Lee Winter - A Cellist and Australia's Underworld
Lee Winter is an award-winning veteran newspaper journalist who has lived in almost every Australian state, covering courts, crime, news, features and humour writing. She is now a full-time author and part-time editor. Lee is a 2015 Lambda Literary Award finalist and Golden Crown Literary Award winner (The Red Files) and a 2016 Lambda Literary Award finalist (Requiem for Immortals). Requiem for Immortals also won a Golden Crown Literary Award and it won bronze in the mainstream 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards for E-book Mystery/Thriller. In 2018, Shattered won a Golden Crown Literary Award for sci-fi/fantasy. Lee lives in Australia with her long-time girlfriend, where she spends much time ruminating on her garden, US politics, and shiny, new gadgets. As our Author of the day, she tells us all about her book Requiem for Immortals.
Please give us a short introduction to what Requiem for Immortals is about.
Australian professional cellist Natalya Tsvetnenko moves seamlessly among the elite where she fills the souls of symphony patrons with beauty even as she takes the lives of the corrupt of Australia's ruthless underworld. As “Requiem” she kills using her signature karmic “tell”, ending lives by mocking the way her victims committed their crimes.
She takes to her task with relish, until the day she is hired to kill a woman who seems so innocent that Natalya can’t understand why anyone would want her dead. As she gets to know her target, she can’t work out why she even cares.
What inspired you to write about a cellist and Australia's underworld?
I blame Australian actress Pamela Rabe (Wentworth) entirely! I saw a photo of her in a black suit, staring off to one side, eyes cool and hard, expression distant. And my first reaction was, ‘Oh my god, she could be a killer and no one would ever know’!
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What sort of innocent job might would my assassin have as a cover? I tried to think of something unassuming that allowed her to move in elite circles and would never arouse suspicion. Orchestra musician came to mind. She’s six-feet tall with broad shoulders, so I gave her a beast of a musical instrument, the cello, to match her stature and gravitas.
I hasten to point out that in my former career as a journalist I have met and interviewed Pamela several times (before I had this book inspiration), and she is warm, kind, smart, and lovely and gave off absolutely no lethal vibes. So, apologies, Pam!
Tell us more about Natalya. What makes her tick?
She is deeply repressed. Tall. Powerful. Cold as an Arctic winter. Exclusively prefers women although she dates no one. In fact, she generally seems to think the human race is beneath her. She was raised mainly alone by her father, a Russian military man, but was manipulated from her mid-teenage years by someone close to her, so she hasn’t had a normal upbringing.
Psychiatrists have discussed Natalya with me and they agree that she isn’t a psychopath or a sociopath, but someone who was groomed to be who she became; someone forced to switch off her emotions and do unthinkable things.
The only time she allows herself to connect with her emotions is when she plays her cello. Music is her outlet. As a consequence, she finds it hard to form attachments to people. Even sex is nothing to her but a power play. A form of conquest.
She is forced to reassess all that as well as everything she is when she comes up against her seemingly sweet “mouse” of a target, Alison Ryan.
This book has a very interesting cover. How did it come about?
An artist at my newspaper did it for me. I said “killer cellist”. That was Adam Lloyd’s answer. I love that it conveys her power, beauty, and lethalness. My publisher liked it so much they hired Adam for a few years to do many of their covers.
Any amusing story that happened to you as an author?
This is an amusing story of how I became an author. I had posted a few fiction pieces on the internet, one really long, just to amuse myself. And out of the blue, a publisher (Ylva) contacted me and asked me if I was interested in writing a book for them. Well, obviously I knew this was fake. I mean, come on, who does that happen to? I think I grilled the poor publisher for weeks about whether she was for real or not, and then grilled a bunch of her authors until finally, I realized she was legit. So, oops? She found it amusing at least. It worked out well. I also am aware of how incredibly rare this is and how lucky I was. I remain so grateful to Ylva.
Which of your characters has been the most challenging to write for?
I set a book on Socotra, a tiny archipelago off Yemen, called Shattered. It was about a disaffected black superhero from another world who was 140 years old and had absolutely had it with humanity’s crap and violence, so she’d disappeared off the grid. A tracker was sent to find her.
The research for that book was off the scale just for starters. And I also had to inhabit the mind of someone very different to me. I’m not a woman of color. I’m not a superhero. I’m not 140 years old. And I can’t even imagine what it’s like to always be expected to be perfect and “on” and never make a mistake. The pressure alone would crack up most people.
I had a sensitivity reader, but I still don’t know if I came close to encapsulating the rage my hero, Nyah, must have felt at being expected to “hero” non-stop for a century as payback for being allowed to take refuge on Earth.
This is the first book in a series - can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?
Actually the rest of the books in the series, written by other authors, have nothing to do with Requiem and vice versa. They’re all tied together by a law and crime theme. So all of them are standalones.
Is there something that compels you to write? And do you find that writing helps you achieve clarity about yourself or ideas you've been struggling with?
I have loved writing since I first learned to read. The excitement it brings rushes through my veins and I feel this burning urge to scribble down my thoughts, and get things on the page quickly. When I wasn’t writing at work, when I went from journalist to sub-editor, it felt like an ache all day long. So I turned to writing fiction and posting it online to fill the void. As I explained above, this lead to a book deal, so thank goodness for that ache!
Do you write your books for yourself, or do you write them with a particular reader/audience in mind?
When I write in the mystery/crime noir/suspense genre, a lot of it’s for me. Requiem especially was my baby. I lived it so much that the main character whispered in my head for three months afterwards, all her little thoughts and views on the world. That was unnerving! When I write lesbian romances, I’m doing it for the audience. I enjoy writing those, too, don’t get me wrong. It’s a whole lot of fun writing about sarcastic, witty, ice queens falling in love in spite of themselves, and those are the books that pay my bills. So non-romance titles feed my soul, romance titles feed me, and I love them both.
Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?
I aim to write or edit a chapter a day. That means I’ll be working with around 1500 to 5000 words.
Do you have any interesting writing habits, what's your average writing day like?
A typical day involves three hours’ writing in the morning. In the afternoon, if I’m content editing someone else’s book, that gets my sole focus. If not, I’ll face my emails and other correspondence. I might update my website or almost certainly be sucked into a social media vortex.
What are you working on right now?
A book about warring hotel rivals, with the working title Hotel Duxton. It’s at the 90,000-word mark, so almost done. But essentially two powerful women, both top hotel executives, hit it off in a hotel bar in Vegas. Neither woman has a clue who the other is…which is unfortunate.
One woman is going undercover at the hotel to work out why their staff turnover is so atrocious. The other’s there to do a huge hotel deal which she’s unknowingly stealing from under the first woman’s nose. But like all my books, nothing is exactly as it seems. I love to add twists. This novel’s technically a lesbian romance, but it has a lot going on plot-wise because I can’t resist.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I have a website, leewinterauthor.com, and I’m on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as @leewinteroz.