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Interview: Stef Harris talks about Double Jeopardy

Stef Harris is a frontline police officer having served over 30 years in Wellington, Christchurch and Nelson. Harris filmed his debut novel, The Waikikamukau Conspiracy, as a first-time director. The Waimate Conspiracy, as the film version was titled, went on to win four best film awards around the world including the Screen Directors’ Guild Best Feature Film. Stef wrote and directed the 2018 feature film Blue Moon starring Mark Hadlow and Jed Brophy, which won numerous awards. Double Jeopardy is Stef Harris’s third novel, and he talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about your novel Double Jeopardy.

Retired Boston Detective Frank Winter swore an oath that if ever his daughter's killer was released from prison Frank would gun him down in the street like a dog. Frank said those words to a Chanel 9 camera on the steps of the Boston Supreme Court. He was drunk at the time, in uniform and brandishing his duty .38 calibre Smith & Wesson revolver. Now Frank is a night Janitor past retirement age and he gets to find out if he was all talk.

What is Double Jeopardy in reality?

The double jeopardy clause in the fifth amendment of the constitution states no man shall be tried a second time for the same crime. So that is the main story of the book- the search for justice. But the double jeopardy theme repeats throughout the story:

Double Jeopardy is essentially a love story:

Frank Winter has been separated from his ex-wife Mary for decades but now she has dementia and he visits her every day. Some days she thinks they’re still together, some days she doesn’t know who he is and she bad mouths Frank. It’s all very confusing except the only certain thing is Frank still loves her, so that’s a form of double jeopardy.

Frank lost his daughter Evelyn in the separation, never saw her again after she was eleven years old. She was murdered when she was twenty – so when Frank sees the ghost of his murdered girl she’s still eleven. And that’s a double jeopardy of a kind.

The villain in this story is Barry Krupke who has served twenty years in prison. He got himself an education, made good. Now wants nothing more than to forget his past and start life over. However retired Boston cop Frank Winter is still talking about making him pay, again,- that’s another double jeopardy

What inspired you to write this book?

It’s a book about a murder. But the thing with murder is the victim doesn’t have a voice. That leaves all the other victims – everyone who loved the victim. This is a book about a man, a victim of a murder, a father without a daughter, an ex cop, an angry broken man who will have his vengeance. It’s a story as old as Shakespeare, as old as Aristotle, a simple story with complex characters.

What research was involved?

When I’m writing I am hell bent on pushing through to the end of the first draft at all costs. I never stop to research anything. I go with my gut, write down all the visceral stuff that drives the narrative forward. Once you have eighty thousand words on paper there’s plenty of time to go back and double check everything and consult experts to see where you have gone wrong. But really it’s the emotional heart of the story that is of paramount importance.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I signed up for the Hagley Writer’s Institute in Christchurch. It’s a very formal year long course, the students met every Saturday for a year with a formal commitment to produce a body of work. My process was to write a chapter of my book every week so that on course day, Saturday, I had significantly advanced the novel. I liked the structure of it, they kept me honest. The chapters are 3,000 words, no more so it was no hardship- towards the end I had to write two chapters a week to make the deadline. I was determined to have a finished first draft novel for my end of year assessment.

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

Well of course if Double Jeopardy was a film I’d have Neil Young create a bespoke soundtrack on electric guitar along the lines of the Jim Jarmusch film ‘Dead Man’ starring a young Johnny Depp. Look it up, one of the best western films ever that bizarrely very few people have ever seen.

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

That’s a great idea! Mel Gibson will be Frank Winter. However the number I have for Mel is no longer working. If you see Mel ask him to give me a call, I still have the same number...

What did you enjoy the most about writing Double Jeopardy?

It was such an easy book to write. Once the character fell into place it flowed almost effortlessly. Frank was making up his own mind what he would do next so all I had to do was write it all down as he went along. Then along came Nunzio Arabito, a totally different style of policeman with his own agenda who started taking the story in a different direction. It was terrific fun watching the two of them knock their heads together.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

A book is never finished. You finish the first draft and it’s like being halfway up Kilimanjaro, it looks like the summit is in sight but you’re hallucinating. You’re nowhere near. After the ninth draft you think it’s all done but you still have a ways to go. It’s not until you get the box of advance copies couriered to your doorstep that the pain is truly over.

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

‘On Writing’ by Stephen King – the best book ever written on the craft of fiction, I read it at least once every year.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Right now I’m working on pre-production for a short film I’ll be directing later this year. Looking for actors, deciding on a location and searching for props and trying to figure out a particularly challenging lighting plan.

Sometimes you write a character and you know you’re just not finished with them yet. Frank phoned me the other day and said he was planning a fishing trip, I forget where he said he was going, I sure hope it doesn’t end in more trouble.

Quentin Wilson Publishing


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