Wednesday 20 March 2019

Northern exposure

Andrea Carter's Donegal crime novels are being turned into a new TV series that will showcase the rugged beauty of Inishowen. Kathy Donaghy meets the lawyer and writer

Change of scene: Andrea Carter first moved to Donegal in the mid-90s. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Change of scene: Andrea Carter first moved to Donegal in the mid-90s. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When novelist Andrea Carter first came to Inishowen as a fresh-faced solicitor in the mid-90s, she could never have imagined the place would inspire her to write a series of books, now about to be turned into a major TV series.

It's the stuff of dreams. Carter's 'Inishowen Mysteries' - the fourth instalment, Murder at Greysbridge, is out in October - will be adapted for television after Irish production company Zanzibar Films and German film company Hold The Page bought the international TV rights to her first three books at the Galway Film Fleadh last month.

It's been a long and winding road that Carter has taken alongside the heroine of her novels Benedicta O'Keeffe, known as Ben. When she arrived in the market town of Carndonagh on the Inishowen Peninsula, to take up a job in a solicitor's practice, she didn't know a soul.

One of the first things she did was buy a map and every weekend she'd get into her car and drive to some windswept location to get to know the curves and arcs of the land she was making her home.

It's clear from talking to her that this is a place she now knows well. Inishowen's sea stacks and wild Atlantic beaches etched themselves into her soul and even when she left, she found it was still the place she wanted to write about.

"For someone like me, Inishowen was a very unusual place to end up. I'm from Laois - the most inland county in Ireland. I then find myself on a peninsula, a place surrounded on three sides by sea. While I was there I became immersed in where I was living. I got myself a map of Inishowen and I just explored," she says.

While she had always kept diaries and scribbled, it was during this time that Ben became her companion"I started writing Ben as a character when I was back in Dublin for a year, when I was missing Inishowen. It was something that was very much for myself. If I had a very worrying day at work or I was concerned about something, the writing was a way of distancing myself from my work worries. It stopped me from opening a bottle of wine on occasion" she says.

"Ben was little more than a braver and more reckless form of me when I first started writing her. At that point, I had no notion that I'd ever be published. Ben was me at that point," says Carter.

When she returned to Inishowen to set up her own practice in Carndonagh at the age of 28, Ben continued to keep her company.

A return to Dublin for a new career challenge in 2006, this time at the Bar as a practising barrister, saw Carter continue to write about Ben. And it was no coincidence that the character ran Ireland's most northerly solicitor's practice.

"I continued to write about Ben O'Keeffe and Inishowen and that took me by surprise. The sights and sounds, the wind and the feel of the place became so much more vivid and easier to write about. When I missed Inishowen, I was able to write about it more vividly," she says.

Five years ago, Carter took a year out to concentrate on writing full time, completing an MFA in creative writing in UCD and managed to get an agent in London.

"I bought a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and selected those who were interested in crime fiction, emailing cold my first three chapters. I got lots of rejections but one day I got an email from my present agent's assistant asking me to send on the full manuscript," says Carter.

"I then got a phone call asking me to come to London the following week. I had this fairy-tale trip to London, was taken out to lunch where I signed an agreement with my agent, Kerry Glencorse.

"She told me she loved the book; that she thought it was wonderful. However, it still took about six months of editing with her before she deemed it worthy of submission to publishers. There was a lot of work editing it," she says.

On her journey to the publication of Death at Whitewater Church, her first book, it was suggested that she write the character Ben from the first-person perspective.

"It was then that she started to separate herself from me and she became fictional. She was no longer me. It somehow gave me the freedom to give her a backstory that wasn't mine and characteristics that aren't mine and have her behave in a way I never would," Carter says.

Living in Dublin now and married to documentary producer Geoff Power, Carter - who just turned 49 - is excited and nervous to see how the TV version of her books will turn out. Carter followed Death at Whitewater Church with Treacherous Strand and The Well of Ice.

"What has made me very pleased is that the producers made a point of saying they are going to be filming in Inishowen. That's huge for me. When I was talking to them initially, I said I very much hoped that would be their plan. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do with my books. It's their baby now," says Carter.

"It should be very good for Inishowen because a huge part of the books is the setting. Hopefully, it will show the beauty of the place. The books would not be what they are without Inishowen. They could not be set anywhere else. That's why it's so important they film in Inishowen and the producers feel the same way. That's very important to them, too," she says.

In the meantime, Carter will be busy with the next instalment of her 'Inishowen Mysteries' and says she has plenty more plans for Ben.

"I write best first thing in the morning. I get up, make myself a cup of coffee - I'm still in the pyjamas - and I go to the laptop. I keep notebooks - I have a vast selection of notebooks as well - but I type directly on to the laptop. I try to be at my desk at about 8ish.

"You could say working in my pyjamas is a relief after wearing a suit for 20 years," she says.

"My best work is done before I turn on social media, before I look at my phone, before I look at the television or turn on the radio, before I do anything else. I go straight from sleep to the book and do two hours first thing.

"Another part of the writer's life in Ireland is events. I do at least two events a month. You need to publicise any events you're doing. Social media is important for writers and I mostly do it myself. There's a community feel to writers in Ireland and particularly in the crime-writing community.

"There's a theory that crime writers get all their aggression out on the page. Their violent tendencies come out on the page so they're absolutely charming. They're great fun and supportive of one another so that's a great part of it."

Andrea Carter's next novel, Murder at Greysbridge, is published in October

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