Before You Knew My Name is told by a dead narrator. What was the reason behind this choice?
JB: From the start, I wanted to write a book that centred the murder victim and gave her a kind of agency not often found in crime novels, where we generally learn little to nothing about the ‘dead girl’ unless it serves other characters in the story. Having Alice narrate her own story meant she could decide what to tell us, what to share and what to hold back, and it allows the reader to get to know her as a fully formed person, not just a plot device. As a writer, it was challenging and exciting to build a whole world for her, both before and after her death.
There is also a second narrator. How did you balance these two and how did the duel perspectives serve the story?
JB: When we meet these characters, Alice is half the age of Ruby (or as Alice might say, Ruby is twice her age). They come from very different places, both geographically and emotionally, yet their experiences are somehow the same, especially when it comes to the kinds of men they’ve been involved with, and, importantly, their shared determination to start a new life in New York City. In writing the story, I came to think of Alice and Ruby as representing two sides of the same coin; it wasn’t so much about balancing two different perspectives as it was about finding ways to suggest that their connection to, and understanding of, each other was inevitable.
The issues in this book are real, current and confronting. What do you think the difference is in exploring these themes in Fiction rather than Non-Fiction?
JB: There is obviously a kind of creative freedom you get from imagining a situation or experience, instead of reporting on it. That said, I’ve never lost sight of the fact Before You Knew My Name is grounded in some pretty terrible realities, and I wanted to be especially careful with any depictions of violence and abuse in the novel. I do think, outside of autobiography, non-fiction that aims to address serious social issues is best left to experts in their field, so while I’m very grateful to contribute in some way to the conversation around the devastating impacts of gender-based violence, there are many dedicated journalists, activists and academics across Australia leading the way when it comes to agitating for the kind of societal changes we need to see. Any fictional account that touches on those same issues can only hope to support the real work.
What are you hoping readers gain from reading your novel?
JB: First and foremost, I really hope readers love Alice Lee. I hope the joy she experiences in her short life makes as much of an impact as her tragedies and sorrows do, and I’d be more than okay if readers feel a kind of righteous, directed anger around what happened to her that they take out into the world when they finish the book. I also genuinely hope that Before You Knew My Name brings some comfort to those who are grieving. At its heart, it’s a story about believing the dead are never truly lost to us – that by remembering them, by missing them, they stay close to us, even when we have to look a little harder to find them.
Which books have you recently read and loved?
JB: My TBR pile is huge – and growing! Some recent standout reads I’ve managed to squeeze in between edits on my second novel include Love Objects by Emily Maguire, Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, Last One at The Party by Bethany Clift, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. In terms of non-fiction, and crime stories in particular, I always come back to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, a book about the Golden State Killer and his victims that kept me up all night when I first read it, because there was no one place I could leave the story.
Before You Know My Name is available in-store and online now.