Claire McGowan: An Exclusive Interview on Her Book The Silent Dead

Claire McGowan: An Exclusive Interview on Her Book The Silent Dead

Hi Claire! Let’s talk a little bit about your latest book.

It’s coming out in November. It’s called The Silent Dead. It’s number three in a series and the main character, Paula Maguire is a psychologist. Previously in the books she’s kind of been through the mill emotionally. At the start of this book she’s heavily pregnant, which is really interesting to write about. Trying to frantically keep working as hard as she can. Refusing to accept that things are about to change.

It’s also about dissident Republicans because there are still, unfortunately, quite a lot of people in Northern Ireland who have not given up conflict. Even though something like the Omagh bomb in 1998 killed so many people, still that doesn’t stop them. They are still building and planting bombs. Every so often a police officer will get killed, still. It’s not quite gone away. I think people don’t know that in the rest of the country, so I want to show that.

It’s also about revenge and the idea of ‘what happens if’ – I’m really fascinated by small communities again, where you know somebody, one of your loved ones, who has died in a bomb, as it is in this book, and you know who did it but you’ve never been able to prove it. So either they’d gone to prison, served their time and come out again, or they were never convicted. Which is the case for so many people, and I just thought what if you just didn’t take that, what if you took your own vengeance? What would that be like, what would that do to you? What would that do to the police, who would have to be thinking, ‘oh we should probably side with the killers here’? So I think that’s really interesting. It’s about five terrorists who go missing, and they start to turn up dead, one by one.

So is justice quite a big theme for you?

I think so, yeah. We live in a society where – it’s actually been said by the legal service – we’re not going to try to prosecute for a lot of cases. There is this sense of trying to draw a line under it and move on. To save the peace. Incidents of vengeance are very uncommon in Northern Ireland. I think that’s probably because people are still very religious. But it’s not unheard of and I wonder why it’s not more common really. I’m fascinated by, what is justice? What do you do if the justice system has failed you?

There must be so many personal stories within that. Where someone’s got to sleep every night knowing that they may never find legal justice for what happened, but wondering how they can take it for themselves?

Well yes. I wrote about a bomb, a fictional bomb that killed sixteen people so there are sixteen stories there. I tried to show what that had done to the survivors, the victims. I wanted to skew the traditional morality of a crime book which is all about, there’s a baddie, we have to find them. – This is a bit more complicated I think.

How do you start a story or an idea, does it start with a character, a scene – where do you get your inspiration?

There’s always a moment when a couple of different things will fuse into an idea – it might be something that I misread or misheard. Then I suddenly think, what would that be like? So it’s kind of a ‘what if?’ moment. If this happened, what would happen? Or sometimes a theme, I know I want to write about this thing. With the series it’s a bit different, because you’re with the characters for a long time, so with that it’s sort of – what would be interesting to do to them next? Or to send to them. So I always wanted to do one where they weren’t in town, they were somewhere quite remote. So that will be the next one.

How important do you think setting is to a crime story?

I think setting can be really key in crime actually. The influence of Scandinavian crime has been huge. Irish and Scandinavian crime have a lot in common actually: it’s a very similar landscape. Even if you look at the covers for a lot of crime fiction, mine are like it – lots of imposing landscapes. I think that’s had a lot of impact. Before that, a lot of crime would have been very urban, so London, maybe Glasgow. We still have that, but I think there is a real interest in countryside noir – I think someone called it the Rural Gothic. These pockets of Britain which should be familiar because it’s part of Britain, but it can be threatening and very dangerous. Certainly the weather in Ireland, the terrain is not quite as extreme as in Scotland, but it is pretty dangerous, it can still kill you. It is pretty awful.

My next book in the series, number five, which I haven’t started writing yet, I’m hopefully going to set on an island off the coast of Ireland. It would make a really interesting setting – I’ve got this theory that every crime writer has a weird island book in them. Because there are a lot of islands around and they do get cut off quite regularly by the weather. So I’m hoping to do that.

So you’ll be making use of a small community again? I suppose it’s a bit like Domestic Noir, that sense of bad things happening right under your nose and involving people that you know so well. In a small community I suppose everyone knows everyone.

Yes, it’s very potent, especially if you follow an outsider trying to find out, what’s going on here? I come from a really small village and everyone just knows everything, it’s not actually possible to have any secrets. I wanted to get away from that but it’s also different and fascinating. I love the way Stephen King writes about small towns. I’ve tried to create in this series a small border town. Not quite a village where everyone knows everyone, but people know who you are. And it sort of follows you round.

What sort of books are you reading at the moment? Are you into crime, or are you reading other genres?

I read everything, really. Always have done. I think when you are in the industry you get a bit blasé about books. When I was 12, I was desperate for reading material and my mother just could not keep me away from books. I would read about ten books a week. Now it’s a bit like, oh, I get sent loads of proofs and you do get a bit – it’s a chore sometimes. So I do read a lot of crime, I just read Sharon Bolton’s new book which is great, it is set on an island. On the Falklands, actually. It’s great, it’s somewhere I would never have thought of. Romantic comedy as well. I’ve always read everything.

So who is your favourite author – someone you always come back to?

I’ve always loved Stephen King, I think he is so brilliant and people who don’t know his work can underestimate him. I’m a big Marian Keyes fan. I’m a big fan of Irish female writers, particularly Marian Keyes, and also Tana French. She’s a crime writer, she’s so good that I sometimes read her books again to try and learn what she does. So I use them a little bit as textbooks. There is a huge writing talent in Ireland. I hope that I could somehow be part of that in some small way. It’s great to come from that tradition.

Leave a Reply