REMIND ME HOW YOU CAME INTO WRITING AGAIN? I was in theater at the time,
and theater gigs never line up nicely unless you're Judi Dench or something,
which I never was. So, I had a few weeks off between jobs, and I had the good
fortune to get on an archeological dig outside Dublin.
I found myself thinking that the woods we were next to would be a nice place
for kids to play, and then, instead of stopping there like a normal person
would, I wondered, "What would happen if three kids went in and only one
came out?" That of course, became the premise for [first novel] In the
DID YOU SET OUT TO
WRITE A CRIME? I actually didn't realize I was writing crime until my Irish
editor gently pointed it out to me. I thought I was just writing literary
fiction with a mystery framework. I'm not big into the distinction or the
boundaries, you know, the either-or. It's been really breaking down actually,
over the last 10 or 20 years, this idea that it's crime, or it's a good book.
There have always been brilliant books that happened to center around a crime
or a mystery. I always loved reading crime fiction, but I never realized that's
where I was headed.
DETECTIVE BOOK FORMAT NEVER SEEMS TO BE PRESENT IN YOUR BOOKS, WHICH IS WHY I
FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE THAT WIDER RANGE TO THEM. Yeah, I'm so glad that comes
across, because I do think that's what I wanted from them. I've always been
fascinated with mysteries, ever since I was little kid, so I think if I was
going to write, it was always going to end up being a mystery. The best books
about mysteries aren't just about the concrete mystery, though. I think all of
us are intrigues by mystery, but especially-if this doesn't sound too wanky-by
the mystery of the human heart. So the
best stories are the ones that take that into consideration, as well as the
actual who-killed-whom. Those are the ones I've always loved, and they are the ones
that straddle that borderline between "just a good book" and just a "good
mystery book." That's what I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping I get to.
SINCE PEOPLE TEND TO
LUMP YOU IN AS A CRIME WRITER, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A PART OF THAT PD JAMES/AGATHA
CHRISTIE CRIME NOVELIST PANTHEON? As a part of it? Definitely not. My acting
teacher in drama school always said that it takes ten years to make an actor.
He'd always say, "You're not done here. It takes another eight years of
training out in the big bad world before you're actually an actor." I think I'm
still in my training period here.
HELL OF A TRAINING
PERIOD! I do feel enormously lucky in how these have gone, but I'm very much
still learning. If I went back to rewrite In the Woods, I know there would be
things where I would smack my forehead and say "I cannot believe I missed
that!" This much I do think: I do think I've learned. I don't think I'm on the
first step of the ladder anymore, I think I'm on the second, but there's a
while yet before I've earned my stripes to say I'm a proper writer and I know
what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS LIKE FOR YOU IN TERMS OF DESIGNING A
always comes from just one image or hook, not necessarily with the actual murder.
I was already thinking about the characters and all that, but then we had mice
in our house. I went into the kitchen one night, and I saw something small go
scooting across the counter, doing a legger under the toaster and behind the
cooker. My husband heard me yell, and came out to look, and of course there was
nothing there. He kind of made noises about, you know, "Sweetie, it's
lovely that you have such a good imagination and you get paid for it, but maybe
nothing was there?" [Laughs.] He saw the mouse the next week, but
something about it stuck with me. We're in a happy relationship, a strong
relationship, and there was nothing else bugging me at the time, but what if
that feeling, that sense of invasion that mice can give you, happened to
somebody whose relationship wasn't happy and was already under pressure?
WHAT'S THE HARDEST
PART OF THIS WORLD FOR YOU TO WRITE? Creating a character and creating a world
is what I have tons of practice doing through acting, so it makes sense to me.
Structure though, that's difficult. I've got absolutely no training for that,
whereas I do think that acting is excellent training for writers. Structure
doesn't come naturally to me at all, and trying to figure it all out is the
hard bit. It's not always fun writing about nasty crimes, especially in Broken Harbor.
With the other books, the setting was somewhere I wanted to be. I liked the
house in The Likeness, and I like the
neighborhoods in Faithful Place and In the Woods, but this, I found the ghost estates devastatingly
sad. That in some ways was the hardest part, spending time in that location in
my imagination all the time. It's not a cheerful or an easy place to be, because
they should never have happened, these places, but there they are and people
are stuck on them. Plus, it's all my generation, all the 30-something's who got
stuck on these estates and but for a combination of different bits of luck,
that could have been us.
ONE MIGHT ASSUME
THAT IN ORDER TO ORGANIZE A COMPLEX MYSTERY AND DROP THE RIGHT HINTS IN THE
RIGHT PLACES, ONE WOULD HAVE TO BE A PRETTY METICULOUS PERSON. BUT SINCE YOU
SAY YOU HAVE NO CLUE WHERE ANYTHING IS GOING...Oh god, no! I am not organized, and
that's putting it nicely, but the thing is that I have the luxury of rewriting
as many times as I want. I can go back, and go back, and I do! I am kind of a
perfectionist about this stuff though, and the combination of wanting it to be
as good as it possibly can be and not being organized to begin with makes for a
lot of rewriting. A lot. The bit that makes it easier though, is that your
subconscious is working on the book at the same time. So a lot of the time, if
I realize in chapter 8 that something needs to be seeded in back in chapter 2,
I suddenly notice that it's already there. Before my conscious mind realized,
"Oh, we need a red herring here," my subconscious mind already realized that
these characters would do this certain thing. The character direction is
pointing that way already, if that makes any sense. I get emails from readers pointing things out to me that I hadn't ever
seen in my own writing before, and I love it. I'm a big believer in the fact
that a book doesn't actually exist as long as it's just me and my computer. It
only exists when you're reading it.
I FEEL LIKE THAT'S
WHAT MAKES IT MORE OF A SUCCESSFUL READ. EVEN AFTER REWRITES, AS A READER YOU
CAN ALMOST FEEL YOU TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT AT THE SAME TIME WE ARE. I think that's a
big part of what it is. With In the Woods,
the only reason I was able to write that is because I really wanted to know
what happened, and the only way to find out was to write it. It's the same
thing with Broken Harbor. It takes me
almost two years to write a book, so it needs to be something that I'm
interested enough in that I need to want to find out, in order to keep writing
for that length of time. I think if I outlined it all, and knew what was going
to happen, then I would probably wander off and go to the pub or something.
WHAT'S IT LIKE BEING
IN YOUR HEAD FOR TWO YEARS? IT SEEMS LIKE A ROB [THE NARRATOR IN IN THE WOODS] TYPE OF THING, WHERE THE
ANSWER IS IN HIS HEAD, BUT HE CAN'T QUITE GET AT IT. That's actually a
really interesting way of putting it, because it's very much like that! A lot
of time, it's like I know that there's something there, the story is there, if
I could just pull it out. And it does sometimes feel like I'm not making it
up. Interestingly, it does feel a bit
like archeology as well, where you're slowly brushing and chipping away and
hoping sooner or later that you'll end up seeing something there. The biggest
difficulty for me is that it's not very social. Coming from acting, I'm used to
working via collaborative process. If you're having a bad day, and your brain
is absolutely coming up with nothing useful, then your scene partner might be
having a good day, or the director might be, whereas now, if nothing's
happening? All that happens is, I sit there, staring at my computer trying not
to goof off on the Internet. That's the difficult bit for me. And of course, in
acting, after rehearsal you all go over to the pub together. Now, there's none
of that, and it's just sad going to the pub by yourself. [laughs]
THIS BOOK DEALS MORE DIRECTLY WITH HEAVY PSYCHOSIS,
WHEREAS THE MOTIVES IN THE OTHER BOOKS WERE MUCH MORE TANGIBLE. WAS THAT A
CONSCIOUS CHOICE? Everyone
in this book is doing their best, but their minds are fragmenting, slowly.
Again, I didn't even notice until someone pointed it out to me that this book
is about madness. Every character is struggling to hold it together mentally at
some point. Thankfully, mental illness has never played a part in my life, but
I get the sense that most mental illnesses, if you pare them back, what is at
the core of it, is a dislocation of the inner and outer reality. With Dina
[Scorcher's sister], she knows that her reality is rubbing horribly against the
outer one but she can't reconcile the two of them. I think all this for me had
its origins in what was going on in Ireland at the time with the whole Celtic
Tiger boom thing. We were living in this completely artificial property that
had been churned up out of corruption and hot air. We were being told that if
we believed in it hard enough, it would last forever. If anybody pointed out
that this wasn't the reality, he was told that if everything went wrong, it
would be his fault for saying it would go wrong. We were led into a national
mood, where reality was not only irrelevant but unpatriotic. We were encouraged
to disconnect ourselves from the outer reality and push it away as far as you
could. I think that's what's led to a certain amount of the devastation, since
Ireland came crashing down. People weren't just financially devastated, which
is bad enough, they were also psychologically devastated. They had redefined
their own reality to fit the standards that were being thrust on them, and now
they're being confronted with the fact that the true reality is still there,
and it's coming for you. That's terrifying, and that is a form of madness to
me. It's almost a deliberately induced mental illness. So I think that seeped
into the book on all different levels. With someone like Dina, the madness is
coming from within her, but she's aware enough of it that she tries to work
around it. With Pat and Jenny Spain [victims of Broken Harbor], they've almost deliberately induced it,
and the reality just comes roaring up and hits them like a freight train.
That's how I ended up going down that road, because that core facet of it is in
the air in Ireland at the moment.
SO, AFTER FOUR BOOKS,
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'D BE REASONABLY ABLE TO CONDUCT YOUR OWN INVESTIGATION?
I'M ALWAYS WONDERING THAT. [laughs] God no! They don't get to decide what they
find like I do. The more I communicate with actual police officers and retired
police officers, the more I know I could never do their job in a million years.
The stakes! Me, I have a bad day at work when I get adjective overload. They
have a bad day at work and you've got truth, justice, life and death on the
line. I'm just goofing around! People always are asking if Cassie [Maddox, protagonist of The Likeness] is me, and
she's definitely not. She's somebody I would like to have a pint with, but no
way. She's out there dealing with this heavy stuff, and I'm hanging around
wondering where to put the comma.
KIND OF LIKE HOW
PEOPLE WOULD ASSUME ACTION STARS WOULDN'T TAKE SHIT FROM A MUGGER. BUT, IF
THERE'S NO ONE ON THE OTHER SIDE DOING THE CHOREOGRAPHY, IT'S PROBABLY USELESS.
People always assumed I'd be good at public speaking or being on panels because
I was an actor, and I always told them no way. When I was an actor, people gave
me a script! But that's the big difference, it's not imaginary. These people
are dealing with a level of in-your-face reality. I think technique-wise, I
know a fair bit about police investigative technique, but just the amount of
reality that smashes you in the face every day...I'm in awe of them.
ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE THAT PIVOTAL POINT IN THEIR
PAST THAT DEFINES THEIR ACTIONS. IF YOU WERE TO WRITE ABOUT YOURSELF, IS THERE
A PIVOTAL MOMENT YOU WOULD BE ABLE TO PICK OUT IN YOUR OWN LIFE? This comes up at the beginning
of Faithful Place actually, where Frank [Mackey, protagonist] says that most people don't get
to see these moments and recognize them for what they are. Maybe when I'm 80,
I'll be able to look back and see it. Now, clearly, one that stands out is the
decision to work on that dig for a few weeks. A good call! [Laughs.] You
just never feel like you're diving into a big moment at the time.
IS THERE A CHARACTER THAT YOU FIND EASIEST TO WRITE, OR
THAT YOU HAVE A NATURAL AFFINITY FOR? The easiest one to write was Frank Mackey [protagonist
of Faithful Place]. That kind of hard, fast, very dark sense of humor
makes everything easier to write. I'd most like to go for a pint with Cassie
[protagonist of The Likeness]. The one I'm fondest of, though, is Rob [Ryan, protagonist of In the Woods],
because that was my first. There I was, desperately broke and turning down
acting jobs so I could finish In the Woods. I think putting that kind of
investment into a book is going to make you feel very fond of that character
forevermore. He's where it all started.
DO YOU EVER REVISIT
ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS OR THEIR STORIES IN YOUR OFF-HOURS? No, once it's out
there, it's done. Plus, after the edits, and the copy edits and all that,
you're more than ready to let go. Plus, I'm in the middle of writing a new one,
so I have to be fully invested in them so I don't screw them up. I can't even
think about the last one, and that's because I write in character so much. I've
got to be focused on the one I'm writing, otherwise I completely wander off.
YOU'RE ALREADY ONTO
THE NEXT? YOU'RE A MACHINE! Yep! I'm about halfway through, unless it ends up being
WHO'S THE NARRATOR FOR YOUR NEXT BOOK? It's Stephen Moran from Faithful
Place, the young sidekick. The whole idea is that Frank's daughter Holly is
16 now, and at her private boarding school they've got a bulletin board where
the girls can stick up secrets that they want to reveal anonymously. She has
found on this board, and brought to Stephen, a postcard that has a photograph
of a teenage boy who was murdered a year ago, and a caption that reads, "I
know who killed him." So, Stephen has to team up with the detective and
work the case. So, I'm about halfway through, and I think I know whodunit, but that could all change. I had no clue whodunit in [Broken Harbor], to the point where, I
was writing the first few chapters, and the whole family was dead, and then
after four or five chapters, I realized, "Ah, crap, one of them needs to be
left alive." Then I had to go back and rewrite the first three bloody chapters.
There's a lot of rewriting in doing it my way, and I really never have a clue.
JUST FOR KICKS:
IF YOU HAD TO PARTNER WITH ROB, CASSIE, FRANK, OR SCORCHER, WHO WOULD YOU
CHOOSE? Definitely not Scorcher, definitely not Rob. Both Frank and Cassie would
be good to have at your back, but overall, you'd probably be safer around
Frank, but he would mess you around if he felt like it.