Interview with Ber Carroll

Interview by Samuel Elliott

A taut psychological drama set within contemporary Sydney, The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy, is an ambitious exploration of the aftermath of a car accident, as told through a myriad of disparate perspectives. What was the catalyst that would eventually become The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy, was it the image of a car crash? Or the concept of the lasting impact of that? Or a combination of the two? Or something else entirely?

It was that image, particularly because someone I know was badly injured due to the carelessness of someone else. It struck me as very unfair, because of how her life was deeply impacted, her health, her ability to work and her relationships, whereas the person responsible wasn’t impacted at all. That just got me thinking. I mean, obviously, this person was very contrite, and it got me thinking about situations where remorse can’t fix the damage that has been done.

With the titular Sophie and the character of Hannah working within the financial sector, was that shaped in part by your own experiences with working in finance a few years ago?

Well they do work in a different industry, which is insurance. Though a lot of what was happening in the office, really had nothing to do with the industry that they were in. It was more the dynamics of an office, that could be any office. I think we all know somebody like Sophie, who is very tough to work for and their perception of themselves is sometimes different, and actually most of the time very different, to how others perceive them. I just wanted to really look at those lines that we all draw and experience in the office.

We all know a certain amount of persistence and being tough is called for, but there’s a line you can go over and I wanted to have a look at what that line was with Sophie.

Let’s keep talking about the different perspectives for a minute. The novel itself is presented in something like seven different characters point of views, I counted at least seven. How’d you go about writing in such a way – did you find it daunting or liberating? Did it require a large amount of preparation in order to realise it?

Actually, writing all the perspectives proved to be really easy, and I actually wrote nine perspectives to start with. I was asked during editing to kind of collapse two of those perspectives. That was very difficult obviously. But the writing itself was very easy, it just came out, I had a strong sense of who Sophie was and who all of the people around her were. Obviously, when I had written it, I had to then go back and fine tune all of those voices, which was also unusual because they are all in the first voice and any self-respecting author or editor would tell you that it was madness and I was expecting to be asked to do more than just lose two voices.

But ultimately, I feel all the voices worked for the story, and the feedback that I’ve gotten so far is that it did, and I did really enjoy writing it. It did deeply challenge me, to write all those voices and make them all interconnect properly in order, to bring the plot forward like that.

I get the impression you also must’ve done quite a bit of research, starting off with the condition of insomnia in children. How did you go about condensing the research into the practical scope of the novel?

I do have first-hand experience with that. One of my children did find it hard to sleep. Also, I myself am one of six children and my mum would say I would appear just as she was going to bed, so maybe what goes around comes around. I guess, because I’ve had direct experience with it, I’ve always been discussing it with people, other parents. It seems to be such a common problem and there’s such a wide range of reasons why people can’t sleep. It’s not a simple problem and it’s a very difficult problem to solve.

To me, I remember thinking – well I want to use this, I want to use all of these emotions that happen when someone in the house doesn’t sleep, because it doesn’t just affect the person who doesn’t sleep, it affects all the other people around them. When I started the novel, I knew I wanted to use that information, I just didn’t know how, I knew it would somehow feed into the plot. I remember when I figured out how it was going to fit in the plot, I was at the gym, I gave out a little yelp and nearly feel off the machine. [Laughs]

How did you go about writing from someone in the military’s perspective and balance that with writing from the perspective of a loved one’s outside of the military? Did you consult military personnel in order to obtain that realism?

I did. I did speak to somebody. Actually two. I didn’t have any contacts in the military originally and it’s always difficult when you don’t have a contact in the area that you research. I have to say that these people were extremely helpful. Often when I contact people and explain I’m an author needing help, they are extremely helpful and go – ok.

In this particular case, I did a tour of Victoria barracks and while I was on the tour, I met this really lovely retired gentleman, who is one of the men who facilitates the tour there. I started chatting to him, and I explained that I was writing a book, and this is what I want to happen in the story, but I don’t know how to describe that because I don’t have experience in this military world – can you help me? So, he was amazingly helpful, and it was lovely to be able to send him a finished copy of the book with a note of thanks.

Lastly on the topic of research, did you contact a real-life person with Sophie’s post-accident condition in order to depict it properly? Not only the physical aspect but also the innate mental anguish attributed to that?

I had to find other sources for that information and I found them online, I found a lot of forums that talk about pain and the long-term impacts of pain. I did the research that way. And again, imagining, imagining someone like Sophie. She is very ambitious, she’s always worked really, really hard. I believe we can all imagine what it feels like when your ability to get ahead and succeed is suddenly taken away from you and what kind of feelings that that could and would bring about.

Thank god for the internet, there’s so much information online, in some situations that sort of research works out really well, with pain, to get people talking in very real ways, what it feels like. But with other things, such as the army research, it wouldn’t work. Some things you really need that face-to-face, you really need to be there. It’s all about identifying which is which.

Can you describe your writing process a little bit? Do you write a certain amount of words per day, or work a certain amount of hours? And have you found that your process has changed over the eight novels that you’ve written?

It definitely has changed. When I started writing, I had a newborn baby and I would write when he had gone to bed. That was the only time of day I could write. As I’ve gotten older and my kids went to pre-school, I’d write as soon as they went to pre-school and then go and pick them up. Now they’re at high school. I thought, when I got to this stage, I would have lots and lots of time to write. But now I find that I’ve got even less time than when my children were newborn babies. Now they don’t go to bed at a certain time. [Laughs].

I don’t plan the novels, so I usually sit down and say I want to write a 1,000 words a day and sometimes I can exceed that and sometimes I find it difficult, but I won’t let myself get up until I’ve written at least a 1,000 words. Sometimes they are not very good words but at least they are there, they have progressed.

But I don’t plan the novels, with Sophie there was no planning board, every chapter came up, it’d be a certain voice, I’d write the name down, so I could keep track of when we last heard from them and when we need to hear from them next. But other than that, there was no planning in the story and I had no idea, myself, where it was going.

So, you’d come to a character and then at the header of that, or in a new document, you’d have a few notes essentially saying when you need to come back to them, on the fly, so you’d keep going without losing momentum?

Yeah! So, I’d figure out who we haven’t heard from in a while and then figure out what they are going to say. Because it’s that type of novel, with all these changing perspectives, you do need to hear from everyone. So, there were some chapters where I really did need to think hard and then there’d be other chapters of course we needed to hear from this person and they’d be the first person that slotted in with what had to be said. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was less easy.

And then at the end, during the editing, because editing was just so tricky, I got an excel spreadsheet, put everyone’s names down and colour-coded them. Then I was swapping and changing things around and trying to keep track of what was what.

I wouldn’t be able to write like that, I’m definitely not mathematically minded and I’m not good with numbers.

You’re not like Sophie then. [Laughs].

Definitely not! In more ways than one. That kind of leads onto the next question I wanted to ask you as to – who’s story is this novel? It seems an inherently easy question. Because the automatic answer would be Sophie and Sophie’s story – but is it?

I think essentially it is Sophie’s story, it starts with her, it ends with her. But there is that ripple effect happening. I think that we’re all bigger than just ourselves. We all live within the family unit and there are families involved and we worked with people that we see eight-nine hours a day and anything that happens to anybody has a massive, massive ripple effect. So maybe that’s what’s come through in the novel, how interconnected we all are. But really, it is Sophie, it’s about her, it’s about how she is the way she is.

She’s such an interesting character and, had you denied her a perspective in the novel, most readers would probably have just uniformly hate her right from the outset and throughout. But because you’ve taken the time and made it more challenging for yourself, I think that you’ve made her more grounded and relatable.

She is somebody who we all know, that person either at work, or even before that, from school who you half-admire and you half-hate. It was important to me that she was that person who we could all recognize – that she was not a complete psychopath. That she remained a real person that we could all identify with. There is a good side to her as well.

I think you see people like Sophie, in every type of workplace, no matter what. In the workplace, you see the best of people and the worst of people. All of my friends I’ve made through the workplace have been life-long friends, but by the same token I’ve seen good behaviour and very, very bad behaviour and I think that, no matter where you’re working I think that’s true.

You mention in the acknowledgements at the end, that this novel is ‘different to the others’ – could you expand a little on that as to what you meant?

My other novels are contemporary fiction, I’ve always had an element of intrigue in my novels, but to varying degrees, as in, the reader never knew everything from the outset. But with Sophie, from the very start, this novel was much higher level of suspense and a lot more at stake.

To me, what the core difference to my other novels, the reader knew the main character was likable, the character might’ve had all sorts of things happen to them and they might’ve had their own challenges. But the end of the day, the reader knew and liked the main character, whereas in this novel, the reader isn’t sure whether to like Sophie or not. That’s probably the biggest difference.

When I started this novel, I had no idea why I was so adamant it was going to be different, especially when I had no idea how it was going to end. It wasn’t like I suddenly wanted to write psychological drama, I actually just wanted to write about Sophie.

Do you think that this whole trying something completely new and challenging yourself like this, could again happen down the line?

Well, it has actually happened again. [Laughs].

I’ve just finished a draft for a second BM Carroll novel and it is of the same ilk. It fits with Sophie. I can’t say anymore as yet. I’ve written from different perspectives again, even though after Sophie I swore I would never do it again. [Laughs]. But I will not do it a third time! I have no idea why I make my life so hard. I really can’t imagine what will happen in the editing.

The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy is available for purchase now through Penguin Random House and can be purchased here: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-missing-pieces-of-sophie-mccarthy-9780718186715

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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