Wednesday, 09 November 2022

Jacqueline Bublitz

Fueled by personal grief and an injustice she just couldn’t let go of, debut novelist Jacqueline Bublitz overcame years of rejections to deliver a stunning, trope-busting tale that centers victims and has already won several awards overseas.

The 49th rejection didn’t sting quite as much. Not because Jacqueline Bublitz had become numb after several years of hearing publishing gatekeepers say no to her novel-writing efforts. Not because she didn’t care as much anymore. But because when the email arrived from the latest agent to say Bublitz wrote beautifully, but that her novel about two women who flee to New York City and become connected when one discovers the other’s body would be just too hard to sell given it didn’t fit neatly into any popular genre, Bublitz had already secured a great agent, and her debut had gone to auction with international publishers.

“You just can’t have an ego in this industry,” says Bublitz with a chuckle, from her home in the Taranaki region of New Zealand. “Because every time something amazing happens, then something else happens. It’s like getting one-star reviews and five-star reviews, writ large.”

While that late-responding agent was right that Before You Knew My Name, Bublitz’s trope-busting debut that centers crime victims rather than cops or killers, doesn’t neatly fit neatly into typical genre boxes, they were wrong about it selling. Published in the United States this fall, the book has already scooped numerous awards and hit bestseller lists overseas. Several translations are already in the works and Bublitz is now working on her second novel.

While readers, critics, and awards judges have been feting her book—something Bublitz is still trying to get her head around—she says it was the idea and themes behind Before You Knew My Name that kept her going through doubt-filled years in the aspiring author wilderness. And in a way, it was a tremendous personal loss that finally got it over the line.

“I had the idea in 2014 about what it would be like to be the jogger who found a dead body, but no real plot,” she recalls. “I went to New York in 2015 to ostensibly research, but the true story is I really just wanted to live in New York. The idea just wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I just worked away at it over the years after coming back from New York. It was quite an amorphous process. I don’t write sequentially, and I’m a 'pantser,' not a plotter.”

Bublitz had loved the idea of New York City since she was a story-loving kid in small-town New Zealand. She was was obsessed with Broadway musicals, along with soap operas, the Russian royal family, and the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books. At high school she’d applied for an exchange program to the United States, hoping to experience the big city. She secured a spot, but was instead sent to Flushing High School in Michigan.

“I ended up in a small town, similar in size to where I’d come from, which I later found out is what they do, which sort of defeats the purpose somewhat of going on a cultural exchange,” she says. “But I fell on my feet in that I had great teachers. My senior year of high school at Flushing was taking drama, singing, creative writing, journalism, criminal justice, American government, and was a year when I laid a lot of foundations for what would come.”

Though Bublitz, who moved to Melbourne, Australia, after high school and lived most of her adult life there before moving home after her beloved father was hospitalized in 2019, confesses she can be quite thin-skinned and struggles with constructive criticism.

“I want everyone to love me, or at least like me, or just ignore me,” she laughs. “So, I had to really learn with writing this book over those five, six years then going through the publication process, to toughen up. And I guess that’s how I knew as well that this was a book I wanted to stick with, that it was worth it. Because anything that sort of emotionally fraught, it must be worth it if you keep coming back to it and trying again.”


Part of the fuel was Bublitz’s “feminism with a capital F” and her rage at violence against women. She describes Before You Knew My Name —a book about death, New York, and two women called Alice and Ruby—as “an exploration of a very particular type of gendered violence and the impacts that has both on the and the people around them.”

Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline BublitzIt’s a superb, affecting read.

And it’s easy to see why Before You Knew My Name won 2022 General Fiction Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards, with judges describing it as “an extraordinary, unputdownable debut novel exploring trauma, connection, and our cultural obsession with dead girls."

Bublitz’s debut opens with the arresting voice of teenager Alice Lee, arriving in New York City on an overheated cross-country bus, and bluntly telling the readers that she will die, and that she’s going to tell us her story rather than being just another ‘dead girl’ whose remains are picked over and their character created and story told by an outsider.

First-time novelist Bublitz deftly upturns the typical "pretty dead girl" tropes often seen on TV shows and in crime fiction where a young woman’s body is found by a passerby then we follow the cops on their hunt for the killer while the victim and witness become periphery.

Instead, Before You Knew My Name centers the dead girl, Alice Lee, and the person who finds her, Ruby Jones. Both women were looking to, as Sinatra sang, ‘make a brand-new start of it in old New York’. Teenager Alice is fleeing Midwest family tragedy and bad decisions with a controlling older man. Ruby is a single thirtysomething from Australia looking to reinvent herself after a going-nowhere love life with a soon-to-be-married man. Two women searching for something, perhaps themselves, whose lives intersect in the most tragic way.

A few weeks after her arrival in Manhattan, Ruby is running through a morning storm in Riverside Park when she discovers the body of a young woman sprawled on the rocks. The familiar crime show steps follow: police, crime scene tape, detectives with questions. Ruby can’t let it go—she needs to find out more about the unidentified woman who was beaten, strangled, and reduced to a Jane Doe.

Meanwhile Alice Lee watches on as the husk of who she was slots into the daily routines of those who deal with the dead. Another tragedy in New York City, splashed across newspaper headlines for a while, before everyone else moves on. Almost everyone.

Could Ruby Jones be the key to finding Alice’s killer?

Following our interview, Bublitz’s beguiling, beautifully characterized novel that deep dives into victim and witness rather than cops on the hunt, scooped another four highly regarded book prizes. In late August, Before You Knew My Name won Debut Crime Book of the Year and Readers’ Choice at the Davitt Awards in Australia. Then in September it made history by becoming the first book to ever win both Best First Novel and Best Novel at the Ngaio Marsh Awards, the annual crime, mystery, and thriller awards for Bublitz’s home country.

With its enchanting warmth despite horrifying deeds and themes, and Bublitz’s rich characterization of female lives, fears, and desires, it’s easy to see why this sublime novel has become a hit—even if it doesn’t neatly fit the usual commercial crime fiction boxes.

But four years ago, Bublitz nearly gave up on it.

Then she suffered through perhaps the toughest year of her life, and it was reborn.


In early 2019, Bublitz was working on some edits of what would become Before You Knew My Name with an agent in Australia, only to get the dreaded news of “It’s just not working.” A body blow for an aspiring author, quickly followed by even worse.

Bublitz, known as "Rock" or "Rocky" to her friends (her middle name is Rochelle and she was born just after Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky came out), returned home to Taranaki after her father had been hospitalized with a heart attack then later diagnosed with cancer.

“It was a pretty rough time for me, personally,” she says. What she thought was her big writing break evaporated, her world was rocked, and Bublitz was sorely tempted to let her novel writing dreams go. “Then the rest of 2019 was all about nursing my Dad through an illness, but I’d pick up the manuscript every so often. I was sort of licking my wounds and dealing with these life-changing events, having moved back to New Zealand from Melbourne after 20-odd years to help. Dad passed away, and that’s when I really picked up the story again. And I realized that I hadn’t got close to what I was really trying to say, which is look at what we lose when this kind of crime happens. Look at how much is lost.”

Going through her own experience of loss, Bublitz began thinking about mortality, and changed some of the narrative in Before You Knew My Name, becoming clearer on Alice’s journey after death. “I didn’t want to do a Lovely Bones kind of idea of heaven,” she says.

After her father’s death, Bublitz received a letter from a friend who’d lost her own father, sharing some advice about bereavement. “She said, and it almost line-for-line made its way into my book, that ‘You’re going to have to learn how to find him,’” says Bublitz. “That really gave me the focus with Alice and Ruby. Dad died in September 2019 and I edited the manuscript for around three months. Then in December, just quietly and not really telling everyone, I began sending it out to a few agents in Australia, the UK, and United States.”


This time, things happened quickly. Bublitz was picked up by British literary agent Cara Lee Simpson, Before You Knew My Name went out on submission, and was quickly snapped up in several territories. Bublitz smiles, calling Cara, along with her Australian editor Jane and her British editor Darcy, her “three witches,” because they helped her find the magic.

And with her US publication looming, Bublitz hopes she can return to New York City, perhaps meeting in person with some of her witches, like Cara, who she’s only dealt with remotely during the pandemic. “There’s all this life-changing stuff we’ve gone through together. I’d love to go back to New York as it’ll be six years since I’ve been there.”

She may even go for a jog in the park.

Jacqueline ‘Rock’ Bublitz is a writer, feminist, and arachnophobe, who lives between Melbourne, Australia and her hometown on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. She wrote her debut novel Before You Knew My Name after spending a summer in New York, where she hung around morgues and the dark corners of city parks (and the human psyche) far too often.

Craig Sisterson writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries, and is an event chair, festival founder, podcast host, and book awards judge. His first nonfiction book, Southern Cross Crime, was nominated for a Macavity Award. He’s the editor of the Dark Deeds Down Under anthology series. @craigsisterson

Jacqueline Bublitz on the Hard-Fought Massive Success of "Before You Knew My Name"
Craig Sisterson
Wednesday, 09 November 2022

Ausma Zehanat Khan


"It’s wonderful to have community rooted in shared experiences or history, but it’s equally important to build a community of shared values, and that’s what my investigators are working toward."

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s first Detective Inaya Rahman book features a Muslim detective in Colorado who works for a squad called the Community Response Unit. Dealing with racially sensitive crimes, this unit allows Khan to explore cultural divisions and highlight the beauty of the Muslim community. She also writes a kick-ass police novel. This is a wonderful new series.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I know you’re originally from Canada though you’ve now lived in the United States for several years. Why did you choose the States to set your story? Is it because of our recent and unfortunate ongoing culture of division?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I moved to the United States in 2005 and became an American citizen a few years ago. I wasn’t planning to move my green card status forward until Donald Trump began his political campaign in 2015. At that point I realized the divisive rhetoric he exemplified could pose a threat to my civil liberties and I needed the protection afforded by citizenship, which of course, is an immense privilege.

So although my first crime series, the Khattak/Getty series is set in my hometown of Toronto, Blackwater Falls is based in Colorado where I’ve lived since 2008. I felt like I’d now experienced enough of American politics and society to write about it convincingly, and I wanted to explore this significant shift to the right in the political culture, particularly given how deeply it impacts the communities I come from. I love Colorado—it exemplifies so many contradictions as a purple state that it gave me wonderful material to draw upon.

Is there a Community Response Unit (CRU) in Colordado? Would they have the authority to step in and take over an investigation?

There are various police units like hate crimes or anti-bias units in different police departments that would definitely do some of the same work that my detectives do, but I doubt they’d have the authority to supersede another police department’s jurisdiction. I’m grateful for the fictional liberties I’m able to take because they help give my stories added weight. I do think every police department needs proper community response training, but that by itself won’t be enough for systemic police reform.

Sometimes a little shift in perspective can upend a genre. Sara Paretsky did it by having a female character; Tony Hillerman did is by having a Navajo detective. I feel like you are bringing another and welcome seismic shift to the genre by illuminating cultural differences as well as (hopefully) points of connection. Can you talk about this a bit?

Detective Inaya Rahman is, as far as I know, the first American Muslim female detective in crime fiction, so she represents someone new and unfamiliar to readers. I loved the idea of depicting Inaya in the fullness of who she is, with the added benefit of giving her the context of her culture (she’s of Afghan-Pakistani background) and family.

One of the big questions we’re facing today is the over-policing of minority communities in ways that are hugely detrimental to those communities. So what happens when police officers come from those communities? How do they grapple with suddenly being perceived as not belonging in either place: on the police force or at home among their own? By writing not only Inaya, but her partner Catalina Hernandez, and her boss Lieutenant Waqas Seif, I was able to question the premise of police officer as undisputed hero. I also had the opportunity to explore the complexity of how officers of color navigate a broken system, and these are questions I think we should have been asking in crime fiction long ago.

This book is so rich in character. I loved learning about the different families and cultures. I loved attorney Areesha Adams—and I loved Inaya’s sisters who add just a bit of spark to the story. When you are telling a story do you start with character? Situation? Setting?

Thank you so much for these kind words! I normally begin with themes I want to write about—in this case, criminal justice reform—and build the book from there. I do always have a variety of characters at the back of my mind, and what I try to do is find the most effective character to explore the theme. I then begin the process of fleshing that character out. Who is she at heart? What matters to her? How do her personal values reflect upon the way she carries out her job as an investigator? Adding in her family is great for series longevity—I hope to put all these characters in difficult situations and thereby intensify Inaya’s personal conflicts, as well as her professional ones.

Blackwater Falls, by Ausma KhanI liked the tension between Lieutenant Waqas Seif and Inaya. Will that be maintained going forward?

Definitely! These two are the heart of the series and they won’t be able to resolve their complicated relationship too quickly.

Is there a version of this story where Seif and Inaya could be together? (If this is a spoiler leave it out, but I’m personally curious!)

There absolutely is, but it would involve a lot of introspection by both these characters, as well as the ability to make some foundational compromises. Inaya won’t end up with someone who doesn’t share her faith, so the challenge for Seif is to discover who he is at the core and whether he’s capable of meeting Inaya on her ground.

Incidents in the novel that involve assault and bullying, including scenes with the murdered Syrian teenager Razan Elkader that sparks Inaya's investigation, and with the investigator herself are difficult to read, but certainly has a large and powerful impact on your story. Can you talk about writing these scenes? Were they hard to write?

These scenes come out of a lot of work I do with Muslim communities, where I position myself as someone who witnesses the testimony of others, particularly my many headscarf-wearing friends. They often speak about the bullying and harassment they experience because of the hijab. I also track hate crimes against Muslims in the West, and there is definitely a gendered dimension to Islamophobia (anti-Muslim racism) because the hijab makes women easily identifiable as targets. So it’s difficult to write these scenes only in the sense that they are based on some truly horrifying facts, but I’m almost more dismayed by the fact that as time goes on, I’m becoming desensitized because of how often I have witnessed anti-Muslim hate. It’s there in the political discourse and the popular culture as a not-so-subtle undercurrent, yet so many people remain oblivious to it.

A football player who is involved with teenage bullying has a surprisingly subtle and well-delineated reaction to what occurs with Razan. I liked that this character was able to be reflective. Can you talk about this a bit?

I didn’t want to write the one-dimensional bully/jock character when it came to Campbell Kerr. I thought about the pressure we all experience to fit in, to belong, and how easy it is for young people to become radicalized either by a real-life presence like the Resurrection Church, or by their peer group or by reprehensible actors online. No one starts out wanting to be racist or thinking themselves superior to others based on race or religion—we have to be conditioned to accept those beliefs. So Campbell Kerr is the victim of the circumstances of his life, but he’s also intelligent and sensitive enough to know that he could have made a different choice, and that he has to take moral responsibility for the decisions he’s made. And he also has to accept the fact that those decisions have consequences.

I liked that faith gives the characters strength in the novel, but you are writing about different ways to be faithful. The evangelical church in the book is really a center of hatred and division, not love and acceptance. Can you talk about this dichotomy?

My personal belief has always been that the basic precepts of all faiths are the same: Most religions guide us to behave ethically in the world, the “do unto others” premise. In reality, religious institutions can be deeply problematic. Consider the Catholic church and child abuse, and how long those scandals were covered up the church. Or consider what happens when religious identity and political identity become aligned, so that you’re no longer talking simply about religion, but about political actors.

At an extreme end, you look at how institutions like the Serbian Orthodox Church of the former Yugoslavia, or the Catholic church in Rwanda gave credence to the state’s genocidal aims. Conversely, you have theocratic regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and nonstate actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda who carry out horrific human rights abuses in the name of religion, and you can’t ignore these realities either.

What I’m getting at is that we can’t assume that religious institutions, political actors, or nonstate groups are inherently “good” because of the teachings of the faith or religious institutions they may be aligned with. Instead, these same actors may often incite hate and violence against other communities—the Taliban repeatedly attacking the Hazara, ISIS enslaving the Yazidi people, or churches where you have pastors openly speaking about the Islamic threat, about American Muslims as a source of evil that needs to be rooted out.

I won’t name the church in question, but the Resurrection Church in Blackwater Falls, and the sermons of its pastor, were based on a church in the United States. Whenever I think I’m going too far in my fiction, my research establishes that the concrete reality far outstrips anything I come up with in my books.

I really felt that ultimately this was a book about community, both good and bad, community support and family support versus community pressure to think or believe in a certain way. Did you feel this was an important theme of the book?

Yes, definitely. Blackwater Falls explores how we build community, and more importantly, how we determine solidarity. On the face of it, Inaya, Catalina, and Areesha don’t seem to have much in common. They speak different languages, they face different social justice struggles, and they’ve had very different life experiences. Yet the core of this series is the solidarity these three women learn to build and express, becoming a community of their own by understanding that they do, in fact, share the same struggle because of their common humanity.

I find in life, we’re always building connections that don’t necessarily align with our cultural heritage or our ethnic backgrounds. It’s wonderful to have community rooted in shared experiences or history, but it’s equally important to build a community of shared values, and that’s what my investigators are working toward.

What books or writers have influenced your work? Was there a transformation read for you at one point that changed your life?

The New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh influenced me as a superb stylist of language. I’ve always loved her Detective Roderick Alleyn mysteries. Elizabeth George is a writer I very much admire because of how deeply she digs into the psyche of her characters. I love the compassion inherent in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache crime series.

But because my crime novels center on social justice issues, the most influential books I’ve read have been books with similar themes: anything by the Algerian author, Assia Djebar, but especially A Sister to Scheherazade; a prose-poem novel by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called "Memory for Forgetfulness" and his poem "Beirut" among countless others; Raja Shehadeh’s Occupation Diaries; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra; Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War; Fatima Mernissi’s memoir Dreams of Trespass and her groundbreaking book The Veil and the Male Elite; David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West; Roy Gutman’s A Witness to Genocide; Frank Herbert’s Dune for world-building; Amin Maalouf’s immense historical knowledge and the panache exemplified by his unforgettable novels Samarkand and The Crusades Through Arab Eyes; Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book; and of course, Ann Patchett’s gorgeously lyrical Bel Canto. For me, these were all transformative books that I read at pivotal moments in my life.

What’s next? Will there be another Detective Rahman novel? I really hope this will be a long series.

Yes! I’m thrilled to tell you that I was so excited to dive back into Inaya’s life that I’ve just finished the (unnamed) sequel, which will be published next fall.

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead, published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books, and winner of the Barry Award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Novel, as well as a 2016 Macavity Award finalist. Works in Khan's critically acclaimed Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series includes The Language of Secrets, A Death in Sarajevo, Among the Ruins, A Dangerous Crossing, and A Deadly Divide. Khan's new crime series features American Muslim detective Inaya Rahman. Inaya investigates homicides in minority communities in Colorado with her partner Catalina Hernandez, and independent monitor Areesha Adams - a trio of Muslim, Latina and Black investigators who work to change a system impervious to reform from both the inside and the outside. The series debut is Blackwater Falls.

Ausma Zehanat Khan Introduces Detective Inaya Rahman
Robin Agnew
Tuesday, 18 October 2022

"You name it, I read it."

For authors who are compulsive readers, writing gets in the way of our addiction. We are the ones who hold the cereal box in front of us while we chow down on Cheerios or Corn Flakes as we read the ingredients, the nutritional content, and whatever tidbits of information might make their way to the other narrow side of the box.

I remember reading my way through the encyclopedia—the ones titled A–Z, with a gold letter on the spine for each book—Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Fishing, Seventeen, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. You name it, I read it.

I remember terrorizing my second-grade classmates with vivid, verbal replays of Alice in Wonderland. Who remembers what my version of the story was? But the other second graders were horrified by the rendition I told them. Growing up in rural, northern Minnesota, books were my window to the world, and I constantly traveled out into the universe on a magic carpet of words.

I cannot recall the author or the book, but I remember a scene in a story where the author described the sunlight on a warm summer day, filtering down through the green-leaved trees into a meadow in the middle of a forest. The beauty of the place and the peace I felt reading that passage can be recalled to this day.

In fourth grade, while I read at an adult level, it was discovered I knew nothing of math when the teacher busted me with a library book hidden behind the math book I was supposed to be working from. I had been lost in the world somewhere off in Egypt while the rest of the class was multiplying fives. High school and college studies fit my compulsive need to read.

Reality hit when I became a mother. I was heartbroken that I could no longer sit and read a book nonstop to the end. The child needed attention, food, a bath. I took to short stories that could be read from beginning to end in between parental duties. As the child grew older, I enjoyed reading my coveted crime and horror novels at bedtime, reading until three or four a.m. Books continued to not just bring the world to me, but to transport me out into the world.

The first time I drove through Maine, I had a sense of déjà vu, having visited the state in every Stephen King novel.

Needless to say, other people binge-watch internet-streamed movies and TV shows. I read.

Marcie R. Rendon is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, author, playwright, poet, and freelance writer. Also a community arts activist, Rendon supports other native artists/writers/creators to pursue their art, and is a speaker for colleges and community groups on Native issues, leadership, writing. She is an award-winning author of a fresh new murder mystery series, and also has an extensive body of fiction and nonfiction works.



Marcie Rendon on the Compulsive Need to Read
Marcie R. Rendon