A Q and A with Claire McGowan


What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I started my first novel when I was nine, though I
only got three pages in. I used to spend hours writing ideas for stories and drawing
pictures of my characters. When I grew up it was still my dream, but I’d convinced
myself, without really trying, that it wasn’t going to happen. I spent my early twenties
either holed up in libraries reading medieval French, or mooching around the world
making notes. I had lots of ideas but never finished anything. It wasn’t until I was
twenty-five that I really started trying. When I finished writing my first book, after two
years, it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had. It’s been rewritten about thirty
times, and so far not seen the light of day – but I finished it!
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love how it can transport you. I’m not much of a planner, so the book can take me
in unexpected directions, discovering entirely new places and people. It’s a form of
magic, really. Also, you can do it anywhere – I’ve written sitting in the luggage rack
of an overcrowded train before, and been perfectly happy.
Do you tend to begin with a character or a plot?
They’re usually quite entwined. I’ll tend to have the spark of an idea, a scene or
situation, and the characters will develop from that. I don’t plan out my characters or
write back stories for them. I have to just get a feel for what they’re like and how they
would behave – the same way you get to know people in real life; they are gradually
revealed.
What inspired you to write The Fall?
A few years ago I had a dream about two women in a courtroom. In the dream, one
was crying hysterically after seeing her boyfriend sent to prison, and the other was
stealing something from her. So I knew I wanted to write about a murder, an
investigation, and a trial with a possible miscarriage of justice. I also knew the
relationship between these two women would be at the heart of the book: what
happens when an act of violence brings together people from very different
backgrounds? Both of their lives are ruined by the murder and its aftermath, and the
only way to put things right is for them to trust each other, despite the wide social gap
between them. I was also interested in how much you can know, and really trust,
another person. If all the evidence suggested someone you love had committed a
murder, how far would you go to defend them?
Did you find it challenging writing about two such different women?
There’s a familiar old saying that you should write what you know. But of all the
characters, the most challenging was probably the one who’s most like me in real life
(Charlotte). Perhaps because she’s like someone I could quite easily know – there’s less
creativity involved. Keisha is least like me, but I could hear her voice very clearly. I
also enjoyed writing the male character, Hegarty. There’s a point where you ask
yourself if you’re entitled to write as someone of a different race or gender, but
sometimes this is the source of the greatest creativity.
Did anything surprise you during the course of writing this book?
I always knew how it was going to end – though this has been controversial to some
readers – but I didn’t know much else in between that and the start. I was surprised
by how much legal content I ended up with. I suppose I’ve always been quite fascinated
by courtroom drama (too much Ally McBeal in my youth). I was also surprised that I
ended up adding a male point of view, as Hegarty was a fairly late addition, but grew
into one of my favourites.
The Fall has a very specific setting in central and north London – is this significant?
I’ve always enjoyed reading books with a strong sense of place, and The Fall is very
much influenced by its setting. It’s a book about cities and how we live cheek-by-jowl,
but our lives are utterly separate. I first moved to London in 2007, when I rented a flat
on Kentish Town Road. After that I lived around Hampstead and Belsize Park for a
few years. I was fascinated by the extremes that existed in that area – on one short bus
ride, or even walking from one street to another, you’d go from very wealthy to very
poor. And despite this proximity, our lives don’t seem to intersect much. Almost
everyone I met in the city was from a similar middle-class-and-university background
to myself. This was several years ago, and I think if anything the gap has widened
since then, as the financial crisis has taken hold. In the book, I wanted to explore what
might happen when a violent event ruptures the barriers between us and brings those
lives together.
What’s the significance of the title?
I wanted to reflect the background of the recession and the fall of the money markets,
as I felt this was a vital trigger for the events in the book. The other meaning is the
sense of a moral fall – all the characters find their values tested to the limits. The
murder at the start of the book and the events that follow force them out of their
normal lives and mean they ‘fall’ into different ones.
The Fall is described as a psychological thriller – were you surprised to find it fitted into the crime/thriller genre?
I was quite surprised at the time, probably because I didn’t realise how broad the
genre is. The murder happens at the start of the novel and I think you can probably
work out who did it – it’s not so much ‘who done it’ as ‘what happens next’, and will
they manage to tell the truth or crack under the strain. The relationship between
Charlotte and Keisha – two young women of a similar age, living close to each other,
but with totally different lives – is for me the main crux of the book. I’m very happy
to be included in crime though, it’s a fun and friendly genre and also hugely popular.
What and who are some of your favourite books and authors?
The books I love best combine beautiful writing with gripping plots. The Secret
History is, perhaps predictably, one of my favourite ever books – a lesson in how to
write breathtaking prose that demands to be read over and over. It’s a big favourite
among many crime writers. I also love John Irving, Lionel Shriver, Elizabeth Jane
Howard, and in crime Sophie Hannah and a recent discovery, Tana French (another
Irish writer).
Can you tell us a little about what you are working on next?
My next book will be more crime-focussed than The Fall. It’s the start of a series set
in Northern Ireland, where I’m from, and follows a young female psychologist who’s
drawn back to her home town to work on a series of cases involving missing girls.
Situated on the Irish borderlands, the town is full of secrets and is steeped in a past
that refuses to stay buried. It’s been very exciting working on my first series and
thinking about the sequel.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out in his/her career?
My number one piece of advice, which I tell people until they’re sick to death of me,
is this: finish your book. If you try to make every one of your 100,000 words perfect,
you will literally never finish. But if you carry on writing and don’t stop, before too
long you’ll have a book, and that’s something you can work with. When I finally
finished one I felt something click, and realised I’d be able to do it again. And hopefully
again . . .

Q&A pdf This Q&A will feature as bonus material in the paperback of The Fall, released August 2012. 

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