Monday 16 September 2019

Partners in crime: Ireland's female crime writers on why women excel at this chilling genre

For these authors, crime does pay, with hit novels, screenplays and prizes the reward for taking a leap of faith to become full-time writers. Alex Meehan meets three An Post Book Award nominees and asks them why is it that women write crime so well.

Authors l-r; Jo Spain, Liz Nugent and Andrea Mara outside the GPO on Dublin's O'Connell street. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Authors l-r; Jo Spain, Liz Nugent and Andrea Mara outside the GPO on Dublin's O'Connell street. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Liz Nugent has published three books. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Jo Spain now have five books in the shops. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Andrea Mara specialises in psychological thrillers. Photo: Caroline Quinn

There's a theory that of all the different kinds of genre writers - science fiction, comedy, historical and literary fiction - crime writers are the most balanced of all. The reason? They get all their neurosis, negativity and darkness out on the page, while all the others have to bottle it up. The three people I'm sitting around a table with agree, and they should know.

Jo Spain, Liz Nugent, and Andrea Mara (pictured above) are discussing what it means to be nominated for An Post Irish Book Award 2018. They are three of the six writers nominated for the Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year - with Thirteen author Steve Cavanagh, A House of Ghosts writer W.C. Ryan and The Ruin author Dervla McTiernan completing the shortlist.

Many budding writers have struggled to make it as professional authors, giving up existing careers to take a leap into the dark. And for these three, it's a decision that's paid off.

Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent has published three books. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Dubliner Liz Nugent has published three books - Skin Deep is nominated for an Irish Book Award - and is currently working on a fourth to be published in 2020. Before reinventing herself as an author, her career involved long stints working in theatre and TV drama, but not as a writer. Making the leap into writing full time involved learning some new skills, not the least of which was how to think like a psychopath. "Out of all the genre writers, romantic fiction, sci fi, literary fiction or any other genre, crime writers are the most fun. We get all the s***ty darkness in our lives out on the page. Our minds are free to have fun," she says.

This is important, she says, because she spends her time inhabiting dark worlds in her mind, channelling the thoughts and motivations of dangerously disturbed individuals, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I write mostly from the point of view of the psychopath and the sociopath and spend a lot of time in my kitchen trying to think like they do. That's very liberating and my real life is profoundly boring compared to that."

While crime fiction appeals to both men and women, it's a fact that there are a lot of successful female authors working in the genre. While Nugent's fanbase is diverse, and includes everyone from Brian O'Driscoll to Pascal Donohue and Francis Brennan, it's also true that she's hugely popular with female readers. "There's a great Margaret Atwood quote - 'Men are scared that women will laugh at them but women are scared that men will kill them' and I think that goes a long way to explaining why crime fiction is so popular with female readers and why so many women write it," she says.

"We're attracted to crime writing because we're more attuned to menace and threat. We're the people walking down the street with our keys clenched in our hands waiting for someone to leap out." By reading about it and writing it, Nugent believes fans of the genre can go some way towards understanding the motivation of the murderer, and feel a little safer as a result. "Murderers don't wake up and think 'I'm going to go out and kill someone today'. They go through a rationalisation process, to come up with some reason why their actions are reasonable and rational, according to some internal logic," she says. "That place is where I spend a lot of my time."

Would she like to see crime fiction taken more seriously as literature? Not especially. Literary fiction may get the awards and the plaudits, but crime writers get the sales. "At the end of the day, there's more crime fiction writers making a living than literary fiction writers and crime is much more likely to be adopted for TV and film. My first book has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio, and there's interest in the second and third one at the moment. I'll take that any day."


Jo Spain

Jo Spain now have five books in the shops. Photo: Caroline Quinn

For Jo Spain the decision to launch a full-time career as a writer has led her to a position as one of the country's best-known authors. Initially though, it involved a wild leap in the dark. "I was a parliamentary assistant and that just wasn't compatible with becoming a novelist. I was writing all day every day in my job and I could be in there until 10 or 11 at night. There was no way I could come home and start writing fiction. My first book was actually published while I was in that job but that experience told me that I just wasn't going to be able to keep doing that," she says.

"So I just quit. I did have some savings but I also had four kids and an unemployed husband at home so it was a leap of faith. I say to people that it's no different from starting any new business - you have to give it a go to find out if it'll work, or forever wonder."

That was in 2016 and today she has five books in the shops. While she's obviously prolific, making ends meet as a writer is notoriously difficult. How has she managed it?

"Any kind of author will struggle to make a living given how the book world is but for me the secret to a working wage has been volume. Getting two books out every year for the last few years has been crucial, as well as writing screenplays and building up a back catalogue that continues to sell," she says.

"I'm also the main breadwinner at home and that focuses the mind when it comes to disciplining yourself. The truth is I would write anyway because I just love writing. You have to love it, because if you're doing it to make money, then there are basically much easier ways to do that."

Spain is happy to encourage others to write in her genre, confident that it can take more and more writers with ease. The reason? Crime readers buy a lot of books. "There's room for a lot more authors because there are lots of readers and they love crime. I buy tonnes of crime novels and I'm not unique, so I don't see competition really."

Spain is nominated for an Irish Book Award for The Confession. As well as writing novels, she also develops screenplays - most notably co-writing the six-part crime series Taken Down with Love/Hate writer Stuart Carolan, currently showing on RTÉ.

"It's a whodunnit but it also looks at direct provision and how people in vulnerable positions can be exploited, so it's a different beast. It's got a brilliant cast. I personally really pleased with how it's turned out," she says.

"Everyone involved in it is at the top of their game and it looks fantastic."

Andrea Mara

Andrea Mara specialises in psychological thrillers. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Up until April 2015, Andrea Mara had her life mapped out in front of her. She had three children, a husband and a good job in financial services with 17 years' service under her belt. She was settled and happy until one day her career got turned upside down. "I was told my company was closing its Dublin office but I had a choice of moving to Luxembourg or India, or I could take redundancy. I wasn't going to move my family so it was obviously redundancy for me," she says.

While she initially expected to be job hunting in the same sector, a career guidance professional provided as part of her redundancy package challenged her to say what she would do with her life if she could wave a magic wand? "The answer was that I wanted to be sitting at my kitchen table writing for a living. She encouraged me to see how that could actually happen. I was blogging at the time as a hobby and I really loved that and had also gotten into freelance writing for newspapers and magazines. But then fiction came knocking, and it was always only ever going to be crime."

Today Mara has two books to her name, with her Irish Book Award nomination coming for One Click, and a burgeoning career that fits in around her responsibilities as a parent. "I write in the morning while my three kids are in school and the afternoons are spent with them, and then I write at night after they go to bed. You have to be disciplined. I write while my husband is watching Netflix in the evening, and that can be hard," she says.

A typical writing day sees her aim for a morning goal of 1,500 words, with a good day being more like 2,500 words. "But there are days when it drags, and I get distracted and suddenly it's time to go on the school run. You just have to not beat yourself up and get back at it later. There are other days when I write 4,000 or 5,000 words so it differs. The important thing is that I'm perfectly happy at home at my kitchen table, I don't miss the office at all," she says.

Mara specialises in writing psychological thrillers and she writes her first drafts with her three sisters in mind. "We've all been reading crime all our lives and it's really important to us, so they're my best initial critics. We like the same stuff so we're on the same wavelength and hopefully if they enjoy it others will too. We all grew up on a diet of Agatha Christie and love the dynamic of a small group of people placed in a difficult situation. I love the idea that if you scratch the surface, there's something mysterious going on."

Shot on location at the GPO, Dublin.

Photographs by Caroline Quinn

Irish Independent

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