What does one wear to go to prison? Obviously, something burnt-bright orange is the go if you’re an inmate - to match your tormented soul - but what if, like author Candice Fox, you’re just popping in to plan a prison break?
For Fox (yes, that’s her real name, clearly, she was born to be famous), a 35-year-old woman who would most assuredly look, to a long-term resident of the maximum security Lithgow Correctional Centre, a lot like Margot Robbie, it was particularly tricky. “It was a very scary place, and it’s actually incredible difficult to dress for prison - all of your shirts are either too low cut, or if they’re nicely cut up high they’re too tight, so you have to buy a few sizes up,” she opines. “And sometimes, like when I went to San Quentin prison in the States to interview a serial killer, there’s certain colours you can’t wear, because if there’s a riot the prison guards want to be able to quickly know who everyone is, so they don’t shoot you.”
As a woman, walking into a room full of gym-junkie-sized (“steroids are the most in-demand drug in there,” Candice confides) leering criminals with violent pasts is all in a day’s work for one of Australia’s most prolific and successful crime authors (14 books and counting, including seven co-written with James Patterson, the world’s best-selling novelist). “My next book has a prison break in it and I wanted to see how the security measures work; did you know every truck that goes in or out, they check it with heartbeat sensors so they can see how many people are in there? It’s incredibly difficult to get out, but I’ve found a way,” she grins. “And it was really good to feel the atmosphere. We walked into this workshop with 50 guys in there, and the room just changed. A woman walks in and they all go ‘right, someone has to do something’, they’re all calculating. The governor said ‘We can be here for about two or three minutes and then we’ve got to get out.’”
Fox, whose first novel, Hades, was only published in 2014, really likes to get up close and personal with the dark and dire subjects she writes about, so much so that she spent some of her honeymoon in America dragging her husband around to the sites of infamous murders. “When I was six, my Mum started taking in foster kids - my parents eventually fostered 142 children - so I’ve been exposed to violence and terrible soirees ever since I was a kid,” Fox explains. “My Mum never sheltered me from anything, a foster kid would come into the house and she’d be like ‘that kid over there, his uncle’s been sexually abusing him for the last year, and then you wouldn’t believe what happened…’ that kind of thing. “So for me to get really disturbed and emotional and connected to a crime, I have to do the research and get the experience. And where a person has been buried can tell you something about the killer in that moment; why did they choose this place for their victim to rest? And you can imagine them being there, dropping the body off.”
Fox admits she’s fairly unique among authors in terms of her hands-on approach, “I don’t know of anyone else who does it, although (fellow author) Tara Moss did get someone to strangle her once, so she’d know what it felt like”, which also once saw her locked in a Silence of the Lambs-style cage in San Quentin State Prison with serial killer Lawrence Bittaker, who tortured and killed at least five young women. “I was sitting right with him, in this floor-to-ceiling cage, like a shark cage, and the guards shut the door, put the padlock on and walked away, so it was pretty scary,” she says. “And Lawrence is, well, t’s rare that I research a killer and go, ‘this person is 100 per cent pure psychopath, there’s not a single nice story from his childhood, there is no humanity visible, there’s not a friend who’s come forward to say something nice about him, I couldn’t find anything about him that suggested he was human. “For him, speaking to him, it was like if you squashed a mosquito on your leg, and then someone came up and said ‘how could you do that? Didn’t you think about the mosquito’s family and its hopes and dreams?’ And you’d be like, ’it was just a mosquito’. That’s how he felt about his victims.”
Surprisingly, Candice wasn’t always a crime writer, it’s just the genre in which she finally found success after writing four full novels - largely about vampires, witches werewolves - and receiving more than 200 rejection letters (she stopped counting at 200 “because it was getting depressing”) from publishers. As she points out herself, most people “get rejected, cry for two weeks and then give up forever”.
To describe Fox as determined, however, would be akin to calling her “slightly” morbid. She’d started writing stories - properly long, 12,000-word stories - at age 12, as a way of escaping her unusual and often disturbing life. Her mother advised her to use her love of words to become a teacher or a journalist, and to write her stories for fun. “But to me it wasn’t a hobby, it was the thing that was going to happen one day,” she says. “I’d had a lot of people in my life telling me no. And usually was ‘no, you can't sit with us’ or ‘no, you can't come into our club,’ or whatever I was going for. And with the rejection letters, it was like ‘it's because you're not good enough’, and I'm like, ‘well, I'll show you, you dickhead.’ “I was quite angry about it, and once I get angry, that's when I start getting really motivated. So I just thought, if I write one novel a year until I'm 75, that's an awful lot of knocking on the door without being let in. And by about the third novel, publishers were starting to get to know me, and going, ‘Aw, it’s that girl that cries on the phone when you reject her’.”
When she made the switch to crime, Fox wondered why she hadn’t thought of it in the first place, as she’d always been surrounded, and fascinated, by the subject. Her first crime novel, Hades, was, predictably, also roundly rejected, until finally it was picked up, published and then won the Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. A string of books, pouring out of her brain and fingers at high speed, followed, before she managed to pitch herself to the one-man publishing industry that is James Patterson, who agreed to collaborate on books with her. Their first effort together, Black and Blue, published in 2016, was an instant best-seller and they’ve been producing more than one book a year together ever since. “He's a machine, and he's right on top of it, all the time,” Fox says, with some awe, of Patterson, who writes with pencil and paper and never takes a single day off, not even Christmas. “He'll say, ‘this character can't have pink hair because three books ago we had a character with pink hair’, and I'm like, so not only are you aware of everything that's going on in every book that we've written together, but he releases around 30 titles a year, so how is that possible that he can keep all of that in his head?”
The prolific work ethic is something that Fox and Patterson share. Not only does she not take holidays, she rarely even takes hours off from writing, even if she’s only doing it in her head. “I’m either writing the current book, and I'm in it, or I'm thinking about writing it, so I'm still in it, or I’m thinking about the next novel, and sometimes I have to try and turn that off in my normal life,” she explains. “I'll be sitting there with my husband, and he's like, ‘are you listening to me?’ And I'm like, "No, I'm thinking about autopsies.’ Or he’ll say, ‘what are you thinking about?’ and I’ll say ‘maggots’. “I can get a bit obsessive about things sometimes. The other thing is I'm always looking. I'm always looking, looking, looking for what can I use, people I can use, stories. And so I never relax, I don't know how to relax.”
So, not much chance of Candice Fox retiring, or even slowing down her prodigious output any time soon, then? “Oh no, because I would be writing anyway, even it wasn’t being published, because I just love it. It’s not a job for me, it’s life.”
Life imprisoned with words and creativity. Beats Lithgow jail.