Claire McGowan’s debut novel, The Fall, a standalone, was published in January 2012 to rave reviews. Her second novel, The Lost, is the first in a new series, featuring forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire and looks set to follow in its footsteps. McGowan grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland and after a degree in English and French from Oxford University, she moved to London and worked in the charity sector. She is currently the Director of the Crime Writers’ Association, and in 2012 began teaching on the then new Crime Writing MA at City University – the first MA for crime fiction in the UK.
Having recently read, The Lost, I was keen to interview McGowan, half-wondering, to be honest, whether she would be anything like her character, Paula Maguire. They are both, after all, children of the eighties who were born in Irish border towns and left to move to London.
I’d love to share with you the beautiful setting where the interview took place, but on this occasion, our geographical locations would not allow it – McGowan was in London while I was here in Dublin. I can tell you that both London and Dublin shared the same bright sunny evening and that it was a pleasure to talk to the charming and warm voice on the line – maybe next time we can nab a window seat in The Gresham Hotel for afternoon tea and talk about crime – how civilised . . .
Within minutes of starting the interview I have my answer; although Claire McGowan and Paula Maguire may be of similar age with similar backgrounds, they are not alike. While McGowan enjoys her regular visits home to Northern Ireland, Paula Maguire has no plans to ever return to the fictional town so eloquently created for her – a world brimming over with dark secrets and a tension so heavy in the air it is almost palpable.
I ask McGowan if she finds it enjoyable to write about Northern Ireland when she no longer lives there. Does it perhaps feel, when she returns home for a visit, that she takes the voices and mannerisms of her characters back with her?
“Yes, I love it,” she replies with delight. “Paula’s dad in particular comes out with quite a lot of things that my dad says, and makes the same jokes, so I like writing their scenes, and Pat is very like one of my aunts.” You can hear a note of nostalgia creep into her voice, as she continues, “I often listen to Irish radio to remind myself of the turns of phrase, and I note down especially funny sayings that we have. Writing about Ireland is a bit of a gift, as every time you pick up the paper or turn on the news you will get ideas – our history looms large even now. I also read quite a lot of true crime and non-fiction books about ‘the Troubles’, and learn lots of fascinating and awful details that way.”
While conducting research for her book she uncovered the disturbing fact that more than 6,000 people go missing in Ireland each year. This, in part, is what compels her character, Maguire, to try to find out what happened to them. Yet along the way Maguire learns that sometimes, it’s better not to find what you’ve lost. I was keen for McGowan to share a little about the story and what she hoped to achieve with it.
“Paula is a forensic psychologist who specialises in missing persons. She’s escaped her Northern Ireland hometown for London, but is drawn back when two teenage girls go missing there. The book follows the twists and turns of the case, while Paula also wrestles with the people and memories she left to try and forget.” After a thoughtful pause, McGowan continues, “my aim with the book was to turn the reader’s expectations on their head and show that things aren’t always what they seem.”
I couldn’t agree more with Peter James who has said, The Lost, is “one of the very best novels I’ve read in a long while … astonishing, powerful and immensely satisfying.” It definitely holds all the elements to pique my interest; “A town full of secrets. Two missing girls. A past that won’t stay buried.” And better still – it delivers! It was easy to become immersed within the pages; the setting, the characters and most importantly, the stories are inter-woven seamlessly to produce a thriller which keeps the reader enthralled, right to the very last page.
It was no surprise to hear that McGowan remembers starting her first book when she was only nine years old. Admittedly, she may only have completed the first page, but it was surely an early indication that writing was in her blood. Listening to her speak with such passion about her characters, as if they were real people, you know she has invested all her time and energy into producing a novel that her readers will enjoy.
It made sense for The Lost to be part of a series, explained McGowan, in order to explore more of her protagonist’s back story. Although Maguire comes across as a strong character, with a rich history which is drip-fed to the reader throughout the book, she finds it hard to get close to people. This is painfully apparent, especially with the men in her life, when on more than one occasion she crosses the line of professional boundaries. I asked McGowan to tell me who, of all the characters she had created, was her favourite?
“Probably Aidan,” she says, without hesitation, as she explains why Paula struggles to stay away from her ex-boyfriend, who is the editor of the local paper. “He’s unreliable, a little bit tortured, and pretty unscrupulous at times, but has a strong sense of justice and is also, in my head, fairly gorgeous.” I agree and McGowan gives a throaty laugh, “I’m a sucker for a man with a dark streak and I love writing their scenes, full of banter and sniping and sexual tension.” She’s obviously done what she planned to do, Aidan comes across as a bit of a maverick, the bad-boy we’ve all known and hoped to change for the better and as a reader he’s a character you definitely crave to know more about.
I am intrigued to hear that she draws inspiration, in the writing world, from writers who have kept going for years in the face of hardship and obscurity, “someone like Lionel Shriver, who wrote seven or eight books, even moving to Africa to research one, before she scored a huge success with We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Surely a reminder to us all, that, as McGowan says, “you have to write for the love of it, even if you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere.”
As our interview draws to a close, I cannot resist asking what McGowan thinks of social media and whether she feels it is important to connect with readers and other writers. Her voice lowers as she admits, “I waste inordinate amounts of time on Twitter,” but quickly justifies it by telling me that, “it means you don’t get lonely working at home and it’s fun and good for networking.” Although I sense we’re both thinking it, neither of us mentions the chunks of time that can magically evaporate on-line. McGowan lifts the mood when she intimates that, “one email can sustain you for many weeks of hard writing.”
So readers really can influence the world of a writer . . .
In case you’d like to connect with Claire McGowan, you can follow her blog on www.clairemcgowan.net and on Twitter @inkstainsclaire
(c) Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, is currently editing her debut novel – a crime fiction thriller set in New York. Her short stories were awarded first prize in the Jonathan Swift Award, the Sport and Cultural Council (City of Dublin VEC) Competition and the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and she has also been 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: www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @SusanCondon