An Interview with the author of The Liars – Petronella McGovern

Photo by Giles Park 3

An Interview with Petronella McGovern

  1. The Liars is a very contemporary novel dealing as it does with social issues such as toxic masculinity, teenage activism, and the whitewashing of Australia’s early history with Indigenous peoples. Was the subject matter of your novel a deliberate choice in order to highlight these issues and their impact on the individual and the community?

I started writing The Liars at the beginning of 2020 and it was such a tumultuous time with the pandemic, the Justice for Women marches and the Black Lives Matter protests. The problems in the world felt overwhelming and impossible to solve, especially as we sat separated in our own houses during lockdown. So, rather than worrying about these issues on a global level, I decided to write about how they affected an individual, a family and a community. Breaking it down into a microcosm of society helped me understand the impact at a personal level.

I have teenage children and it was interesting to hear their age group discussing the social issues affecting their future, and watching them get involved. Some of them have such passion and enthusiasm, which I recreated in the book through the character of Siena.

My aim was to write a suspense story which keeps the reader turning the pages but also has them thinking about these contemporary issues.

  1. From a male perspective, it was worrying to read of the behaviour of the Wrecking Crew being replicated a generation later by Axel, Jackson and their contemporaries. To me it suggests that such behaviour will continue generationally until it is called out by women and young women with courage and support – as we see with Meri and Siena.  Is there a ‘message’ here that these behaviours will stop only when we acknowledge that – as Siena says – ‘we need to listen to the stories that have been suppressed’?

Initially, I had planned to write a story about how the treatment of teenage girls had changed from a mother’s generation to her daughter’s but then I realised it hadn’t changed as much I’d imagined and hoped. However, there have been some changes at various social, professional and legal levels, and part of that has come through listening to the stories which were suppressed. We need everyone—men and women—to acknowledge these stories.

In The Liars, I wanted to show how the culture of toxic masculinity, as demonstrated by the Wrecking Crew, affects the boys, as well as the girls. It traps some boys into rigid stereotypical behaviour, encourages violent, aggressive interactions, and doesn’t allow the boys to follow their dreams, use their talents and express their emotions. That culture of toxic masculinity has a devastating impact on all young people and stunts their futures.

  1. Among the stories which have been suppressed is of course the true history of the founding of Kinton Bay. This history is finally brought into the open and key drivers of this are Siena, Aunty Bim and Kyle.  Each is a strong and ethical character and brings to the novel a sense of the future – of how the world may be if we listen to the truths.  Is this part of the purpose of the book: to point the way to the future?

Kinton Bay could be any town in Australia. As a nation, we have hidden our difficult colonial past and we need to work on rectifying this. When I went to school, we learnt very little about this history. Now, our history books are now telling more of the hidden stories and certainly my children have learnt much more about the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal people and culture that I ever did at school. It was interesting to see Hobart City Council voting in August to take down a statue of a historical figure who had committed atrocities. Aunty Bim would say that the path to the future involves understanding and acknowledging the past.

The Liars also highlights how we have named our towns and landscape. Many of us never think about the names of the places we live and their historical significance.

  1. Chief Inspector Poole is one of the few men in the novel who demonstrates a strong sense of justice and fairness – and one who is determined to find the missing men and bring the perpetrators to justice. He stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Inspector Nelson.  Is this a sign of hope for the future?

Chief Inspector Poole has worked in sex crimes and is a strong champion of women. Unlike some other characters, he has very defined ethics, believes in right and wrong, and fights for justice. While he’s still an ‘outsider’ in the town, Poole is trying to achieve good outcomes for victims and their families. He provides a moral compass for Kinton Bay. Poole calls out corruption and is not afraid to put himself on the line. The collaborative way he works with other police, the mayor and the community offers hope for the future.

  1. Your books have been described as ‘domestic noir’ which itself is described as ‘the female experience based around relationships’ and that the domestic sphere is a sometimes dangerous prospect for those within it. Do you consider that to be a fair assessment of your novels?

Domestic noir looks at the dangers within families and within the home. I like to write about the experiences of everyone within the family and, more broadly, within a community environment. The Liars has multiple viewpoints, including three male characters. It delves into a dysfunctional community embedded with hidden histories, both personal and societal. It really asks questions about what we hide and what we reveal, and whose ‘truths’ do we acknowledge and believe. Most of the characters in the town are lying about something, and those lies prevent the community from moving forward.

I am fascinated by relationships in which secrets are being kept. In real life, the reason may be straightforward, for example, for self-protection, but in a domestic noir story, I find it interesting to set up much more complex explanations which can reflect broader societal issues.

  1. Finally, when you are not researching or writing your books, which writers do you enjoy reading?

Obviously I enjoy crime and psychological thrillers. We have some excellent Australian writers in this genre. Some of my favourites are: Candice Fox, Michael Robotham, JP Pomare, Liane Moriarty and Jane Harper. I’ve read two recent great debuts: Wake by Shelley Burr and Denizen by James McKenzie Watson. A fascinating American psychological thriller which really stayed with me is The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward.

Some other books I’ve loved this year are: The Keepers by Al Campbell, a Queensland author; After Story by Larissa Behrendt; and Remember Me by NZ writer, Charity Norman.

Thank you for reading The Liars and for your questions.

The Queensland Reviewers Collective appreciates the opportunity to interview Petronella and her thoughtful and considered responses.

Click here to read the QRC review of The Liars.


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