We spoke to Laura Elizabeth Woollett about the inspirations behind her novel The Newcomer.
The Newcomer is an unconventional murder mystery, told from the perspectives of the victim, Paulina Novak, and her mother, Judy, before and after the fact. It’s set in the early 2000s on a tiny island off the coast of Australia called ‘Fairfolk’.
Why did you write The Newcomer?
The Newcomer was my attempt to write the kind of crime novel I wanted to read, a novel where the victim – not only because of her death, but because of who she is in life – is the force that drives the story, and the most dynamic and interesting person in the story.
I consume a lot of crime and true crime, and while I do enjoy whodunnits, I think they can sometimes impose a false sense of order on crime. I think this is especially true when these stories are told from the perspective of law enforcement, who see murder as just a puzzle that needs to be solved – and once solved, justice is served, balance is restored, life goes on.
Because, obviously, for the victim, life doesn’t go on. For the people who loved them, there will always be a gaping wound where that person once was. There’s no justice, because the crime is a permanent injustice.
While I do have the question of ‘whodunnit’ throughout most of The Newcomer, this question was sort of a Trojan horse to get people invested and asking other questions: who was she, what was her life worth, what does the world look like without her in it, and how do we live in this world – a world that often seems chaotic and unjust?
Who is Paulina Novak?
When we first meet Paulina, it’s NYE 1999, she’s 27, she’s recently gone through a bad breakup, and she’s a bridesmaid at her friend’s wedding. She’s also trashed. We quickly find out that this is not unusual for her – she’s a heavy drinker, a messy drinker, and a confrontational drinker, with a lot of emotional baggage.
This wedding is a total disaster for Paulina, and a sort of inciting incident for her to start a new life on a Pacific Island, ‘Fairfolk’.
The “perfect victim”
While writing The Newcomer, I was preoccupied with this idea of ‘perfect victims’ and ‘imperfect victims’. Paulina is both. On one level, she’s a young, attractive, middle-class white woman. Because of these qualities, she’s seen as fragile and worthy of protection, and her case gets a lot of attention.
At the same time, Paulina is someone who’s seen as unstable, broken, promiscuous; she has a drinking problem, she has mental health problems, she takes risks, she’s not afraid of conflict, she enjoys drama, she’s disrespectful of tradition. These qualities impact the way Paulina’s murder is perceived, and the amount of blame that is attributed to her.
I wanted to make the reader complicit in this victim-blaming too, by having them follow Paulina’s story as it happens, and see her behaving badly, and think, ‘oh, she must’ve been killed because she did this.’ No matter how tolerant we think we are, we all want to distance ourselves from bad things – we tell ourselves, ‘this couldn’t happen to me, because I don’t act like that’.
Fairfolk Island is inspired by a real place, Norfolk Island, as the novel is inspired by a crime that happened on Norfolk Island in 2002 – the murder of Janelle Patton.
When I first visited Norfolk Island in June 2018, I didn’t plan to write about the Janelle Patton case. I did visit the location where her body was found, though, and was very effected by that. Then the day after I got back to Melbourne news broke about the murder of Eurydice Dixon. A lot of the conversations that were going on around that got under my skin, and I realised I wanted to write a victim-focused crime novel set on an island.
At the same time, I knew that I could never represent Norfolk accurately, as an outsider. One man I met who’d lived there most of his life told me, “I know this place so well. There’s probably not a rock I haven’t touched.” That really stuck with me. I haven’t touched every rock. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So, I chose the name ‘Fairfolk’ as a way of making my inspiration clear, while also making it clear that this is a work of fiction.