Writer’s Block With Andrea Carter

Sophie Grenham talks to author ANDREA CARTER about her favourite writing escapes, growing up in Ballyfin and the Inishowen Mysteries …

Bestselling author Andrea Carter has certainly found a winning formula in her addictive Inishowen Mysteries, ever since her first book Death at Whitewater Church was launched in 2015, followed by Treacherous Strand (2016) and The Well of Ice (2017).

Set in the picturesque Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal, Carter has woven spellbinding storylines for her widely appealing protagonist, solicitor Ben (short for Benedicta) O’Keeffe, who has been dubbed by many observers as a Miss Marple for the modern age. Right from the beginning, one becomes absorbed in Ben’s daily interactions with the animated locals, her romantic near-misses, her heart-warming attachment to her cat Guinness with whom she shares a cottage – and not to mention her compulsive nosiness.

This is far from your typical detective setup. Instead of the dashing Sergeant Molloy smoking out murderers, Ben O’Keeffe is a natural bloodhound who harbours painful secrets of her own. The narrative in each of the novels is gently paced, nearly lulling the reader into a false sense of security on occasion – until the darkness creeps in.

Among the many streams of praise the author has received, The Times has said, “A beguiling heroine – clever, sympathetic and bearing a weight of guilt” while the Irish Daily Mail has commented, “The colourful cast of characters may be fictional, but the landscapes, towns and villages are instantly recognisable.”

Carter, originally from Co Laois, lived and worked in Inishowen as a solicitor for many years until 2006, when she moved to Dublin to practice as a barrister. She has just released her fourth book, Murder at Greysbridge, which John Connolly has called, “Haunting, atmospheric and gripping.” Here Ben finds herself entangled in a classic country house mystery, one that is sure to enthral existing fans and encourage potential new readers to catch up on her previous adventures. The Inishowen Mysteries are currently in development for a major television adaptation, which will begin filming in 2019.

Andrea Carter lives in Dublin with her husband. She is currently working on her fifth novel.

Murder at Greysbridge (€18.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available nationwide.

On home

I’m based in Chapelizod, near the Phoenix Park and the Liffey. Chapelizod is one of Dublin’s oldest villages and it’s steeped in literary history. Sheridan le Fanu lived close by (the house which inspired The House by the Churchyard is in the village), and the village and church appear in many of his ghost stories. Joyce also mentions Chapelizod in Finnegan’s Wake and Dubliners. I moved here a couple of years after I left Donegal, and I love it. Despite being only a few kilometres from the city centre, it has retained its village atmosphere: there’s The Villager pub, and a band room which hosts coffee mornings and cake sales.

In town, my coffee shop of choice is Simon’s Place, the successor to Marx Bros which was a haunt of mine when I was a student in Trinity. It still has the same cool vibe with posters advertising gigs, a stack of Dublin Event Guides, doorstep sandwiches and, if you time it correctly, and arrive when they come out of the oven, the best cinnamon buns in the city.

On roots

I lived in Ballyfin, Co Laois, in a Victorian schoolhouse which my parents bought as a wreck when they moved back from Zambia. Nearby is Ballyfin House, a luxury hotel. When we were kids it was a school where my father taught, and during the summer and at weekends we had the run of the place, with its lake and tennis courts, and a folly round tower we were warned to stay out of, but never did. The scent of lilac and buddleia remind me of home, and also the smell of turf smoke from my father’s huge fires.

On environment

Landscape (and our surroundings) affect who we are, how we behave and how we think. Although sometimes you find yourself wanting to write about not what you see in front of you, but what you miss. That was the case for me. I found I could write about Inishowen more easily when I was away from it. It was the same with writing about running a small solicitors’ practise: it was easier to write about when I was no longer doing it. And, though I know many writers disagree with me on this, I would never set a story somewhere I hadn’t been. Setting is not just about physical landscape, it’s about evoking a sense of place through accents, customs, weather, food. Google will rarely tell you what a place smells like!

On Inishowen

I’m not sure I would be a writer if I hadn’t lived in Inishowen. I certainly wouldn’t be writing the Inishowen Mysteries! Moving from the most inland county in Ireland to a peninsula was life changing for me. I was young and on my own, and it taught me to make friends and to rely on my own resources. I immediately set about exploring my surroundings and grew to love the community, with its pub, newsagent and shops and businesses where everyone knew you. What I miss most is walking on Lagg (Five Fingers Strand), the most beautiful beach in the world. I miss friends too – I have friends from Inishowen whom I used to see daily and now I can’t.

For a long time, I didn’t know how the books were being received there: although I lived in Inishowen for a long time, I wasn’t born there, so it was very important to me that I’d done the area justice. But this summer I did an event in Carndonagh library. I was extremely nervous, but I was asked back to do another event in August, so I assume that was a positive sign! I hope the television series will be a good thing for the area.

On creating

We live in a two-bedroom apartment, so I wrote four books sitting up in the spare bed with a laptop on my knee which wasn’t very good for my back! Recently though, I brought my grandmother’s old desk from my parents’ house and got rid of the spare bed. I’ve created a bit of a crisis for impending guests, but for the first time I have a proper writing space. From where I sit, I can see a copy of Knight’s Forensic Pathology which belongs to a doctor/barrister friend of mine and a book on poisons. In front of me is a worry stone on a stack of notebooks and a black and white photograph of my grandmother dressed in a man’s suit and hat. On the walls are prints by Inishowen artist Sharon McDaid and the clock from my old office. I’m not sure why I keep it – it never keeps the right time. Every so often my concentration is broken by the call of the heron on the river or the swans as they come in to land.

On focus

I mainline coffee! I go straight from bed to laptop via the coffee pot in the kitchen and start work while still in my pyjamas. It makes a change from working in a pinstripe suit, but my best work is done in the morning before I access social media or emails. Deadlines also help me stay focussed. Writing a crime series involves writing a book a year so there’s not much time for navel-gazing. Plus, I’m a lawyer by profession so deadlines scare me.

For a change of working scene, I go to the fabulous Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig (there are books I’d never have finished without a week spent there just before a deadline) and more recently the River Mill, a wonderful new writers’ retreat in Co Down. I also house-sit for my parents when they are away, minding their two squabbling cats.

On favourite bookshops

There are two: The Gutter Bookshop, in Dublin’s Temple Bar, and No Alibis Bookstore, on Botanic Avenue in Belfast. Bob Johnston and David Torrans, and their beautiful book shops, are absolute gifts to Irish writers and readers.

On her “TBR” pile

The new C.J. Sansom Tombland is next on my list, because I’m a huge fan and I’ve read everything he’s written. I’ve also recently discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories (at the urging of Paul Maddern from the River Mill) and I’m dipping into Complete Short Stories, a huge collection of her work. They are such a treat: she’s an absolute master at dealing with undercurrents of emotion.

On escape

Escape is a trip with my husband. We try and do a more adventurous trip every couple of years, depending on finances, and we’ve visited Venezuela, Uganda and Georgia (the Caucasus) in recent years. We do it cheaply – it’s always a rucksacks-on-backs, chicken-bus type of a trip which means we get to meet amazing people and see amazing places. It’s a perfect way to find peace. You’re too busy wondering where your next bed is going to be to worry about what people think of your books.

On Ben O’Keeffe

Ben first entered my imagination, fully formed, as little more than a braver or more reckless version of me, while I was still working as a solicitor in Inishowen. Then I sold my practise and moved to Dublin, and I began to take my writing more seriously. I think I only realised I was writing a series when I began the second book. It came to me far more easily than the first, which took over a decade (I’d still be tinkering with it now if I hadn’t started a second!). I still love starting a new Ben O’Keeffe novel – I enjoy re-entering that world and shaking hands with my characters again. The difficulty is in trying not to write the same book twice.

On the Inishowen TV series

Of course, I’m nervous, although I have complete faith in Edwina Forkin, the producer (Zanzibar Productions). She loves Donegal, and it was a priority for her that the Inishowen Mysteries be shot there, so that indicates a similar attitude to mine, which was a relief. I’m also happy that I’m not writing the scripts – I’m not sure how easy I’d find it to adapt my own books.

I’m afraid to say who I’d like to play Molloy because I haven’t really described him physically (other than to say he is tall and has grey eyes!), and everyone has a different idea of how he should be. The question of who would play Ben is a particularly strange one for me because although she isn’t me any more, she certainly was at the beginning. I think I’ll simply sit back and enjoy the series with everyone else when it hits the screen!

On what’s next

I’m contracted for a fifth book in the series so I’m writing that at the moment. My first book came out in the States recently and the second is due out next year, so I’ll be editing that for US audiences. The television series is due to start filming next summer, and I’m also working on a standalone. So another busy year hopefully!

@SophieGrenham

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