Alice Beazer was delighted to speak to the super-talented and down-to-earth author Jo Spain about the inspiration behind Dirty Little Secrets, her writing habits, and her exciting upcoming projects.
- First and foremost- congratulations on your latest novel. I finished it within 24 hours – it was tense! What was the initial inspiration for Dirty Little Secrets?
Thank you. Mission accomplished. We just need ten million other people to think like you and I’ll be set. I don’t know what’s keeping them. As for what inspired this future New York Times bestseller, a while before I started Dirty Little Secrets, I’d heard a news story about somebody being found dead in their house and they’d been, eh, decomposing for quite some time. It was portrayed as a tragedy: why had nobody checked on him, where were his family and so on. He was entirely alone in the world. That stuck in my head. How anybody could end up so alone? Is it shyness? Independence? Being anti-social? Or what if you’ve pushed everybody away and nobody cares that you’re on your own? That’s what I started this book with. A series of questions. How could Olive Collins have been dead for three months before anybody noticed?
- The story is told from Olive’s perspective, and in third person, focusing on each of her neighbours and revealing their innermost thoughts. Why did you choose to structure the story in this way? and which of your characters was your favourite to write?
Because I wanted to make it really, really hard on myself. Seriously, it dawned on me halfway through that what I had initially thought was a logical structure was actually incredibly complex. It was necessary, though. We had to hear Olive’s perspective and her neighbours to see the huge gap in people’s points of view. If she’s dead and silent, you’re relying on the testimonies of the living suspects. And if it’s solely her narrating, you’re relying on the voice of a very flawed woman. So that meant creating a whole cast of characters that had to be distinct and plausible. My favourites to write were probably Holly and Wolf because they’re anarchic. They say what they’re thinking while all the grown-ups are on their best behaviour around the cops.
- Money as a corrupting force stands out as a key theme – When you wrote Dirty Little Secrets, was this message something you deliberately wanted to work in the novel?
No, but it made itself heard. When you want to introduce motivation for killing, it usually comes down to money, sex, power or revenge and even then it’s usually revenge for something to do with money or sex. I did specifically pick a salubrious, exclusive neighbourhood as a backdrop, though. I enjoy crime that strips away wealthy veneers as opposed to gritty crime in places where you expect it.
- The novel also touches upon some major issues, through the back-stories being revealed along the way – including domestic violence. How do you approach writing about such a difficult topic?
Very sensitively and with a lot of research. My first novel examined Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes in Ireland and that set the bar. The trick is to research like I’m writing a thesis and then put all that out of mind so it doesn’t feel like I’m battering the reader with my academic knowledge – just that it’s there, innately, and shows in the writing. And putting your head in the mind of the person suffering really helps. If you can cry for your own characters’ pain, the reader will too.
- Almost the entire story takes place in one small (and very intense) setting – that is, the gated community of Withered Vale. What inspired you to create this setting?
I think if I’d killed Olive in an open estate, a large neighbourhood or apartment complex, it would have ended up being a police procedural with any amount of suspects. Plus, it wouldn’t have been as unusual that she could be anonymous and abandoned in a large place. I wanted to make this story about lies and personal connections, or lack of.
- I loved the way in which with each chapter, a tiny crack appeared in the seemingly perfect neighbourhood which gradually builds towards the surprising finale (I literally had no idea until the very end). Before you wrote Dirty Little Secrets, did you plan each minute detail and reveal of information, or do you have a general idea of the structure, and invent details during the writing process?
Yes, I’m a genius, I plan everything. Ha, no, I do generally plan to a good extent. I’ve the plot worked out and the characters and a loose outline of how the story is going to go but the details usually find themselves. For instance, I’d no idea that Ron had any family until I realised he was looking a little two dimensional on the page and needed to be filled in.
- At the forefront of the investigation we have Frank and Emma, both of whom have much more going on than meets the eye. I particularly liked Emma. Will we be seeing more of them in the future?
I tend to leave standalones as standalones, but I these are my favourite detectives out of everything I’ve written (honestly, even above my series detective Tom Reynolds) and I think if I bring them to screen, I will probably serialise them. I love their connection.
- Your journey to becoming an author is idiosyncratic to say the very least – can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be published?
I wrote a book, my first one, and entered the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller, was shortlisted and got a publishing deal all in the space of eighteen months. Yep, it was a bit strange. No agent, no creative writing classes, no years of rejection slips, nothing normal about it. I did write in my job, speeches and press statements in parliament and I’d had journalist training but as to why I wrote the book to begin with… I’m an avid reader, been so since aged four. And mostly crime fiction. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life but never thought it was possible. Then, my husband lost his job a few years ago, we were stuck financially and I thought I’d try earn some money on the side – with a book. It was completely crazy and I have no idea why it worked. I’m just grateful every day that it did.
- A very linked question: to what extent does your professional background – as a policy advisor and vice chair of a business body – influence your writing? Does it influence you at all?
It certainly gave me the skills of research and writing fast. I’ve always been interested in history and current affairs and I guess that, combined with a sense of social justice, or injustice, led to both my interest in politics and now my writing.
- You have written an impressive number of novels – all bestsellers – since With Our Blessing. How do you approach the writing process? Do you work a set pattern of hours each day/week, or do you wait until inspiration strikes? (and how on earth do you fit being an author in around having a family?!)
I’m a really fast writer, I’ve no problem admitting it. When I decide on a novel, I will think about it for a few months; the characters, the twists. Then I’ll work out an outline. And then I’ll sit and write it in a few weeks. My fastest, Dirty Little Secrets, took two and half weeks to write as a first draft. During that time, I’m no good to anybody. My head is down, I’ll work twelve, fourteen hours a day. I could get 15,000 words plus on the page. The family work around me, they’re used to it now because when I’m not writing, I’m off and I’m here, but when I’m working, I’m in my head. When the first draft is done, I’ll move to edit phase, which is much more relaxed and I’ll work for a few hours a day. Novels don’t bother me at all. Scriptwriting, which is my full time job now, is far more demanding and stressful!
- Are you working on anything new at the moment?
My sixth Tom Reynolds is out in June (due out anyhow, everything is up in the air with Covid19) and I’ve a really, really exciting standalone out early next year. It’s (I think) the best twist I’ve written to date and I love it. I’m writing a few TV series at the moment, with one due to film this summer (we hope…again, it’s been delayed because of the pandemic). I created and co-wrote a hit show in Ireland in 2018 and it went worldwide so I’ve been inundated with TV work since then. It’s exciting, but tough juggling scripts and books.
What is your favourite (crime) book you have read so far this year?
That’s like picking a favourite child! Off the top of my head… I’ve just read an advance copy of one due out in August; The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard and it is terrific. Of those already released, I absolutely adored Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. Her writing is utterly vivid with a low-lying sinister atmosphere at play the whole time. Highly recommended.
Dirty Little Secrets (paperback) was published by Quercus (28 May 2020), ISBN-13: 978-1787474338
Jo’s latest novel, Six Wicked Reasons will be published in paperback by Quercus books in September 2020, ISBN-13: 978-1529400274