The inspiration(s) behind Dark Mode

Dark Mode thriller by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, black cover with voodoo lilies, dark purple dahlias and black bat plants, stack of copies behind main copy

I started writing Dark Mode in July 2019 while on residency at Varuna, the National Writer’s House. I remember opening a blank Word doc and thinking, okay, now it’s time to start a whole new book.

My first book, My Name Is Revenge, had come out in April that year. I’d also just received a crushing rejection for what became my second book, How to Be Australian, after working with a publisher to develop it for several months.

I was taking a few weeks to recover before I tried submitting to a new publisher (who ultimately loved the manuscript and published it in June 2020), and knew it was time to start whatever my next project was going to be.

The sign outside Varuna, the National Writers’ House

So I started Dark Mode. Except it wasn’t Dark Mode at all. It wasn’t even psychological thriller. It was fiction, but that’s about all I can definitively say about it.

For a while it was trying to be speculative thriller, a little bit Black Mirror. Then it morphed into contemporary general fiction, something Gail Honeymanesque.

In short, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just trying things.

The manuscript started to distinctly become crime fiction in early 2020. That’s when I sent my writers’ group an opening chapter about a woman who discovers a murder victim while out for her morning run.

By September 2021, I submitted the completed version of Dark Mode for consideration by literary agent Pippa Masson of Curtis Brown – and signed with her a few months later.

A really common question is – what inspired Dark Mode?

The most significant inspiration came from becoming ill with ME/CFS in 2017. I spent most of the next few years in bed.

Some days I was too unwell to even follow a narrative, but a lot of my time was spent listening to true crime podcasts or thriller audiobooks, and watching true crime docos, as well as all 431 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (There’s more now, I’m sure.)

I listened to hundreds of hours of true crime podcasts, and learned a lot about how and why crime happens, how investigators work, and how the justice systems works – and fails.

I’ve always loved reading thrillers, and after maintaining a serious writing practice for 10 years, I was just ready to give it a try.

I told myself, ‘This is an experiment. You’re going to try writing a crime novel. It might not work. That’s okay. You can go back to nonfiction.’

And I had fun with it. (This is possibly because I wrote it during covid and there was no other fun to be had.)

The plot of Dark Mode came from a number of inspirations – my growing fascination with the dark web after my driver’s licence information was stolen, the revelation that plants can scream, and two particularly fascinating true crime podcasts.

The first, Root of Evil explores the the 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia. As America’s most notorious unsolved murder, this case has been fascinating people for decades – including me.

One January morning, Short’s body was discovered in an empty lot, naked and severed at the waist. Now, a retired police LA police detective believes he’s discovered the killer – his own father, Dr George Hodel.

I became obsessed with this murder and what Dr Hodel’s potential motivations reveal about our society.

My other podcast inspiration was Hunting Warhead. This six-episode miniseries follows an international investigation into crime on the dark web, and provides a shocking look at the challenges of shutting down online activity devoted to harm.

One more thing – when Dark Mode went to my agents, it was under its original title, Harsh Light. One of the agents suggested trying a new title, something ‘digital and stalker scary’. I spent a weekend brainstorming dozens of mediocre possibilities.

It was my husband who came up with the new title early one morning while swimming at Camp Cove. He shouted it at me over the waves. I knew immediately it was the one.

My husband is much like Dark Mode‘s main character, Reagan Carsen, who doesn’t understand why anyone is interested in hearing about murders and violence all the time. He’s not a crime fiction either. But I’m so glad I have him to thank for the title.


Dark Mode is out 1 March in Australia and 13 April in the UK. You can pre-order your copy now.

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