When her mother found an old laptop in a pile of a rubbish, it was a godsend for Candice Fox. It meant that no longer would her brothers find what she had written on the family computer and mock her by reading it out loud. It meant that when she got back from school she could sit down to write – she would run home with that purpose – and know that she could do so in privacy.
She was imitating what she liked and what she liked were the gangster films of Martin Scorsese - Goodfellas, Casino and others – "so I was writing shoot 'em up gangster stuff set in New York". If you think that's grim material for a 12-year-old girl, bear in mind that she started reading her mother's collection of true-crime and crime novels when she was even younger.
"I think I was seven. I know because I read a collection of stories called Killer Kids. I read a story out of that and I went to school and told all my friends about it and I got into really big trouble because they were all reading TheChronicles of Narnia."
Fast forward more than a few years and Fox is telling plenty of crime stories. In 2014 she won the Ned Kelly Award for a debut novel for Hades, and the following year the award for best crime novel for Eden. Last week, her fourth novel, Crimson Lake, was published and the week before the novel she wrote with James Patterson, Never Never, went straight into the New York Times bestseller list in top spot. "My publishers sent me a bottle of Dom Perignon; last time it was just flowers."
Crimson Lake represents a departure for Fox. The first three books featured the same main characters – cop and killer Eden, her crime-boss father Hades, and her police partner Frank. The new one also features a different pairing – Ted Conkaffey, a detective who has been charged with abducting, raping and attempting to murder a 13-year-old girl, and Amanda Pharrell, who has been freed from jail after serving eight years for stabbing a friend to death.
The spark for the book was a series of accusations of sexual assault involving celebrities – Robert Hughes, Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby.
"I remember the shock when these accusations were happening, and the shock I and others felt and how quickly everyone condemned those guys before there was any evidence or any hearings or anything like that. It really struck me if you're accused of being a paedophile that it's such a powerful accusation; you'll never get out from under that."
She wondered whether any other type of accusation had that sort of power and realised only murder "makes people look at you differently".
"I wanted to have two characters that were both extremely likeable, but the promise of the premise, I suppose, is that one of them really had done this terrible thing so you're never quite sure who to trust."
The plot of Crimson Lake, which is set around Cairns, has Ted and Amanda, who has reinvented her life as a private detective, investigating the disappearance of a bestselling author, who it seems has been kidnapped by a disgruntled fan.
Fox says that almost every writer she knows – many across various genres – has had a scary stalker. There is the female crime writer who gets sent naked pictures by a male reader and another woman writer who found the same guys turning up at events she did across Australia.
"I haven't yet so I am a little bit wary. I have had people who creep me out a little bit ... the creeps I have to manage because the one thing I don't want to do is make them angry or insult them, but I don't want to encourage them either. I have to be very careful. Never Never [hitting No. 1 in the US] has made Crimson Lake a bit more relevant because I've had some strange fan interaction."
She met the prolific Patterson at a party thrown by his publisher when he visited Australian in 2015. She just said hello – "he was being introduced to all these really important people and I just wandered over and pretended that I belonged". She did belong – she is published by another imprint of Random House – but says she was terrified. "I just wanted to chat with him and have my fan moment."
He, though, was taken aback by Fox. Not by her gumption, but when she told him that she had read his novel Kiss the Girls when she was 12. "He was horrified by that ... It's pretty gratuitously violent."
Fox's publisher made sure there was a copy of Hades in a pack of books for Patterson to take home to Florida; apparently he read it on the plane. Two weeks later she was asked to collaborate with him on one of the many books he produces with a co-writer. Never Never was the result.
So how did it work? Apparently they began with the big-picture stuff and then drilled down to the nitty gritty. Patterson told her he wanted the book set in Australia but not Sydney. And he said he wanted a strong male protagonist.
"I said I have ideas about someone, an investigator of some sort who has a family member who is arrested for a terrible crime. I'm very interested in crime in the family situation. He said it would be amazing if it was a brother and sister, so we sort of chuck all our ideas into the pot in that situation, conversationally, over email."
Was Fox intimidated working with the world's bestselling author who earns close to $100 million a year and is said to be worth $1.3 billion? "I'm very good at faking it until I make it," she says. But Patterson was encouraging. "Obviously he's the more powerful person in the relationship, but all my ideas have a place. He never just goes, 'oh no, we're not doing that'."
The pair are writing their second novel together. She says working with him has definitely influenced the way she works. "It has made me very confident about the whole planning process. I never used to plan or plot. But I've got to do it now with all the different stakeholders in my novels."
She might have to plot, but she has never been short of stories. She wrote Crimson Lake and Never Never at the same time, jumping from one to the other during the working day. "The difficulty I face is that my brain was so full of people and stories that I couldn't switch it off and I was spending more time in fantasy land mentally than I was in reality. I found it very difficult to sleep because I was thinking about them."
The solution was more stories. "I can only go to sleep by telling myself stories and thinking about stories. I've gone to sleep like that since I was a kid. So I just have to think about stories I would never write because then it's just low pressure ... romance in Camelot, not my thing at all."
Even if she wasn't making up stories, Fox had a regular source coming into the family home. Her parents had four children and adopted two more, but always fostered children. They were allowed to have six foster children at any one time, which made for a full house – in one five-year period they fostered 150 kids.
"I had all their stories coming through. I would always be listening. The workers would drop the kid off and have coffee with my Mum and talk about what the situation was and we would all listen around the corner. We were hearing tales of crazy things, sexual abuse, bizarre stuff."
And how has this influenced her writing?
"I think I have a bit of an obsession with renewal and the potential of abandoned people and things," she says. "I think your experiences when you are a child are always there in your writing. I was forming my beliefs about people and their inherent characteristics so I think I formed the idea very early that there are really bad people out there and they do really bad things and some of them are children."
But it wasn't all bad. "I was seeing amazing transformations in these kids that came in. They just had nothing, the clothes that were on them, and under the clothes they were covered in cigarette burns and just seeing them after a few days ... they felt comfortable, they felt happy and they were hanging around with the rest of us."
Hanging around is something that Fox doesn't have time for now. "I have six months to devote completely to my novels with James and six months to devote to my own novels. I can't have two weeks' worth of writer's block."
Crimson Lake is published by Bantam at $32.99.Candice Fox is a guest at Perth Writers Festival, Feb 23-25. perthfestival.com.au