INTERVIEW: On the back of his latest true crime thriller In The Clearing, author J. P. Pomare sat down with our own G. L. Marlowe to discuss cults, the darkness that permeates his novels and how the relationship between memory and truth informs his work.
A month ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview author J. P. Pomare – author of psychological suspense novel Call Me Evie – ahead of the publication of his sophomore novel, In the Clearing. Published in publications such as Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin, Pomare is also well known for his podcast On Writing where he interviews prominent authors about their novels and writing practices. However, this time I was in the interviewer seat and I had big shoes to fill.
In the Clearing centres around a cult heavily influenced by The Family, a New Age cult that was headed by charismatic Anne Hamilton-Byrne, with properties and headquarters in Victoria during the 1960s and 70s. The Family has gone down in Australian cultural memory as a place rife with drug abuse, mind control, and child abuse.
Pomare’s novels both deal with the intricacies of family relationships and their propensity for betrayal and the fallibility of memory in times of trauma. While both novels are fiction, they are heavily influenced by true crime and current political discussions.
True Crime News Weekly: As we get started I would love to hear about the true crime elements that permeate your novels and how they provide an insight into you as a writer.
J. P. Pomare: I’ve always been reasonably interested in crime and criminal activity. Most of my writing experience, I’ve been writing literary work. I’m always looking closely at true crimes and stories that are stranger than fiction. I was really drawn into crime after writing a few drafts of Call Me Evie and realising my fascination was with grey areas of that particular story in terms of “what is crime?”. I accidentally stumbled across the genre. The thread in Call Me Evie about revenge porn, when I was writing, was a conversation that was happening, but it wasn’t necessarily reflected in legislation. We were acknowledging that there was a real issue but there hadn’t been a great deal of action.
I think it’s much more overt, the true life and inspiration for In the Clearing being The Family cult.
TCNW: What was it about The Family that captured your imagination?
Pomare: It’s hard to pinpoint what came first. Was it the story that came first or the setting? I think the seed of the story was I read a news article about Anne Hamilton-Byrne. One thing that really fascinated me was that she was still alive and that she had accumulated from members of her cult enormous reserves of cash and property. She was an incredibly wealthy lady that had dementia, so presumably there was a power of attorney situation.
There were just so many questions that no one could answer or couldn’t find answers for such as: who in the event of her death who will inherit her assets or property? I was fascinated if it was possibility that she wasn’t really demented. What would it mean if she wasn’t if she was more lucid than she was making herself out to be? Were there any crimes and certainly the answer is yes, that went unpunished or unreported or undetected? Here was a great deal of criminal activity and the charges [that she was convicted for] were garden variety kind of tax evasion. I just found myself reading that story and being endlessly fascinated by the narrative possibilities when I was asking these questions I began to realise, why doesn’t this story exist? What if I were to speculate and try to interrogate some of those lesser known parts of her life after the cult and her interaction with members of the cult?
TCNW: Can you explain the connection between Anne Hamilton-Byrne and your character Adrienne. What is the captivation with these charismatic, female leaders?
Pomare: All I will say is she is very clearly modelled off Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her interaction with former cult members. If there was some leadership or spiritual guidance, I’m sure there was, but what did that look like and at what point did that become sort of untenable [post The Family’s disbandment]? Why was there not a great deal of doubt if there was dementia – and by all accounts it was genuine I’m speculating here – why are people still loyal to her when it proves that she was not the Second Coming and that she’s not going to live forever? It dispels many of the myths she had built and surrounded herself with, yet people still believed her, and I wondered how much of that was possibly about accessing her assets and how much of that was about possibly rebooting her vision. [Adrienne] closely models her, but so much of her behaviour and interactions with cult members were quite speculative on my part because I needed to come up with resolutions and answers that don’t exist.
TCNW: Why fiction? Why not an investigative or literary journalistic piece instead? What was the allure of fiction for you?
Pomare: I think it’s a simple answer: it gives the opportunity for closure or for access and explanations that are otherwise unavailable. When told in this way it is a matter of access that weakens non-fiction. I couldn’t have the freedom to capture the imagination and speculate. There is also the possibility of being pursued legally in non-fiction. I enjoy the fact that you can play both markets, even the commercial considerations when you think about the way this book can be marketed. It’s a gripping thriller you don’t need the backstory or to live in Australia to know what this cult is like. At the end of the day I also consider myself a fiction writer. I require the freedom to explore every possibility. This story in particular has been told from a really literary journalistic perspective.
TCNW: In the Clearing begins with the epigraph of “I love children” attributed to Anne Hamilton-Byrne which quite clearly sets the tone for the entire book. The children were such a central part of In the Clearing and The Family. What made you want to the children as front and centre of your book?
Pomare: I think the particular thing with the children was to be true to the story. The reason that The Family cult is so much more memorable than most new age cults is for two reasons: It was led by a woman and I really love that actually and I liked to riff on that, and the other reason is obviously the children. It’s an image that is quite haunting for Australians who lived through that and also even myself as a kid coming to Australia, visiting these places that the children were raised and seeing those images of the crop-like bobs. Just seeing certain parallels with new age movements that are much less overt about cruelty like the anti-vaccination movement and raising children like that with ideas that are quite harmful to the psychology of the children. I think I wanted to bring readers attention to a historical crime but also tether it to parallels to what I call “yoga mums.” That type of anti-science kind of mentality around raising children, a quite holistic approach. I thought it could be fun but also something that I’m passionate about. I had to put a focus on the children. In saying that there is always the risk of being gratuitous. I think you need to subtly move the camera so to speak and point in another direction whilst these cruelties happen.
TCNW: What went into the making of In the Clearing and Call Me Evie? What is the process when writing about something like revenge porn or cults?
Pomare: When I was researching Evie I was writing, then reflecting on reality and what I’d written and whether it fit with the manipulation and behaviour of people that age. With that research was fact-checking what I had already written.
With In the Clearing you mentioned a really great film The Family that was based on a book. It was a journalist who basically tried to get to the bottom of it and went about it in a thorough investigative way. I read that book and I read it a couple of times and I really marked it up so I could go back to it when I was writing. Lots of articles. I tried to find court transcripts. For me that was the extent of the deep research.
CRIME CULTURE: In The Clearing by J. P. Pomare
In terms of psychology and children and cults I managed to secure an interview with an ex-child member of a cult – another religious cult that was active at the same time in Victoria. There were lots of crossovers. Ultimately the question I wanted to put forward was can you really escape a cult? When I spoke to her she just talked about the ways she negotiates the world after the cult. Her psychological landscape was changed forever.
The idea of inherited violence and inadvertently passing it down to the next generation [was central]. So much of our emotional behaviour and interactions are learned which is something I found quite interesting. You learn empathy. How can you raise a child, how can you negotiate the world? That would be really quite fun to write that character. I believe I have this empathy but when I’m trying to inhabit this character I was forever asking the question if I didn’t have empathy how would I react. The thing with Freya is that she has a real loyalty to her family so that’s something that was instilled in her. That drives so much of her behaviour. It was quite challenging to write that perspective as a young man, not a 40 year old woman who was really damaged. It was an exercise in patience.
TCNW: This idea in your books that the people closest to us that are most likely to hurt us in the absolute worst ways. I was curious as to whether or not that was an intentional choice as an author?
Pomare: I think it was subconscious. Again, it’s something I’m quite passionate about. I never really set out to write about it. I think at the same time. I do think a lot about my own childhood and the way memory forms also. There’s probably half a dozen moments of clear strong memories from my first five years of life. I reflect on what I inherited and my personality. I’m a person with a deep interest in psychology and your psychological landscape is shaped so much by your family and your first five years of life in particular. That thing of you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. There’s just so much material and so much to draw from. You’re right to say that most crime is committed by family members that’s a good place to look. I guess it’s intuitively I know how intrinsic family and those interactions are to us as people and the crime elements play into that as well.
I think so much of crime, especially gruesome crime, can only happen when there are really vulnerable times and we’re especially vulnerable with family. They know our greatest insecurities it’s kind of a perfect storm and if you’ve got a sociopathic it can be so hurtful.
TCNW: Both of your books play with the idea of memory, trauma and the ways it can be manipulated. As an author what process did you go through when working with the obstruction of truth?
Pomare: I think so much of this stems from my own fascination with truth and what truth means and how we interpret stimuli and information. False memories – some are really obviously false memories. You watch a video of that memory and you yourself realise it’s false. Memory can be contorted and changed that much that it can be manipulated, and you know it’s happening. The best way to kind of manipulate memory is through repetition and things like that. Also, trauma, a really traumatic thing really solidifies the memory of it. Occasionally your own impression of that memory visualises it in a way that you can live with it.
TCNW: If a reader was to pick up one of your books what would you like them to know?
Pomare: I’d like them to know that their experience of the world is filtered. How they interact with the world and their reality is informed by their own lived experience up to that moment and I guess the reason I want them to know that is I have written reasonably extensive backstories into these books. When you empathise with a character or understand a character you don’t know you can only call upon your own experience. You cling upon your history and own experience. That is something I’m trying to write into. Characters being made up of their pasts and histories. A lot of that comes from trauma and what they have inherited from their friends and family.
TCNW: I just wanted to give you the space to mention anything else that I may have missed.
Pomare: I would also say if anyone is interested in writing crime or true crime the best place to get inspiration is one through newspapers. One thing I did recently was I went into a court and I sat there all day. You’re not allowed your own notebook or anything and you get patted down but I just happened to land on a day they were doing bail hearings where you get a summary of the evidence and you see all these people applying for bail and you feel a deep sort of sadness but also you’re going in there to see if there are stories in there. There are all these characters and so much content. There’s nothing that replaces that kind of experience of seeing these people who are condemned for years, sometimes decades and to listen to some of the evidence and just seeing the minutiae of a bail hearing or criminal trial. It’s pretty interesting.
The question that perhaps was not asked in this interview, and should have been; given that Mr Pomare has repeatedly named the religious group that he has based his fiction on; how do the children raised in the group feel about someone writing a fiction story that includes inventing crimes they did not commit, and no doubt ( from hints in the interview) describes serious mental illness they don’t have, but still it is their “history ” that still being used to market the book? Is it possible they feel exploited, or even slandered?