1 month ago

Writer’s Block with Jo Spain

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Dubliner Jo Spain is an international bestselling crime novelist and screenwriter. A former political adviser to Sinn Féin, she has managed a staggering output since she turned her hand to writing fiction in 2013. Her eight books include her successful Inspector Tom Reynolds series, which will soon move into its sixth installment. Her debut, With Our Blessing (2015), was shortlisted in the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition in 2014. Her other outings with Tom Reynolds include The Darkest Place (2018) and The Boy Who Fell (2019). Her stand-alone psychological thrillers are The Confession (2018) and Dirty Little Secrets (2019). She co-wrote the critically-acclaimed RTÉ series, Taken Down, which was broadcast in 2018. Ever more in demand, she is currently working on several European television projects.

Spain’s latest thriller, Six Wicked Reasons, is easily one of this year’s hottest reads. In 2008, 21-year-old Adam Lattimer went missing, leaving an already fragile family behind. His heartbroken mother Kathleen died a year after his departure, and four of his five brothers and sisters drifted. Ten years later, the unthinkable happens when Adam returns to Spanish Cove, an idyllic coastal town in South County Wexford. His siblings, each damaged in their own way, travel from their respective corners of the world to see him back from the dead, their questions going largely unanswered about where he’s been all this time.

The old-moneyed Lattimer family has the most impressive house in town. Their father, the hard and cutting Frazer, has a lavish yacht party in store for them – with disastrous consequences. When he is discovered dead in the water, a case opens up and there is nowhere to hide. Structurally, Six Wicked Reasons is a thing of beauty, as the timeline quickly flits between now and before the investigation, later changing gears and taking us through parts of the previous decade. Split between the large cast of characters, the narrative give us some intriguing individual motives. Spain’s storytelling is sharp, quick-witted and addictive, with words that move like a reel, reflecting her prominence as a scriptwriter.

Jo Spain lives in Dublin with her family. Her next book in the Tom Reynolds mystery series, After the Fire, is due for release in July 2020.

Six Wicked Reasons (€15.99) is published by Quercus and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Blanchardstown in west Dublin with my husband and four children. We ended up living here by chance. I’m from the north side of Dublin and grew up around Artane/Coolock/Donaghmede, and was used to the sea, as was my husband, who’s from the Dun Laoghaire direction. When I was expecting our eldest in 2005, we were renting and decided to buy, but it was right at that point house prices exploded. So we bought where we could and ended up staying. Blanchardstown is a really vibrant area. We’ve everything on our door resources-wise: good schools, the aquatic centre and sports campus, shopping, the hospital, the Phoenix Park and all the main motorways. It would be really tough to leave now. I lived in Granada in Spain for a summer and I travel a lot but I do find I prefer home and Ireland will always be home to me.

On roots

All my grandparents lived in Whitehall/Beaumont on the north side of Dublin and I grew up in Coolock. Even now, when I drive down the Tonlegee Road and pass Northside Shopping Centre, that jingle: “Northside, Northside, the great, great shopping centre”, plays in my head. I don’t have particularly fond memories of the house I lived in as a child but up until I was 16, I spent each weekend in my grandparents’ house. My abiding memory of that house was the smell of the gas fire. Winter or summer, they had that heating on and were among the first to get it installed. They got their money’s worth. They also had a laneway slip out to a shop at the back of the house and it had the nicest sweets in Dublin. Pleasant, sugar-filled memories.

On early reading

Nobody read to me but my nanny did introduce me to my favourite books. I come from a family of readers and all my aunts and uncles’ childhood books were in suitcases under my nan’s bed. It was an absolute treasure trove. She’d kept all their Famous Fives and Five Find-Outers, Malory Towers and The Chalet School series, but I also discovered some unusual reads that I still remember fondly. Dauntless Patty was one – nanny had this really old copy, too. Most of my happiest memories are sitting in a corner of that room devouring book after book. When I had read them all, a hundred times over, that’s when I realised I needed a library card. Within a month of joining Northside Library, they’d moved me into the adult’s section so I could borrow more books. It was like winning the golden ticket.

On family

Growing up working class means I learned early that wit and banter are everything but also, that they’re used as deflections. I’ve travelled a lot since and I’ve never found people outside Ireland, but particularly Dublin people, who can make a joke like we do about the absolute worst of circumstances. On a personal level, we had a lot of trauma in our house and it certainly gave me an understanding and appreciation of how differently people react to adversity. I might have preferred to grow up in a more stable, comfortable environment but I don’t think I’d be half the writer I am now if I had.

On creating

My writing space is in my head – as in, I don’t need to be anywhere in particular to write. We live in a small house and there are six of us, plus all of the children are still young enough. Our eldest is just fourteen but for most of the last decade I’ve had a baby or toddlers to worry about so I’ve never been able to just take myself off. This has given me the remarkable ability to work pretty much standing up at the kitchen counter while cooking, in the sitting room while cartoons are blaring, in my bed when I’ve a cold, on the bus, on planes, in the car, in soft play areas, you name it. I can shut out every noise and just go into my head. When we move, which is on the cards, I might carve out a space but I suspect if I do create this lovely attic study, I’ll be back down in the kitchen amongst the madness in no time.

On bookshops

I’ve already mentioned Northside Shopping Centre so it should come as no surprise to locals that growing up, I loved Books Unlimited (which I think is now called Books Value). They had a great scheme where, if you brought back the books you’d bought you’d get a voucher to spend in-store, which was one of the first things I liked at the time. I walked past the shop every day on the way home from secondary school and the staff pretty much knew me by name. They’ve been hugely supportive of me as an author from the beginning and I still love them, even if I do most of shopping in Blanchardstown now (sorry!).

On her “To Be Read” pile

I get inundated with “proof-copy” books that are due out for release in the coming year. So I have a proof TBR pile but I also have a “just for pleasure” pile which are the books I choose for myself and try to get to when I’ve time. I don’t have a whole heap of that, meaning I tend to be very choosy about what goes there. At the moment I’ve a couple of non-crime fiction books. I tend to enjoy reads where I’m learning something as well as escaping into fiction. So I’ve Mornings in Jenin by the Palestinian/American writer Susan Abulhawa, and The Body by Bill Bryson. I’m a huge crime fiction fan and I always look out for my favourite authors’ releases every year – Liane Moriarty, Pierre Lemaitre and Fred Vargas are just a few. They go on the top of the pile.

On escape

Our family summer holidays tend to revolve around where best the children will enjoy. We usually pick locations close to the sea and with warm weather – South of France, Italy, Northern Spain. But we also make sure to visit Inishowen in Donegal every year. We started doing this a few years back because we’ve so many friends on the peninsula but also, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. The Moville to Greencastle shore walk is possible my favourite place in the world and every time I do it, I feel lighter. When the walk ends up in Rosato’s in Moville for a pizza and a glass of wine, I’m practically floating. 

On Six Wicked Reasons

Six Wicked Reasons came about after a few seeds took hold. One was when we were looking at new homes and considered moving out of Dublin. I found this beautiful house in Ballyhack in South Wexford and we drove down to the area to have a look. We ultimately decided to stay in Dublin but when we were down in Wexford, the coastal area we visited was so beautifully isolated and stunning, I knew I wanted to write about it in a fictional sense. At the same time, I had this plot forming in my head about a missing person who returned and lied about why he’d disappeared and where he’d been. They were the pleasant aspects of the creative process – putting this plot on the page with that magnificent background. The more difficult part was creating a highly dysfunctional family and making them clever and funny and sharp, flawed but not overly unlikeable, despite have a very unlikeable, overbearing and controlling father. Some of Frazer Lattimer’s interactions with his children made me break out in a cold sweat.

On screenwriting

Screenwriting is definitely fun and challenging, plus it provides a lot of flexibility compared to novel writing. I can write dystopia, comedy, drama, even children’s shows, but with novels I’m more restricted to traditional crime. It’s not for the faint-hearted, though. I’m involved with five TV shows at the moment, all in different countries, all with demanding schedules. Plus, you don’t have full autonomy on scripts. With books, my editor will advise, but usually, I can decide what’s in the novel. With TV, there are a lot of vested interested in the script. And there’s no guarantee any show you work on will get made. You get paid well, but if the project you’ve cherished for years doesn’t get on air, it’s soul-destroying.

On what’s next

I’ve two books out this year, Six Wicked Reasons and then the sixth in the Tom Reynolds series, After the Fire in July. I’m on edits at the moment for the new standalone due out in 2021 which – hand on heart – is the best plot I’ve ever written. And any author who says they feel that about every book yet to be released…is telling the truth. Plenty more on the TV side but nothing I can announce, except to say there will hopefully come a point where no matter what channel you’re watching – you’ll be watching a Jo Spain scripted show. Even if you have to wait until 2030.

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