Who are your favourite contemporary thriller writers?
I love Gillian Flynn almost as much as I love smugly telling people that I was reading her long before Gone Girl (and if I’m being really smug I pronounce her name with a hard ‘G’, like she does). I’m a huge fan of Liz Nugent and Tana French, two of my fellow Irish crime writers. One of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in recent years is Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. It’s genuinely unnerving and had me double-checking that my front door was really locked. (Twice.) My favourite crime writer of all time is Michael Connelly, whose books I’ve been reading on the day of release for almost twenty years. One of my prized possessions is a limited-to-200, red leather bound, slipcovered, gilded edge edition of Nine Dragons which he personally inscribed to me. If my house was on fire, all humans were safe and I could only grab one thing to save, it’d be that. My favourite novel of all time is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (don’t judge, just go read it for yourself – it’s the most magnificent adventure!) closely followed by Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Reader by Bernard Schlink and We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
Distress Signals has echoes of Agatha Christie. How influenced are you by classic thrillers and their conventions?
For me, first and foremost, it’s about the plot. I’m really interested in the mechanics of story and what it is exactly that leaves us feeling both shocked and satisfied at the end of a tightly woven yarn. While as a reader I’ve devoured the stylish psychological suspense we’ve been spoiled with these past few years, I’ve also felt a bit nostalgic for the high-concept thriller (like Tell No One by Harlan Coben and Derailed by James Siegel) that above all else, make you feel curious. You simply have to know what happens next, what’s really going on. Christie’s And Then There Were None certainly fits into this category for me, but I’m also thinking of twisty movies from the 80s and early 90s like Jagged Edge and Presumed Innocent. Every scene has action, the plots are airtight and the endings are both unexpected and hugely satisfying. They’re the kind of stories I like and that’s the kind of story I aimed to create with Distress Signals.
What was the greatest challenge you faced writing the novel?
I think it’s only fair that the reader has a chance to solve the mystery for themselves (although I’d be devastated if they did). That means leaving clues lying around in broad daylight, so to speak, but doing it in such a way that nobody takes much notice of them. Ideally a reader is utterly shocked by the ‘big reveal’ but if they ever re-read the novel, they’ll see that the truth was clearly signalled. It’s a tightrope walk to get it right and especially difficult when you can’t experience the novel from a reader’s perspective. That was the greatest challenge.
Throughout Distress Signals you marry classic thriller conventions with modern technology, was this a conscious attempt to ‘update’ the thriller, or something that came naturally?
Technology so permeates every aspect of our lives, it wouldn’t be realistic to write a novel set in the present day that doesn’t feature it. Today, if you want to get away with a crime or to disappear from your life, technology is going to try and trip you up at every turn. When Sarah disappeared, I thought about what I could do to trace her movements if I was sitting at home armed with only my computer and my broadband connection – and then I made Adam do the same things on the page. As for social media and messaging apps, I really don’t think the average person appreciates just how much information about their lives, their location, their movements, etc. they reveal in what they post online. (Maybe it’s just because I write in this genre but if I get some fancy latte art in my coffee and I decide to snap a picture, I’ll wait until after I’ve left the location to post it to Instagram.) What’s been really interesting is writing my second book, which features flashbacks to the mid-2000s. Back then my phone couldn’t take or send pictures, Facebook was only available to students at certain universities and I was still carrying around a very early – and very awful – attempt at a novel on a floppy disk. It’s amazing how much daily life has changed just in the last ten years or so. I find it fascinating.
The novel contains plenty of wry and well-observed missives on modern culture and the trappings of technology. How important is the inclusion of humour in your writing?
The way I look at it is this: there are no original ideas. Everything’s been done before and will be again, there are supposedly only seven basic plots, etc. etc. The only truly original thing you have as a writer is your voice, once you manage to excavate it from underneath all the imitations of other writers’ voices you tend to do when you first start writing. Your voice is unique so while genre conventions must be respected, it’s important to keep it intact. If that means you have a tendency to crack jokes even when people are missing or dead, well then, my advice would be to go ahead, you special little snowflake – but take out half of them when you come to write the next draft because, well, people are dead after all.
What inspired your transition from travel memoir writing to thriller fiction?
There was actually another stop in between: women’s commercial fiction. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I figured out that there were people behind the books I loved to read – and I used to make up stories to “read” to my Barbies and teddy-bears before I could spell, I was so impatient to start. But the first book I ended up finishing was Mousetrapped, the story of the eighteen months I spent working in a hotel in Walt Disney World, Florida. It got rejected all over town until I decided to self-publish it in 2010, hoping that it would sell enough to keep me ink cartridges and coffee while I wrote a novel. At this juncture, I made a mistake – I tried to write what I thought would get me published, and for some reason I thought this was women’s commercial fiction. (This despite the fact that I have been obsessively reading crime and thriller fiction since I discovered Patricia Cornwell at the age of 12 or 13. Looking back, I think I was mostly just too scared to write the thriller I’d always wanted to. What if I couldn’t?) Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. But somewhere in the midst of my many half-hearted attempts, I read an article about cruise ship disappearances and the idea that would become Distress Signals began to form. I actually remember the day when I realised my mistake and ditched the idea of writing anything but it; everything clicked into place. If you want to get published, forget about the market and agents and all that – just sit down and write the book you want to read.
You are currently studying a BA in English Literature. Having been exposed to a range of styles and genres, what drew you towards writing in the thriller genre?
As I went back as a mature student when I was 32, I was reading widely and writing Distress Signals long before I started at Trinity College Dublin, so I don’t think it had any effect. (Sorry, TCD!) But why do I write crime? Because it’s what I love to read most of all, and that’s because I love the puzzle. I love the mystery. Crime/thriller are the only genre where you are guaranteed to get a twisty tale with a big reveal at the end. For me as a reader, you can’t beat that.
Was Distress Signals inspired by true events?
While the events in Distress Signals are entirely fictional, the idea for it came from an article called ‘Lost at Sea’ that Jon Ronson wrote for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine in November 2011. It was about the disappearance of a young British woman, Rebecca Coriam, from the Disney Wonder. I worked for a time in Walt Disney World and I know a couple of people who’ve worked for the Disney Cruise Line, so initially it was this connection that piqued my interest. Disney maintained that Rebecca had accidentally fallen overboard, but there were many unanswered questions. I couldn’t believe how lackadaisical the investigation into Rebecca’s disappearance appeared to have been. In the article, Ronson mentioned something called International Cruise Victims, which made me wonder what the hell was going on out there on these ships that, first of all, this organisation existed and, second of all, it clearly needed to? I started researching the topic online, much like Adam does in the book. I soon realised that they are, effectively, no police at sea, and the crime/thriller writer in me starting thinking, A cruise ship would be the perfect place to get away with murder.
You’ve travelled a lot – how much did your wanderlust inspire the plot?
It certainly shaped it in a very real way. They say you should write what you know and I used a number of my own experiences in the book. I’ve spent a lot of time in Nice – I actually went there to start Distress Signals – and one day, sitting on a bench above the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, I saw an enormous cruise ship out in the water with little boats ferrying its passengers to and fro. It wasn’t until then that the Celebrate made a stop in the same spot. The apartment building where Peter lives is the same one I stayed in when I was in Nice – although my apartment was much nicer than his, thankfully. Incidentally, Sarah and Adam live my old apartment in Cork. When I lived in Orlando I was a housekeeping supervisor in a hotel with more than 2,000 rooms and I mined that for Corinne’s job as a cabin attendant aboard the ship. The Duponts have been following me around too, or perhaps I’ve been following them: we used to stay on a campsite near Compiègne on family holidays, and the Parisian suburb where Romain finds Jean is based on Marly-le-Roi, a real Parisian suburb which hosted a youth press conference I went to when I was a teenager.
But perhaps the biggest thing I took my travels was what happens when you’re trying to contact someone who is far away and you can’t rely on their mobile phone. I went backpacking in Central America back in 2008 and as soon as I landed in a new place, the first thing I had to do was locate an internet café and reassure my mum I was alive – or else. (I’m convinced she had Interpol on speed-dial the whole time we were away.) But if I stopped checking in, how would she have found us? For instance, we spent a week of that trip staying in wooden hut in a micro-brewery down the end of a dirt track outside a tiny Honduran village where the nearest phone line was fifteen minutes’ drive away. The world feels tiny to us now but it’s just an illusion. Once you take technology out of the equation, its size is unfathomable.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
Can I have two? The first is that you should write the book you want to read but can’t find on the shelf. That’s what I did with Distress Signals. The second is that you should ignore the odds. People will tell you that something like less than 1% of novels get published, but even if that were true (how could anyone measure that?!), it includes people who have completely unsaleable novels, who address their agent queries to ‘whom it may concern’ and who put glitter in their submission packages. It’s not less than 1% of people like you who have written books like yours. And remember: if you give up, you are 100% guaranteed not to get published. Keep going. You only need one person to say ‘Yes.’
What inspires you the most?
All the times in my life when I reached THE END and looked up from the book I was reading to discover that the living room had grown dark or that the beach was nearly deserted or that the plane had already started its descent, and felt surprise. For me, there is simply nothing better than being so completely immersed in a book that you forget about the real world for a little while, and I want to make other people feel that way. I sit down at my desk in the hope that, a year or more from now, someone will miss their stop or let their tea go cold or burn their dinner because of what I wrote that day.
A version of this Q&A first appeared in the mass market edition of Distress Signals, published January 5, 2017.