It's back to primary school for crime writer Petronella McGovern | HerCanberra

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It’s back to primary school for crime writer Petronella McGovern

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In Petronella McGovern’s first novel, Six Minutes, she drew on Canberra’s fringe towns to spark a thriller that has now been shortlisted for the Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards.

Now, Petronella is taking it back to the classroom for her second novel, The Good Teacher.

Drawing on themes of altruism and why we do good deeds against a backdrop of Sydney’s wellness-focused Northern Beaches, The Good Teacher has been described as “Impossible to put down” by Australian crime-writing royalty Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies).

We sat down with Petronella to find out how COVID has affected her craft, how Canberra influenced The Good Teacher, and what’s next for this rising star.

Congratulations on the release of your second novel—The Good Teacher. Can you give us a sneak peek as to what it’s about?

It’s the story of Allison, a Kindergarten teacher whose life falls apart when her husband leaves the marriage unexpectedly. He moves out and their teenage son goes with him. Allison is left all alone in the big family home, scared and confused. She begins to watch her husband’s new house to try and understand why he left.

In the meantime, a new student, little Gracie starts in Allison’s class. Gracie is new to the area and has lost her mother in the Victorian bushfires. Allison takes Gracie under her wing and gives her all the love that she can’t give her own family. But as Allison gets more and more involved with Gracie’s life, others start to question her motives.

The Good Teacher touches on all sorts of themes, including ideas of family, relationships, health and wellness, and the power of community to be used for good or evil. It’s a tale of kindness and betrayal, and the danger of good deeds.

The Good Teacher is a psychological thriller, the same as your first novel, Six Minutes—what draws you to writing these kinds of novels?

I’m really interested in what drives people to behave the way they do, whether that’s an act of kindness or committing a crime. When we watch the news on television or read the newspaper, we see the crime itself but we don’t get an understanding of what led to that moment. I like to delve inside my characters’ minds and see what motivates them.

My books are written from multiple points of view, so the reader gets an insight into all of them. In The Good Teacher, Allison is the main character but we also pop into the heads of Luke who is Gracie’s dad, Maz a young, enthusiastic gym instructor and Felix, Allison’s teenage son.

As a reader, I love books that intrigue me with a puzzle and surprise me with a twist, so that’s what I aim to write.

Tell us how Canberra played a role in inspiring The Good Teacher?

One of my inspirations for the storyline in The Good Teacher came when I was volunteering at my child’s school in Canberra. I was assisting with reading and determined to help one little girl with her alphabet. But the next week, the girl’s family life fell apart.

I didn’t know the family but I offered help to her mother, who questioned why I wanted to help. That started me thinking about the motivations behind kindness. Of course, altruism is wonderful but sometimes, individuals have complicated reasons for wanting to get involved in other people’s lives.

The Good Teacher is set on the northern beaches of Sydney which works well with its themes of health, fitness and wellness. My first novel, Six Minutes was located on the edge of Canberra. Both books focus on how people build their communities and the question of who to trust within a community.

How has COVID and the many joys of 2020 affected your writing?

I was finishing the final draft of the book at the end of last year when the bushfires were blazing. I’d already written a bushfire into my novel but it became an even bigger focus as the east coast burned around us. And then when I was doing the final edits, the pandemic hit. Both of these played into my storyline about community.

We saw the worst—and the very best—of community during these turbulent times. While my book is a psychological thriller, I’d love readers to take away the message from one of my characters—we need kindness and a strong sense of community to take us into the future.

The pandemic has meant that I couldn’t do the normal book launches, bookshop visits and library talks with readers. Instead, I’ve done quite a lot of online talks and podcasts. I had an online launch with family from England and Spain, and I zoomed into some Melbourne book clubs when they were in lockdown. So I’ve still spoken with lots of readers from all over the place!

What’s on your TBR pile?

There are so many great books out at the moment—excellent options for Christmas presents! I recently finished the amazing and heartbreaking Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson.

My TBR pile is overflowing but yesterday, I bought two new Aussie releases: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth and Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna.

What’s next?

I’m working on my third novel, which is set in a seaside tourist town on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. I have quite a bit of research to do—a good excuse to visit some beautiful beaches over summer!

While I can’t say too much about the story yet, it will be another psychological suspense with contemporary themes.

I’m excited also that we’re starting to do some real-life, in-person events. Last Saturday, I was at the BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival chatting about The Good Teacher.

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