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“If You Want to Know the Truth About a Society, Read its Crime Fiction” – Joanne Macgregor Chats About Dark Whispers

Joanne Macgregor

SkadustemmeDark WhispersProtea Boekhuis recently published the Afrikaans translation of Joanne Macgregor’s psychological thriller, Dark Whispers. Books LIVE chatted to the author and counselling psychologist about how she maintained tension throughout the novel, getting into the mind of a serial offender and the process of translation.

Dark Whispers, which was translated as Skadustemme by Elsa Silke, tells the story of psychologist Megan Wright who finds out that a gynaecologist she works with is sexually mutilating his patients. Not someone who is willing to see a crime go unpunished, Megan delves deep into the psyche of Doctor Trotteur and his evil deeds.

Megan traverses the landscape of Joburg in search of the doctor’s previous victims and finds that he has been getting away with his crimes for far too long. It boils down to a race against time and a battle of wits between the two doctors.

Macgregor spins an intricate tale filled with complex characters and deeply flawed people and institutions, with nail-biting suspense to the last sentence.

Read Part 1 of our interview with Macgregor:

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For readers not familiar with Dark Whispers, could you give us a short summary of your debut adult novel?

When a patient under hypnosis describes an experience of mental torture and sexual mutilation by a gynaecologist at the same private hospital where psychologist Megan Wright works, she decides to find out more. Megan uncovers horrifying details of abuse and damage, but can tell no one because the perpetrator has already made her his therapist and she is ethically bound to protect his confidentiality. Megan is determined to find out the truth and stop the abuse, but her investigation will lead her client and herself into the mind and hands of a dangerously disturbed man.

The Afrikaans translation of Dark Whispers was recently published by Protea as Skadustemme. How did the translation come about?

My publisher thought that Dark Whispers would translate well into Afrikaans and I was delighted with the idea, as well as with the end product.

How involved were you in the translation process and what did you learn?

My editor very kindly involved me and I suspect that I made a great nuisance of myself with all my comments and suggestions, although I do think I added some value with some of the more technical psychological aspects. I learned that the translated work cannot be an identical version of the original. It will inevitably have a different voice and feel to it, and that’s okay. Letting go and trusting your translator and editor is an act of great faith, but I was in such good hands with the award-winning Elsa Silke who did a fabulous job. I also learned some excellent Afrikaans words that I never knew before!

Were there certain things that you found easier or more difficult to portray in Afrikaans?

There were subtleties of language, particularly in the accounts of the therapy sessions, that were difficult to translate. There are words in English that carry different connotations and emotional loadings to their Afrikaans counterparts, and simply don’t translate well. At one point, the translator, my editor and I were all completely stumped because in one of the story’s hypnotic inductions, the word “patient” carries the dual meanings of being unhurried plus being the person on the operating table, and we could not find an Afrikaans equivalent. It’s a critical part of the story and in the end I had to write a different section for the Afrikaans version. We also took a while to come up with the right title in Afrikaans.

Skadustemme forever put me off gynaecologists. How did you come up with the idea?

Sometime in 2010, my eye was snagged by an online news report about an Australian doctor – an obstetrician-gynaecologist whom the press had dubbed “The butcher of Bega” – who had abused and mutilated multiple patients before being apprehended. The article included the sickening detail that just as one of his patients was slipping into general anesthesia, he had leaned over her and in a soft whisper told her which parts of her he was going to cut off.

I felt horrified. Nauseous.

I told my husband the story over lunch (I know, gross), and casually added, “There’s a book in that.”

“Go for it,” was his response.

In that moment, Dark Whispers was conceived.

In my day job, I’m a counselling psychologist, working mainly in the field of trauma. What, I asked myself, would I do if a client reported such an experience to me? What if she related it while in a state of hypnosis, and neither of us was sure it had actually happened? (Unlike what you’ve seen in the movies, hypnosis isn’t an objective “video recording” by the brain of everything that has ever happened to you.) What if the extraordinarily stringent ethics of my profession hampered my efforts to discover the truth and do something about it? And what if, all the while, this doctor was continuing to practice and wreak havoc with women’s lives and bodies? There, in the what-if labyrinth of my writer’s imagination, this rather sick and scary story grew.

How much research went into the portrayal of your villain – Doctor Trotteur – especially for the flashbacks to his childhood?

I didn’t research that part. I guess because I’ve studied and practiced psychology for so long, I have a good feeling for what damages people. The scars left on people, internally and externally, seem to be a common theme in my work.

Skadustemme isn’t a whodunit, in fact we know the villain almost from the start, yet we remain terrified throughout. How did you maintain that tension?

I’m delighted to hear it! As a reader, I don’t find many of the elements of crime and thriller novels exciting – car chases, shoot-outs and fist-fights just don’t do it for me. I guess I’m more brain than brawn. So as a writer in this genre, I wanted a much more intimate kind of violence – a verbal cat-and-mouse game between characters with sparring intellects and competing values. I like to examine the inner battle within the individual psyche, too. I believe that the minute, microscopic view of interactions can create tension as well as imminent explosions or threatened murders. I tend to think that the “whydunit” is more interesting than whodunit anyway, and when you can’t see how it’s all going to end – that creates excitement for the reader.

Trotteur’s slogan “Dokter weet die beste” (Doctor knows best) emphasises how trusting we are of people in positions of power. How is the crime novel a good medium for subverting skewed power relations?

If you want to know the truth about a society, read its crime fiction, because this is where you see how the most vulnerable members of that society are treated. Perhaps because of my day job, I see very clearly that dangerous power imbalances are most likely to occur in our homes and in contexts we like to believe are safe. As a reader, it’s easy to separate oneself from the serial killer “out there”, but when the person who malevolently intends you harm is your doctor, and you’re going to be unconscious while he has you totally in his power – that’s scary!

The unconscious patient is also a metaphor for how we tend to accept what we’re told by authority figures and how we blindly put our trust in people and institutions who are at best fallible and, at worst, deeply flawed.

When you wrote Dark Whispers, did you have a particular audience or message in mind?

I write the kind of stories I’d like to read and that give an opportunity to explore themes and ideas that intrigue me. I didn’t write for any particular audience, except that I always and unapologetically put story ahead of style. So the novel is more likely to appeal to someone who wants a clever, entertaining thriller than to a reader who prefers more beautiful, literary ramblings.

Your two previously published books, Turtle Walk and Rock Steady, were both for teenagers. What was the most challenging element that emerged during the writing of this first book for adults?

Many people think that it’s easier to write young adult novels, that the themes and characters are more superficial, but this is a misconception. Good fiction, whether for teens or adults, requires clever plotting, complex characterisation and intriguing conflict. So, for me at least, writing for adults was a step sideways rather than a step up. The challenging aspect came not from writing for older readers but in shifting genre. This was my first thriller, and I nearly broke my brain trying to figure out the intricacies of the plot, how to plant enough foreshadowing without tipping my hand, adding red herrings and clues, etc. It’s so hard to figure out what the reader will know and guess at any point in the plot – that’s why beta-readers are so vital!

What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?

I’ve written several books since Dark Whispers. The third book in my YA series, Faultlines, is due out early next year. I’ve got an idea for another adult psychological thriller – strangely enough it would also be set in a hospital. Right now I’m working on a young adult romance/coming-of-age story, which is close to my heart.

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