Meet the journalist and health writer who's determined to be a best-selling crime novelist
Belfast author Sharon Dempsey, whose debut thriller Little Bird is out now, says women here are taking their rightful place as bestselling crime writers.
There has never been a better time to write crime fiction, and Belfast-based author Sharon Dempsey knows it. With crime thrillers regularly topping bestsellers charts in bookshops at home and abroad, indie adaptations pulling in audiences at the cinema, and television experiencing a Golden Age of crime drama, the public thirst for thrilling, edgy, suspenseful crime stories seems to be on the rise.
Sharon is "very much" a fan of crime fiction and television drama, and admits to tuning in to "all the usual suspects" as her colleagues, friends and family do also.
"The Affair, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Fall. All fantastic television," she adds. "And I adored Sky Atlantic's The Night Of. Great storytelling led by amazing characterisation."
With her debut novel, Little Bird, out now, Sharon is soon to join the illustrious roll call of crime fiction authors that she has been reading for years, the likes of Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard and Arthur Conan Doyle. Little Bird sees her enter the genre, aged 47.
"I love reading crime novels," says the former journalist and health writer. "I think the genre allows for a close examination of society. You can place your characters in challenging situations, make them face life and death scenarios and see how they respond. They are pushed to the extremes. But genre-specific labels don't bother me, really. A good story is a good story."
Little Bird is a serial killer thriller set in Northern Ireland. As many crime authors focus their books on a single, flawed but capable individual - think Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes; think Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot - so she has written her drama around forensic psychologist Declan Wells.
Left a wheelchair-user after being caught up in a Troubles-era bomb incident, Wells joins forces with Welsh detective Anna Cole to catch a killer fixated on murdering young women and leaving behind gruesome mementos. The Belfast author wrote the book over nine months and spent six months editing it into shape. "The writing is the easier part," she says. "The graft is in the editing."
Was it a challenge for her to set the story in her native Northern Ireland? "No, not really," she says. "I think it is the right time, post-conflict, to start telling the stories of our past. We have a wealth of material to delve into."
And with regards to the thorny issue of justice for victims and their families - a legacy of the Troubles that we, as a society, arguably have not dealt with as successfully as the government has in South Africa, post-Apartheid, for example - Sharon believes that "the will is there. We just have to trust in our ability to move forward".
Born and raised in the city, she attended Holy Rosary Primary School and Our Lady and St Patrick's College, Knock.
"I grew up in south Belfast, the Ormeau Road area, and I loved books," she says. "I lived near the Ormeau Road library and was a regular to the War on Want second-hand book shop in Rugby Avenue in the Holy Lands where my granny lived. Books have always been an important part of my life. They have always been a place to delve into, to escape to, and to be entertained and experience another life.
"A lot of crime writers read Enid Blyton when they were young and I'm no exception. All those Famous Five mysteries must have seeped into my psyche. I progressed to Stephen King and the horror genre, again like many crime writers. I know King's work has a part to play in influencing me. Pet Sematary is probably my favourite King book."
Sharon graduated with a degree in politics and English from Queen's University and "loved every minute there". She edited the student newspaper and subsequently moved to London to study journalism before taking up a PR position in Cardiff.
"I love journalism," she says. "I love talking to people, researching and crafting a feature out of what I have learned.
"I still have strong links with London and Cardiff, but I am very close to my whole extended family and that's what drew me back to Northern Ireland in 2000. I love Belfast and I think that is clear to see in my novel." And she is back living in the familiar surroundings of the south of the city with her husband and two daughters.
She began writing health books when her children were young, and currently has four titles to her name, including Extreme Parenting: Parenting Your Child With A Chronic Illness and Can I Tell You About Peanut Allergy?
"I have an interest in how medical jargon can be alienating to patients, the people who need to understand their treatment and diagnosis the most," she explains. "Once the person becomes part of the hospital environment, it is easy for them to feel like a patient.
"Medics are used to looking at anatomy, dealing in symptoms, diagnoses and prognoses, prescribing drugs and treatment protocols. But behind the symptoms is a person. Sometimes their voice needs to be amplified above that of the medical profession.
"I enjoy writing health books and talking directly to those people. I come up with the concept behind each book, interview relevant health professionals, patients and academics and write them up.
"It's always interesting."
She also works closely with local charity Cancer Focus, offering therapeutic writing classes and workshops to patients living with cancer and other illnesses.
She admits to being "passionate about helping others find creative self-expression" and says that people of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from creative writing exercises.
"In my Writing for Wellness workshops at Stranmillis College, one of the participants said that she felt the exercises helped her to explore some emotional blocks and enabled her to write about painful times.
"Sometimes it helps to explore life events through a fictional lens, to give yourself some distance from your story.
"I love working with both fiction writing and non-fiction narrative accounts of illness to help patients express their emotions. Research has shown that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events can be beneficial for both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical settings, and it is so rewarding to share in someone's creative growth.
"We gain greater insight and emotional support from reading and writing in a therapeutic setting."
The future of fiction and non-fiction writing in Northern Ireland is something Sharon thinks a lot about. She is currently working with young writers, delivering regular workshops at the Crescent Arts Centre. "The kids at Young Scribblers are so talented and they make me laugh every week," she adds.
"I have a few who are already writing their first novels and I can see some of them definitely have writing careers ahead of them. They enjoy being in an environment where their writing is taken seriously. It isn't a hobby. They are proper writers learning their craft.
"It is easy to think that creativity has been pushed out of the curriculum but it isn't true. My daughter is always bringing home amazing stories she has written in school. Most schools recognise the need to encourage creativity and that's a very good thing."
According to the novelist, the Northern Irish crime-writing scene is currently in rude health. She cites the likes of Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway and Stuart Neville as homegrown crime writers whose work she loves to read, while there are a wealth of lesser-known names selling self-published books to an international audience.
"I love Irish crime writing, North and South," says Sharon. "Northern Irish crime writing is really strong at the minute. All of these writers create stand-out characters. Good crime writing is essentially driven by character, not plot, which most people find surprising.
"I've had support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Southern Irish crime writer Louise Phillips, who mentored me after I received funding from the ACNI. I'm very grateful for their support."
While there isn't quite a deficiency of local women crime writers, she does think that more can be done to promote female authors here.
"Kelly Creighton's The Bones of It is well recognised as being a great novel. Claire McGowan's Paula Maguire series is also very strong.
"I think the problem has been that we haven't had the same breakout success as our Southern peers, but hopefully that is changing.
"Catriona King, Claire McGowan and myself have plenty to say and our stories stand up. Now is the time for the Northern Irish female voices to be heard and for our stories to take their place alongside our male peers."
While Dempsey still enjoys striking out as a journalist now and then, and predicts "the odd health book at some stage", for now her focus is on Little Bird and her burgeoning career as a crime writer.
It remains to be seen how the crime fiction audience will take to Declan Wells and Anna Cole, but Dempsey has high hopes.
"For now, my priority is getting the second novel finished and developing more workshops. Yes, I am working on my second novel.
"It is related to Little Bird, but I have new main characters working in the same Serious Crime Unit as Anna and Declan. Time will tell how that pans out."
- Little Bird by Sharon Dempsey, Bloodhound Books, price £8.99