‘Red Ribbons’ Author Louise Phillips on Getting Into the Killer’s Head

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

Louise Phillps is the newest voice on the Irish crime writing scene, and if inital responses to her debut psychological thriller Red Ribbons are anything to go by, she’s a name to watch. Louise returned to wriitng after a twenty year hiatus in which she managed a successful family business and brought up her family – but the break was in no way detrimental – selected by Dermot Bolger as an emerging talent, Louise went on to win the 2009 Jonathan Swift Award and in 2011 she was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, as well as being short-listed for Bridport UK Prize, the Molly Keane Memorial Award, and the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. In 2012 Louise was awarded an Arts bursary for literature from South County Dublin Arts. Other publishing credits include many literary journals and anthologies, including New Island’s County Lines. Her debut novel was snapped up by Hachette Ireland, and is described by editor Ciara Doorley as having “overtones of Sophie Hannah and Tana French. Louise is a supremely talented writer. She subconsciously creates parallels between her characters, and this really challenges the reader. Her writing is tense, atmospheric and we’re really excited to be launching a new voice in Irish crime.’

Red Ribbons opens with a missing schoolgirl found buried in the Dublin Mountains, her hands clasped together in prayer, two red ribbons in her hair. Twenty-four hours later, a second schoolgirl is found in a shallow grave – her body identically arranged. And the hurt for the killer is on…

So what is it that makes Louise’s story so chilling? Stephen King says, “good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.” Louise revealed that Red Ribbons did indeed come from a series of unrelated ideas:  “When you’re writing, you’re not always sure how the story will unfold, and in many ways elements of the narrative for Red Ribbons came from very varied places. It was only when I’d completed the first draft of the manuscript that I recognised how certain memories and fears played their part.” So how did she come upon the voice of Ellie Brady, a woman incarcerated in a mental hopsital?

“Ellie Brady is the woman who stopped talking because everyone stopped listening, and who is an almost a confessional voice running throughout the storyline. In part she was born from memories I had visiting women in institutional care in my late teens. Memories formed early in life are strong, and somethings in life never leave you. If I’m being completely honest, when I wrote Ellie, I didn’t consciously realise this connection. But Ellie’s voice is also the voice of someone who has been left behind by life, someone the world has stopped listening to.

‘I’m one of those writers for whom the characters become real, become part of my life. There are dark elements in this narrative, human emotions are tested, and to the best of my ability I’ve tried to explore human frailty, strength, love and loss, and I hope show light within the dark. Ellie Brady arrived whole on the page. A unique gift for any writer, and one you don’t question, you simply go with the voice, and hope your sub-conscious knows what it’s about. The prospect of reading the voice of an institutionalised woman may sound daunting for the reader, but as the writer, the journey I travelled with Ellie, I travelled blindly, but whole-heartedly. I was guided by her. Ellie Brady is like no one else, real or fictional. She is a powerful voice for me, and I hope she proves to be a powerful voice for the reader.”

In Red Ribbons, the killer’s voice is also strong, and we follow this deeply disturbed individual from the very start of the novel. I wondered how Louise got inside the the killer’s head, and how she was able to identify with his powerful voice?

Louise told me, “The creation of the killer was certainly born from my experience as a mother of three children, and a parent’s worst fear, that of something dreadful happening to your child at the hands of another, a stranger. And to create this character, to make him as real as possible in the fictional sense, it meant getting inside a bad man’s head. It wasn’t always a good place to be, but in many ways as a crime writer, you’re in the same driving seat as the reader, trying to grasp an understanding of a force which is often unsettling, frightening, but nevertheless an integral part of human existence. David Canter, criminal psychologist, when speaking about The West Murders’, said, ‘the value of studying people like Fred West is that it enables us to understand more about the dark side of ourselves.’ In the voice of the killer, I tried to the best of my ability to explore this, as the darkness in the novel had to be as believable and real as the light. The fear of the bad man is one of the central themes in Red Ribbons, a fear recognised worldwide. But even in today’s world where the protection of our children has never been more to the forefront, are we really equipped to recognise this danger?

‘I needed to avoid creating a stereotypical evil being, or to give him qualities which might act as indicators to his darkness.There could be no devilish horns, but rather recognition that the face of evil is often shrouded in the very ordinariness of the killer. This was a very delicate balance at times in the writing process. How far would the killer go? How far would I go? The answer is simple, as far as you have to. When you are dealing with high stakes, you have to respect all the elements which come into the mix, no matter how unsettling they might be.”

Red Ribbons truly is a novel of contrasting but clearly defined characters. The protagonist is Dr. Kate Pearson, a highly qualified criminal psychologist but a woman who has her own demons to deal with. Louise explained, “Dr Kate Pearson came from a number of different places too. Firstly, she is a woman with a family life not unlike a great many other people out there. She has a young son, a husband, and a demanding career, and she strives like most of us, although often failing, to attain that utopia of the perfect life balance. As the criminal psychologist, she is the puzzle solver, and she needs to find the missing piece of the jigsaw before the killer strikes again. But Kate has history. She has her own puzzle to solve, and with a past which comes increasingly closer, the more she delves into the murders.

‘Of the three main characters, the voice of Kate, the questions she asks, the puzzle she tries to solve, comes from the desire by us all to some degree to understand the world we live in, and to attempt to equip ourselves to survive within it.Of all three main characters, Kate was the hardest one for me to get right, which seems like a strange thing to say, seeing as how of all the characters, she is probably the least extreme.But in here lies the problem. The role is less defined to begin with. I had the knowledge I needed to write about her role as a criminal psychologist, I had made a list of her attributes, likes and dislikes, her family situation. I knew when she was born, the colour of her eyes, where she went to college, I knew all about her parents, why she returned to Ireland, her relationship with her husband, her love for her son, in essence, I knew it all, but it still took me a while to find out who she really was. Honestly, I didn’t nail her until the second draft. In part I think it was because the other female voice, the voice of Ellie Brady was so strong. The two women could not be created fully in unison. At least, that’s my reason for it. But I know her now, I know most of her past, and I will enjoy exploring her future.”

Red Ribbons by Louise Phillips is published by Hachette Ireland and available in all good book shops and online

Find out more about Louise at www.louise-phillips.com or follow her on Twitter @LouiseMPhillips

About the author

(c) Vanessa O’Loughlin September 2012

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