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Co Down author Claire McGowan on becoming a thriller writer

 

Acclaimed crime fiction writer Claire McGowan admits growing up in rural Co Down was a quiet affair with neither a bookshop nor a cinema nearby - however, it was due in part to this isolation that she developed her appetite for writing.

Now a successful author, whose 2012 debut thriller, The Fall, bagged a shortlist spot for the Dylan Thomas Prize, she is among a stellar line-up of both homegrown writers and stars of the screen who will be heading up the NOIReland International Crime Fiction Festival, which runs from Friday to Sunday at Belfast's Europa Hotel.

Famous faces making an appearance will also include Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio and one of the show's stars, Fermanagh-born Adrian Dunbar, Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen and Hill Street Blues writer Robert Crais.

Claire, who has released five books in her hugely successful series of Paula Maguire novels, Blood Tide, says she is looking forward to meeting readers at the NOIReland events as writing can be a solitary existence.

And while she is undoubtedly associated with the dark world of crime fiction, in her author blog, which is one of the most eclectic, entertaining and well-written of any writer - Northern Irish or otherwise - the 35-year-old considers all kinds of weird and surprising concepts.

These include posts entitled Things That Stopped Me Writing, How To Earn Money As A Writer and, intriguingly, Your Book Is Not An Egg Custard. However, others are focused on the concept of happiness.

That is because Claire has turned her attention to women's literature of late. Her new book, How To Be Happy, was published earlier this month under the pseudonym Eva Woods.

In a recent post, she concluded a self-imposed "100 days of happiness challenge" by listing off the things she discovered which made her most content.

They ranged from "trying new food" and "swimming outdoors" to "going to new places" and "seeing friends". However, top of the list was "reading, writing and everything do to with books".

For such a prolific author, it's no surprise. She recalls falling in love with fiction as a young girl growing up in Rostrevor.

"I read everything I could get my hands on," she says over the phone from a holiday home on the Isle of Skye, where she is holed up for a few days' rest before appearing at the NOIRreland festival.

"Usually that meant raiding Warrenpoint Library and reading most of the books in it. They let me move onto the adult section while I was still at primary school, even though the rules said they weren't supposed to," she laughs.

"At school, I could get through 10 books a week. I loved LM Montgomery, Maeve Binchy and Terry Pratchett, and I started reading the horror writer Stephen King at probably too young an age, which may be why I write crime fiction now."

Claire's parents, Peter and Barbara, kept lots of books around the house and the headmaster of her rural primary school encouraged all of his students to lose themselves in literature.

Writing stories came naturally - she completed her first attempt at a book aged just nine - and provided entertainment where it was otherwise lacking.

"We only had four television channels at home, plus very fuzzy RTE ones, no bookshop nearby and no cinema in town for quite a few years, so really I started making up my own stories to amuse myself," she adds.

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Claire McGowan having a cuppa in Belfast city centre

"I wrote on and off until my mid-20s, always wanting to be a writer but sure that people like me, from Irish villages, didn't do such a thing. That changed when I pushed myself to finish a book and I got published when I was 30."

Claire's debut novel, The Fall, set her on the way to becoming a full-time professional. Set in London, it tells the story of a woman whose life is ripped apart after her banker boyfriend is accused of murder.

The success of that book was made all the more special and surprising given that Claire had almost settled on a career in linguistics. She studied English and French at Oxford University and lived in France for a year during her studies. A sojourn to China kept her away from home for another year.

However, when The Fall garnered rave reviews Claire and those around her finally realised that she had a rare talent indeed. "I think initially my family were surprised I made a go of it," she admits.

"We didn't know anyone who even worked in the arts, let alone any authors, but my family are and always have been very pleased and supportive of me. I know I have lots of people back home following my career and saving clippings from the papers if I ever have a review or an interview out."

Even big names of the genre have heaped praise on her, with Lee Child, the English author of the Jack Reacher stories, describing Claire as "a knock-out new talent that you should read immediately". She was blown away.

"It's fantastic and makes you feel like a 'real' writer. Lee Child and other big authors are very generous with their time, and crime fiction is a close-knit community, which is nice for new authors coming through."

Today, Claire lives in the Sydenham area of south-east London with her musician boyfriend Scott Bramley, (36), who she met three years ago on the online dating app OKCupid.

And their creative lifestyles seem to complement one another. Claire says: "Scott is a freelance musician, so that works well for us because we both often work from home and can go travelling together and so on. It's a bit more flexible."

Having lived abroad, she enjoys experiencing new cultures, and decided upon a brief holiday to the Isle of Skye, off the northwest coast of Scotland, to switch off for a while.

"It's pretty remote here," Claire explains. "I've had no reception at all most of the time. The weather is very changeable too, but I love that about Scotland. I'll be refreshed for my visit to Belfast this week."

Of the 100 things that make her happy, good food is a must, so when Claire is back home in Northern Ireland she will make time to visit the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum.

However, books will always be first and foremost in her mind, so an afternoon spent relaxing in Belfast's Linen Hall Library and a shopping spree at No Alibis takes precedence.

NOIReland is the first Northern Irish literary festival of its kind dedicated entirely to crime writing.

With No Alibis founder David Torrans at the helm, and a line-up featuring the likes of Adrian Dunbar, it's bound to be a highlight of the cultural year for McGowan.

"It's lovely to meet readers and also to catch up with other writers at literary festivals, as writing can be a solitary job at times.

"I like to travel a lot, both around the UK and overseas, so luckily being a writer means that sometimes I get to attend book festivals in some interesting places. I went out to New York earlier this year to promote my first US published book, which was fantastic.

"I think it's wonderful that NOIReland has been launched. A crime festival for Northern Ireland is long overdue.

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Claire with boyfriend Scott

"It's also exciting to have television actors attending, to showcase the fantastic role that Northern Ireland is playing in production these days."

Claire will soon dip her toes into the world of film production herself, with her acclaimed Paula Maguire novels - set on the Northern Irish border and written around a super smart forensic psychologist - having been optioned by the BBC.

The author was drawn to writing crime fiction from "a love of puzzles and mysteries".

"So the gripping, dark nature of the genre has always appealed to me. In a funny way, though, that makes it hard to enjoy less compelling fiction sometimes," she says. 

"With crime, you always have built-in plot and drama, which can be missing from other types of stories. There is great talent in Ireland at the moment, north and south.

"Tana French is brilliant, and also writers like Erin Kelly and Susie Steiner, who are doing really fresh things with the thriller and procedural formats."

Watching crime programmes on television is, she agrees, something of a "busman's holiday at times" for her, but she always clears her writing schedule for her favourites, including Happy Valley, The Missing and Broadchurch.

"I was hooked by The Fall too, starring Jamie Dornan. It was great to see Belfast on TV for something that wasn't about the Troubles, though I also think that it's time to tell some of those stories in a different, less depressing way."

With How To Be Happy, Claire has published the fourth Eva Woods book, and with that she has managed to maintain a level of variety in her work that other writers no doubt envy.

She enjoys reading as well as writing women's fiction and believes that avoiding being pigeonholed is one of her greatest achievements to date.

Next up is a trip to the States in 2018 to take up a writing fellowship with Nickelodeon, when Claire will try her hand at writing for the screen and take part in all sorts of workshops.

"That is going to be a huge change for me," the author adds.

If anyone is going to make a success of it, she will.

What's happening at NOIReland Crime Fiction Festival this weekend

NOIReland International Crime Fiction Festival runs from Friday, October 27 to Sunday, October 29 at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, to celebrate our love of crime fiction.

Highlights include:

Friday

  • A series of crimewriting workshops and an opening night party, various times.
  • Opening Night Party, 6.30pm.
  • Line of Duty in the Spotlight with creator Jed Mercurio, actor Adrian Dunbar and the show's producer Stephen Wright, 7.30pm.
  • Accomplished Irish author Benjamin Black (John Banville) in conversation with David Torrans, 9pm.

Saturday

  • A Safe Fear with Caz Frear, Jo Spain, Ali Land and Steve Mosby, 10am.
  • Identities with Adrian McKinty, Abir Mukherjee, Stella Duffy and Louise Welsh; Borderlands - Brian McGilloway, David Young, Arne Dahl and Claire McGowan with Craig Robertson, 11.30am.
  • The Darker Side of Country Life with Graeme Macrae Burnet, Anthony J Quinn, Andrea Carter and Ruth Ware, 3.30pm.
  • Americana with Stuart Neville, Helen Callaghan and Ray Celestin, 5pm.
  • Playing in the Dark: Aidan Gillen talks crime with Brian McGilloway, 7.30pm.
  • International bestseller writer Robert Crais in conversation, 8pm.
  • Halloween Party with a prize for the best crime-themed costume, 10pm-late.

Sunday

  • Telling a Crime Story - Steve Cavanagh, Craig Robertson and Eoin McNamee talk to Diana Bretherick, 10.30am.
  • Viking v Celt with Arne Dahl and Liz Nugent, 12pm.
  • Crime for the 21st Century with Ruty Ware, Martin Edwards and Andrew Wilson, 2.30pm.
  • Sophie Hanna talks to Jake Kerridge, 4pm.

For more details and tickets, visit noireland.com.

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