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The trials of being a psychological thriller writer

Anne Buist knows a thing or two about what goes into a psychological thriller. She’s  got over twenty-five years’ clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry and has worked with protective services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. 

This I Would Kill For is her latest book, the third in the ‘Natalie King, forensic psychiatrist’ series.

We asked Anne some questions about writing thrillers and the delicate art of translating your work into your fiction.  Enjoy – then stick around to read an excerpt from her latest page-turner.


Having worked in this field for so long, at what point in your career did you first think about putting what you do for a living into a book?

I first wrote a manuscript heavily influenced by my work about 25 years ago – three manuscripts actually, two of which got close to being published. They were dramas, not crime thrillers. Then in 2011, I started writing Medea’s Curse as non-fiction, but for moral and ethical reasons, changed it to fiction – I read a lot of this genre and it seemed the obvious choice. But I still wanted it to have a serious element, as I think many people view “bad” in a very simplistic way. The cases I am involved with are rarely black and white.

What have been the main challenges of writing about these kinds of subject matter?

I am very keen to make my characters realistic and sympathetic – not always easy. In This I Would Kill For I wanted you to be able to identify with one or both parents, even if they are both far from perfect. The need/instinct to protect your child is very strong – but people often misinterpret circumstances and can’t always pick what is best for their child when emotionally involved.

Where did you get your inspiration for Natalie? How much does she have in common with you? (Do you have that Ducati is what we really want to know!)

I’ve ridden my son’s dirt bike and as pillion on a real bike, but no – motorbikes are bloody dangerous! Love the feel of them though – the wind in the hair, the freedom. And I used to race Mini Cooper S’s! Otherwise...I’ve always wanted to sing in a rock’n’roll band but sadly have no talent. A friend helped me through a couple of “gigs” I did at work functions – truly terrifying! She’s passionate about her work like I am...and sometimes says things I’d half like to but don’t...and I don’t have bipolar, though I work with many people who do.

Natalie’s bipolar disorder has given her a lot of professional anxiety but she keeps it under control. What parts of living with this condition do you think have helped Natalie become a stronger person? 

Natalie’s battle with bipolar is really an extreme version of the battle we all have at times, often internally, in relationships or work, to be the best we can be. Many of her battles make her seem a bit younger, but medical school and specialist training, and managing a chronic illness can delay maturing...bipolar helps put that struggle on the page in a way that I hope helps people empathise with her and increase awareness of bipolar.

How do you think exploring cultural differences in situations such as custody disputes helps readers?

The cultural, and social media, involvement in This I Would Kill For makes this story very contemporary and relevant to lots of people and circumstances. This isn’t a serial-killer book about the rare and unusual...it’s about real people and situations, just taken to the extreme.

How much time do you spend in research for each Natalie King book?

Most of my research has already been done – through the ongoing work I am involved with. But I did have to go back to some child psychiatrists (like Natalie, this is not my area of expertise) and some lawyers to get the technical things right (I do take a few liberties with this). But I can take months to plan, flesh out the characters and make them real to me – and hopefully the reader!

Are we going to get to see more of our lively and headstrong heroine in the future? 

Dangerous to Know left people up in the air about her personal life, and This I Would Kill For brings some resolution to that. I'm now writing a new character, probably a stand-alone book, set in the country (Natalie has tried that – just not her!) but I will probably head back to Natalie...I have a few challenges for her to still face – anyone with children will know that giving birth is but the beginning, and she really isn’t the live-happily-ever-after type. My editor keeps suggesting I bump one of the guys off...I’ve been too taken with them both to do that, but things could change...


Natalie King’s personal life is a bit messy. She’s pregnant, she hasn’t told her band about it yet, nor is she one hundred per cent sure if the father is the smouldering and aloof Damian McBride, or Liam O’Shea whose Irish brogue reduces her to a quivering mess. Her secretary can’t stop planning her wedding long enough to do any work, someone is undermining Natalie’s professional credibility on Twitter and now she’s been asked by a judge to be the expert witness in a custody battle that’s about to get extremely nasty. Getting it wrong means handing a child over to an abuser – or depriving that child of the only father she knows.

Court dramas, cultural clashes and media backlash create an explosive mixture that forces Natalie to make life and death choices.

How far will a parent go to keep – or save – their child?

Read an excerpt from Anne Buist’s latest gripping psychological thriller, This I Would Kill For:


And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

1 KINGS 3: 2 5

1

‘He wants to take my kids off me.’

Jenna hadn’t even sat down. The urgency of the statement, the hint of fear, were at odds with the cool, firm handshake. When she did sit down, she ignored the chair opposite Natalie’s desk in favour of the armchair by the coffee table.

The request for a psychiatric evaluation had come from Jenna’s lawyer. Merely pre-emptive. A legal report, and an attractive fee; Natalie did not expect she would have to appear in court. A welcome supplement to her pay cheque from the forensic psychiatry ward at Yarra Bend, particularly as she’d been ill and hadn’t worked for much of the last few months.

‘Why?’ Natalie asked.

‘He blames me,’ said Jenna. ‘For the breakup.’

She looked briefly unsettled; Natalie watched her regain control. There was a sense of strength, the lioness-protecting-her-young kind, but the lines around her mouth were deeper than they should have been at thirty-four; the puffy grey under her green eyes and the unkempt mousey hair suggested she wasn’t getting enough sleep. Young kids.

Her style was inner-city greenie: bright coloured top, vaguely Peruvian looking, and baggy red corduroy jeans tucked into heavy boots undone at the top. She probably volunteered to help slow learners at the local primary school. Her marriage might once have looked magazine-perfect. Walks along the beach hand in hand, Sunday sleep-ins interrupted only by a boisterous rescue dog, helping the kids decorate cupcakes with Disney characters.

Except somewhere between packing the lunch box and Saturday morning sex she had ended up with two children, a mortgage she couldn’t pay and an ex-husband who thought she was nuts.

Natalie waited – but Jenna had pursed her lips. She was not about to make things easy.

‘He wants to punish you?’ Natalie prompted.

‘He feels entitled.’

‘Entitled to what?’ Was Jenna’s ex-husband narcissistic? Antisocial? Did he think he could dictate the terms of a parenting order?

‘He still fantasises about us getting back together.’ Jenna stretched her legs out in front of her. ‘Malik is used to getting what he wants – that’s how his family are. He says jump and his mother asks how high.’

‘Malik?’ Natalie looked at Jenna’s paperwork. Her surname was Anglo: Radford. The husband’s name was Malik Essa.

‘We hadn’t exactly planned a family,’ Jenna added.

The eldest child was eight.

‘So this was all, what, back nine years ago, when you got together?’

‘I meant my pregnancy with Chris. He’s three and a half now. Chelsea isn’t Malik’s child. Her dad didn’t want anything to do with us after I found I was pregnant. Never seen her, doesn’t pay maintenance.’

‘Where did you meet Malik?’

‘Paris.’ Jenna caught the flicker of response from Natalie and added, ‘I got a scholarship. Three months. My parents looked after Chelsea. It was pretty amazing.’

‘So, the separation – your idea?’

‘You could say that.’

‘Is there someone else?’

‘No. But even after six months he can’t get it into his head that I’m not coming back. He’s…’ Jenna paused, chose her words carefully. ‘He’s possessive. Thinks he owns me and the kids, Chelsea included. It all went wrong when I went back to work.’ She reflected for a moment. ‘Our life was fine while I played housewife and he knew where I was. The moment I was independent he didn’t like it. Monitored my fricking…’ Jenna pulled herself up. ‘Checked my phone calls, even followed me to work.’

‘Physically threatening?’

Jenna hesitated. ‘No. Well…I think he threw paint over a guy at work’s car but I can’t prove it.’

‘How about with the children? Any concerns?’

The hesitation again. ‘No.’

‘Nothing? Pushed you? Twisted your arm?’

Jenna shook her head.

‘So,’ said Natalie slowly. ‘Tell me why you’re worried he might get custody.’

Jenna moved in her chair. ‘My lawyer said there are two types of judges. Women-friendly – the old-school types that think it’s the woman’s job to bring up the children. And the ones who think they’re playing it fair.’ Jenna grimaced. ‘Turns out there’s a third type.’ She handed Natalie a newspaper clipping dated a few weeks earlier, headed False Claims Leave Dads in the Cold. Crusading journalist Mark La Brooy was taking up a right-wing senator’s attack on the Family Court. Fathers were ‘taking their own lives and those of others out of sheer frustration at the unfairness of the system’. Natalie’s colleague and perennial pain-in-the-arse Associate Professor Jay Wadhwa had been quoted in support. As had a Family Court judge, from an earlier review of the Family Court: he felt dads were getting a rough deal.

Jenna pointed to the photo of the judge. ‘That’s the guy we got.’

This explained the need for a succinct, pertinent report from a strong advocate for women’s rights. Jenna’s lawyer, Ms Yang, was presumably aware of Natalie’s reputation. But there was still a large missing piece. ‘Why a psychiatrist?’ Rather than a psychologist, maybe even one assessing the effect of the separation on the children rather than the mother.

Now Jenna gave the answer she’d been holding back. ‘Malik…he knew me at a time when I…wasn’t well, and I don’t want him to think he can use it against me.’ There was a nervous edge to Jenna’s tone, but her look was all don’t fuck with me.

It wouldn’t be the first time an estranged partner had cited psychiatric illness as leverage to get custody – sometimes with justification. Natalie had minimal experience of the Family Court, but she imagined that, as with the other courts, a lot depended on how sympathetic and informed the judge was about mental illness. This one sounded pro-parent and perhaps had some catching up to do regarding the more recent move towards children’s rights. Natalie wondered whether his other views were similarly archaic.

‘Let’s go through your psychiatric history then,’ Natalie said. Familiar ground – doing the checklists, targeting the likely problem areas.

Psychosis, mood and anxiety disorders? Jenna admitted to a few mood symptoms, in response to current circumstances.

Eating disorders? Check: anorexia nervosa as a teenager.

‘Dieting, exercising, throwing up. Just the usual.’

‘Did you go to hospital?’

Overly long pause. ‘No. And I’m over it. It was nearly twenty years ago.’

Noted. With a question mark.

Natalie leaned forward slightly. ‘Is there anything you’re not telling me? Better to tell me now than have my report thrown out of court because it doesn’t address something Malik thinks he can prove.’

They’d both done drugs – dope and ice – in Paris. Not now.

Another question mark.

‘Alcohol?’

‘I used to drink a bit.’ Not anymore, Jenna added, but Natalie put a question mark here too. Was this what she was concerned that Malik would bring up in court?

Natalie combed through Jenna’s childhood, including her relationship with her mother and father. Parents not only provided a role model for parenting style – they also shaped personality and self-confidence.

Jenna’s father, Stephen, was: ‘strict, very involved, loving, emotionally distant and always there’.

Some contradictions—he can’t have been ‘always there’ as he had a job and often had to travel for work – but Jenna was light on detail. He seemed to be the classic father who connected with his children – Jenna more so than her brother or twin sisters – by taking them to out-of-school activities like Little Athletics and ballet.

Talking about her mother, Mickie, Jenna took longer to come up with the five words Natalie routinely asked for. Eventually she said loving, anxious, tired – most of the time anyway – and overwhelmed. The fifth – drunk – explained the dominant theme of Jenna’s early childhood: acting as carer for her younger siblings while her mother self-medicated her anxiety.

Jenna was matter-of-fact about it. ‘We were fed and clothed. I grew up faster than I should have, but it toughened me up.’ Rationalising a time she should have been cared for, rather than doing the caring.

There were no surprises in the rest of her history. Jenna was just anxious to keep her children, and there was no evidence of her being a risk to them, though she found the little boy – ‘his father’s son’ – a handful. Chelsea was the model daughter. Mostly well behaved; until recently, loved school. Maybe Malik was an angry ex, but Jenna gave her nothing to suggest he was dangerous.

Not quite as straightforward as the legal referral had suggested, but in the end not a difficult assessment. As long as she could get confirmation about the drugs and alcohol being confined to the past, there was nothing here that could be used to stop Jenna getting custody.

After getting some corroborative history, the report could be finalised and filed in the Completed drawer.

2

After Jenna left, Natalie cycled into the city, missing her Ducati with every turn of the pedals. Two weeks earlier, after she’d lost the motorbike in a fire, her first impulse had been to buy another. Immediately. She had allowed herself to be talked out of it. Not good timing, Natalie, Liam had suggested in their brief phone call.

Waiting to see Doctor Sandra Oldfield, Natalie avoided eye contact with the other three women. The two with enormous bellies moved in on the one with a baby capsule, making pre-verbal sounds while Natalie gritted her teeth. She tried the mindfulness mantra to calm herself – getting these women out of her moment and leaving them to theirs – until her name was called.

‘The ultrasound says nine to ten weeks,’ Doctor Oldfield said, looking at her file. ‘I gather you don’t recall the date of your last period?’

‘I wasn’t regular after I stopped the pill.’ Natalie had been ill. And who cared anyway?

Doctor Oldfield waved the referral letter and frowned. ‘Your GP says you’d been taking lithium.

‘I’d pretty much stopped it. I thought it was causing the nausea.’ Declan, her supervisor, had reluctantly agreed she could just take quetiapine. She was only on a low dose, which put her at risk of an episode of depression or mania but reduced the chance of problems with the baby’s development.

Doctor Oldfield pulled off her reading glasses and sat back in her chair. Short brown hair, no jewellery apart from a wedding ring; maybe forty. Sensible clothes. Pictures of two young children behind her; a nanny was probably looking after them. Maybe two – alternating shifts.

‘You have bipolar disorder.’

Natalie resisted the urge to bite back Thanks for letting me know. Now I get why I’ve been taking medication and nearly topped myself before I was given shock treatment. And want to be high again more than anything else in the world.

‘You know there’s a risk of defects?’

‘Really?’ Natalie didn’t bother holding back the sarcasm this time. ‘A risk of 0.05 per cent of Ebstein’s heart anomaly. If I’d been taking a full dose of lithium, which I wasn’t, and there are no known teratogenic links with quetiapine. I haven’t been drinking, don’t do drugs, am not overweight and don’t smoke. Odds are in the bean’s favour, I’d say.’

Doctor Oldfield frowned. Natalie assumed it was at her nickname for the foetus. That was pretty much what it looked like: a broad bean. With appendages.

‘Bipolar disorder is hereditary. And you’re likely to relapse postpartum. And you’re single. Have you thought about the child?’

In the silence that followed – it felt like five minutes but was probably thirty seconds – Natalie wasn’t sure she could reply. Then she said: ‘I know it’s hereditary. So is being a bitch. Though your kids will probably end up with your nanny’s defects.’ She stood up to leave.

She didn’t pay on the way out; they could send the bill.

This usually only happened when she was high. Exactly the right response delivered in exactly the right tone. Cutting but calm.

It was only later she wondered if she’d overreacted.


This I Would Kill For is available now in all good bookshops, on the Text website (Free postage!) and as an ebook.

Natalie King Series
    Medea's Curse

    Medea’s Curse

    Anne Buist
    Dangerous to Know

    Dangerous to Know

    Anne Buist
    This I Would Kill For

    This I Would Kill For

    Anne Buist

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