Good Reading : June 2011
JUNE 2011 ı goodreading 11 cover story he learns of her horrific upbringing he comes to sympathise with and feel protective towards her. Early on Ruiz learns that Holly has extraordinary ability to detect when someone is lying to her. He tests her, putting statements -- some true, some false -- to her about his personal life. In every instance she detects whether he's lying or not. It tur ns out that such people really do exist, although they are quite rare. 'I had the idea about ten years ago that I wanted to do a book about someone who could face-read,' says Michael. 'I did a lot of research into the most famous person who studies this, an American scientist called Paul Ekman.' Paul Ekman is a psychologist who pioneered the study of the relationship between facial expressions and emotions. Michael tells me he's read all of Ekman's books. 'Then they came up with this TV series called Lie to Me with Tim Roth, which totally put paid to my idea. But I'd had the idea way before the series had ever come up,' says Michael with a resigned laugh. Although Lie to Me dashed his hopes of writing an entire book about a character with this lie-detecting ability and presenting it to the world as an original idea, this unusual skill still held enough fascination for Michael for him that he wanted to include a character with it in The Wreckage. 'Often when you unpack the background of the person who can reliably detect lies you find that they've suffered a lot of abuse in their childhood. And they've had to lear n from a very young age how to pick up from other people these almost invisible signals to keep themselves safe. Law enforcement officers also often have a heightened ability to tell when someone's lying.' Michael notes that savants also sometimes have an increased ability to detect fabrications. He outlines one of the stories in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the book by neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks, which deals with a pair of twins who can instantly identify prime numbers, and who, despite other social and intellectual deficits, can tell when people are lying. 'Sacks tells a story of them watching Ronald Reagan appearing at a congressional committee investigation into the Iran--Contra scandal, where Reagan just stonewalled by saying, "I don't recall, I don't recall," about 200 times,' Michael explains. 'But these twins were just giggling and nudging each other, saying "He's lying". And in the end Oliver Sacks did some research with them, and found that they did have a superior ability to tell when people were lying.' A conspicuous feature of Robotham's writing that strikes you as you read The Wreckage is its strong cinematic quality.When the action and tension ratcheted up I started seeing detailed, fast-moving pictures in my head of what was happening. This is especially apparent in the Iraqi scenes set far beyond the refuge of the Green Zone, such as the situations of car nage shortly after bombs have detonated and insurgents use guns to pick off victims not claimed by the bombs. The fine detail gives you the feeling that Robotham must have pounded pavements of Baghdad, wiping his sweltering brow every now and then, perspiring not only from the heat but also from fear. I'm aware that comedians and musicians are often airlifted into Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain the troops. But they are cosseted for the whole of their stay by military personnel and don't face any real danger. Robotham, on the other hand, writes about places where at any minute you could expect to cop a bullet in the head. 'There were two places my wife wouldn't let me go,' Michael tells me. 'One is Baghdad. Normally in all my books I've walked the streets and done my research of the places I write about. The other place is Chernobyl, because there's a future book I want to set in Cher nobyl. 'So I had to do the research from reading accounts of jour nalists and soldiers. A lot of stuff came out of blogs written by soldiers who were there, and pieces from jour nalists who were there. I studied photographs of the streets and used Google Earth to zoom in on streets in Baghdad and actually plot routes.' Robotham may have only experienced the streets of Baghdad through books and his computer screen, but the formidable research skills and imaginative powers that he brings to The Wreckage -- undoubtedly a legacy of his earlier careers as a jour nalist and as a ghostwriter -- ensure that you'd never know it. Unless you ask him about it. But despite his unquestionable skill and success -- he's written seven bestselling novels that have been translated into 22 languages -- Robotham still feels the self-doubt of a first-time writer. 'I am driven, more than anything else, by the fear of failure. For years as a journalist -- particularly when I was a feature writer in London and had a difficult editor -- every time I submitted a feature I was convinced that this was going to be the one that exposed me as being a fraud, showing that I didn't know what I was doing. And books are the same. Through ghostwriting 15 autobiographies and also when I deliver every novel, a part of me is thinking, "This is going to be the one that actually reveals that I don't have a clue about what I'm doing here." And this is going to be the one that exposes me. It's almost like when it's accepted and published and people like it, I go, "Phew, fooled them again! I got away with it one more time."' The self-imposed stress seems entirely unwar ranted. I glance at my watch and notice that more than an hour has passed since the start of our interview. Michael has to rush off to talk as the guest speaker at a literary luncheon. So I bid him farewell. I tell him how much I enjoyed the interview and The Wreckage. H e looks at me, and for a second I wonder if he's scanning my face using his Paul Ekman lie-detecting skills to see if I'm telling the truth. But I'm not wor ried. I really did enjoy both the book and the interview -- and I'm sure that Michael's face- reading skills also confirm that for him. The Wreckage by Michael Robotham is published by Sphere, rrp $32.99. 'I AM DRIVEN, MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, BY THE FEAR OF FAILURE.