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.”
FUEL FOR THE FIRE
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.”
It’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.
ONE MORE ROUND
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.”
OFF AND RUNNING
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