Yesterday I reviewed Claire McGowan’s The Lost, the first book in the Paula Maguire series. I have a review slated for the second book The Dead Ground tomorrow, but today I have an interview with the author herself for you. I truly enjoyed both books and I was fascinated with some of the themes and the setting of the books. Claire’s background as director of the CWA and teaching a crime-writing MA also interested me. Claire was gracious enough to answer all my questions and I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Claire McGowan?
A thirty-two year old writer, obsessed with books and words, living in London though Irish, and to be found most days covered in ink, tea, and papercuts.
Your latest book, The Dead Ground, is your third novel and the second featuring forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire. How would you introduce Paula to readers who haven’t read your work yet?
Paula is a thirty year old forensic psychologist who escaped to London after growing up in small-town Northern Ireland. When she was thirteen her mother disappeared without trace and this has influenced what she does in life – searching for missing people – and is ultimately what brings her back home to work, despite misgivings. She is very driven, but makes a lot of mistakes in her personal life, and finds it hard being back in the town where everyone knows her – including her dad, best friend, and ex-boyfriend, who edits the local paper.
My very first book – as yet unpublished – was dealing with the same themes I look at in this series – family, religion, politics – so it was natural to come back to it once I’d figured out via The Fall that crime was a good genre for me to be working in. I love a good strong plot and it lets me look at important issues in what is hopefully an engaging way.
How do you go about structuring your plot? Do you start with the crime and culprit in mind and then develop the story line or do you start with a crime and discover the culprit together with Paula?
I’m fairly haphazard about plotting, and often just start writing and figure out what’s going on much, much later. I’m 85,000 words into my next book and still don’t entirely know what’s happening…It helps that I have an ongoing plot about Paula’s life and the backstory of what happened to her mother. I usually know where the book will end up too, just not how to get there.
Taking the subject matter of The Lost and The Dead Ground into account, I imagine doing research on these topics must at times be quite disturbing. What does your research process look like and how do you set it aside at the end of the day?
It can be very disturbing – I’m always finding out that something I wanted to write about, but felt was maybe too strong, not only actually happened, but happened much worse than I could ever write. I also research in a haphazard way – reading a bit to get ideas, then writing, then checking facts once the book is finished. I feel story is much more important than research.
How has the work you’ve done as the director of the CWA influenced your writing, if at all?
I don’t know if it influences the writing but it has helped me meet lots of crime writers, and read their books, which of course give me ideas and insight on how they handle their stories.
You currently teach the first ever crime-writing MA at City University. What are some of the subjects that might most surprise people?
I absolutely love teaching and have learned a lot from my students. We have fun in the classroom, I hope, and spend a lot of time discussing how best to murder people as well as more general topics like pacing, dialogue, viewpoint, etc. One of my mantras is, ‘If in doubt, kill them off’. Fictionally only, I should stress.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I feel like I should have a good answer to this (surfing, sky-diving, etc) but books are pretty central to my life…However, as I work at home alone, I like to get out in the evenings and see friends, and I also love travelling and find it really stimulating in terms of ideas. I often write a lot when I’m on holiday.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
There are new books coming out this year from many of my favourite writers – Tana French is always amazing, for example. I also loved The Goldfinch and will be looking out for the new Sarah Waters as I found ‘The Little Stranger’ utterly terrifying. If you haven’t read it yet, try Apple Tree Yard, I thought it was amazing.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I have an odd system of my own, which sort of goes – research, unread, books-to-impress (French poetry etc), non-fiction, books by people I know, poetry….no wonder I can never find anything!
Bio: Claire McGowan grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland. After a degree in English and French from Oxford University, and time spent living in China and France, she moved to London and works in the charity sector and also teaches creative writing. THE DEAD GROUND is her third novel and the second in the Paula Maguire series.