Crows Nest by Nikki Mottram
Author Interview at PaperbarkWords
“I guess people usually end up as products of their environment, and in Crows Nest, the women end up becoming victims – usually by being trapped in dysfunctional relationships. And the men metamorphosise into something else.” (Crows Nest)
I am loving reading new Australian crime, particularly novels by women, since becoming a judge of the Davitt Crime Awards in recent years.
Crows Nest is Nikki Mottram’s debut crime novel. It follows the personal and working life of child protection worker Dana Gibson when her first case in Queensland ends in a shocking double murder.
The book is both enthralling and well written and it raises important issues about the voice and safety of women and children.
Crows Nest is published by University of Queensland Press.
Thank you for speaking to ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords, Nikki.
I have visited Crows Nest near Toowoomba in the Darling Downs, Queensland. It has an idiosyncratic charm – at least on the surface. Why did you choose to set some of your story here, and name your novel after it?
Child protection services come in contact with people from a variety of communities, in cities and rural areas, and across all demographics and as such, this story could have been set anywhere, but I chose Crows Nest because it has a powerful and evocative name which is a great title for a crime novel.
Additionally, I set the story in Crows Nest (and Toowoomba), not only because the setting was intensely familiar, but I was also interested in exploring community relationships and the sometimes misguided presumptions of outsiders. The insular world of the small rural town and its customs and secrets felt like the perfect setting for a crime thriller. I also used many real-life locations such as Queen’s Park and the Bell Street Mall in Toowoomba and the town square and Bullocky’s Rest in Crows Nest.
So far the feedback I’ve received on Crows Nest has been positive. I think people from this area have really enjoyed the novelty of reading about locations and settings which are part of their everyday lives.
Why have you set the story in 1996?
I set the story in 1996 because it was around the time I worked in front line child protection which was a very formative experience for me. Also, I continue to work in child protection currently (in case review) so I wanted to make it clear that the book was on no way meant to be a commentary on current policies and procedures.
Additionally, there was less policy and practice guides during that era and it felt like more of a “wild west” time to be a social worker. When I started my job at the Department of Families there were limited practice materials that I could use for advice and much of my learning came about from being mentored by more experienced colleagues.
Finally, with shows such as Stranger Things and Physical being extremely popular at the moment, there seems to be a certain nostalgia for the nineties. I think that perhaps people tend to view the past as a simpler time.
How is the trauma and damage in the recent past life of your protagonist, Dana Gibson, affecting her ability to function in her new job?
Dana doesn’t feel in complete control of her own feelings due to the recent loss of her baby and this makes it hard for her to work with, and manage, the feelings of her clients.
Assessing whether children are at risk of harm is an emotive subject and one that requires a clear head. Dana worries that her own trauma and grief may cloud her ability to makes accurate assessments of whether children are at risk of harm and her impulsive decision to travel to Queensland on a whim is proof that she is not in a good headspace.
Dana finds her new job in Toowoomba different from her previous role in Sydney. For a start, there’s no practice manual. A colleague says, “We’ve had people from the city before and it always takes them a while to realise that they’re working in a different context out here… We do things differently in the country. In Toowoomba everyone knows everyone and people are more likely to help their neighbours … [we] prefer to come up with our own solutions for kids in need.” What is your novel saying about different procedures in the country and city and their impact on results?
The comment that things are done differently in the country is a red flag for Dana as she knows that there should be a high standard of child protection services across all areas of Queensland and not just in cities.
The practice manual sets out best practice for workers and should be used as a guide, however I agree that sometimes innovative solutions are required as a practice manual cannot cover every possible child protection scenario.
What is one of your own experiences that you have adapted into Crows Nest?
I did have an experience once where I was in a restaurant on a romantic dinner date with someone who wasn’t from Toowoomba and a car was racing up and down the street outside. When the person I was with asked me what was happening I realised that perhaps a car doing laps around the median strip outside was an event that was peculiar to country towns.
The details of Dana’s child protection work weren’t based on any one experience, however I thought about the type of work I did when I was working in front line of what was then known as the Department of Families.
The main character, Dana researches the case in the same way I would if I was working with a family. She analyses the family’s child protection history, undertakes home visits, works on an investigation and assessment and writes case-notes about her observations.
The novel tackles the very difficult and complex issues of child protection and foster care. What do you think is needed to improve the system in Australia?
More resources and increased numbers of foster carers are always a welcome addition to any child protection system. Nevertheless, I set Crows Nest in 1996 as I hoped to separate the work I do at Child Safety from the crime novel I’ve written and make it clear that the book wasn’t intended as a commentary on current child protection policies or the current child safety system in Australia.
Relationships between your characters make the story pop because they are so messy, unexpected and real. Could you please select a character or relationship to give an example of this?
Dana has a strained relationship with her husband during Crows Nest as she is struggling to heal herself from the death of their baby within the confines of her marriage. The death of a child is an extremely traumatic event for any couple and Dana and her husband, Hugh are struggling through their own emotions surrounding their child’s death which makes it difficult to maintain a bond with each other.
Dana’s snap decision to take a job in other state is a sign of her fragile mental health which is also impacting on her relationship with Hugh and making her paranoid that he is cheating on her.
I am excited to read that a sequel, Killarney, is on the way. What can you tell us about it without giving too much away? Apart from Dana Gibson, which other character or characters will reappear? When will the book be published?
Dana went north of Toowoomba to the small town of Crows Nest and for the second book she’s going south to the small town of Killarney. All the main characters such as Dana, Lachlan and Angus are back and after a hit and run and a teenage boy go missing in Killarney and Dana finds herself in the mist of another mystery.
Killarney will be published by UQP in 2024.
What other Australian crime do you enjoy reading?
There are so much amazing Australian crime authors out there at the moment. Almost too many to mention! I love Dervla McTiernan, Ben Hobson, Sarah Bailey, Dinuka McKenzie and Benjamin Stevenson just to name a few.
How would you like readers to contact you?
I love it when readers contact me on Twitter or Instagram to say that they’ve enjoyed the book.
Thank you for giving us this insight into Crows Nest by answering these questions, Nikki, and particularly for the thrilling, sobering and enlightening experience that your story delivers.
Crows Nest at UQP