Sinead Crowley’s debut crime thriller Can Anybody Help Me is a page turning read that grips you from the get-go, dealing with that daunting time of pregnancy and then motherhood, it asks the question, can any of us really trust the people we connect with online?
Catching up with Sinead, it came as no surprise that she wanted to write since the age of four, ‘When I got my first toy typewriter – the first words typed were Chapter One.’ A ferocious reader, it was the L M Montgomery books, and specifically the Emily books, of which Emily and the New Moon was her favourite, that really griped her, ‘I remember borrowing the book from Walkinstown library, and borrowing it over and over again. Emily also wanted to be a writer!’ Confidence wise, she says, ‘I never thought becoming a writer would definitely happen, but from as soon as I could pick up a pen, I wanted to write.’
The idea behind Sinead’s debut thriller, Can Anybody Help Me came in two parts, initially around the pregnancy and birth of her first child when she visited online sites for new mothers, or mothers to be, ‘my best friend had a baby before me, so I started snooping around. When I became pregnant, I found them really addictive. I got the idea for the novel based around the site, and the character of Yvonne, and what she was going through, but it still wasn’t a crime novel. Then I literally got this image in my head of a woman who was younger than me, absolutely exhausted, who was sitting up in bed while her husband and young daughter were asleep, but she couldn’t sleep because her head was buzzing, and in the corner of the room there was a computer screen glowing. She had long red hair, and this girl was thinking to herself, the only friends I have are in that computer box – I thought, that’s my story. And the next question was, what if they are not her friends, and there was somebody in that glowing box who wasn’t out to help her.
In Can Anybody Help Me, Yvonne, struggling with a new baby, turns to the online forum netmammy for support. Drawn into this world, she spends increasing amounts of time online, volunteering more and more information about herself. When one of her new friends disappears, she thinks something is wrong, but dismisses her fears. After all, does she really know this woman? When a body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, she begins to suspect that she and others are in terrifying danger. Sinead says, ‘On parenting sites, people will talk about their experience in hospital, what month their child was born, they might mention the name of a nurse, and Ireland is a very small country. When I was talking to the editor about the premise for the novel, I said, it is actually that easy, if you say I’m Louise, I have blonde hair and I write books, I have you in three key strokes.’ Sinead warns, ‘they are a brilliant resource, but people have to be careful. If you’re not comfortable standing in the middle of O’Connell Street shouting the information out at the top of your voice, then don’t say it online.’
The novel, says Sinead, ‘isn’t only a story about this. I wanted to write a traditional thriller, but one with a high concept edge to it.’ Always loving a great whodunit, she grew up reading Agatha Christie, ‘I think there is nothing better than starting an Agatha Christie book with seven people and not knowing who the killer is.’
A striking character from Can Anybody Help Me is Sergeant Claire Boyle, who is trying to continue her pressurised job in the same way as before she became pregnant, ‘she doesn’t want people holding the door open for her, but at the same time, they really have to. I had high blood pressure too,’ says Sinead, ‘half your head wants to get the job done, but your body is slowing you down, in that way, she is very similar to how I was, thinking, I’m grand to get the job done, but then the body says, you’re not that grand.’
The character of Claire came late in the day to Sinead, ‘she is a really interesting character, and the more I wrote about her, the more I liked her. Initially she didn’t have a sidekick, but then I wrote Flynn, and from the first chapter, I had these two characters that I was really fond of.’
‘The first 20,000 words,’ says Sinead, ‘came quite easily. You have the great ideas, but I ended up with loads of different versions, and I also began working simultaneously on another book. But then, I said to myself, you better finish one and not spend the next ten years saying you would love to finish that book. Everything was telling me to stop talking about it and simply do it. After that the whole story came together in about 6 or 7 months.’
Initially Sinead was nervous about putting her first book out there, ‘I make my living from interviewing people so I’m very aware of the process. Taking that step from being the interviewer to being the interviewed is a big one. I report every day, my stuff goes on the news, and I’m quite happy to be judged on that because that is what I do. There was certainly a flash at the editing stage, when I said, OMG, do I really want to do this? There was fear, but then again you have to have a chat with yourself and say, look, you wanted this forever, so go for it, take the plunge. As an arts journalist, I met a lot of writers, and that helped in so far as I knew they were real people!’ she laughs, ‘I wasn’t going out under a pen name and hiding under the bed.’
It is no surprise that with her day job and two children, balancing the writing process has its own dictates, ‘I’m the nipper in and out of. That’s how the process developed for me, and literally, that is how my brain works now. If I’m early for a job or if I’m due to collect the kids and have an hour spare, I can nip in somewhere, open the laptop and write five hundred words, and funnily enough, if you gave me a day off, I probably wouldn’t be able to write more than that five hundred.’
During the editing process, she says, ‘like many people, I thought you write the book and someone puts a cover on it, not realising the process can take a long time. I really worked closely with my editor and I was very open to taking their ideas on boards, but I was lucky in so far as I agreed pretty much with what they said to me.’ However, her favourite part of writing she says, ‘is when you get lost in the story to the extent that you look up after twenty minutes having buried yourself in the laptop, tapping away, and you realise, you’ve been totally in that world. It’s similar to getting lost in a good book!’
Having read Can Anybody Help Me, it come as no surprise what Sinead looks for in a book, ‘I read a lot, and whether they be literary or popular fiction, I like a book to have twists, to be surprised, and I don’t only apply that to crime, it applies to every source of literature. I think the work ‘page-turner’ is much maligned. I want a book to be a page-turner. It is a huge compliment – high literary fiction can be a page-turner.’
Talking about her choice of crime novels Sinead admits, ‘I wouldn’t be into the gritty stuff. I don’t particularly want bodies piling up. For me the interest is always in the psychology behind the story, which is why in my novel it is much less about the knife coming down and more the ripple effect of the crime.’
Sinead’s advice for anyone writing that first novel is to ‘Take time for yourself. It’s kind of like running a marathon. It’s hard to say, I’m going to take time away from everybody and do this, but if it is something you really want to do, then do it.’
Fans of Can Anybody Help Me will be delighted to hear that Sinead is working on her second novel, which will also include Sergeant Claire Boyle.
(c) Louise Phillips
About Can Anybody Help Me?
It was crazy really, she had never met the woman, had no idea of her real name but she thought of her as a friend. Or, at least, the closest thing she had to a friend in Dublin.
Struggling with a new baby, Yvonne turns to netmammy, an online forum for mothers, for support. Drawn into a world of new friends, she spends increasing amounts of time online and volunteers more and more information about herself.
When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne thinks something is wrong, but dismisses her fears. After all, does she really know this woman?
But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?
Can Anybody Help Me? is available in all good bookshops and online here.