proud of it and worked on Evie for four years. The writing always came first for me."

Can a genre writer truly write for the market?

"No, because it's always changing and because, if you do, the writing doesn't ring true. You've got to be excited by your work. Really it's in the editing process where with a genre book you can make changes to your work, tweak it, to make it more commercially viable, and most of the time make it stronger artistically too."

His advice to aspiring writers is "never assume the manuscript's ready, continue to work at the story and write as much as you can. Just concentrate on making the book stronger."

"It's not complicated. Good crime writers like Melbourne's Jane Harper and Jock Serong write really well - that's why publishers pay attention. You want a publisher not to drop the manuscript after the first few pages. Even once you get the contract there's always a push from publishers to make it stronger, tighter. That was certainly the case with Evie especially around the ending - and as a writer you need to be open to that."

It just happens that my favourite characters are villains.

And it's paid off. At thirty Pomare is now proudly a full-time writer - "well for the next couple of years, I don't want to jinx it!"

As we talk he's navigating Melbourne airport on his way to an interview in Sydney.

Advertisement

His second novel, another psychological thriller about a cult and set just outside Melbourne, is finished and is currently being edited.

The rewards are beginning to flow through too. He's recently achieved frequent flyer silver status on Qantas - "and I never thought I'd be in a job where I'd get that!"

He'll be clocking up more points when he returns to Rotorua for Rotorua Noir New Zealand's first ever crime fiction festival in January - where he'll be chairing a panel on new New Zealand crime writers and interviewing Aussie crime legend Michael Robotham.

Pomare grew up about 20 minutes outside of Rotorua, ("I hated it then but I go back now as a tourist and it's amazing and the perfect setting for a crime fiction event") leaving for Melbourne in 2007 and - after a bit of travel - settled into working at his brother's Melbourne marketing company.

"That's why I thank my brother in the book, for giving me a job that was - ha! - pretty undemanding and one that gave me time to concentrate on my writing. In many ways I've been very lucky."

Pomare drew on memories of teenage misadventures in Maketu for Evie.

"We did have a couple of confronting moments there, but nothing too bad - but there's an atmosphere there of underlying violence and tension that I remember and wanted to capture.

"You have certain obligations when you're writing about a real place. When it came to the Maori element I was very aware of what I was writing about - I was afraid of tropes. I think we have moved beyond the domestic violence, dope smoking tropes - although there is an element of that in Evie I didn't want to dwell on it."

He cites a range of NZ media as influential on the Kiwi section of Evie - Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, Jane Campion's Top of The Lake, Taiki Waititi's Boy and short film Two Cars, One Night as well as some of his contemporaneous crime fiction stars in Melbourne Jane Harper, Sarah Bailey and Jock Serong - many of whom he has interviewed on his popular On Books podcast.

He was also aware of the dangers of being a male writer writing from a teenage girl's perspective.

"I knew people associated with some private girls' schools here, that was helpful. I think the female dynamic is a lot different from the male one - unlike boys girls' friendships can end suddenly, without a conversation happening. If I was a young girl right now there's so many more traps to fall into. As a writer I wanted to explore that. It's a dangerous time to be a young person with social media and once somethings on the internet it's there forever."

Much of Evie though delves inwards, and explores how trauma and grief impact on our memory and perception of events, with Pomare's reliably unreliable narrators keeping the reader guessing right up to the last page.

Is Kate just an innocent victim or a calculating femme fatale? Is her father a sociopath or a hero?

"I've always read a lot of psychology so I was familiar with the notion of gas-lighting (a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations to trick the victim into distrusting their memory) - I particularly liked the idea of subverting it so the gas-lighting actually works for the person's benefit. I really liked (Dennis Lehane's) Shutter Island where that kind of thing happens."

I put it to him that Call Me Evie is a very dark work; with few exceptions the characters are damaged and damaging.

"Good characters for me will always surprise the reader and also challenge the other characters, make them question their integrity so the reader can see what they're about. It just happens that my favourite characters are villains. It's strange - you think you know your characters but the good ones always surprise you."

Call Me Evie
J P Pomare
(Hachette $34.99)