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In her debut novel Catch us the Foxes, Nicola West blurs urban legend with true crime, as her tenacious protagonist Lo uncovers a dark history in her claustrophobic small town. West answered some questions for us, covering everything from her previous attempt at a memoir to satanic panic in Kiama.

Before writing Catch Us the Foxes, you were working on a memoir. What was that memoir about?

NW: The memoir was about my experience of developing a debilitating medical condition at the age of twelve and ultimately having to fight for my right to be granted a medically necessary hysterectomy as a teenager.

I was finally granted the hysterectomy at nineteen, but only after I had developed a life-threatening neurological condition that saw me come within six hours of permanently losing my sight and which required me to undertake agonising lumbar punctures. Seventy-one in total – first daily, then weekly, then fortnightly – for two and a half years. The neurological condition was a direct result of me being refused the hysterectomy as it was triggered by a hormonal implant used as a ‘less permanent’ alternative to the procedure.

In the end, I had to undergo experimental neurosurgery that I’m told – to this day – could eventually kill me. And yet, all I had to do was sign a single consent form to be granted the procedure. In stark contrast, in order to receive the hysterectomy, I had to undergo a full psychiatric assessment, obtain the written recommendations of almost ten medical professionals, and write a letter to my future self, justifying my decision. Because apparently, my life wasn’t deemed anywhere near as important as my potential fertility was.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good fodder for a memoir – but writing it felt like pulling teeth!

Why did you decide to write Catch Us the Foxes instead, and how did the idea for the book germinate?

NW: Mainly the pulling teeth thing… But also, my passion was always for writing novels. Despite this, I knew it was tremendously difficult for a young fiction writer with no discernible author platform to be published. I had dabbled in penning personal essays and articles in my job as a freelance journalist and decided to take Patti Miller’s ‘Writing True Stories’ course at The Faber Academy in the hopes that writing a memoir about my unusual circumstances would allow me to one day pursue fiction.

Instead, through the course (and the amazing support of Patti and my classmates), I developed confidence in my voice and writing ability. I also began to realise that I didn’t necessarily need to exploit my sob story in order to build an author platform. In an odd twist of fate, my Sydney apartment flooded around the end of the course, and I had to temporarily move back into my parents’ home. I was still chipping away at the memoir, but being trapped in my hometown again brought up a lot of complicated emotions.

Thankfully, at the same time, I found solace in the return of my all-time favourite TV show – Twin Peaks. Tuning in to the third series every week and revisiting the fictional town while being trapped in my real one made me see the similarities between them for the first time. As the daughter of a third-generation police officer, I’d always wanted to write a crime novel, but I’d never considered setting one in the place I grew up.

It sounds strange given its content, but at its core, Catch Us the Foxes is the fictionalised version of the memoir I set out to write. It captures the same feeling of being trapped in my hometown due to my health problems but in a heightened and distorted way ¬– as if being viewed via a funhouse mirror. Oh, and in contrast to the teeth pulling, writing it felt effortless.

Catch Us the Foxes is actually a book within a book, written by your lead character, Marlowe. Can you tell us about her and what makes her so distinctive as a character?

NW: Marlowe is the person I wanted to be in my teenage years/early twenties. Or rather, the person I thought I needed to become in order to escape my hometown during my battles with my health. Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case, but there’s no denying her appeal.

She’s tenacious, driven, and ambitious, but also cold, calculating, and manipulative. She’s filled with secrets but doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of her. She’s a powder keg of a person – just waiting for the perfect circumstances to ignite.

But she’s also vulnerable and potentially susceptible. Her unyielding drive errs on the side of stubbornness, and she can get tunnel vision about things. She’d do anything to escape her hometown, and that could be either her biggest strength or her biggest weakness.

If I’m being honest, she utterly terrifies me. Hell, she’s even made a few appearances as the sleep paralysis demon in my nightmares. But that’s what makes her so compelling and such a joy to write. She’s full of surprises, that’s for sure. And I hope that she’s able to keep readers on their toes in the same way she’s kept me on mine.

In Catch Us the Foxes Marlowe has completed a journalism thesis on Ivan Milat. Can you tell us about the real-life story behind that character detail?

NW: In the book, Marlowe has completed her university honours thesis – Bylines from Belanglo – on the role the media played in the trial of Ivan Milat. This led to her being penpals with the serial killer, which in turn helps her to pair up with an award-winning journalist who comes to her hometown to report on the gruesome murder of Marlowe’s childhood best friend.

In reality, I completed the same major work for one of my HSC subjects which resulted in me writing to and receiving a letter from the backpacker murderer at the tender age of seventeen. Much like Marlowe, I never expected to receive a reply and only ever did it to improve my marks. But I’ll never forget the feeling I experienced when I received a text message from my mum while at school containing a photo of the envelope he’d sent.

In the end, the prison refused to supply Milat with any further correspondence from me because he was deemed ’a serious threat of escape’. They also said that giving him my letter ‘may be detrimental to all persons involved’. Reading those words back now, I have no idea how I wasn’t terrified. Instead, at the time, I remember being furious that my major work was ruined. Though thankfully, I was actually the first person in my school’s history to achieve perfect marks! What can I say? Back then, I was every bit as obnoxiously ambitious as Marlowe, even if it meant putting myself in harm’s way…

Why did you decide to set the book in your hometown of Kiama?

NW: Because it’s the perfect little murder town – my very own Twin Peaks. Once I had that idea, I began ‘Kiama-fying’ Twin Peaks. My Laura Palmer obviously couldn’t be a prom queen, but she could definitely be a showgirl. That was the very first kernel of an idea, and it just kept expanding from there.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the way Picnic at Hanging Rock took a real-world location and turned it into a thing of legend. I loved the idea of doing a similar thing and blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction by incorporating some of the urban legends I’d grown up hearing about the town as well as my own memories. It sounds a bit rich, given the novel’s content, but I consider Catch Us the Foxes to be a love letter to the town that shaped me.

What are some of the urban legends and true crimes you drew inspiration from for Catch Us the Foxes?

NW: Growing up, I heard countless stories of allegedly nefarious activities taking place in the mountains/rainforest bordering Kiama. They were pretty standard local urban legends – satanic symbols carved into trees, animal sacrifice and blood rituals – and I largely took them with a grain of salt. But, on finally leaving the town, I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t just the locals who were spinning these yarns. In fact, if you Google locations in Kiama along with ‘satanic’, you’ll find multiple references to the rumours.

This includes one person who claimed they were taken to the rainforest in Kiama as a child and hunted for sport by a satanic cult. Sure, that person is a noted conspiracy theorist who also claims they can cause explosions with their mind, but there’s no denying it’s an eerie coincidence that it matches up with the stories I heard as a kid.

It doesn’t help that – even over twenty years since it happened – the Illawarra is still haunted by the gruesome slaying of former Wollongong mayor (and alleged paedophile) Frank Arkell. I was in primary school when Arkell was killed, but I can remember being fascinated by the flashy newspaper headlines and news bulletins emblazoned with words like ‘satanic’ and ‘ritualistic’.

Despite being most prevalent in the late eighties and early nineties, satanic panic was still well and truly alive at the time of Arkell’s death. But the same can be said for even a few years ago, with cases like the Hampstead Hoax (2015) and The Blue Mountains Circus School Scandal (2018) demonstrating how easily people can still be swept up by satanic panic. It’s precisely that feeling that I hoped to capture in Foxes.

Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West is now available online and in-store.

Catch Us the Foxes
Nicola West

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