In Conversation: Claire McGowan & Sinéad Crowley
Crime writers, Claire McGowan and Sinéad Crowley, chat about their latest books, Irish crime writing and their inspiration
Posted on November 18, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: Claire McGowan, Irish Crime, crime fiction, sinead crowley
Sinéad: Hi Claire! Good to chat to you, I’m a big fan of your books, and am really enjoying the Paula Maguire series as it unfolds.
Claire: Thank you! And likewise I am a fan of yours. It’s lovely to see so much great crime-writing by Irish women at the moment.
Sinéad: There has been a lot of talk recently about Northern Irish crime writing and in particular how it has evolved in a ‘post-Troubles’ society, but past events, and their impact on survivors still play a central role in your Paula Maguire books. Is this something that interests you? Were you influenced by your own childhood in the North – you would have been a teenager, I think, when during the major events of the Peace Process?
Claire: Yes, I was 16 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and although not directly affected, the Troubles very much shaped my childhood. I grew up near the border, outside Newry. One of my main interests is the way people in the North have to live side by side with the people who killed their loved ones. It’s amazing actually that the vast majority manage to do this in peace.
Sinéad: You’re based in the UK now – is it easier to write about Northern Ireland from a distance?
Claire: In some ways, as I feel less pressure to get things 100% accurate (the town I write about is fictional for example), and it also helps me to remember that the average mainlander knows little to nothing about our politics! We live in a bit of a bubble over there. I worry sometimes I’ve forgotten the dialect and voice though. But as Paula has also lived away, this probably works. Your own books are set in Dublin, where you live – did you ever considering setting your books somewhere other than Ireland?
Sinéad: I hope to do so, in the future. My first book was set in Dublin, but it also involved an internet parenting site which I soon discovered has its own universal language. It turns out you can talk about DH and DD and be understood in any English speaking country! So even though I was writing a book set in Dublin it didn’t have a solely Irish theme. Having said that, I enjoy writing about Dublin and about Ireland. Both of my police/garda characters are ‘country people’ who have moved to the capital so they bring that perspective to bear on their dealings with the city as well. But yes, I would consider moving a book abroad but only to somewhere I knew really well. I have a notion I might send one of my characters on a package holiday some day but I’d better say no more about that until I come up with a plan!
Claire: Did you always know you were going to do a series? As you have cleverly blended procedural elements with more standalone stories.
Sinéad: My first book ‘Can Anybody Help Me’ featured a young first time mother who turned to an internet parenting site for support, and becomes worried when one of her online friends disappears. When I originally came up with the idea, the plan was that she herself would investigate the matter, but when I started to write the book I quickly realised that would be too much of a leap for her. So, I needed a guard and when I started to write the character Claire Boyle I immediately found her interesting, and wanted to do more with her. Then her colleague Phillip Flynn quite literally walked into her office and before I knew it I had a police procedural on my hands! My astute agent spotted what was going on before I did and suggested I think in terms of a series. That’s what’s great about working with professionals – I think when you are writing your first novel you are so focused on getting it finished you don’t think about the big picture. But my agent had the right idea. I didn’t want it to be a very technical police procedural though. Those books can be great, but I didn’t want to write one. I’m more interested in the story behind the crime. So blending the two was the perfect mix for me. You yourself have also mixed it up a bit, you’ve set your series in a police station but you’ve also given Paula a very interesting family life and, dare I say it, a complicated love life. Does this make her more rounded as a character, for you? Do you think female crime writers are more inclined to delve into the personal lives of their lead characters?
Claire: I always knew I wanted her to have a very complex backstory (her mother has been missing since she was thirteen) that would act as an over-arching mystery for the whole series, and I wanted to have a strong returning cast too. Personally I love a bit of romance in a crime novel – nothing like danger to get those hearts beating – and I love that we’re now reading about female police officers with families, as in your books. It’s so refreshing. How about yourself – did you consciously choose to write about women’s lives? I got a great review once that said my second book gave too much space to ‘babies and other women’s issues’. So perhaps this is still not as common in crime fiction.
Sinéad: Ha! Don’t get me started. My main bugbear at the moment is when people automatically assume babies are ‘women’s issues’! But that rant is for another day. To answer your question – my first book was quite simply the book I wanted to write. I had written a novel before and got great feedback from an agent who said that although I could write, i.e. put readable words on a page, my book was missing a ‘big idea’, or quite simply a decent hook. When I came up with the plot for ‘Can Anybody Help Me?’ I realised that a parenting website would be a great place to set a story, and the ‘hook’ was that one of the women was not who she said she was. So there was no plan as such, but I’m interested in issues like families and parenting, so those themes are emerging in my books. In the second book, however, it’s clear that the baby’s father is having as tough a time adjusting to his new role as the mother is, so I consider myself to be writing about family life in that instance, rather than ‘women’s issues’. In a way I think I’m reacting to the traditional crime novel which often shows a male police officer sacrificing everything including marriage and fatherhood for ‘the job’. I wanted to write about a woman who was just as dedicated as the average male cop but who wants a family life as well. Will she succeed? Even I don’t know that yet! Anyway – best of luck to Paula as she navigates nappies and night duty. Looking forward to hearing how she gets on!