Interview with Sam Blake/Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin
Anyone for Irish crime?
There’s only one person to speak to if you want to know about this genre – Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin. Originally from England, but living in Dublin for more years than she lived in the UK, she has penned a string of best-sellers under the pseudonym, Sam Blake.
Her first novel, Little Bones, featuring Cat Connolly, a young Irish cop and kickboxing champ, took the crime fiction world by storm and was nominated for Irish Crime Novel of the Year.
Founder of The Inkwell Group, and the multi award winning writing resources website Writing.ie, she also happens to be Ireland’s leading literary scout, one of those rare magicians of the publishing industry who can turn an undiscovered writer into a best-selling author.
The Crime Hub found her in her office, an old Post Office on the edge of the Wicklow mountains, a short distance from the sea and half an hour outside Dublin city.
Vanessa, your work with The Inkwell Group, delivering publishing workshops and organising crime writing festivals must take up an awful lot of your time – how do you manage to fit in the writing career?
I’ve been asked this question a LOT over the last few days – I’m beginning to think it’s because I’m supposed to be starting a new book (make that ‘have started’) and my head is slightly in panic mode asking myself the same question.
I find when you’ve got a lot to do – in my case that can be anything from meeting new authors or programming Murder One, Ireland’s international crime writing festival running in Dublin in November (argh!!) – you find time to write in every fallow moment. Although finding the fallow moments can be tricky!
I’m thinking about plot when I’m making a cup of tea; if I’m in an airport or on a plane I always have my laptop with me. I have to be able to write anywhere and to focus in short bursts.
I have a sound track for each book, and when I plug my earphones in and sit down, I tune straight into the story – the music drowns the other noise in my head and I just write. I literally grab my writing time in every moment I can.
I love being busy, I need constant stimulation to keep my brain working and that means that when I sit down to write 1000 words, I get it done. They might be 1000 terrible words but they are on the page; even if I delete most of them, there will be one good line (hopefully!)
Very few writers actually write full time as you know, most of us have a day job, so writing gets fitted in around the edges of life. That said, obviously other things have to go – I don’t have time to watch TV or read the papers – I’d much rather be writing. And Bosch and Grey’s Anatomy are on Amazon Prime, so when I’m utterly pooped and my brain just isn’t working, I can pour a glass of white wine and indulge….
Was there a specific moment of inspiration that you recall – when you came up with the character of Cathy Connolly?
That moment of inspiration for the first Cat Connolly book Little Bones, actually came when I realised the bones belonged to a baby and were hidden in the hem of a wedding dress – although I didn’t know why they were there until I was at least two thirds of the way through writing the book.
The idea arrived when I was driving back from an event in Dublin airport and listening to a radio documentary about playwright George Fitzmaurice, who is best remembered for his play The Country Dressmaker It rescued the Abbey Theatre from financial disaster, but tragically Fitzmaurice died aged 86 years and left no will and only few personal belongings – including a copy of every play he’d ever published, in an old suitcase on his bed.
It was Fitzmaurice’s suitcase that caused the collision of ideas that Stephen King credits as being the source of a story – the moment of inspiration I needed to meet Cat Connolly.
Several years previously I’d watched an RTE TV documentary about a young Irish girl, Belinda Regan, who discovered she was pregnant and left Ireland but, unmarried, hid the pregnancy. She delivered the baby herself in the middle of the night, but the baby wasn’t breathing. Hiding the body in a suitcase under her bed, she returned home to Ireland and while she was away, and it was found by her land lady. She was one of the last women in the UK to be prosecuted for infanticide.
These two stories, heard quite separately but linked by an old suitcase, lit a light bulb in my head and on the drive home I started wondering about dress makers and what would happen if the bones of the baby had ended up in a dress – a wedding dress – the crucial thing that Belinda Regan must have yearned for, for nine long months. At that point I had no idea who owned the dress, or how the bones got there, or WHY…
Cat arrived on the scene when I realised someone needed to find the bones. She walked into the story – to investigate the break in that leads her to the dress – pretty much fully formed, with her kick boxing gear in her gym bag in the boot of her mini and her Tiffany dog tag necklace (there’s a big story behind that too). Joseph O’Connor talks about characters floating in a cloud above us, waiting to connect with the person who is going to tell their story – I love that analogy. I know Cat so well I feel like she was waiting for me.
Something similar happened with my new book Keep Your Eyes on Me, it’s psychological thriller – Strangers on a Train meets Dial M for Murder (except it’s two women, and they are on a plane to New York), the characters took a while to fully show themselves, but when they did, they were complete. It’s a totally different book from the first three but it’s set on the edge of Cat’s world so anyone who has read the previous books will meet a few people they recognise.
Who are the leading authors in Irish and Northern Irish crime fiction?
We have a wonderfully rich crime writing scene here in Ireland.
In every genre Irish writers really shine and are winning awards, I think it’s because we’re a nation of story tellers. I’m going to miss someone out here and they’ll never speak to me again, but in the Republic of Ireland (the 26 counties in the south for the geographically challenged, which gained its independence in 1922) there’s a huge wave of phenomenal crime writing ladies – Tana French, Liz Nugent, Jane Casey, Patricia Gibney, Catherine Ryan Howard, Louise Phillips, Jo Spain, Andrea Carter, Alex Barclay, Karen Perry, Arlene Hunt – so many. And they are selling internationally and being shortlisted for awards all over the world.
In the North of Ireland, the scene is dominated by some incredibly impressive male crime writers– Steve Cavanagh, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Anthony J Quinn, but the ladies are breaking through too – writers like bestseller Claire Allan.
Irish writers really do punch above their weight – Adrian McKinty has swept the awards scene, Jane Casey won the Mary Higgins Clarke Award, Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for best thriller (for one of the best books I have ever read, The Ghosts of Belfast) and Catherine Ryan Howard was shortlisted for an Edgar this year. John Connolly’s won the Barry, Shamus and Edgar Awards and is just incredible.
Eoin McNamee doesn’t see himself as a crime writer, but he’s won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and been Booker nominated.
It’s about storytelling and that’s in the genes – even mine – my ancestors fled the famine to settle in the UK, via the US; I have a British passport but Irish blood.
Is there an identity or atmosphere that runs through these novels that identifies them as part of the same genre – other than being set on the Emerald Isle?
The Irish are a very connected people – we know if we meet another Irish person in any other part of the world and we chat for long enough we’ll find something in common, whether it’s someone we know or a school or a town.
So not all the ‘Irish Noir’ books are set in Ireland, some are set in the US, some don’t even feature Irish characters, but the authors are all connected by their Irishness, by living here or having lived here. There is an identity in that, and the ability to tell a story. We are the modern incarnation of the ancient seanchaí, the story tellers. The Irish were brutally oppressed by the British for centuries, their language and religion was crushed, millions emigrated fleeing a famine that effected the staple diet of the poor, despite a bumper grain harvest – storytelling kept tradition and the Irish culture alive, and that’s what’s at the root of Irish Noir.
Who are the new up and coming writers we should look out for?
Watch out for the Irish writers abroad – Dervla McTiernan in Australia and Olivia Kiernan in the UK , Aidan Conway in Italy – all awesome! Here at home we’ve got new voices like Andrea Mara, who’ll you’ll be hearing a lot more from, Jane Ryan and Catherine Kirwan and Paul McNeive. They are all making their mark!