The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie

Author Interview for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords

I am very interested in reading Australian crime, particularly novels by women, since becoming a judge of the Davitt Crime Awards.

The Torrent is Dinuka McKenzie’s debut novel. It is well constructed and written and is also unputdownable. Protagonist Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is an original character in fiction but, paradoxically, not in real life. She is unique but also represents many caring, talented and hard-working women.

The Torrent is published by HarperCollins Australia.

Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Dinuka.

Dinuka McKenzie (photo credit Emma Stergio)

What was involved in winning the Banjo Prize?

Winning the Banjo was the day when in a single stroke all my publishing dreams came true. It meant receiving the phone call that every writer dreams of and hearing that excitement in the voice of a publisher about my words. Out of nowhere after years of trying and countless drafts and revisions, my manuscript had stumbled across the desk of the person who absolutely got what I was trying to do and was willing to champion my words. Honestly, there’s no feeling quite like it.

What is the significance of your title The Torrent?

The manuscript which I entered into the Banjo, was originally titled Flood Debris, signifying both the physical destruction left in the wake of a flood but also the life changing nature of such events on the people who survive them. I knew even as I named it that the title wasn’t quite right for a crime novel. It didn’t have the sense of foreboding or menace, which I think you need in a crime fiction title to immediately place you in that genre for readers and booksellers. So I wasn’t surprised when the question of changing the title was discussed during the manuscript edits.

We eventually settled on The Torrent because it immediately gave a strong sense of what the book was about, evoking the immense power of floodwaters and how they can change a life in a few short minutes.

What is distinctive about your protagonist Kate Miles?

In writing Kate, I wanted to go beyond the traditional crime fiction trope of a male detective, usually single and childless or with a relationship breakdown, and see if I could make a crime narrative work that centred a relatable, everyday woman jugging family, parenthood and work.  She is distinctive only in that, she is a character that’s not normally seen in detective fiction, which has traditionally focused on flawed protagonists – the drunker, the more unstable, the more dysfunctional their love life, the better. Kate isn’t a femme fatale who does jujitsu in her spare time. She is instead a version of the women I see everywhere around me: hardworking, professionally competent, and juggling multiple commitments, and I wanted to see that version of strength and resilience reflected on the page.

What are one or more of her misgivings?

Kate is a woman working in a very male dominated profession, in a regional town and she is also a person of colour occupying a senior role at her place of work, so she has to navigate instances of pushback and micro-aggressions relating to her gender, professional status and heritage. The Police force as a profession also brings with it an entrenched culture around not showing weakness, and loyalty to the force and the internal police structure. So I wanted to explore how a woman of colour in a really vulnerable period in her life (being heavily pregnant) would have to navigate through these multiple layers, having herself absorbed and internalised those narratives around proving herself capable without any special rules. Kate having been born in Australia but being of Sri Lankan heritage, also allowed me to explore ideas around identity, where Kate very much feels Australian but she is forced to navigate conversations around her skin colour and where she has come from.

How is her professional relationship with her second-in-command Josh different from those in many books and TV series?

In writing Kate and Josh, I again wanted to subvert the traditional crime fiction tropes that so often arise around the lead female characters of detective fiction, being sexual tension. Kate’s professional relationship with Josh is exactly that: professional. They are work colleagues and nothing more, and the tensions that arise in their relationship relate to professional animosities, internal politics and learning to trust one another as colleagues.

I wanted Kate to tread a different path than that reserved for so many female leads in TV series and books, being that of sexual tension and an affair with a colleague. Whilst threads of romance are explored in the novel, they are reserved for characters other than Kate. I wanted Kate to be able to exist on the page as a competent, professional woman in a functional relationship with her husband, without the need for a romantic complication to make her interesting as a character.  

Why have you included some younger characters?

With two school aged children in my household, I am interested in the internal lives of younger characters and teenagers, in particular how they deal with relationships, mental health, sexuality and making mistakes, because this is an area that I will soon find myself navigating as a parent. Parenting and the parent-child relationship is a strong theme in the book and is explored through a number of eyes, including the joys and challenges of parenting very young children in the depiction of Kate’s four-year-old son, as well as the fractious relationships between teenaged kids and their parents, and between adults and their parents. I enjoyed writing the younger characters immensely and I hope they provide the reader a different perspective and a different lens through which to view the events that unfold.

Why/how have you included a character with autism?

One of the themes I wanted to explore in The Torrent, was the idea of how fears around our kids and our overwhelming instinct as parents to protect our children from harm and societal censure can be exploited and manipulated. Noa being autistic magnifies these issues for his parents and is laid on top of their own challenges as first-generation migrants, navigating an adopted country. In reading the story surrounding Noa and his family, I hope that readers find themselves experiencing the events as they unfold, and asking themselves what would I do in that situation?

In depicting Noa, I was very lucky to receive feedback from a number of generous sensitivity readers in the autistic community, who are also parents of autistic children. The novel as a whole and Noa as a character is much stronger for their advice, which always steered me in the direction of positive representation.

How have you kept the action moving while assuredly building your characters?

I am always attracted to character-driven books and when writing I am happiest inside the head of a character rather than describing a setting or an action sequence. For me the characters and dialogue are what comes easiest when writing and is my natural focus. In contrast, I really have to work at building the story, pacing and setting around them. With The Torrent, because it was my first novel and I was very much learning how to write as I was writing, I relied heavily on early reader feedback to tell me what was working and what wasn’t in terms of the pacing and keeping the story interesting and moving forward. It took multiple drafts and revisions to really make every chapter work for its place in the novel, and ensure each one was providing something new for the reader and maintaining forward momentum.

Your structure adds to the intrigue. What aspects of your structure or storylines are you particularly pleased with?

From very early on, I knew that I wanted two seemingly unconnected stories to come together. So even in the very early drafts, I tried to set out the structure of alternating chapters, one focusing on one story line and the other on the second plot line. This gave me a framework while writing and I could feel the story coming together. I also like the flashbacks into the past from the perspective of other characters, which provide bits of backstory for the reader and fills in the gaps that can’t be told from Kate’s point of view.

Which character are you looking forward to developing in the sequel? When will this be published?

The second in the Detective Kate Miles series will be published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2023 and you can read a sneak peak of book two, Taken, at the back of The Torrent. In Taken I have focused in on Kate’s relationship with her father and more deeply explored the past fractures within the family and how they continue to make their presence felt.

What other Australian crime do you enjoy reading?

Reading Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore and Truth, was what switched me into discovering Australian crime fiction and since then the majority of crime fiction I have read has been from Australian or New Zealand writers. Some of my favourite writers in the past few years have included Emma Viskic, Candice Fox, Dervla McTiernan, Anna Downes, JP Pomare, RWR McDonald, Lyn Yeowart, Sulari Gentill, Petronella McGovern and Christian White. But there are so many brilliant Australian crime writers that it feels nit-picky to pick just a few because the quality is universally good!

(Such a great list!)

Thank you for giving this generous insight into The Torrent Dinuka, and particularly for the exciting and thoughtful experience provided by reading the novel itself. It is even more relevant at this time of widespread flooding in Australia and its aftermath.

The Torrent at HarperCollins

Dinuka McKenzie’s website

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