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Interview: Marie Connolly talks about Dark Sky

Marie Connolly has been an academic for over thirty years in university and government settings. An expert in child welfare she has published extensively, including twenty scholarly books, and has travelled the world undertaking research into child protection systems. She began her academic career at the University of Canterbury and has worked at senior levels of government in New Zealand. In 2010 she moved to Australia to take up a professorial Chair at the University of Melbourne.


In 2019 she retired and returned to Aotearoa where she continues to write academic non-fiction, and has published six story books in the Our Backyard series of travel books for children. She has also contributed to and edited a book of Fantabulous Fables, published in 2023 by the Akaroa Community Arts Council. She lives in Akaroa with her partner George, and Dark Sky is her first murder mystery. Marie talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Dark Sky.

After a career of writing academic books, Dark Sky is my first crime novel. The main character, Nellie Prayle, is a smart, young criminal psychologist working as an academic in Wellington. She’s a top notch interviewer with a sharp understanding of the criminal mind, and she teaches interviewing skills at the police academy in Porirua. It’s there she meets Detective Jack Simmons from the Christchurch police. They get on straight away, and Jack then engages Nellie as a consultant in a number of cases. When a professor of astronomy is found dead in one of the telescope domes at  the Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo, Jack calls on her to help with the investigation. It’s her first homicide and she’s excited to be part of the police team. Against a backdrop of the spectacular Southern Alps, Nellie and Jack soon find themselves in the midst of academic rivalries, lies and deceptions.


What inspired you to write this book?

Stargazing at the Mt John Observatory is an awe inspiring experience. I’ve done it a couple of times, experiencing the isolation of the Tekapo Dark Sky reserve and the fascination of stargazing through massive telescopes. A perfect place for a murder - particularly at a time when astronomers gather to celebrate the observatory’s 50th birthday. From there, it was the splendour of the Mackenzie Country that drove the plot, and the people whose careers take them into the mysteries of the universe.


What research was involved?

Quite a lot is the answer to that. It is often said that writers should write about what they know and there is much wisdom in that. But for me, writing about what I don’t know has been the most engaging part of bringing Dark Sky together. My career as an academic gave me what I needed to  understand about human motivation, desires and behaviour. It’s also given me a good grounding in the dynamics of academic life, its challenges and rewards. So far so good. But that’s only part of what I needed to know to write a crime novel set in an observatory. Two stargazing trips didn’t quite do it. I needed to know a lot more about what went on in the solitary environment of the Mount John Observatory, the kind of research that happened there, and the people whose careers depend upon it. This took me to John Hearnshaw and Alan Gilbert’s celebratory book of the observatory, Mt John: The first fifty years. This, and my time spent with people associated with the observatory, gave me another important part of the story.

That left the forensics and the world of policing that I needed to come to grips with, which is no small thing in a crime novel. So I read about police procedures, the forensics, and the investigative processes. Once I had a bit of a steer in that direction, I drew on the experience of our local police. There were great conversations that were essential in grounding me to the realities of their work.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I would love to say that I am a disciplined writer, but I’m afraid that has never been the case for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the narrative, whether it’s an academic book or a fictional one. So by the time I am ready to sit down and write I have the big picture already in place. Then I’m obsessed by it.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

A soundtrack - that’s a hard one. All the songs I know about the stars and the universe tend to be joyful, which doesn’t quite fit with a murder mystery. Even Bad Moon Rising is a bit jaunty for this novel. But my favourite soundtrack in recent times, without a doubt, is from the film Annette.  The cadenced ear-worm, So May We Start, by the American pop and rock band brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, is a phenomenal start to a film. It’s nothing to do with the stars, or the universe, but I’m sure they could write something suitable.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

When I first started writing Dark Sky I went to the internet and found images that gave me a visible picture of my characters. I pasted them into a notebook and referred to them as I wrote. So by the end of the novel I’d become very familiar with them and the way the images informed the characters. Based on that visual, I think Anna Paquin would make a great Nellie. And Sam Neill would make a good Vice-Chancellor - but you will need to read the book to get this joke.

On the other hand, whenever I watch a film that is based on a book I’ve read, I wonder if it’s reasonable to expect an alignment. While some films are faithful to the books that inspired them, for others it becomes a launching pad into something quite different. The filmmaker brings their expertise and interpretation to it, and that often makes for interesting conversations. Whether I’d be happy with someone messing around with Nellie, however, remains to be seen.


What did you enjoy the most about writing Dark Sky?

I loved it all, but mostly finishing it…


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

We’ve had many celebrations of Dark Sky. We celebrated, of course, the writing of the last sentence and then finally the completion of the editorial process. But in between, when Quentin Wilson Publishing accepted the manuscript, my partner George and I went out to dinner at a favourite restaurant in Christchurch. By the end of the evening we had the bones of the next Nellie Prayle mystery. George is currently researching Aoraki/Mt Cook and there is a lot of murder mystery potential down there.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I am currently reading Remember Me, by Charity Norman. It’s a beautifully crafted, poignant story that is already in the running for this year’s favourite.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have a manuscript to finish this year for my US publisher, which I expect will be my last academic book. And then there is the mystery at Aoraki…But big on my agenda will be the hosting of the RAWA festival - Readers and Writers Akaroa - in November. Last year the Akaroa Community Arts Council hosted its first RAWA, bringing together some of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors who shared their work with an enthusiastic audience in a beautiful, intimate setting. It’s an event we all want to repeat. 


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