Author Conversations: Olivia Kiernan And Caz Frear
A dialogue on the art and craft of crime writing
Author Conversations: Olivia Kiernan And Caz Frear is part of a series published by Mystery Tribune which features a dialogue between critically acclaimed crime novelists about their life and work.
Olivia Kiernan is an Irish writer. In a previous life, she completed a diploma in anatomy and physiology then a BSc in Chiropractic before she succumbed to the creative itch and embarked on an MA in Creative writing. In 2015, she began writing Too Close to Breathe, a crime thriller that was published in 2018 and features Dublin detective, Frankie Sheehan. The second in the series, The Killer in Me is published April 2019.
Caz Frear grew up in Coventry, England, and spent her teenage years dreaming of moving to London and writing a novel. After fulfilling her first dream, it wasn’t until she moved back to Coventry thirteen years later that the second finally came true. She has a degree in History & Politics, and when she’s not agonizing over snappy dialogue or incisive prose, she can be found shouting at Arsenal football matches or holding court in the pub on topics she knows nothing about. Sweet Little Lies is her first novel.
OLIVIA KIERNAN (OK): For me, when I begin a new novel, one of the first things I think about is setting. I see it as another character in the book and it shapes my characters’ behaviors a lot. You’re based in the UK and although your novel is set in London, much of the story takes place in Mulderrin. How did you find moving your character from London to the west coast of Ireland?
CAZ FREAR (CF): Well, firstly, Mulderrin is completely made-up! My folks are from the west coast (Mayo and Galway) and I had a real fear about not doing their hometowns’ justice so I created a fictional village, very much capturing the essence of the rural west (I hope) but a complete fabrication.
I think as only 10% of Sweet Little Lies is set in Mulderrin, I knew I’d have to nail things quite quickly with small observations rather than page after page describing the rugged beauty and ‘challenging’ climate, so it made sense to just make somewhere up. It gave me a bit more free rein.
But to answer the question, I found moving Cat from London to Ireland relatively easy, as while I didn’t grow up in London, I did grow up in a big city and we spent most (all!) of our holidays in rural Ireland. So I kind of understood that emotional shift. That feeling of coming home to a home-from-home, if that makes sense?
As second generation Irish, you’re not exactly a fish-out-of-water as your Irishness is branded on you from birth, but you do observe things in a slightly different way – mild confusion blended with real affection. The young Cat, for example, is fascinated by the way none of the roads have proper names – they’re all called things like ‘The Long Road’ or ‘The Road Where Pat Hannon Keeps His Cows’ etc. I remember that feeling of being completely baffled by some of the quirks and traditions, but at the same time feeling like I was right at home.
OK: I love that. I know where I grew up in Ireland, we certainly referred to sections of road according to the families that lived there. A steep hill or sharp bend might be referred to as, ‘Muldoon’s bend’ or ‘Barry’s Hill’. Who needs signposts with directions like that!
And I definitely understand that sense of home from home. I’ve lived in the UK since I was nineteen, all my working, adult life, really. I feel as Irish as ever but there is that feeling of being an interloper, whether visiting ‘home’ or living here. There is a slight sense of not quite belonging to either place.
Frankie experiences that to some extent in The Killer In Me. Called back to her hometown of Clontarf to investigate a gruesome murder, she’s forced to reflect on what she thought she knew about her hometown and compare it to what’s presented to her now.
Even though Clontarf is not more than ten miles from the city center, where Frankie works and lives, it doesn’t take much of a distance in Ireland to experience that shift in the social landscape and she definitely feels that sense of ‘otherness’ you talk about when she’s called back to work on this case.
CF: What made you decide to set your series in Dublin? You’re from Co. Meath, right? Could Co. Meath Frankie have been the same sort of character or do you very much see her as a Dubliner?
OK: It’s not so great a distance between Dublin and Meath and I guess I wanted to give the novel that bigger canvas to work from but I still wanted to set it somewhere I was familiar with. Setting it in Dublin made sense, the gardaí headquarters are there and I felt that the Bureau Frankie heads would most likely be set in the capital. It also allowed me to borrow a lot from real life, using real places but fictionalizing them slightly for the purposes of the book.
For example, the state pathologist’s offices in Dublin are indeed situated in Whitehall but I’ve given them a little facelift. I think, even if I’m taking some creative licence with setting it’s nice to have a real base to work from which helps create that feeling of reality for the reader. I hope! I think that’s important for police procedurals. Although, when I sat down to write this novel, it wasn’t in my mind that I was writing a police procedural but that’s what happened. How did you find yourself writing one? Was it a conscious decision or did the story take over?
CF: Well! It’s a long story that I’ll try to keep relatively brief. I always wanted to write police procedurals (I’d had a major obsession with Lynda La Plante from the age of 12), but DC Cat Kinsella began life as plain old Cat Kinsella. Her earlier incarnation worked in a clothes shop and had both a fiancé and a plucky step-daughter-to-be.
On the darker side, she also had a spending habit that masked a deep inner turmoil – a turmoil rooted in the fact that she firmly believed her dad was responsible for the disappearance for a teenage girl from the west coast of Ireland in 1998. So at least that last bit sounds familiar, right? Cat joined the ranks of the Met Police the day I got over my HUGE hang-up about whether it was wise – or even possible – to write a convincing police procedural without one scrap of police/judicial experience to my name.
OK: I know exactly what you mean. I didn’t immediately recognize the genre I was writing in and like you, I had no background in law enforcement to draw from.
CF: It seems ridiculous now, but I was genuinely convinced for a long time that you had to be somehow ‘in the know’ – an ex police officer/criminal barrister etc – to write within the genre, and I completely disregarded the fact that I had done nothing but read, write, live and breathe crime fiction for over two decades. I mean, it’s not as if anyone could have accused me of not being well-schooled! After many dark-ish nights of the soul, I eventually accepted it was plain old fear of failure that was holding me back.
Cat Kinsella had to be a police officer (it raised the stakes so much more) and I had to write a series (I just knew the character had so much more mileage).
OK: I had the same feeling. I had a character in Frankie who I knew, without doubt, was a high-ranking detective within the gardaí. There was no way that Frankie was going to allow me to write her any other way. She stepped onto that page and I knew she was boss.
CF: So writing about a high-ranking (relatively high-ranking, anyway) female detective was always the plan? Or did you play around with different voices?
OK: In the back of my mind, when I wrote the first novel, Too Close To Breathe, I had an idea of themes I wanted to explore. Those themes circled around our perception of what type of person becomes a victim and what type of person embodies the word, predator. So I wanted Frankie to start from a position of power. Her strengths, in some ways, become her weaknesses.
When I sat down to write, it wasn’t so much her voice, although that did come quickly, but an image of her that was the catalyst for me creatively. I saw her walk out of an autopsy, out on to the streets of Dublin. I knew that whatever she’d just witnessed was not so shocking that as an experienced murder detective it should affect her badly but for some reason I could see that she was very shaken.
It felt to me that what unnerved her the most was her own reaction to the death of this woman. And I knew something terrible had happened to my detective recently and when she witnessed that autopsy she was witnessing her own fears.
OK: Once I’ve finished a draft, I call upon a few contacts (whom I’m very grateful for) within the gardaí and the police force here in the UK to double check some of the procedural or plot elements in the story. For your novel, did you have to research the differences between Irish gardaí and London police?
CF: I bought my uncle (an ex-guard) a steak dinner and threw a million questions at him, if that counts! My questions weren’t so much about procedure though, I was just really conscious about not making the small-town gardaí appear incompetent and therefore I was more concerned with overall realism. Would that ever happen? Is it feasible that this would ever get missed?
Basically, it served the Sweet Little Lies plot for the Irish gardaí to have carried out a surface-job investigation into Maryanne Doyle’s disappearance, but had my uncle ever said, “No, that’s terrible. That’s borderline incompetence”, I would have definitely reworked it. What followed though was an interesting conversation about missing people – the fact that people do just vanish and it’s not as rare as you’d think.
And if they have form for doing disappearing acts, or they’re known for slightly unpredictable behavior, there’s only so much attention the police will give (in the first instance, anyway). That’s not to say they won’t do their job, but it probably won’t be immediate panic stations if an 18-year-old with a history of running away suddenly vanishes. In this sense, it’s probably much the same in the UK. It’s all about risk assessment and a stretched police force has to be pretty brutal in that regard.
CF: Police cuts and funding are a huge topic in the UK at the moment, and I think it’s the same in Ireland? Do you think we have a responsibility to reflect the current political climate in our novels, or is the escapist CSI type representation fine (huge teams, amazing technology, private labs providing test results within hours etc!)
I suspect a detective working a crime scene is making judgments [similar to a healthcare professional]. He/she is not going to test every strand of hair found in a three-story house if a body is found in the basement.
OK: It is a concern in Ireland, yes and it does come up in my novels as Frankie is a Superintendent and should be watching what money is left in the tin, so to speak but I like to keep it light. I’m not writing about the national budget after all. I’m writing fiction. I come from a healthcare background and I think this has given me some insight into how decisions on where to spend money would be made.
In healthcare, you have a multitude of examinations at your disposal, you make judgements all the time on what you want to achieve, the benefit of certain tests over others and of course the risk of performing that test. I suspect a detective working a crime scene is making similar judgments. He/she is not going to test every strand of hair found in a three-story house if a body is found in the basement.
He will pick a path of investigation depending on what’s presented to him and expand or narrow his choice of tests accordingly. There is no limitless budget. There is also the element of speed to consider. If police are strong on the suspect and have made an arrest they may decide to choose tests that will give them answers quickly so they can charge within the 24 hour period they have to hold the suspect.
I try to write with these things in mind, using good old detective work as much as possible because that’s cheap! I tend to set my novels a few years behind real life so that I can reflect what’s going on if I need to.
OK: I love the relationship between Cat and her family – it’s reassuringly dysfunctional! Because of her relationship with her dad, you can tell how important her relationship is with Parnell, as a father figure.
CF: Yeah, Cat definitely has daddy issues, although I didn’t want that to bleed out through a series of toxic relationships with older men. I kind of wanted her to believe, deep down, that not all men are like her dad – for her to seek out better role models. And lo, Detective Sergeant Luigi Parnell was born!
There’s an early scene I cut from Sweet Little Lies where Cat is standing in a shop agonizing over which Christmas card to (begrudgingly) buy for her dad. It was one of those scenes I absolutely loved writing but something wasn’t quite sitting right so I cut it out, put it back, cut it out, put it back, and so on, until I finally realized the problem – much as the scene had lots of dark comic potential, Cat would never buy her Dad a Christmas card, not even to keep the peace with her nagging sister.
This really got me thinking about dads and daughters, about the complicated, hard-to-articulate relationships that women sometimes have with their fathers. Relationships that don’t exactly fit with the sentiments poured down our throats by the greeting-card industry every Christmas, birthday, Father’s Day, etc.
Certainly, in fiction, there’s less written about the father-daughter relationship than the mother-daughter one, which is odd given that it can be the most complex. Psychologists say that whether you’re a daddy’s girl or you’re at the other end of the spectrum – what they call the ‘disappointed daughter’ – your relationship with your father will always shape your personal life, so it’s an interesting topic to cover and I absolutely loved writing their scenes.
…for me, the puzzle, the crime is paramount. Novels like Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, balance both crime and personal story beautifully.
We’re all products of our upbringing so can you ever truly understand a character without seeing first-hand where they came from (I LOVED getting to know Frankie’s family in The Killer in Me, btw). I reckon there’s probably some great examples of the true ‘lone wolf’ detective, but I love a flesh-and-blood main protagonist and I think families help to draw out the softer OR the more neurotic/brutal side to a character. What do you think?
OK: I really enjoyed writing the scenes with Frankie’s family. It does help fix the character in the reader’s mind more, I think. But I guess for me, the puzzle, the crime is paramount. Novels like Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, balance both crime and personal story beautifully. We get a great sense of Starling’s vulnerability, her ‘weak spot’ and a feeling of what drives her through Lector who recounts her background.
And we see how she is still haunted by the slaughtering of lambs on her uncle’s farm and her failed attempt to rescue one. We get enough to add depth to character so that we can attempt to predict her action or motivation but not so much that it consumes the narrative. With The Killer In Me, I always knew the plot would bring Frankie back to her family because the book deals with the question of nature and nurture, so I structured it so that the murder investigation would begin in her hometown. Frankie, a trained profiler, must look at her own past, her family, the place where she grew up so that she can attempt to understand how this killer works.
OK: From changing Cat’s character initially to cutting scenes like the ‘card buying scene’ to bring out Cat’s true character, it makes me think about your editing process. Do you make these changes as you go along or when do you do most of your editing and revisions?
CF: Oh god, I used to be terrible for editing-as-I-go. I’d literally spend weeks on one chapter, days on one paragraph. The ridiculous thing is that a lot of the time, the way you wrote it first is probably the best way. It tends to showcase your raw ‘voice’, as opposed to the ‘I swallowed a thesaurus’ writer speak. I’m definitely a lot better now. I try to get a rough draft down first and then go back and edit, but I’m still not completely reformed.
It still knocks my confidence if I feel like I’m written something sub-standard, even if I know I can go back and fix it. This is why I find the first draft pure agony – I find it so psychologically draining because you have to keep ploughing on, even though nothing is coming out the way you planned it, and all you have is the hope that it’ll come good in the second draft (note to aspiring writers – it almost always comes good in the second draft, and if it doesn’t, there’s the third draft, the fourth, the fifth….)