What led you down the path to writing about trauma?
I have always had an interest in psychology and the delicate balance of the mind, and last year completed my PhD in Creative Writing, which explores ways to more realistically represent trauma in crime fiction. My crime thrillers have all explored the many facets of the human psyche and the human response to violence and trauma.
I suspect subconsciously this had something to do with wanting to work through the traumatic experiences from my own life. I founded my earlier career in Insolvency – an area steeped in corporate crime. Occasional threats of bodily harm came with the job and during this time, I faced adversaries both in court and at the end of a gun barrel. I also experienced an assault in my teens and a very traumatic miscarriage in my twenties. While at the time I thought I was invincible and had come through these experiences unscathed, I would sometimes find years later that my body remembered the trauma, even if I chose not to. I could be triggered quite unexpectedly and feel like I was right back there. I wanted to explore those reactions and understand them better.
Can you tell us more about your earlier crime thrillers and their progression in representing trauma?
My first crime novel, The Ned Kelly Game (2009), touched on my emergent interest in trauma. It featured a character, Felicity, with repressed childhood memories released during sleepwalking episodes in the form of a dissociated murderous personality. But this novel was a conventional formulaic detective novel, with the cause of Felicity’s trauma only touched upon fleetingly. It played upon the type of ‘fugue’ split personality as a plot device seen in many crime novels.
As my preoccupation with representing trauma and its effects grew, my work that followed increasingly engaged with trauma. Eclipsed (2010) delves into the spiralling demise anger and revenge can wreak on the psyche after suffering a traumatic experience, leading a professional woman to commit murder. But it was not until I began to research trauma theory that I understood that there had to be trauma further back and deeper in her past to cause such a strong reaction
I developed this theme of trauma further in my third novel One for All (2013), which features two flawed protagonists involved in a people-trafficking case. With the undercover police officer Sol having witnessed her parents being gunned down as a child then trafficked into prostitution herself, it had much stronger representations of trauma. Having now researched the narrative strategies employed in novels categorised as trauma fiction, I realise in this novel I begin to unwittingly experiment with the literary devices they use, including fragmentation and repetition. I have observed these strategies recently being used by best-selling crime writers, Paula Hawkins (2015) in The Girl on the Train and Michael Robotham (2017) in The Secrets She Keeps to fragment the narrative between their characters. Although I achieved more in terms of narrating the causes and effects of trauma in this novel, it still lacked the kind of resolution necessary for imagining recovery. I deduced there may be other readers who have suffered trauma who are looking for something more explanatory from the traumatic events of the novels they read, so this is why I embarked upon my PhD project.
Your latest novel, Ebb and Flow, was written as part of your PhD project, which has since been longlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2019 Adaptable program with Queensland Writers Centre and Screen Queensland. How is it different from your earlier work?
While two of my former novels showed a move toward the post-traumatic growth of character, they did not implicitly touch upon themes of recovery. I wanted to consider how trauma and recovery might be better represented in Ebb and Flow. Author of Trauma Fiction (2004), Anne Whitehead, says “the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms”. This led me to investigate the narrative strategies employed by writers of novels that might be categorised as trauma fiction, and how these assisted trauma survivors in working through their recovery. I discovered that trauma fiction’s fragmented narrative structure had the potential to allow readers and writers to connect to embodied feelings and sensations unconsciously within the text, because it mimics the symptoms and effects in a similar way to how traumatic memory distorts time. This informed my approach to writing Ebb and Flow. I also used Joseph Campbell’s ‘Heroes Journey’ story arc to model a post-traumatic growth and recovery arc into the novel. I am now teaching these writing strategies to writers of both memoir and fiction so they can connect more strongly with their readers.
What if you haven’t experienced trauma or fear first-hand but just want to write about it?
Understanding how the brain works, or the neuro-science of trauma, can help writers to understand how their traumatised characters may react to certain situations. Trauma creates a fight/flight/freeze response that is predominantly unconscious and sets off a range of chemicals that can exacerbate the situation. These bodily responses are designed to get you out of dangerous situations, but the traumatised brain can get stuck in a repeating cycle that becomes counter-productive.
You’re sure to have experienced some of these reactions throughout your life, but you can also test them out yourself to see how they feel. While writing One for All, I tried out plunging into steep aerobatic manoeuvres in a WWII war plane to traversing the rough Brazilian seas in a creaky boat. Experiencing fear can help you to write about these bodily reactions much more authentically for your readers.
Finally, what are you working on now?
I’m working on putting the final touches on Ebb and Flow for publication. Then I plan to develop a series of resources to help people to re-write their adverse life experiences from a more empowered perspective. We can’t change the past and what has happened to us, but we can change the way we think about it and the writing process can reinforce those identity changes.
Dr Leanne Dodd is a university lecturer in creative writing and an appointed mentor with Queensland Writers Centre for emerging writers. Under the pen name of Lea Scott, she has published three indie crime thrillers featuring traumatised characters that have gained local and national publicity. Her latest domestic noir crime novel was longlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize with Hachette publishers.