Amy, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, Blinding Lies (Poolbeg, 2022) which is a cracking read.
Let’s start with your journey to writing. It was something you always wanted to do but life happened – as it does – and it’s now that you’ve thrown yourself into the world of words. So why now? And why this genre?
AC: This genre is the one I read the most; crime and psychological thrillers are my go-to books. The escapism on offer, and the need to solve the mystery, is very appealing. When I was younger I loved mystery stories; the Nancy Drew series was a firm favourite. This has continued into adulthood, and as this is the type of book I love to read, it’s what I was drawn to write.
Why now? I think it had a lot to do with turning 40 during lockdown and the general sense of unease the pandemic brought, the feeling that life is for living, and if I truly want to give writing a shot, then I have to dedicate myself to finishing something and put myself out there. My favourite subject in school was English, but I didn’t study it in college. I focused on business, marketing and management, but I never stopped tinkering around with words. I’ve written stories my whole life, and during the pandemic I focused like I never have before on finishing my first book. It was cathartic, a great escape from the daily coverage on TV and radio. Writing Blinding Lies was addictive, something I looked forward to everyday. It finally felt like the timing was right.
SG: It’s great to hear that you continued with your passion – and the way you describe your writing process it sounds like it really was the right book and the right time. And how fantastic that as a writer you now get to give your readers the escapism that you so much enjoy.
There are several aspects to Blinding Lies that stood out for me. The first is the protagonist, Anna Clarke. She’s the underdog, working in the administrative section of the Garda Station and yet manages – perhaps because of her mathematical background – to see patterns that lead to complex crimes being solved. Tell me about the origins of Anna.
AC: I wrote a chapter featuring Anna many, many years ago. I had read so many books where the protagonist is a seasoned man, capable and experienced, and he invariably saves the day. I really wanted to read a similar book featuring a woman who could do the same. It wasn’t until I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I found a character who felt believable in that role. The only problem I had with Lisbeth Salander was that I couldn’t relate to her. I adore her character still, in the books and the movies, but she felt very far removed from anything I could connect with.
In creating Anna I wanted her to be really ordinary, like myself and most people I know. I wanted readers to be able to relate to her. I found a lot of resources online, writing.ie, inkwellwriters.ie, and had done some writing courses, so I knew my heroine needed to reach readers in a way that made them root for her. As I wrote, I found I was really rooting for her too!
When Anna Clarke was 16 her parents disappeared. Up until that point, she was living what could be considered a very normal life. After that, she and her older brother live with the continuing mystery, never moving closer to solving what happened. As a child Anna’s father taught them self-defence games and encouraged them into his passion, Tae-kwon Do. After his disappearance, focusing on this gave Anna a lifeline out of depression and worry, and as the book opens, she’s a black-belt, continuing her training, and teaching self-defence to young children. She’s drawn to logic, to numbers, studying mathematics and statistics in college, working for the Gardaí to compile statistical reports. Numbers offer the comfort of certainty, which appeals to her as a balm to the enduring uncertainty of what happened to her parents. Anna is a strong woman, yet vulnerable, leaning on her brother often, yet resenting his interfering ‘father-figure’ role. She’s flawed, not always making the right decisions, but her moral compass is set straight, and it’s her determination to help her friend Kate that propels the plot in Blinding Lies.
SG: And again, the idea of helping a childhood friend is something that we can all relate to. The themes of self-defence is key to both the narrative and also two of the main characters. Anna teaches and practices Taekwondo-Do and another interesting female character, Kate Crowley, is a kick-boxing champion. Was this a theme that interests you or did it come to you as you developed the characters?
AC: It was suggested to me by an early reader, when the book was in the first-draft stage, that Anna be a kick-boxer, to add plausibility to scenes where she’s under threat. By that point I had already decided she was studying and teaching Tae-Kwon Do, mainly because I did so myself and know how beneficial it is in general.
The kick-boxing idea grew though, and I used it as a point to confuse Anna and the reader, to input doubt over the character of Kate – I wanted her to be someone we aren’t sure is guilty or innocent. Anna is certain her childhood best friend is innocent of murder. But she learns that in the years they lost touch Kate learned kick-boxing to a high level, and with her own knowledge of self-defence, Anna then begins to doubt Kate – if she was capable of defending herself so skilfully, why shoot a man dead?
I studied Tae-Kwon Do when I was young, although not for as long as I would have liked! It has always appealed to me, and I planned it as a facet of Anna’s character to be the crutch she would lean on to recover from the disappearance of her parents. It offered an anchor, something to focus on. I know that the skills taught in self-defence go beyond the manoeuvres – I wanted Anna to have a calm mind, to have self-control when it mattered most. I know Tae-Kwon Do can cultivate this level of discipline, so it was always going to part of her story. The fact that it was her father’s passion was something I found very emotional to write. Anna trains as much to feel close to him as anything else.
SG: Yes, the link to her father came through very strongly and I thought that link between the body and mind in Tae-Kwon Do was really interesting and key to Anna’s character. At the heart of the Gallagher-Crowley dynamic is David’s abuse and coercive control of his wife, and his father’s control of his empire. Can you talk a little about this theme of control?
AC: Control, or attempting to restore it, is certainly a theme through Blinding Lies. Anna Clarke is the protagonist. In her training, in her job, in everything she does, she is measured, to counterbalance how out-of-control her life went when she was 16. In that respect, she and Tom Gallagher, the main antagonist, are very similar. Both are seeking to control the world around them to a high level.
For Tom Gallagher, we learn that everything he has built up, his criminal business, his respect and status, was borne of control. While his son David was abusive, what Tom lamented most about that was his loss of control, which ultimately led detectives to the family, and ended up with David dead. David’s loss of control is rippling into Tom’s existence and he can’t stand it. Everything he does in Blinding Lies is about regaining the control he feels slipping away from him.
It’s interesting that control is such a strong theme throughout Blinding Lies, as it was written at a time when the world felt completely out of control to me. The world around me was shutting down because of a new virus as I wrote, and as the main characters fought for control in their world, I was coming to realise I had very little in mine! I write with a vague ‘start-middle-end’ outline, and I didn’t realise until the book was finished how much the characters rely on and seek to gain control. But as I said, writing Blinding Lies was cathartic during the early stages of the pandemic!
SG: Isn’t it really interesting how what’s going on for the author becomes distilled in their writing? Parallel to this theme is the idea of people having two sides, and also of fighting for a better life. I felt this was captured well in the characterisation of Tobias.
“Tobias…had fought his way to this position in life. It had come to him the hard way. There were bodies stacked up behind him, in his past, people he’d had to move out of his way. Sometimes, at night, he dreamt of their faces, how their skin had sagged, and their muscles had twitched in the final moments between life and death. At night, he felt vulnerable, freaked out by the dead. By day he was in charge again, a man not to be crossed, nor to be defied.”
So many of the characters know what they want and will go to great lengths to get it. Can you comment on this?
AC: Such characters are great propellers of plot; decisive, driven, charismatic. For me, this book was my attempt to finally immerse myself in writing and go after what I really wanted. I guess that’s reflected in the characters too. Regardless of what they want – be it revenge, the truth, closure and peace – the characters are determined to get it. Anyone with ambition, for whatever that might be, can relate to that.
Most of the characters in Blinding Lies are driven by love for their family, which is a very powerful force; Anna, for her parents and for her friend. Kate is driven by saving her sister and nieces; Tom Gallagher by love for his wife and son John, and by avenging his son David’s death. All things are a mix of light and darkness; in even the worst of characters, there is some redemption, and in the best of characters there are elements of shadow. Striving to rise above, being ambitious, are traits readers can understand, can get on board with. And they make memorable characters that turn the pages.
In the case of Tobias, he is a minor character but his actions have a big impact on the antagonist. Tobias does terrible things, and the “bodies stacked up behind him” allow the reader to gain a glimpse of his past. But there is an element of fear in him too – the people he killed freak him out at night, and in Blinding Lies, he cannot return to his employer empty handed, with his mission incomplete. I wasn’t trying to elicit sympathy for him, rather to show that like all people, his nature is multi-faceted.
SG: Yes, I think that’s why I found his character interesting -he’s more than what he seems. I also found that the workings of the various rankings in the Gardaí were well done – I especially loved the scene when Detective Sergeant William Ryan goes to one of the major crime scenes and “closed his eyes and inhaled, breathing the scene deep into his lungs. Anna’s voice played in his head as though he had recorded her testimony and was playing it back…He cut an unusual figure, standing in the middle of the room with his eyes closed and his arms by his sides, turning this way and that…” Can you talk about your research into investigative procedures and methods?
AC: The internet helped with this, as did absorbing information from the countless crime novels I have read. I also have a garda friend who happily answered questions, but I didn’t delve too deeply into detail. I tried hard to get the garda procedures right, but ultimately, Anna is a clerical officer, not a detective, and so I didn’t dwell too much on detailing procedures.
I love the character of William Ryan, but I really don’t know any detectives like him! He’s young, a little eccentric, a little off-putting to some colleagues, but ultimately very like Anna Clarke – his moral compass is set straight.
SG: It’s great to read a book set in a place that is familiar or that you know well. I loved how Cork was so real – street names, hotel names – and also fictionalised to a large extent, to fit the story. Tell me about that process of setting the scene – it felt like you’d researched the city in terms of traffic, weather, times it takes to get from place to place.
AC: I’ve lived in Cork all my life; well, except for some time spent living and working in the UK, when I was very homesick! I grew up in the countryside, then moved to the city to live for eight years, before moving back to the countryside again. Initially I was unsure about setting Blinding Lies in my home county, but as I wrote, I realised there was nowhere else it could be. It felt right to set the novel in familiar territory.
Some place names are real and some are fictional. The Garda station in Blinding Lies, for example, is called the Lee Street station. This doesn’t exist but is named after Cork’s River Lee. It felt right not to accurately name some places. But other places are steeped in memory for me – such as the fountain on the Grand Parade where Anna meets Myles, and it was lovely to include that.
SG: Finally, I found myself thinking about a question as I read Blinding Lies – how well can we ever know anyone, including our family? There’s a lot of intrigue, passion, and greed in the novel – it’s what drives many of the characters including the Gallaghers – and there’s Anna’s burning desire to find out why people do what they do, including disappear. Can you talk about this?
AC: This is certainly true; how well do we ever really know the people close to us? Often that’s not called into question until extreme events take place.
In Blinding Lies, Anna’s brother Alex is worried about reopening the search for their parents, because he was a lot older than Anna when they disappeared, and he remembers things that lead him to believe he didn’t really know who they were. This, of course, is unsettling for him. He’s an insomniac, constantly worried about keeping his sister safe, never able to relax. The questions that consume him are not just where their parents are, but who they were.
Of course, some people do know the inner nature of those close to them, and chose to turn away from that truth, as Mae Gallagher does for her husband, and as she did for her son David.
Anna is the opposite of that – she’s a deep thinker, and for ten years the need to understand her parents’ situation has burned inside her, and it has shaped how she looks at people and situations, I think. She should have walked away from Kate’s plight, but she needs to understand it, because she cannot understand the terrible events that shaped her life when she was 16.
Ultimately, for the characters, if they cannot understand the people around them and why events have taken place, the ground feels very shaky, and control is lost.
- SG: I can’t leave our chat without mentioning the last line of the novel, “it was time to discover the truth”. Ae looking at a trilogy or a series?
AC: I’m very happy to say that Blinding Lies is the first book of a trilogy. I didn’t realise Anna’s story would span three books until I started to write. But it’s not just her story, it’s her parents’ and Tom Gallagher’s as well. I’ve always enjoyed reading a set of novels about the same character, and I hope readers will take Anna to their hearts and follow her journey.
SG: I have no doubt they will, Amy! And now for some fun questions:
- Cork county or city? Cork county, because it’s home.
- Mountains or sea? The sea, definitely.
- Tea or Coffee? Coffee.
- What are you reading now? Right now I’m reading The Widow by K.L. Slater.
- What are you writing now? I’m currently finishing the third book in the trilogy.
Connect with Amy on Twitter: @AmyCroninAuthor
With thanks to Poolbeg and Peter O’Connell Media for the advance copy of Blinding Lies