Empress of paranormal romance Nalini Singh talks to Craig Sisterson about why her latest novel eschews vampires and changelings for rural crime set on the West Coast
A woman who'd never intended to return to her tiny hometown stands atop a clifftop as waves roil against the rocky coastline and the sea stretches beyond the horizon. The air is slick with a misty rain, different to the grey drizzle of the bustling city where Anahera had made her home as an adult. A city of icons, of monuments and museums, of red double-decker buses and world-famous theatre. A city that stretched back to Roman times, yet this rugged landscape at the far end of the world, not populated until centuries later (and barely now) feels more ancient.
London was where concert pianist Anahera made a life, until it was torn asunder. A place where she buried a husband then unearthed his betrayal. Golden Cove was the place she'd fled as a young woman, an outpost on the West Coast of New Zealand, the rugged frontier of a country that was once the farthest frontier of the British Empire. A place where family was laced with pain and friendship entangled with death. Where memories were more jagged than joyful.
Turning away from the clifftop, Anahera gets back into her green jeep to take the final few miles of a journey that's racked up 12,000 of them by air and land. She heads to her mother's cabin.
A long journey to an unexpected destination.
That's something recidivist New York Times bestseller Nalini Singh has gone through herself, in writing Anahera's story in A Madness of Sunshine, an atmospheric rural crime thriller.
Usually when you see the name Nalini Singh on the cover, you'll find top-shelf paranormal or contemporary romance or urban fantasy within the pages. It's been that way for 40 books, as the Auckland author earned a global reputation as one of the finest in her field during the past 15 years.
But there are no archangels, vampires or changelings in A Madness of Sunshine. Instead, Anahera gets entangled in the worrying disappearance of a young woman from Golden Cove, an incident that rocks the small community and has echoes of events many years before.
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"I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers. I've always read a lot of mysteries and thrillers and I have elements of those in some of my books," says Singh, as we chat about her swerve from paranormal romance to rural crime. "When I travelled through the West Coast of the South Island, I remember thinking, 'Wow, this would make a great setting for a thriller.' That was a few years ago but you know - as a writer - it's always at the back of your head."
With an atmospheric setting knocking about in the back of her brain and a latent appreciation for crime fiction despite her global renown for paranormal romance, it was a chat with some fellow Auckland romance writers that got Singh working on A Madness of Sunshine.
"I remember this one conversation where my local writers group met – the Romance Writers of New Zealand Auckland chapter – and afterwards, we were having coffee," says Singh. "A lot of us read Nordic Noir and British crime writers and all of that. We got talking about how New Zealand has a lot of the prerequisites for Nordic Noir: the empty landscapes, the stark and beautiful places, the lonely places, and then we sort of just jokingly said there should be more. We read New Zealand crime writers as well, but there should be more. It should be as big as Nordic Noir. Jokingly we said maybe we should write some too - to add to what was already coming out - and I think it sparked something in me that I'd been thinking about anyway."
Heading home from that meeting and with the feeling of that wild West Coast setting still lingering from years before, Singh began making notes.
"Because I'm a full-time writer and I've been doing this for a while now, I like to keep challenging myself," she says. "I never want to be in a rut, I always want to grow, so I just said to myself, 'Let's see if I can do it.' So it was like a project I would do in the evenings. After I'd done the work I was contracted for and getting paid for, I would spend half an hour working on this mystery. It was something to work on to stretch my mental muscles, then I just got really, really, into it."
Singh's agent and publisher had no idea what she was doing; Singh kept it to herself until she'd written the entire manuscript. "I wanted to know for myself I could do it," she says. "I've always been like that, when I do something new. To do it without any external expectations. So yeah, it was good. I thought, 'Why not? If it fails, no problem.'"
With a long string of New York Times bestsellers, translated into 20 languages, shelves full of awards and sales of more than 7 million books, Singh could have stuck to writing two or three novels each year of the kind her eager fans expect and devour and let the nagging idea of a rural crime thriller set in her home country wither on the vine.
"Because it was something new to me, I didn't know I had a book until I was quite a way through it," says Singh. "For a long time, I was just writing it to see where it would go. I wasn't sure, because I have written romance for most of my career, I was like, 'Will my natural tendency be to make this romantic or will I go towards mystery?' I didn't actually know until I was quite deep into it and I realised I was still going strongly into the mystery and thriller direction."
The rugged West Coast setting that once caught her eye played a big role in the writing of A Madness of Sunshine, she says. "Everything in the book flows from it. The tone, the melancholy of it – the beautiful, stark, lonely places - play a big role in the story."
Singh found herself having to switch up her writing process a little for the new challenge, too. Calling herself an "organic writer", she says she's not a plotter and usually writes a very fast first draft to tell herself the story, then works from there.
"But for a mystery I realised I needed to know basically who did it or what the plotline was beforehand. Normally if I have some mystery in a book I can work it out while I'm doing my telling-myself-the-story draft. But I found with A Madness of Sunshine, I really needed to sit down in advance to figure out the players and figure out the climactic elements, then I just did the draft. So that was a little bit different."
It's a risk that paid off, with Singh showing she switches gears better than Scott McLaughlin, crafting an immersive sense of place and richly drawn characters that power an intriguing mystery. While some long-time fans may miss the steamy sex or vampires, archangels, and unfeeling psychics, many others will hope Singh returns to the crime scene again.
She intends to.
Singh now has a few new paranormal and romance novels on the go but says she'll definitely write another crime novel.
"I think what I probably most enjoyed was just being able to showcase New Zealand," she says. "Even though I'm writing a crime novel and the tone is dark. I love living in New Zealand and I think it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the world. So it was really nice to paint a picture of that in the pages in my book and show my country to readers, wherever they are in the world. Because the book has already been picked up for translations in other countries. I hope that people will see New Zealand."
There's a cheeriness to Singh as she chats from her home with its views of the Waitākere Ranges. Her love for what she gets to do as a full-time career bubbles through as we talk. Singh writes from her own study in her own house nowadays, but her desk has been the same for 25 years. As a teenager growing up in Mount Roskill, she imagined tales and wrote them down at this two-level computer desk without drawers that her parents bought for her.
From the early manuscripts she submitted by post to overseas publishers - she was still a student and these became training runs for what was to come - through to her breakthrough debut, then the first of a string of 30 New York Times bestsellers and right up to A Madness of Sunshine, Singh has written dozens of books standing or sitting at that desk.
Now it's part of her study space filled with things that inspire her storytelling - and Singh has long loved writing stories. She was born in Fiji and moved to Auckland with her family while she was at primary school. As a student at Mt Roskill Grammar School, Singh wrote speculative fiction, fantasy and romance stories and submitted her first novel-length manuscript to an overseas publisher.
"It was very swiftly rejected but I was already writing my second book," she says. "I think it helped that I was a teenager, because I just had that kind of, 'Well, I'll show them' - that sort of teenage sort of confidence - and I just kept going because I just loved it so much."
Singh is a self-taught writer, absorbing the lessons of her high school English classes and her own learn-by-doing scribblings while never doing a writing degree or creative writing course.
"I started as a teenager trying to figure things out story wise," she says. "I knew I wanted to write stories and I just wrote. Even before I submitted my first manuscript, I was writing short stories and doing those activities that high school English teachers assign. I was the happy kid in the class, like, 'Woo-hoo, I can go and do creative writing' or whatever we were in. I just found that it fed my soul.
"Then I was probably about 16 or 17 when I started to try to put full novels together. The one I submitted, obviously at the time I thought it was great but looking back I can see the faults in it. At the same time, I'm really proud of myself for doing the whole book, because learning the structure of how to write a full book is different from trying to write pieces of a book or doing the short stories that I'd been doing until then."
It was the mid-1990s, before the e-book boom or geographic borders being broken down in the publishing world. Having looked around the local books scene and realising no one seemed to be publishing the kind of stories she was writing, Singh began by sending her first manuscripts to overseas publishers, after doing some sleuthing to find a first contact.
"I wasn't hooked into any literary community at the time," she says. "I was very isolated; I couldn't google anything because it was the nascent days of the internet."
Having found a book of a similar style that she enjoyed to read and write, the teenaged Singh peered inside for the publisher details, found out who distributed the books in New Zealand, then called that company to ask how she would go about sending her own book to the overseas publisher.
"Whoever answered the phone was such a nice person and said, 'We've actually got some kind of form here that tells you how' and stuff, and they sent it to me, and that's how I submitted my first book, off this photocopied address to a publisher in London kind of thing. And from then I was just saving up my money for posting, because it was so expensive to submit back then."
Singh kept writing various manuscripts while she earned a law degree, then began working as a young solicitor. She wrote seven or eight novel-length manuscripts before finally breaking through with Desert Warrior, a contemporary romance. The call came from a New York publisher at 7am on September 6, 2003. It was a Friday morning and easy for Singh to remember because it was her birthday that weekend.
"I didn't want to answer the call," she says now, chuckling. "I had someone else in my family pick up the phone then, because I was still at home. Anyway, she said, 'I want to buy your book' and I was just completely stunned and I said, 'Can you just send me an email because I need proof I didn't imagine this conversation.'
"The funny thing was I went to work, and the law firm where I worked they gave you a little chocolate cake, like a celebration. Since it was a Friday, I got the cake that day and everyone thought I was so happy because I got this cake and my birthday was coming up when really I'd sold a book. I only told my best friend in the firm. It's quite a funny memory, it was a happy day but surreal as well. I think surreal is the right word."
Soon afterwards Singh left legal practice and decided to work on her novel writing while teaching English in Japan. "I had been writing both speculative fiction and romance, science fiction type fantasy stories and romance, and it just so happened that I was published first in contemporary romance, so that's the path I took, initially anyway, until I actually figured out that you could combine both of those things into paranormal romance and urban fantasy."
It was that combination, the plunge into paranormal romance, that saw Singh's star quickly rise after she wrote Slave to Sensation, the first book in her Psy/Changeling series that now numbers 18 novels, several shorter stories and a spin-off novel series set in the same world. Many of those books became New York Times bestsellers, along with Singh's other paranormal romance series, the Guild Hunter books with angels and vampires.
While Singh has had huge success imagining worlds far beyond our everyday reality, she's also brought her own reality and perspective to her pages. Living in a diverse world, she wrote a diverse world; after the publication of her early Psy/Changeling novels she received letters from readers around the globe who were stoked to see a heroine of colour in paranormal romance.
A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh (Hachette, $35) is out now.
TWISTS AND TRIBULATIONS: A Madness of Sunshine reviewed
It's parochially thrilling to find a book set in a familiar place - I didn't realise Madness was set in New Zealand until the heroine's flight from London touched down in Christchurch.
Author Nalini Singh grew up in New Zealand and is better known for romance novels (the Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series), putting out an impressive list of titles during the past two decades or so. Now she's turned to crime, setting her story on the South Island's West Coast, in a fictional place called Golden Cove.
The name grated with me: nothing about our dramatic West Coast speaks of "golden": it's grey and it's green and brown and it's magnificent in its primeval darkness – all of which Singh successfully conveys in the background. But golden it is not.
Apart from that niggle, Singh has created a small town most New Zealanders would recognise and fills it with recognisable characters. There's a cafe, a pub, a church, a sole-charge police station, a medical clinic and random oddballs who live in the bush, tourists, nosy neighbours. Everyone knows each other's secrets. And it's a sad reflection of reality in New Zealand that the violence that is part of the landscape in Singh's Golden Cove also feels familiar.
Anahera is broken after the sudden death of her husband and discovering her London life was a lie when his pregnant mistress showed up at his funeral. She had grown up watching her mother being beaten to a pulp by her father. Meanwhile, Will is a cop, banished to Golden Cove after beating up a suspect.
Then, the beautiful and talented young Miriama fails to return from a run one afternoon. As the search drags on and everyone becomes a suspect, we learn everyone's secrets, most of which seem to involve violence.
And, of course, Will and Anahera are thrown together by the intense circumstances of the search and of their own complicated and twisted circumstances.
That romance is a minor chord in A Madness of Sunshine shouldn't surprise given Singh is best known for her work in the genre. But it's a disappointing cliche in an already somewhat predictable story. Even the twist at the end – a faint echo of recent events in this country - isn't totally a surprise - Helen van Berkel