Interview With an Author: T.A. Willberg

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author T.A. Willberg and her debut novel, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder
Author T.A. Willberg and her debut novel, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder. Photo credit: Wentzil Olivier

T.A. Willberg was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and holds a chiropractic master's degree from Durban University of Technology. She currently lives in Malta with her partner. Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is her debut novel and launch of her detective series. She recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for the Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder series?

I always say that my inspiration for Marion Lane was circumstance. As far back as I can recall, my only interests were science and the human body. I spent seven years at university studying a Master’s Degree in spinal pathology, pouring over texts on anatomy, pathology, and physiology. I was convinced I would spend the rest of my life in the healthcare field.

Then, three years ago, all that changed. I found myself sitting at my kitchen table in Malta, having just moved there from South Africa, unemployed and alone in a foreign country. It wasn’t a particularly easy time, but I’ll always look back on those months with gratitude because somewhere along the line my brain wandered very much off-track and I was struck by the most random thought I’d ever had: I wonder what it would feel like to write a book? It was so bizarre and out of the blue that I’m still not sure if it was divine intervention or my brain misfiring! Either way, I had an all-consuming urge to start typing something. I opened my laptop and began writing a scene about a young female detective running away from an unknown killer. There was no plot or plan, but from that moment, the story of Marion Lane grew piece by piece and now here I am, talking to you lovely folk at the Los Angeles Public Library!

Are Marion, Frank, Nancy, Bill, Kenny, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

For the most part, these characters are a composite of people I’ve known and personality traits I’ve observed, rather than based on one particular individual. The relationship between Bill and Marion, however, was inspired by a great friendship I had with a classmate during university. And I have to admit that my partner was the primary muse for Kenny Hugo!

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Oh, it’s changed a lot! As this was the first book I’d ever tried to write, the initial drafts were total disasters and I’m so relieved they’ll never see the light of day. There was one thing in the later drafts that I sometimes think I should have kept, an additional scene from the Circus Ball where a mechanical dog walks a tight wire and sings the agency’s theme song. It was quite (very) ridiculous and didn’t have any significance to the plot, hence the decision to cut, but it was a lot of fun to write and maybe it would have made a few people laugh.

What inspired you to set the novel in 1958 (as opposed to other potential time periods)?

Two reasons. Firstly, I wanted the technology the detectives of Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries use to be superior to what existed in the period the story was set. And for the array of gizmos I had in mind, the 1950’s just turned out to be the ideal decade. Secondly, the central plot of the novel is greatly influenced by the aftermath of WWII (which I believe was felt most acutely in the 1950s), the destitution England suffered through, and the industrious ways they brought themselves together again.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder ends with quite the cliff-hanger! And the book is described as the first of the Marion Lane novels. What are your plans for the series?

I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that there is definitely a series in the works—books 2 and 3 at least! Marion has a lot left to endure, poor thing.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Searcher by Tana French.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

There’s so much (often conflicting) advice out there on how to go about getting published, but one thing I know for certain is—if you’re going to make it, you REALLY need to believe in your book and your ability to tell a story, because no one else will for a long while.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

J.R.R. Tolkien
Alexander McCall Smith
Anthony Horowitz
Agatha Christie
Kate Quinn

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I have two! The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Fifty Shades of Grey. My friend gave me a copy in university, which I kept hidden in a box under my bed, so well hidden, in fact, that I completely forgot about it for years.

What is a book you've faked reading?

A Tale of Two Cities (I’ll get around to actually reading it one day).

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. Luckily, it turned out to be brilliant inside as well as out.

Is there a book that changed your life?

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. I always tell people to read these books as they perfectly capture the essence of Africa and her people, something I feel the world could learn so much from.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Harry Potter (all of them).

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The most impactful piece of art I’ve seen in a long time was David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

This might sound dreadfully boring but I’d spend the entire day sitting with my family under the shade of an acacia tree in the Kruger National Park, watching the sunrise and set. Bliss!

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

What was your favourite gadget to create for Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder?
Answer: Toby the mechanical spy snake.

What are you working on now?

The first rough outline for Marion Lane book 3. Wish me luck!

Book cover for Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder
Willberg, T. A.