Sunday, February 18, 2024

Q&A with Suzie Miller




Suzie Miller is the author of the new novel Prima Facie. Also a playwright and screenwriter, she wrote the play Prima Facie. She has a background in science and law, and practiced human rights law. She lives in London and in Sydney, Australia.


Q: Why did you decide to adapt your play into a novel, and what do you see as the key differences between the two?


A: Strangely the story for Prima Facie came to me as a story and with a character, Tessa. I wanted to explore the intersectionality of class and gender, and also how the law itself is gendered.


I was particularly interested in how the criminal justice system dealt with sexual assault and rape trials, how the complainant was so undermined in giving evidence and how the “liar” trope is used to advantage.


I also wanted to show where injustice lay in the adversarial legal system when it came specifically to the evidence of women, their testimony and their lived experience of sexual assault.


I first wrote the story in long long form, thinking as I wrote it that it had real novelistic aspects. Then being a professional playwright, I wrote it as a play.


The key differences between the two are:


1/The length of the novel allows me to write more into Tessa’s backstory, what it was like to navigate the community she came from, the lack of real encouragement to have the sort of career she aspired to, an  interrogation of how class can influence so many of your dreams and aspirations; how the reality of financial circumstances does not align with incurring debts at university in the hope that you can find a way out of where you are.


So, too, that lack of templates and contacts makes the climb all that harder.


The novel contextualizes where Tessa comes from, her desire to fight for justice, and where that fire in her belly comes from.


2/Very significantly in a play of 90 minutes I could only go so far into Tessa’s inner psychological journey. I really fleshed that out in the novel and could include so much of what I had originally that was not used in the play.


3/Lastly I think being able to read the long form version of the story allows people to read it alone and at their own pace, a chance to create an intimate connection to the character and what she says or thinks.


Q: In a review in The Guardian, Dee Jefferson wrote that “in its novelised form, Miller’s story remains a compelling expose of a broken system that once seen, we cannot – should not – unsee, and a call to action for changing it.” What do you think of that description?


A: I haven’t seen that review but it is wonderful that she saw exactly what I hoped readers would.


There is a line that Tessa offers that is something I discovered myself when I worked with underprivileged young people – once you see, you cannot unsee. It is the basis of much of my writing also.


My view is that once you see how someone arrived where they arrived, once their story has ignited empathy in a reader or an audience, then that very reader or audience can no longer ignore the feeling they have about the situation.


I believe in humans; I believe they usually find it very difficult to tolerate injustice. We don’t always see it because it might not be something that affects our own lives, but when we see it in others, it attracts a desire to wrestle with the unfairness and hopefully talk about it. And I believe awareness is the precursor to change.

Q: How was the book (and play’s) title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Prima Facie is a legal term meaning “on the face of it.” It means that if you have a prima facie case then there is enough of a story that it must be taken to court and that there is a case to be answered.


People always ask me how to pronounce it and there are numerous ways depending on the purely Latin ways to pronounce it, the way lawyers do, or the way a romantic language would also pronounce it. Everyone is right.


The idea behind it as a title means a few things to me – firstly that from the perspective of Tessa there is certainly a case to be answered for what happened to her; however like in many rape cases there is no obligation on the accused to actually give evidence.


So even though the idea of a prima facie case is that it is strong enough to go to court, it is ironic that in rape cases there is such a low conviction rate.


The usual defence is that the woman made up the rape. And if the defence barrister can make a rape victim look like they are lying then that is enough without having to call the accused to give their side of the story.


I also liked that the legal interpretation is “on the face of it” – because on the face of it, also makes me consider how a woman has to face her attacker and is made to look like she is lying. It is hard therefore to “save face” even if you are telling the truth.


The system is not about justice, so few cases ever get to court because women are afraid of having to show their face in court and then be retraumatized by a smart lawyer who knows how to make them look bad.


Out of the very few rape cases that go to court, only 1.3 percent of them result in convictions, even though “on the face of it” there was evidence that needed to be before the court.


Q: The story is also being adapted into a new film – what can you tell us about that?


A: Yes, it’s very exciting. The incredible British actress Cynthia Erivo is playing Tessa.


This allows us to push the envelope further and interrogate the intersectionality of class, gender and race. That to me is the next conversation.


I would love to think of Tessa as being the face and voice of all women who have experienced sexual assault, sexual harrassment or rape.


The shame is not on the person who experienced it but the person who perpetrated it. It shocks me that women have been shamed for being victims. I think the way the legal system works is to perpetuate that victim-shaming.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on a few new plays – one at the National Theatre in London and another in New York.


Prima Facie the play is currently on eight different stages about the world each in different languages. It has been translated into nearly 20 languages and is heading to stages all over Europe, South America, and Asia. It has been mind-blowing to me how this has come to pass.


The novel is also being translated in numerous languages. I leave London for a tour of Germany shortly. It’s very strange to look at all that writing in the novel in German and know I can only probably read a handful of words.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I walked down the stairs in NYC recently, I was complaining of how the restaurants in London often have the bathrooms down windy stairs and after a few drinks it is a dangerous exercise often resulting in people falling.


As I was talking about this I took a tumble, I got back up, and laughed it off. It all felt quite theatrical given what I was talking about. I walked on, hobbled a bit thinking I had strained my ankle – off to the theater and to dinner with friends the next few nights.


Later I discovered I had broken my leg. Not quite so funny. Although my son thinks his mum is “the toughest person I know.” That was quite good for the ego!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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