1 month ago

Writer’s Block with Louise Phillips

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Louise Phillips is one of Ireland’s premiere crime fiction writers, with a trail of bestsellers since her journey to prominence began. They are Red Ribbons (2012), The Doll’s House (2013), Last Kiss (2014) and The Game Changer (2015). Each book has been a finalist in the Crime Novel of the Year category at the Irish Book Awards, with a win in 2013. She has collected several more high-profile accolades and arts bursaries, as well as taken part in residencies, and her work has been published in many literary anthologies. She was a judge on the Irish panel for the EU Literary Award 2015 and was longlisted for the much coveted CWA Dagger in Library Award.

Phillips’s new work, The Hiding Game, is an electrifying beast of a book. A departure from the geographical settings of her previous four novels, the story takes us across the Atlantic to Corham, a small town just outside Boston. Here we meet defence lawyer Heather Baxter, who witnessed the tragic loss of her baby sister Mia and her mother Elizabeth in quick succession when she was just ten years old. Twenty-five years later, nobody has been charged with her mother’s horrific murder, and Heather now has to face her painful history with a case that mirrors her own. Abby Jones, a young nanny from Corham, is blamed for the death of Jacob Rotterdam, the infant in her care. Up against a ruthless Assistant District Attorney and damning statements, Abby’s innocence will be a tough one for Heather to prove.

With sleek, effortless transitions, including heartfelt vignettes from Elizabeth, The Hiding Game is a page-turner right from the start. The narrative is taut as a drum, with an abundance of gripping dialogue and genuinely chilling moments. Phillips’s unique ability to pull the reader inside her head and absorb the emotions she pours onto the page is just one of her many powers. The author has been flooded with praise from her peers, including Sinéad Crowley who said – “Best known for her Dublin-based crime fiction, Phillips makes a very successful trip Stateside with The Hiding Game. As always, research is her strong point, and the oppressive nature of a small town adds tension as Phillips draws the strands of her tightly plotted family thriller.”

Louise Phillips lives with her family in Dublin. She is currently writing her sixth novel. The Hiding Game (€14.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live and write in the Dublin Mountains in a place called Piperstown. I joke that our house is the last one before civilisation ends. Once you pass our cottage, there are no streetlights, road markings or neighbours. There are only fields, forests, some barren land, animals, birdlife, mountains, and probably a few buried treasures and bodies. We restored the cottage, then derelict, about 15 years ago. Rumour has it that Robert Emmet hid in the loft during the rebellion of 1803, but it was also the home of the Kearneys, three of whom where hung by public hanging in 1815 for the supposed murder of a gamekeeper. The house isn’t haunted, and I love living in a place filled with so much history, even if it is filled with dark tales. I like the isolation too, and how over the years, little by little, we brought this old building back to life.

On beginnings

I grew up in tenements called Mount Pleasant Buildings, between Rathmines and Ranelagh. My abiding memory is of somewhere dark and grey. We had very little money. Times were tough. My mother lost two babies there: my sister, who died of a cot death, and my brother, who was stillborn. We didn’t have a garden, although we did have a makeshift indoor swing in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my older sister and parents. Despite the bleakness, I have beautiful memories too. I loved watching the throngs of seagulls swoop down early morning in the washing yard, and how later, the washing yard was still a magical place, as I ran through the lines and lines of large white sheets. I think it’s partly why I became a writer, that early escape to fantasy in order to survive reality.   

On early reading

I don’t have a memory of anyone reading to me when I was small, but my mother taught me to spell. I still remember learning how to spell “altogether.” She took me to the library too, which was like a treasure to me, and it still is. My heart skips a beat with excitement when I’m in a library, with all those walls filled with free books, waiting to find a home. Enid Blyton was probably the first author I read properly. Reading a series of books can be great for children, as it develops their reading muscle. When I got my adult library card, at age twelve, I felt very grown up. It was in the adult section that I first met Virginia Andrews, well not in person, but as close as any book can get you. I adored Flowers in the Attic, which was probably the first dark novel I read.

On familial roots

They are at the core of all my writing. Because of my familial roots, I understand what being an outsider means, what living in poverty means too, and how, no matter how hard your circumstances might be, if there is love, clichéd and all as that sounds, the adult you become, is not despite your childhood, but because of it. My mother strongly believed in education, and that nothing you ever learned would ever go to waste. An early feminist, she helped me to believe in myself, and in all the many possibilities ahead. Put simply, she allowed me, and my siblings, to dream. If she was here today, I think she would be proud.

On creating

I have a small writing desk in the loft/attic, the same place Robert Emmet supposedly hid during his rebellion. I like it there, with its sloped ceiling, and tiny attic window. I like the sense of being above the rest of the house too, as I climb the wrought iron spiral staircase. We have bookcases throughout the house, but the largest one is on the wall at the attic room. I write facing a wall, not a window. It helps me to stay focused. There are only a few personal items in the room, outside of books, a photograph of our children, an owl made of paper, a small board with laundry pegs for notes, and an embroidered image of the cottage, done by my late mother-in-law. Sometimes, I move about the house to write too. If I’m changing point of view, I often pick different spots for different characters, becoming a fictional killer in the dining room, or a criminal psychologist in the living room. I call it tricking the mind by changing place.

On independent bookshops

I love tiny bookshops. Every time I visit a new place, I seek out the bookshop. As a child, there was a bookshop near Camden Street which sold second-hand books and did penny swaps. I can still see the lines of books in boxes. That’s probably why I loved Shakespeare and Company in Paris. It had that same vibe. In Dublin, the Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane, run by Bob Johnson, is a personal favourite of mine. I launched two of my novels there, and The Hiding Game will be number three. Bob is always supportive. I admire his “can do” spirit.

On her “To Be Read” pile

Here is the list: The Lost Man by Jane Harper; Educated by Tara Westover; Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman; American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins; Her Kind by Niamh Boyce; The Chain by Adrian McKinty; Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens; Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls; Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

Most of the books are on the list because I’ve read the authors before and I love their writing. Others are via recommendations. Word of mouth is still strong in the online age. I like books that give me something to think about, that change me, even a little, but also books capable of taking me to a place very different to the one I am presently in.

On escapes

I have a couple of escape places. They are very useful to writing, because often I write differently outside of my normal surroundings, and sometimes, I need that. Most summers, we rent an apartment in the Canaries for two or three weeks. It’s in a quiet little fishing village, but the apartment has an amazing view of the ocean. The sound of the water helps me to write too, and there are seagulls, see, there I go, back to childhood again. I’ve gone to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artist retreat, in Monaghan, many times. I always get loads of work done there. If neither of these places are available, you’ll find me in the attic!

On The Hiding Game

The spark for this story began in 1997 when as a young mother I watched the televised trial from Boston, Massachusetts, of Louise Woodward, a nineteen-year-old nanny accused of harming the infant in her care. The story never quite left me. Years later my mother died, and it was the first time in my life I understood true heartbreak. Over time I began to reflect on her life, especially the loss of her two babies. Both tragedies deeply affected our family. For years my mother kept the unworn baby clothes of my sister and brother in a large cardboard box on the top of a wardrobe, unable to let them go. The novel is dedicated to Monica, my sister, who died on September 5 1964, aged four days, 21 hours, and ten minutes. If it acts as a small acknowledgement towards her loss, then writing it has been very worthwhile indeed.

On what’s next

I’m happy The Hiding Game is now out in the world, but there is always the next book to write. I started novel six a few weeks ago, and thankfully, both my agent and editor love it so far. Will reveal more about it later. I’ve lots planned around The Hiding Game too; book launches, bookshop visits, several festivals and workshops, and other lovely things. There is also other news, which currently, I’m not allowed to share, but watch this space.

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