Maggie, You’re very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, Murder in the Academy (Alice Fox Murder Mysteries Book 1) which was published last year by Poolbeg.
SG: Firstly, let’s start with your journey to writing. You worked in academia for years and, according to your acknowledgements, had been talking about writing a murder mystery with the themes of social justice for some time. How did you find the transition from academic to writer and how did you experience bringing your academic knowledge into fiction – which you do very well?
MF: Well, firstly thank you Shauna for giving me the chance to have this discussion. It’s interesting to think about the writing process and you’re right that I talked about writing Murder in the Academy, or MITA as it’s known in our house, for years before doing anything much about it. I had a title and a victim from the beginning and colleagues frequently asked me about my progress long before I started to write. The catalyst was the incongruous and often egocentric attitudes and behaviours I witnessed in some of the many educational institutions where I’ve worked. Much of it was too implausible to be believed even in a work of fiction. I joked to someone once that it was a testament to human restraint that murder didn’t happen more frequently in such circumstances and the idea of creating some therapeutic homicidal fiction was conceived.
I worked for severeal decades in the area of adult and community education and I came late to academia. As well as my own ethnographic research and teaching about educational inequalities, I had spent a lot of time ghost writing for other academics who had gathered data and hadn’t time or the impetus to write it up. It was sometimes a cash cow but also always about some aspect of social justice which is my passion. I liked all of that writing even when it was not my area of specialism and I gathered a lot of evidence about real social practice that I can draw on now in works of fiction. My writing head thinks about structure and argument almost automatically and so that imports usefully into crime writing. I have the discipline in terms of getting to the desk but once there, the experience is totally different now to my prior life. Where academic writing is tethered to data and the conventions of a particular discipline, I’ve found the freedom of fiction very liberating. A voice is emerging from the long shadows that makes me feel more alive and that is challenging and pleasureable at the same moment. I’m like a happy seagull that has found her thermal and is enjoying the destination-less trip.
My most troublesome ghost is a kind of academic compulsion. I’ve always been attentive to detail in academic work and shedding that is something I’m gradually learning. My academic duty to the voices of the researched and the entirity of their experience doesn’t transfer seamlessly to fiction which is more nuanced and leaves space for the reader to co-create. I cut 25,000 words from the first draft of MITA and I hope I am getting much better at letting go of surplus stuff.
SG: Hearing about the switching of writing registers, academic compulsion, and being true to life/the story is really interesting, Maggie, thank you for your honesty. The narrative, we could say, is framed by Alice Fox’s own story – she’s American, an ex-cop and current post-doc and, “If anything defined her, it was her low-key openness and composure, which she had worked very hard to develop.” Tell me about developing Alice’s character and the pivotal role she plays in the story (without plot spoilers!)
MF: A propos of nothing, Alice Fox is the name of my wife’s maternal grandmother so she has history. Using real names helps me get a hold of a character even though it is just a name and they get a totally fresh start from me. In MITA, Alice Fox brings the outsider’s eyes to the College, the staff, to Belfast and its community and culture. She is able to comment objectively and help create an awareness of individual and local idiosyncrasies. Because of her own life tragedy she has had to rethink her social standpoint. She has done a lot of work on herself and has the quietness of someone used to thinking things through before she speaks. She has strong views on social justice that go beyond mere words and her community work with socially disadvantaged young people is where she puts her belief in equality and social change into action.
I like who Alice has become and I find that along the way I have had to defend her (to myself and others) and explain her way of being in the world. My first writing of her was fluent and without much conscious analysis. Then I had to go back and clarify her chosen reserved and seemingly peripheral social position. People expect a hero to take up more space than Alice does. She doesn’t seek the limelight or monopolise the foreground of the action. Rather she is a thoughtful and often unnoticed observer of those around her. She struggles between the work of detection and the academic and community practice she has chosen after leaving Lowell Police Department. By the second book she has found a compromise position between the two and can see that much academic research is its own form of detection. In MITA, she is a newcomer to Belfast and although she has great inner and physical strength she is not showy or brash. She is a critical thinker, gently and unobtrusively finding her way at her own unhurried pace. Like us all, she is still becoming.
SG: Oh I love that idea of borrowing a real name as a way of creating a new character. I enjoyed being with Alice, as you say, the critical thinking and gentle way of being. Yet, as the title suggests, there is a murder in the academy! Academic Helen Breen is murdered in the Department of Peace and Reconciliation in a fictionalised Belfast university, and a murder investigation begins. I found the pace and plot to be cleverly constructed. Can you talk about your writing process – do you plot and plan or did your characters and themes come first?
MF: My intention has always been to use crime fiction to air issues of social harm and their consequences for the victims and perpetrators of my fictional killings. Most of us don’t use murder as a way of sorting out wrongs that we experience so in a way the kind of murders I am describing are symbolic in that regard. At the same time, having lived in the north throughout the ‘Troubles’ I also know something about killing and how injustices of many kinds can spill over into lives being harmed and prematurely ended for reckless and dubious motives. Initially I found the MITA murder hard to commit to paper … I wrote a lot of explanatory pieces that built towards the actual killing and in the end I let go of all that and just let the characters speak for themselves. I got out of their way and assumed my secretarial role of recording their thoughts and actions.
I once heard a crime writer respond to a question about the extent to which she planned what she wrote by saying: ‘I write like a reader. I have no idea what is going to happen next.’ That gave me a great sense of relief and therafter I realised that my characters do a lot of the work amongst themselves and sort out the plot when it hits a bumpy place.
Apparently PD James planned meticulously and could have told you what chapter she would be writing months in advance. I’m more loosey goosey! I do settle the structure in my head at the outset and consciously think about keeping the pace interesting for the reader but I think I am primarily led by the themes and characters.
SG: I love the idea of the writer-as-secretary, recording thoughts and actions rather than directing them. MITA captures the dynamics of academia exceptionally well from the administrative staff to the power play between academics – with great humour. I especially loved Mairéad Walsh – Department Operations Manager – the placement of her office as the hub of the Department and her eagle eyes and ears. Did you have fun with her part in the story?
MF: Mairéad Walsh is perhaps the character that is most true to someone I worked with a long time ago when I worked in a college in Belfast. She had many of those dramatic qualities that Mairéad displays and the wonderful knack of making fun of those who took themselves and their own importance far too seriously. In my experience of working in a whole range of educational establishments, it is invariably the administrator who keeps things running smoothly. She holds the pivotal role in terms of relationships with staff and students and is the primary custodian of information both professional and personal about the whole department. I had great fun with writing Mairéad … and now well over forty years since we worked together I am still friends with the woman she is based on! When she read MITA she remarked that Mairéad was a much more powerful character than she ever was, but that’s just her own modesty. She always was and still is sharp, entertaining and inspirational.
SG: Your answer is a real homage to write from what you know into what you don’t know! MITA immerses us in Belfast – geographically, socially, and, politically – creating an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery. We’re told that
“There was a time when spying and gathering anti-terrorism information was placed ahead of solving a crime, in terms of priority. Placed ahead of safeguarding life itself.”
Can you speak a little about your research and how Belfast serves as another character?
MF: I lived in the north for nearly fifty years and while I live in Dublin now, Belfast is clearly the place etched most deeply into my psyche and it provided the best fit for MITA. I did think of Belfast as an ever-present background character as I was writing. It’s a complex, misunderstood and often demonised place that is struggling to reconcile its very traumatic history without any supportive process for dealing with those legacy issues. The word ‘Troubles’ doesn’t really do justice to the particular type of war that took place there for decades. It began with partition and in many ways, despite the ‘peace process’, as current news broadcasts continue to illustrate, is still unresolved. There is ample recorded evidence of state collusion, corruption and cover-ups in terms of intelligence gathering and killings alongside the armed struggle of all those groups that felt that democratic structures offered no place for their cause to be peacefully resolved. These elements did not sit easily beside each other and in my background reading I found many catalogues of daily atrocities over decades, long lists of those killed and reports of state sanctioned undercover activity in communities and sanctioned by those in high office. I didn’t want to write a political history but it’s not possible to situate a story in the north without this chequered past being a part of it in some way.
SG: I think that having Alice “introduce” us to Belfast really served to bring all those elements into the story without preaching or over-explanation. Finally, it strikes me that MITA portrays the many inequalities in our society, whether it is due to gender, nationality, religion, or sexuality. I thought you weaved these themes deftly into the story. Alice
“was constantly patrolling the borders between what was seen as breaking the law and the idea of social harm, much of which was totally accepted as the just desserts of those from poor and minority communities.”
These themes put me in mind of American writer Attica Locke’s novels. How important were these themes to you, and how important were they to the various narrative strands?
MF: I firmly believe that much of the harm in society is caused by choices and policies made by the state that favour some social groups more than others. For example, the property and wealth of the privileged are safeguarded by the same state that neglects the education, health and housing of those who need that state’s support. The concept of the ‘brute luck’ into which we are born is very influential for me. Inevitably this ideological position creeps into everything that I do… including finding expression in the characters in the book. In a way I think that fiction is a better way of communicating these ideas than writing polemics or lecturing which only reaches a limited group of people. The important thing would be to have a light touch and not be overbearing and I hope I get that right.
I haven’t read any Attica Locke but like the sound of them. I’ll order some right now. Thank you for the new reference and for this digital chat.
SG: You’re right about the power of literature – and perhaps the role of literature, and the arts in general, in our society. It can serve to mirror that which we do not want to see. I think you’ll enjoy starting Locke’s work with Black Water Rising.
Lastly, Maggie, some fun questions:
- Who is your favourite character to write? I like the wit and wholesomeness in the person of Mairead Walsh and the opportunities for spilling venom in writing about Helen Breen. Both offer their own catharsis.
- Music or silence when writing? Mostly silence although noise doesn’t really disturb me. I can have music if there are no words.
- Mountains or beach? I like both.
- What are you reading now? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. SG: I loved that book. Made me cry – several times.
- What are you writing now? I’m just finished a first draft of Book 2 of the Alice Fox series – Just Killings – so I’m waiting to get the edits back. In the meantime Book 3 is simmering… mostly during the night while I’m asleep.
Well, Maggie, I wish you the best of luck with the edits and the simmering. I look forward to following Alice Fox’s challenges and learning more about her fight for justice and equality. Thank you again for your generous open answers!