Donna Malane: The power of the past

by gabeatkinson / 07 February, 2013
Two decades after witnessing the truth behind the headlines, Donna Malane continues to explore crime on page and screen.
Donna Malane
Donna Malane, photo/David White

Life is made up of moments; fragments of time that briefly exist then pass us by, becoming memories. Once they’ve gone, we can’t change what happened, but what happened can change us. And it’s that lingering touch of moments gone that fascinates acclaimed New Zealand storyteller Donna Malane.

“In many ways, I seem to always return to the same theme, about something traumatic happening in your life and how you ‘move on’ from it,” she says. “Can you move on from it? Is it possible to ever move on from it, or are you identified by that thing for the rest of your life?”

Ideas of identification with the past and being defined by past events are fertile creative terrain for Malane, who personally despises the pat phrase “moving on”. “I know people who’ve suffered something like the death of someone close to them, and they hate that awful term ‘moving on’, because you never really move on,” she explains.

Instead, Malane likes to delve into whether the immovable past cements people in place. Are characters, real-life or fictional, defined by what has happened to them?

In a lengthy career in screen storytelling, Malane compiled an impressive resume, including the TV series Shark in the Park, Duggan, The Strip and The Insiders Guide to Happiness, and the award-winning feature-length drama Until Proven Innocent (the story of David Dougherty, who was convicted of abducting and raping of an 11-year-old girl and exonerated by new DNA evidence after serving more than three years in prison). She burst on to the adult thriller-writing scene with her 2010 novel Surrender.

Centred on the hunt by missing-persons expert Diane Rowe for the truth behind her sister’s violent death, Surrender, which won the New Zealand Society of Authors Pindar Publishing Prize, was as much about the deeply flawed Rowe as about uncovering a killer. “She was just stuck, stuck at the point her sister got murdered,” says Malane.

In the second Rowe novel, My Brother’s Keeper, released this month, several characters must also confront past traumas, and the ongoing effect those “moments” have had on their lives. Rowe is hired by recently released prisoner Karen to track down and check on the safety of her 14-year-old daughter, Sunny, who, unlike her brother, survived Karen’s drug-fuelled actions years before.

“As a child, as Sunny was in this latest book, where something dreadful has happened – that her mother had tried to kill her – are you defined by that?” ponders Malane. “Is that how you are seen by the world, forever after, and is that how you define yourself? Or do you become something more than that?”

Rowe also has to confront how much she is tied to past events and people, to moments gone. “It’s sort of a surprise to me, but I seem to be returning to that theme of how you become defined by things,” says Malane.

Her own past has certainly affected what she does now. In the late 1980s, having completed studies in criminology, she was offered a role writing short re-enactments for Crimewatch. She’d always wanted to be a writer, and loved television, so leapt at the chance.

“Some of my strongest childhood memories are of watching television, and I’ve never had that kind of snob factor some people have about television,” says Malane, who now runs Lippy Pictures with fellow writer-producer Paula Boock.

Malane, who has gone on to win and be nominated for several film and television awards in the two decades since, says her five years with Crimewatch was “a very, very good learning base” for screenwriting. “They are little dramas, and they ranged from 30-second bank robberies to some that were as long as seven to 10 minutes, if there was a major homicide, or a hit-and-run, or a complex crime where we really needed to get information.”

Mentored by renowned producer Michael Scott-Smith, Malane learned to shape the re-enactments so they maintained the audience’s interest, were factual and gave the audience “a real sense these were real people who these things happened to”.

That wasn’t all she learnt. Meeting victims, police and even perpetrators opened her eyes to the true nature of crime in New Zealand – the effects beyond the drama and headlines.

“It’s so obvious,” she says, “but I think the thing that really did surprise me was crime can happen to anybody. I travelled all around New Zealand to these tiny little towns, and I’d end up sitting in somebody’s living room and they only had a TV, a chair and a washing machine. They might have had six kids and something had happened to one of those kids. And then I would go to an incredibly wealthy environment, an elderly person’s place, a young person’s place, a flat. Crime can just come out of the blue and happen to absolutely anybody. It’s a great leveller, I think.”

Malane’s opinions, honed from her “real hippie background” growing up in the 1970s, were also challenged. “Cops were the enemy. But then, working with them over those years in Crimewatch, I really came to understand the job they were doing. And to admire a lot of it – and that, at the time, was quite a turnaround for me, because I thought they were ‘the other’, too: the police were ‘the other’, the criminals were ‘the other’ and then there were ‘the normal people’. And that’s just nonsense. I had to do quite a rethink about how I saw a lot of things.”

In the years since Crimewatch, Malane has continued to explore the complications and consequences of crime, in true crime dramatisations (Indelible Evidence, Until Proven Innocent, Bloodlines) and fictional crime dramas (Shark in the Park, Duggan), and now in crime novels, too.

What is it, I ask her, that audiences and readers worldwide find so fascinating about crime storytelling? Crime fiction, whether on television or in prose, says Malane,creates an expectation of a good story.

“It’s very Dickensian, actually. It’s got great characters, a great story, a satisfying ending, and a couple of good twists in the middle. Basically, how do you tell a really good story?

“I think crime writing can range very widely, but basically there’s some big inciting incident and people are trying to find an answer to it in some way. And whether it’s an emotional answer, whether it’s being able to ‘move on’ and not having this thing define you, or whether it’s finding the person responsible for doing this, and putting an end to it, it’s a fairly basic, strong motivation. And it fits very well for good storytelling. It allows for just those basic craft things like action, strong emotional responses and big drama.”

There may be storytelling and craft similarities between crime fiction and true crime stories, says Malane, but they require the writer to be truthful in different ways. There’s a weight of responsibility that comes with dramatising true events, she says, whether it’s Dougherty’s story of wrongful conviction in Until Proven Innocent, the tragic romance between cricketer Bob Blair and Nerissa Love in Tangiwai: A Love Story or Malane’s current Lippy Pictures project in pre-production, which is about Archibald Baxter and other conscientious objectors sent to the front lines in World War I.

The new project is another “amazing story”, says Malane, although this means she and Boock “both feel the incredible weight of responsibility for getting their true stories right”.

Getting it right doesn’t mean absolute 100% factual accuracy, of course; dramatisations may conflate time or move characters around to make it easier for the audience to understand the most important aspects of the true story. But the responsibility weighs heavily, she says, and the “lovely thing” about writing crime novels was that “I had no responsibility except to myself and to my readers.” Fiction-writing required Malane to be “truthful in a storytelling way”.

The novels also allowed her to get deep inside her heroine’s head, to explore what Rowe was thinking and feeling. “Having worked on writing television dramas for the past few years non-stop, the one thing you miss in screenwriting is you can’t write a thought process,” she says.

The opportunity to write a character’s internal world, combined with a plethora of crime storyline ideas pecking at Malane from all the research she’d done for various TV shows, and a desire to write a strong but flawed female character, coalesced into the drive to write Surrender. Initially, she didn’t see it as the start of a series, but the character of Rowe “certainly took hold of the story and hold of me, and has insisted on continuing”.

Because she was free of deadlines and expectations, Malane says, writing Surrender was a self-indulgent luxury she “just loved”. As is often the case with second novels, My Brother’s Keeper was much harder, “both because of expectations and because you want it to be better, that pressure you put on yourself”. When she finally finished, she initially thought she’d “never do that” to herself again, but after a few weeks more ideas started creeping into her mind.

“And I just missed Diane. I missed being able to inhabit her. She’s a character who might be flawed, but she’s interesting. She’s a great break from myself. It’s a wonderful thing about writing, particularly in the first person. You can have a break from yourself, and be somebody else. And writers know this. We’re just kids in the playground, really. There’s just this lovely thing of being able to let go of yourself and be somebody else for a while.” Living their moments, and memories.

MY BROTHER’S KEEPER by Donna Malane (HarperCollins, $29.99).
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