When Jacqueline Bublitz was writing her debut novel, Before You Knew My Name, she read a lot of books and articles about true crime. Two which stood out for her was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Both works explore the perilous realities of female homicide, and Bublitz tells me she wanted to ground her story in reality; though her book is a work of fiction.
“These two works taught me so much, both at the clinical and personal level,” she says. “Van der Kolk’s book is a brilliant, accessible book about trauma and McNamara’s is such a unique and compelling take on the crime genre.”
A unique and compelling take is what the New Zealand born author would ultimately achieve too, when she sat down to write Before You Knew My Name, six years ago.
For years, the former Melbourne-based writer worked in roles that had nothing to do with writing. In fact, when she started the book, she was working as an account manager at SEEK four days a week and writing on the fifth day.
“I think there is a different kind of urgency when your writing time is metered out like that, and the stakes felt quite high, because I’d taken a pay cut to give myself that time,” she says. “Being able to write every day now is the biggest gift, but I do think fondly of all that time I had to hustle.”
Before You Knew My Name is not just another novel about a dead girl. Instead, Bublitz flips the lid and lets the ‘dead girl’ tell her own story.
“I knew all the tropes,” Bublitz says. “I grew up on them, and having my female protagonist as the narrator automatically up ended a ton of those clichés I wanted to avoid.”
“She insists on her humanity, both before and after her death, and this made it easier to approach other characters in new ways, too.”
“Through Alice, we’re not allowed to overlook or dehumanise the victim – she won’t let us. Nor does she hold much space for the perpetrator.”
The story follows Alice Lee as she arrives in New York on her 18th birthday with $600 cash and a stolen camera. Not long after, she is found dead and her body is discovered by Ruby Jones, another lost young soul in the city trying to escape her past. Through the voice of Ruby, Bublitz also set out to examine the trauma experienced by those who are the first to stumble across homicide victims.
“I’m uncomfortable with turning someone else’s pain into my entertainment, or reducing a whole life to the most ‘sensational’ thing that’s happened to them,” Bublitz says. “Ultimately, I’d say there’s room for every story to be examined, as long as we’re not fetishizing the crime, or exploiting the victim – if we remember to talk about her at all, as Alice Lee might say.”
“I was also careful with this novel to not go down too many rabbit holes around real life crimes,” she adds. “You can find anything out there these days, and I have the kind of mind that holds onto tiny, terrible details.”
So how does she keep herself mentally well and positive?
“I run a lot!” Bublitz says. “That’s always how I’ve processed things. Any city I’ve ever lived in, I map out the safest places to run on my own, and then I put my playlists on shuffle, and run out anything that’s bothering me.”
Music plays a big part in her creative endeavour. According to her, it’s her biggest inspiration.
“The way a lyric or key change can stop you in your tracks, and you carry that feeling with you, long after the song is finished. As a writer, that’s what I hope to evoke in the reader.”
These days, Bublitz is living in the west coast of New Zealand and recently sent off the latest draft of her second book.
“I wrote this one in under a year, and to a deadline, which was a different experience altogether for me,” she tells me. “The story is thematically similar to my first novel, in that it deals with loss and grief – and maybe a ghost or two – but it’s set in New Zealand, and its been a new and exciting challenge.”
You can secure your copy of Before You Knew My Name, here.