It’s always a pleasure to talk books and writing with Dublin crime fiction writer, Louise Phillips. And the great thing about Phillips is the passion and intensity with which she talks about writing – it transcends into her books, bringing her characters and stories to life.
As I drive up the narrow, windy road towards her house in the Dublin mountains, I try not to think about Red Ribbons, her debut novel which is set in this very place. The bad man is everywhere. Can you see him? I turn my imagination off as the road continues to twist and turn, glad to finally arrive at her beautiful home for a strong mug of tea and a chat before the interview begins.
It is hard to believe that Phillips, this petite blond with the easy laugh, is the writer of such dark subject matter as Red Ribbons, and her latest psychological crime thriller, The Doll’s House. Many of you are already familiar with her as the crime writing mastermind behind writing.ie’s Crime Scene blog and have followed her writing journey as it unfolded through her personal blog. Last year, her gripping debut, Red Ribbons, was published and nominated for an Irish Book Award, and has since secured a strong fan base for this stunning new voice in psychological crime fiction.
With the publication of The Doll’s House, the eagerly anticipated second novel in the series, I ask Phillips how it feels second time around when she’s no longer a debut author.
‘In many ways it feels more exciting second time around, because I think on the first novel, for the most part, I was probably in a state of shock. Everything was very new and I was on a huge learning curve, even though it was really positive and enjoyable. This time, I have a better idea of what’s ahead of me. It feels great that the second novel is out, and like Red Ribbons, I’m very happy with the manuscript. I believe I’ve told both stories in the best way I can, and that’s all that I can ever hope for. How it is received is in everybody else’s hands, but as a writer, I wanted to be sure I gave it the 100% I needed to do to get the story told.’
Taking three to four months to write the first draft ensures ‘an intensity and an intimacy with the characters when you’re doing quite a large body of work over a short period of time. I also edit as I go along. Once I have the first draft done, I’ll edit the script again. After that it’s line edits and then copy edits. The whole process takes about seven to eight months.’
Having read The Doll’s House recently, I was intrigued by where the idea came from to use the dolls and also with the amount of research that it had obviously taken to delve into this whole area so deeply. Phillips told me that she had a general concept about using dolls in the story, ‘a bit like the way people look on clowns, dolls too, can have a darker side. Around this time, I heard a story about a girl going to a hypnotist. She explained how the counting, and the walking down imaginary steps or stairs, thereby going deeper into her subconscious scared her, and I thought what a great opening for a novel!’ You can see the excitement in Phillips’ eyes as she continues, ‘I started to dig deeper and when I did, I got even more connected with the whole idea, of not just hypnosis, but also regression. I don’t mean regression into previous lives, but rather regression to an earlier part of your life.
‘Alongside doing a high level of research into hypnosis and regression, I worked with the Emergency Response Unit and various elements of the police force in Ireland. Each novel requires its own unique research, so outside of the hypnosis and policing, there was the psychological element too, moving from a psychopathic killer in Red Ribbons, to disassociation, memory loss, and psychosis in The Doll’s House. This in turn meant working with experts in psychology to get a proper understanding of each of these conditions.’
The haunting tag line from The Doll’s House springs to mind;
People say that the truth can set you free, but what if the truth is not something you want to hear?
‘It’s important to keep writing,’ Phillips advises, in answer to my question about whether she would recommend writers begin their second novel while waiting for the first to be accepted. ‘I think once you have your novel finished, whether it’s your first or tenth novel, if another idea starts forming in your head, you should go with it. It’s very easy to fall into the trap when you’ve written your first novel, to only concentrate on getting it published and to forget about writing – that’s never good for a writer. If you’re calling yourself a writer, you should keep on writing.’
Red Ribbons was very well received and was shortlisted for Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year, 2012, which was a great achievement. I wonder if that placed undue pressure on Phillips for future books? Louise sits back and laughs, ‘well, a very good friend of mine said, “it’s wonderful that your first book is well received, but it’s setting you up for a potential fall if your second novel isn’t to the same level.” The only thing I will say about that is, despite being a born worrier, when it comes to writing, especially when I get really excited by the idea, the only thing that’s important to me initially is the story. So I didn’t set out to write a similar book to Red Ribbons, albeit that it’s another psychological crime thriller. In my head it was a very different story which required being handled in a very different way and therefore,’ Louise ponders a moment, ‘my loyalty was to the story and getting it done right and as best as I could. I think that’s all a writer can ever do.’
Many writers have writing rituals and I was interested to find out if Phillips was one of them. ‘You know the thing is, when you’re starting off, you do things in a particular way and I have been on record as saying that I don’t plot, that my writing is generally organic. I have a general theme where I believe the story is going. I work on the characters for a while before I start writing scenes, so I have a good grasp of what I want to achieve. I think I could shift from being organic to using road-maps and back again. I used road-maps at the end of both The Doll’s House and Red Ribbons, because it’s important, especially in a crime novel to tie all the pieces together and sometimes you need an outline for this. In relation to physically where I write: wherever I start the first draft, whether it’s at the kitchen table, upstairs, in the attic office, or anywhere else – that’s where I stay until the end of the first draft. When I start editing I tend to move. I dunno, I think it just gives a different vibe and so I move around,’ Louise waves her arm, ‘but I move around the same house,’ she laughs, ‘so it’s not very exciting.’
As I look through the windows at the dark landscape I wonder if it might be easy to get distracted from writing with such fabulous views. But I don’t ask. Anyone who has met Phillips would know this would never be the case. She is a determined individual with a gift for writing that she nurtures daily. The passion for her craft and her novels is almost palpable as she answers each question I put to her, as if she were talking about real people instead of these characters she has created, with stories yet to unfold about their lives. ‘I don’t think I’m particularly unusual insofar as I would be very close to my main protagonists in both novels. They were marginalised human beings to an extent, so I would empathise with them for their journey and their survival. I’m also intrigued by both killers. Although they’re dark and they do terrible things, the essence of their story is human frailty and how they became damaged in life.
And obviously, I’m very fond of Kate Pearson, [the criminal psychologist who is Phillips’ protagonist in both novels]. I think she still has a long way to go and I am actually pleasantly surprised that so many people like her so much. And of all the characters she’s probably the closest to me. Basically, I love them all, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.’
Phillips has always been a strong advocate of social media, ‘the marketplace has become very busy and it’s an insecure place and so anything you can do to elevate your novel using your communications skills, whether it’s through blogging or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else, I think it is a really useful thing. There’s a lot of negative press about Twitter, but I have found it 99% a wholly positive experience. I’ve also been quoted as saying I’ve met some of the best people on-line,’ she pauses for a moment and grins, ‘which sounds a bit like a dating agency, but I have! And humanity is generally full of good-will and the amount of help that I’ve received from what you might call ‘would-be complete strangers’ has been phenomenal. So I would say it’s a very positive thing and I would also say it’s a very necessary thing to do as a debut author in a difficult market. I think publishers are looking for you to have an on-line presence and if you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal and you don’t have an on-line presence, the first thing they will ask you to do is to create one.’
Before the interview draws to a close I had to ask about the trailer for The Doll’s House, which Phillips created. It received over 500 hits in the first week on YouTube. ‘We live in a visual world and although a lot of people still love reading books, if you can get into a 40-50 second trailer, the essence, the intrigue and hook of your story, then that is a good thing.’ And what about the floating body in the canal, I ask. Phillips assures me that no-one was in danger, but I obviously wasn’t the first to ask. She tells me, ‘Bob Johnston of the Gutter Bookshop said to me, “please tell me that was a dummy and wasn’t a real person,” to which I replied, “no, no, it’s a very live person. It’s actually my son-in-law.” He is a very physically fit individual, so it was no bother to him to stay under the water for an extended length of time. And I think people have enjoyed watching it.’ We laugh over where the writing world has brought her as she intimates that her son-in-law had to float face down in the canal so that nobody would be able to recognise him . . .
Phillips has already started working on book three. ‘I’m a person who believes in progression. This time last year I wasn’t published. I’m delighted to say that Red Ribbons got into the best seller list; that the first print-run was sold out, and the publishers had to do another print-run. It was also short-listed in the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards, and was printed in mass market paperback, making it available in supermarkets as well as bookstores.
I will always seek to find new challenges and hopefully my writing will move into other jurisdictions. I’m going to keep working as hard as I can and write the best stories I can.’
Good news for her legion of growing fans.
Published by Hachette Books Ireland, The Doll’s House, is Phillips second novel and is available from 6 August. Her debut novel, Red Ribbons, was published in 2012 to rave reviews and was shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards for Best Crime Novel of the Year 2012.
And in case you’d like to learn more about Louise Phillips, you can find her at her website : http://www.louise-phillips.com/ or follow her on Twitter @LouiseMPhillips
(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 Find out more at her blog: www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @SusanCondon