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Interview: Stephen Tester talks about Kiss of Death


Stephen is a former lawyer turned high school history teacher whose debut novel, Kiss of Death (a historical legal thriller set in Wellington during the Spanish flu), has just been published. Stephen talks to NZ Booklovers.


Please tell our readers a little about your book.

Kiss of Death is a historical crime thriller set in Wellington during the Spanish flu of 1918. As the pandemic grips the city, Lorna McDougal, Wellington’s only female solicitor, is unexpectedly thrust into the role of Crown prosecutor in the case of a wealthy socialite’s “murder” of her husband by kissing him.


What inspired you to write this book?

I started this book as a Covid project, but made it a murder case set during the Spanish flu pandemic in order to draw upon both of my professional backgrounds (former lawyer and current history teacher). As the gloom of lockdown descended in 2020, I was intrigued by how the world had coped (or not) back in 1918. I hope my readers will be able to make comparsions to their own experiences during Covid.

 

What research was involved?

The research was epic. I spent hours and hours scrolling through PapersPast and other relevant sites as well as countless books. I’m also very lucky that all of New Zealand’s historical legislation is available online.


What was your routine or process when writing? Do you have a regular routine?

I’m a high school history teacher by day and a writer by night. I’ll often set aside a day or two each week where I arrive home from a day of wrangling our nation’s teenagers and then peck away at my keyboard into the wee small hours of the morning. I think the only way to finish a novel is to force yourself to keep to a routine no matter how exhausted you might be, but I love both of my jobs.

 

Where do you write?

I write at the dining room table amid the usual household chaos—the alternative is locking myself away in a small room and reintroducing myself to my family six months later. I suppose that’s one reason why the 10.00 pm to 2.00 am slot works so well.

 

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

I loved both the history and using my imaginaton to take on the voice of a main character I have so little in common with. My challenge was to seamlessly integrate historical information while speaking authentically as a thirty-year-old flamboyant socialite who’s a pioneering female lawyer in a patriarchal world (let’s just say it’s a niche skill, but it was honed over many drafts with a lot of help).

 

What was most challenging aspect?

The writer I empathise with the most is the fictional George McFly from Back to the Future (Marty’s father). He always struck me as such a dweeb, quietly squirelling himself away in his home and writing the sci-fi stories that he was so bashful about. It’s easy for an emerging writer to make harsh self-comparisons with poor old George. I stand with those who devote enormous energy to their writing projects while avoiding conversations about it with their nearest and dearest, who are wondering why they don’t just take up golf or weed the garden (I tell the neighbours we’re “rewilding”).

 

What kind of books do you like to read for enjoyment? What’s your favourite of the books you’ve read this year?

I’m a commercial fiction guy and always aspired to write the sort of book you’d pick up in an airport and then get lost in. I’d like nothing more than to walk through the Wellington domestic terminal and catch someone reading Kiss of Death, their corporeal bodies stranded due to “the late arrival of the aircraft”, but their minds transported elsewhere.

 

If I were that person, then legal thrillers and historical thrillers are what I’d be reading. My favourite authors include John Grisham (particularly his earlier works from the 90s) and Robert Harris, whose WWII thrillers Enigma and V2 provide refreshing portrayals of history-changing female protagonists. I admire how he threads the needle of giving the main characters agency beyond their feminine wiles while still being authentic to the societal limitations of the time period.

 

Do you read physical books or digital ones? Why?

I prefer physical books just because they’re easier on the eyes, but the price of digital books is conducive to a policy of scattershot purchasing because I can simply discard the ones I don’t like. My Kindle library includes a mountain of obscure history books that I’ve gone down rabbit holes into while researching facts about the Victorian and Edwardian world.

 

What’s your next writing project?

The screenplay for Kiss of Death, the major motion picture – just kidding. Although, Sir Peter Jackson, if you’re reading this, maybe your people could call my people and we could do lunch?

 

Seriously, though, I have a sequel to Kiss of Death in the works which begins in 1919 on a flu-ridden steamship. My main character, Lorna McDougal, must survive the voyage before beginning her quest to seek justice for the shipping company’s mismanagement on behalf of her fellow passengers – all while helping a rich socialite with her scandalous divorce. Think Titanic meets Outbreak wrapped around a courtroom drama.

 

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