We have all come across individuals who manage to cram so much into a day that you begin to wonder if their twenty-four hours is longer than the norm. Niamh O’Connor is such a person. BLINK, O’Connor’s fourth novel, published by Transworld Ireland, is available from 15 August. Add to this the fact that she is the true crime editor of the Sunday World newspaper and has also written numerous true crime books and you begin to get an idea of where I’m coming from.
I have had the pleasure of chatting with O’Connor on a number of occasions and in various venues – most notably in the Four Courts – where thankfully, the only crimes committed were of the fictional kind. Before we first met, I had already read and enjoyed, Taken, O’Connor’s first DI Jo Birmingham novel, but for some reason I had built up an image in my head of a loud, brash, abrasive personality. I felt it would match my image of a successful true crime editor who could also turn her hand to crime fiction and juggle it all so effortlessly. I was wrong – on all counts. O’Connor is soft-spoken, intelligent and compassionate; characteristics which have encouraged victims and villains alike, to open up and talk to her.
O’Connor draws on real-life for her fiction. She has mentioned, in the past, that she is intrigued by the here and now and feels compelled to show the history of our time by writing about the modern Ireland we live in: a place where her characters; both villains and victims; reflect the crimes we read about every day and gives her an opportunity to portray the effect on society.
Her latest novel, BLINK, is no exception. Here’s the blurb:
Trapped in her own body, who can she turn to?
BLINK focuses on a spate of teenage suicides and a young girl, paralysed with locked-in syndrome. Unable to communicate in any other way, she blinks the words: ‘I hired a hitman.’
While DI Gavin Sexton believes the girl who cannot move has suffered enough, how far should he go to protect her? Meanwhile, recovering from loss of sight, Sexton’s old partner, DI Jo Birmingham, is keeping her promise to investigate the apparent suicide of Sexton’s own wife Maura. But why does he no longer seem to care?
BLINK really will grab you from the first page, and won’t let go – it’s a fast paced thriller with as many twists as the roads in the Wicklow hills where it is set.
Every writer is aware of how difficult it can be, at times, to just sit and write. The ultimate goal is to have your work published and on the book shelves. ‘It’s definitely that buzz that sustains the tedious bum on seat part,’ O’Connor agrees as she confirms it’s all worth it, when you actually get to see, ‘something I wrote on a shelf in a bookshop, there’s an instant surge of amazement that it’s yours, and that the person mopping floors, burning dinners, and trying to sort out clothes and kids rooms has managed to do something in between.’
According to Declan Hughes, ‘DI Jo Birmingham is a terrific character: gutsy and stylish, with a tough mind and a heart of gold.’ While Tess Gerritsen feels, ‘Jo Birmingham is my sort of heroine.’ When I ask O’Connor where she comes from and if there is a hint of herself anywhere in her character, she quickly sets me straight. ‘There’s nothing of me in Jo. If I made her a domestic slattern, there might be, but that would make her a mental case for readers so phew!’ Instead, Jo Birmingham is based on ‘some female cops I’ve seen giving evidence in court who have to leave their emotions at the steps of the court to secure prosecutions against society’s worst, while at the same time having immense compassion for the victims and their families. They tend to be working women with children, but in Jo’s case, striking the home/work balance is impossible. When something gives, it’s her marriage.’
BLINK is a work of fiction, inspired by the marked increase in teen suicides, which O’Connor explores in her novel. She handles what is the nightmare of every parent, with a sensitivity and understanding garnered from speaking to the families and professionals who have had the daunting task of trying to find out why? What could trouble a young teenager so much that they would take their own life? I was particularly moved by the closing sentence in the Author’s Note, ‘Ultimately, I had to conclude that, when hope is lost, evil thrives.’
Crime fiction writers could spend an eternity seeking out reference books and professionals to ensure they tell their story as realistically as possible, while O’Connor, through her job, is immersed in real-life crime on a daily basis. I wonder if she finds her role as the true crime editor of the Sunday World a benefit or a hindrance when writing fiction. It was a question that has obviously been asked many times, but O’Connor was keen to point out how beneficial her day job is for a fiction writer, which she feels, ‘effects a desire to vent and rail in a way I can’t in the newspaper,’ while it also, she continues, ‘throws up instant ideas because the truth really is stranger than fiction. In terms of time, it would be great to have more of it, but when you know what it is you want to say, it only takes a short time to put those words on the page, they just write themselves. I’ve written 1,000 words in fifteen minutes – when they just have to get out. It’s when you don’t know, or aren’t quite sure what it is you want to say, that the time is wasted staring at the screen and making cups of tea and so on. But what is going to come to you in a room by yourself navel gazing? You have to be out there to see what’s going on in order to have something to say about it.’
O’Connor draws a comparison between herself and Roddy Doyle, both of them writing about the environment in which they work and live and breathe. ‘I always remember when Roddy Doyle started, he was still working as a teacher by day and writer by night and he had the most perfect grasp of dialogue I’d ever read, and writing about real issues, so I felt sad when he packed in the job, which clearly was the correct thing for him to do, so maybe there’s a part of me that’s scared that if I become a full time author I’ll become too sheltered and never be properly in touch with what’s going on out there again, or have the contacts needed to research the information.’ It is obvious, from talking to her, that O’Connor is passionate about her role as true crime editor and she really believes that what the Sunday World does, matters.
BLINK is a short, snappy and memorable title. It makes an impact and along with the haunting cover. I’m interested to know how O’Connor chooses her titles; whether she finds it an easy process, where the title finds her or if it is more difficult than that. ‘I’m really glad you like the title, Blink, Susan. I think it’s the most fitting yet, I have no pattern as you may have noticed, other than not having a pattern. I started out with a really long one with, If I Never See You Again, which one reviewer said might just as well been called, Alan, because of the relevance (LOL!). The next one was a one-worder, Taken, and then number three was a medium length – Too Close For Comfort. Blink is definitely a Blink and not an Alan though, because it’s all about a girl with locked in syndrome, who has only one means of communication. Every bat of her eyelids matters, so the title is perfect. The thing about a title is, if it works straight away, there’s no discussion, just excitement that we’ve got it right and that happened this time. You just know. I originally wanted to call, If I Never See You Again – Made To Atone, so there were a million more suggestions before it found a name that fit.’
O’Connor’s first books were non-fiction, true crime. The first, The Black Widow, was a number one bestseller while the second, Cracking Crime, resulted in a TV series for RTÉ. With such a winning formula I was intrigued to know what prompted O’Connor to begin writing crime fiction. ‘I just find the ‘what if?’ element of fiction very appealing and liberating. I’m still doing the true crime stuff for the Sunday World. The book I wrote, Blood Ties, was a compilation of some of the books the newspapers put out, and I’m very proud of the Larry Murphy book, which was also published by the paper.’
I had to know how, with the time demands of work and family, O’Connor ever found time to write. How? Where? When? ‘The answer to that is I don’t do anything properly,’ she answers, in a self-depreciating manner, ‘I don’t do anything as well as I should, and I have constant guilt about never being able to devote enough time to anything, which I think is most women’s lot. I have a home office for writing which literally is a room of my own and it has institutionalised me, in that when I go in there, there’s such a sense of comfort – and I’ll get up at any time to do it. There were a lot of 2.30 am starts in that office this year. It’s so quiet at that time it’s perfect, and I have all my little lucky charms and mementos around me to remind me I’ll get there eventually.’ The lucky charms have little to do. With the amount of work O’Connor manages to cram into one day; she deserves every bit of success.
Many writers plot their novel from start to finish, while others create their characters and allow them to develop as they write. When I asked O’Connor what worked best for her, she replied, ‘a bit of both. I have to know where I’m going, but sometimes the best moments happen when you surprise yourself, and you don’t see something coming.’
There appears to be a shift in genres in the writing world. Recently Alex Barclay has put aside her crime fiction novels to write a book for young adults while Mark O’Sullivan has put aside children’s fiction to write his first crime fiction novel. I ask O’Connor if she could ever see herself writing in another genre. No definitive answer arrives and instead, she deflects my question deftly, ‘I think writers need to be versatile. Alex Barclay is also one of the most brilliant writers of short stories I’ve ever read, and I think there’s a great American novel lurking inside the many, many layers of her talent. Mark O’Sullivan’s book, Crocodile Tears, blew me away and made me wonder what took him so long to get into crime. It is absolutely brilliant. The detective, Leo Woods has Bell’s Palsy which sets his face in an impenetrable mask – don’t you instantly want to read on?’
When I mention the media frenzy over JK Rowling’s first crime fiction novel, using the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, O’Connor admits, ‘I’d love a pseudonym, but who’d go to bat for the book once it’s published? And if the book took off, wouldn’t the secret become bigger than the book? And if the book didn’t take off, wouldn’t the secret still be bigger than the book?’
I am interested to know, who, in the writing world, inspired her most. ‘I think in journalistic terms, it is Nell McCafferty because she definitely broke the mould when she somehow managed to strike the balance between clinical court reporting and a sense of social (in)justice and outrage. In the fiction world, Lynda LaPlante was the first woman writer who appealed to me because she created gutsy female characters like Jane Tennyson (played by Helen Mirren) who had ambition and ability and balls.’
With regard to social media; blogging, Twitter, Facebook, I know that some writers swear by them while others think they just eat away into writing time. O’Connor admits, ‘I’m not great on the social media front, because the people best at it have pictures of their kids up and are sharing aspects of their lives that I don’t want to get into. I find it hard to befriend strangers and they trust the universe that way.’ She likes Twitter because it’s useful when searching for information while she is fearful of Facebook but agrees that blogging can get a writer with ability noticed, ‘but in the end it does come down to time as you say, and by the time I get to actually do it, my fingers hurt and I’m only fit for a glass of vino and the box.’
Niamh O’Connor is a bestselling true crime author, and as crime correspondent for the Sunday World, Ireland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper, she has exclusive access to Ireland’s most terrifying criminals. Her job, in which she interviews both high profile criminals and their victims, means she really knows the world she is writing about.
Her debut novel, If I Never See You Again, went to number one in the Nielsen Heatseekers chart when it was released in the UK in January 2011 and was nominated in the Best Newcomers category of the Irish Book Awards in November 2010. Her second novel, Taken, was a number two bestseller in Ireland in June 2011. BLINK is set to be another success.
(c) Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, is currently editing her debut novel – a crime fiction thriller set in New York City. Her short stories have won the Jonathan Swift Award, the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and the Sport and Cultural Council, City of Dublin VEC and she was long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and www.fivestopstory.com
Check out her blog at www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @SusanCondon