Gritty debut gives an insider’s peek from the other side of the police interview room mirror
Q&A with Hannah Morrissey, author of 'Hello, Transcriber.'
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between author Hannah Morrissey and Hazel Greenlee, the protagonist in her debut novel, “Hello, Transcriber,” due out from St. Martin’s Publishing Co.’s Minotaur Books on Nov. 30. Both are from small rural Wisconsin towns. Both are aspiring novelists who find themselves working the graveyard shift transcribing police reports — a job Morrissey herself didn’t know existed until she found herself doing it. “It was actually called ‘Typist II’ in the job description and I was like, ‘Well, I can type, and the rest of this looks like stuff I can learn. Put all those English papers to good use,'” says the University of Wisconsin–Madison English/Creative Writing graduate who ended up working the transcriptionist job at a Milwaukee-area police department for three-and-a-half years. In ‘Hello, Transcriber,’ main character Hazel draws inspiration for her manuscript from the real-life police reports she’s transcribing, getting too close to some of the people that populate them. The novel’s central storyline deals with a series of suspicious drug overdoses in the “Candyman” case, while its protagonist deals with her complicated marriage and growing attraction for one of the police investigators at work.
Hazel Greenlee’s job is to transcribe recordings that law enforcement officers call in, creating police reports as they dictate. She ends up taking these details and using them to write a novel. How close is that to what you did in real life?
I mean, obviously Hazel is inspired by me, but I’d been writing books my entire life. All I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer. I’ve actually written four books before this one that didn’t get published, but they were all fantasy. And I love the fantasy genre but they just weren’t going anywhere and I wanted this to be more than a hobby or a creative outlet. So I was like, maybe this just isn’t where I need to be. Maybe I need to sort of reset and look at the world around me. I had to pause and realize that what I was doing at this job was super interesting and a lot of people wanted to know about it. Here I am, sitting there in the middle of the night, and detectives were telling me every gritty, gruesome thing that’s going on, in horrific detail, and my job is to type it all.
I can see how that could provide all kinds of writing fodder, but it also had to be an emotionally difficult job?
It was hard — especially the reports that involved kids, that was really hard to listen to — but the way I always looked at it, I just had to tell myself, this has already happened. There’s nothing that you or anybody can do to stop it. The best that you can do now is to be helpful by typing this report to the best of your ability and getting it off to the detectives and do whatever they need you to do in order to help this case move forward.
So where did this particular story come from?
You’re sitting there alone, at night. All the lights were shut off, and I typed in the dark — I like typing in the dark, I still type in the dark — so it was just me in this terrarium, shoe-box sized office but one whole wall was a window. And they told me, like they tell Hazel in the book, keep the blinds closed because random people will come up and knock on the window and it’s scary, you know, at midnight. So in between reports, on breaks and stuff, I’d just sort of zone out or jot things down on paper, little observations about what I felt or noticed. I’d just stare out my window all the time and write about what I saw. So that’s how I set it up in the book, where Hazel is sitting there looking out the window.
And that’s exactly what happens — without giving any spoilers, someone knocks at the window in a very disturbing way, and the story takes off from there. At that point were you consciously trying to separate yourself and make sure this character wasn’t like you?
Oh yeah, definitely. I created this fictional Wisconsin town of Black Harbor and I wanted to explore this idea that when you work at a police department, you see the worst parts of people and the worst parts of the city — and I wanted Hazel’s outlook to be colored completely by just seeing the dark parts. And that’s where your writing friends come in. My closest writing partner is a friend I made 10 years ago at UW–Madison and I’m also part of a small writer’s group called Allied Authors of Wisconsin. And I’d had this vision of Hazel standing on this bridge, Forge Bridge, and one of my writing friends said to me, “What if this isn’t the first time she goes to the bridge? What if she goes there a lot?” And then you start thinking about what’s going on her life that would make her keep going to the bridge, and you start thinking of all the “what ifs” — because the what ifs can completely change your story and make your characters branch out in ways they never would have otherwise. What if she starts looking into this case? What if she does tell this lie? What if she does keep this secret, what’s going to happen?
In many ways this is a who-done-it story with plenty of red herrings and twists. Did you know the ending when you started out?
Oh no, this was definitely a write-by-the-headlights story. I think I changed the ending four times. I never know the endings of my books. I’m more here for the exploration of it all anyway. Like when I finally found my agent — after so many rejections over the years, I definitely came out of the slush pile — she’d said she liked thrillers and crime books but she wasn’t into “hard drinking or hard boiled detectives.” And I loved that because it’s such a grimy stereotype. I really just want to explore law enforcement as just humans, not perfect or imperfect, and just really explore the humanity of each character. And also explore people as products of Black Harbor. How are each of these characters, even the shadier ones, products of their environment?
What do you think your old law enforcement colleagues make of your new novel?
They’re all requesting to be made characters in my next book. My editor is going to be like, “Why are there 40 cops in this?” [laughs]. But actually, my husband is very much like my muse, he inspired my Nikolai Kole character. So, yeah, I married him.
You married a cop you met at the department where you were working as a transcriptionist?
Yes. He’s a lieutenant of investigations, so he lives and breathes police work and he’s a wealth of information for me. I can ask him all kinds of questions to really understand police procedurals. And if there’s something he doesn’t know, he can call somebody and set up an interview for me with them. If I get stuck I can literally just wheel my chair out my office door and yell to him. I work on my novels in the early morning hours before my day job at a creative agency, so most days I can write. Not as much as I’d like to. I think you could give me 24 hours a day to write and I’d still want more.
And you mentioned your next book?
Yes, this was a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. So I think I’m going to be in Black Harbor for a while. I have a second book in this series but with new protagonists, it’s called The Widowmaker and it should come out next fall. It’s about a detective who pairs up with a photographer with a dark history — I used to be a photographer, I still do photography, so I know something about that, too — to solve a 20-year cold case. And then my third book, the main character is a medical examiner. Which I actually know nothing about — so I had to go make friends with a medical examiner.
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