Derry author’s new book explores violence against women and how the perpetrators attempt to justify their actions
Weekend speaks to Claire the morning after she’d taken her first cold water dip, accompanying Serena Terry — aka Mammy Banter — into the sea.
“I think I’m still defrosting! It’s a bit full on, it’s a bit brutal,” she laughs.
Another experience that will make your blood run cold — in a satisfyingly unsettling way, of course — is reading Claire’s latest thriller.
The Nurse, described by Marian Keyes as “unputdownable”, centres on Nell Sweeney’s abduction and the horror her parents go through waiting for updates on her safety.
Couple this with an insight into underground movement related to incels — involuntary celibates who are unable to get a sexual partner despite wanting one — and a plot that feels all too realistic given recent events, and you’ve a chilling novel that addresses some of our worst fears.
Claire’s novel is discomforting to read, but it feels a necessary read.
“Especially with recent events that have made the headlines, from Sarah Everard and Ashling Murphy, it just feels more real,” says Claire.
“That all happened after I’d written the book. I mean, obviously these things happened before, but it’s in our consciousness more now because of those very high-profile murders and that’s what makes it scary.
“It’s not as scary for me to write about really evil sort of monster types, bad to the bone villains.
“But when you’re writing about real people that you can see how they can get sucked in, that’s what I find scary about it. I could totally understand how this man would get sucked into this.”
The Him perspective in The Nurse is one that you’ll probably read with your mouth open.
It’s well put together and you’ll definitely feel something, especially when you consider that the character doesn’t feel he’s necessarily doing anything wrong.
“He’s very much justifying his actions,” says Claire.
“At times, you might not feel sympathy for him, but you can understand. You maybe feel empathy.
“He’s not bad to the bone. He has redeeming qualities, not many, but you can see how it all gets away from him and it all gets out of his control very quickly.
“His actual mindset that’s built in there, that he would think about women in that way, and he would be the kind of person that would find it powerful to scare a woman, that was really uncomfortable to write.
“Because obviously that’s against everything that I am. I’m a woman. I know what it feels like to be scared and in that position and I have a daughter.
“I had to write really horrible things that he was thinking and saying, that are so offensive.
“But there was no point in sugar-coating it or watering it down.”
She describes the research as “grim”, reading online forums, adding: “A lot of what you read on there, if you put it in a book, people wouldn’t believe you because it’s beyond horrific.
“It was such bizarre language, it’s how they talk, and you don’t know if they’re being serious or not because it’s so almost like teenage boys having a strop.
“At first, I thought it can’t be real with their nicknames.
“They call a handsome man Chad and beautiful women are Staceys.
“The more you read, the more it strikes home — these people are 100% serious and 100% committed to what they’re thinking and their beliefs. They feel completely justified in saying, I think it would be OK for X, Y, Z to happen. I saw that again come up around the time of the Sarah Everard murder.”
She describes reading comments on Twitter suggesting female prisoners should be offered up to be intimate with men who cannot get sex anywhere else because they’ve been denied their biological urges.
“It makes me sort of scared for where we’re going,” she says.
“That’s why I wanted to write the book, because I was increasingly aware of these conversations that we’re having and you know, any woman who is on social media knows what it’s like to come up against sexist comments or threats.
“We’ve all experienced it. To me it seems to be getting worse rather than getting better. It just astounds me every time I come up across it that people think it’s OK to behave that way and they have people backing them up.”
It’s the beauty of fiction, we say, to introduce a relevant subject matter but often in a more palatable way.
“I’ve been very conscious when I’ve been talking about the book because it is real and people can relate to it,” she says.
“And then I’m sort of going, but it is actually a really good thriller and it is entertainment. That’s why we write, to entertain people.
“It’s sort of getting that balance right between writing a book that was going to have people turning the pages and wanting to know what happens next to also being really sensitive to the fact that this is a really sensitive and timely topic at the moment.”
Having read all of Claire’s books, The Nurse feels like a step up.
She agrees, saying she put her heart and soul into the writing.
“This was written mostly during the second lockdown, and I went into it thinking, I am going to write the best book that I can write,” she says.
“I was determined that I wasn’t going to write anything that doesn’t make me go, ‘this is something different’. I quite often do ‘now’ and ‘then’ timelines, slightly at the same time but not quite and then converging together.
“Trying to keep all that working from a structural point of view was quite tricky and demanding. But also to drip feed his information and Nell’s.
“I wanted this to be a standout book, maybe because of the subject matter, I don’t know, but I was determined to put my heart and soul into it.
“I do think it’s my best book and it takes a lot for me to say that.
“It’s definitely the one that I hope, more than any other, people will pick up and read and understand what I’m trying to do as a writer and who I am as a writer.
“It was a really interesting writing process because I submitted it to my editor, and she normally comes back with pages and pages of edits.
“She came back with a page and a half and said, ‘you’ve just written the perfect novel’.
“Me being me, I thought that she was only saying that.
“The reaction with the publishers and my agent and with other people has been phenomenal.
“Hopefully readers will think the same.”
The Nurse, by Claire Allan, Avon, £12.99, is available now