Paul Verhoeven’s first novel, Loose Units, told the story of his father, John, as a New South Wales cop in the 1970s. Verhoeven tells the second half of that tale in his latest book, Electric Blue, where he interviews his father about his time as a forensic scientist in the 1980s.
We caught up with Paul for a chat about this latest biography.
Was there always a plan to do two novels even before you did Loose Units?
I was kind of hoping to write a second book. Loose Units was a very unexpected success and obviously the podcast really helped that. I had actually come up with the idea of a second book and I really wanted to do something that was effectively CSI but in the eighties and in Australia. When season 2 of the podcast happened, it became very forensics-based, and I got to the end of the season and I went “I think there’s a second book in that”. So I pitched it to Penguin and, God bless them, they were so trusting of me.
The book uses the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format at the end of the novel. Was that an idea you had right from the start?
I had about ten ideas rolling around in my head, but that part of the book was not part of the original pitch. I had actually sat down to plan out the book and I was digging through my old book collection and I found a whole bunch of “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from when I was a kid. I sat down for about three months and mapped this thing out, wrote that part of the book first and then sent that to Penguin and said “Look guys, I sort of want to build a whole book that builds towards this as a climax” and they trusted me. They always say in the entertainment industry, treat every job like it’s your last, do your best material, do your best stuff, just get it all out there because if you never get to perform, write, or whatever again, you don’t want your last shot to be wasted.
I loved the joining of that theme of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “if you could do things differently, would you?” to the whole novel.
True Crime books are generally one thing. It is typically an exploration of a pretty famous case. Electric Blue is very different. It’s really a father/son story about how Dad and I ended up so different, and deals with bullying and ADHD stuff. Dad is not very good at wondering “what if” whereas that’s all I do, so it was really enjoyable to go “Alright, I want to take the genre that people were into when they were kids and I want to translate it to adulthood and make it kind of thematically relevant”.
Knowing where Electric Blue would end made the writing of this book just a joyous experience. It’s been interesting to hear from die hard true crime readers – they either love the ending or they just do not get it. Some just skip the ending and go “I don’t need to do that”, but it’s been really interesting having those people who read those books as kids getting a real rush. That’s been my whole career – find something that people really cared about as kids and bring it back to them as an adult and make it relevant and let them enjoy it in an adult way.
That last section is so important though.
I like how you’ve zeroed in on the part of the book I’m most proud of. I love any storytellers that are brave enough to go “what if I mess with the format?” If I was a reader and I wanted to play with it, how would I go? If were to send you a visual map of the whole “Choose Your Own Adventure” stuff it would give you a migraine!
How did this translate for the audiobook version?
It was a really interesting story. We went to the Penguin studios and the sound engineer, a guy called Gregor who has worked on shows like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and other major sound work for TV, and myself both agreed that we needed to get Dad in. So John comes into the studio as himself and I actually read the “Choose Your Own Adventure” story to him. I get him to pick the next part. So Dad becomes the reader, he picks what parts to go through, and Gregor has composed an original soundtrack and about a hundred different sound effects, [the character of] Hard Seltzer has his own theme music, it’s this trippy soundscape. By the end of it, Dad is won over by the format. So you don’t get to flip through the pages yourself but you sit on the shoulder of John as he kind of comes to understand his son better. It was a really fun challenge.
Do you think doing both Loose Units and this book brought you closer to both your parents?
A hundred percent. I always thought that I knew Dad, and I thought our relationship was great before Loose Units. Once I got to the end of the book process, I realised that I didn’t know that much about him. Then the podcast happened and it became this weird bonding experience. Electric Blue was very different. It’s based on cases that came out on the podcast. The Dad that I was talking to on the podcast had got some degree of media training, which meant that by the time we came around to the forensics cases, he and I were a lot closer, which meant he was a lot more candid. Now I feel like we’re kind-of best mates. We work four to five hours a week on the podcast, we do press stuff together. We’re a lot closer than we were. Mum, I just had no idea that she’d done the stuff she did! I literally had to give her a whole bottle of wine to tell me what she did!
What do you think you’ve inherited from your parents?
I look more like Dad, but I’ve got my Mum’s eyes, which is something I’m quite happy with! Mum is more of an optimist whereas Dad says he’s an optimist but what he means is, given what he’s been through, he’s an optimist. Mum is really centred, calm, positive, and kind, so hopefully I’ve inherited a lot of that. As for Dad I think I’ve inherited his brain chemistry and his sense of adventure. Dad thinks I got his sense of humour from him.
Interviewed by Rodney Hrvartin
Electric Blue was released August 2020 through Penguin Books Australia, RRP: $34.99.
- Read our review of Electric Blue