Cork solicitor Catherine Kirwan is the latest legal eagle to turn her hand to writing novels. The two trades to well together, she tells Colette Sheridan.
When solicitor Catherine Kirwan, whose debut novel has just been published, set up a Ulysses reading group to read James Joyce’s difficult to me with like-minded people, it was a life-changing experience.
It gave Kirwan a way into writing.
The Cork-based Co Waterford-born legal eagle, and now a writer of crime fiction, had been to see an adaptation of Ulysses at the Everyman about five years ago.
Afterwards, she got chatting to a friend. They both loved the show and said they’d like to read the most famous novel of the twentieth century.
Kirwan put out a call on Facebook for fellow readers and a group of 12 used to get together every Monday night in the bar of the Pavilion where they’d discuss an episode (chapters in Ulysses are called ‘episodes’), reading one a week. (This was aided by Declan Kiberd’s book, Ulysses and Us.)
Kirwan took it upon herself to write up a report on each meeting, some of which was about Ulysses with the rest of it being “made up and creative and trying to be funny.
For Kirwan, it was a form of validation and soon afterwards, she wrote her first short story.
She showed the story to a number of people. One of them said it made her stomach lurch. “It gave me a huge thrill that I had done that to somebody. I realised the twist in the story was like what you’d get in a crime novel.
"I thought that maybe I should write a crime novel. That short story was long-listed for the Fish literary prize which was great encouragement for me.”
Kirwan, who grew up on a farm in the parish of Fews, in the Comeragh region of Co Waterford, was always interested in writing and says she went through a Little Women phase, wanting to be Jo March, the literary sister in Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth-century novel. Kirwan’s mother always said that she should write a book. But Kirwan didn’t think she’d ever be able to.
English and history were Kirwan’s favourite subjects at school, but she was also interested in law, being a fan of TV legal dramas such as Rumpole of the Bailey. Kirwan won a place at Mary Immaculate teacher training college in Limerick but she really wanted to come to Cork. She decided to study law at UCC as it was the 1980s when “nobody had jobs.
"I thought I’d have a better chance of getting a job with a law degree. Nobody in my family had done law”.
Kirwan says that coming to Cork (at the tender age of 16) was such a big deal that she might as well have been coming to New York. She got to know the city well and has made Cork a character in her novel, Darkest Truth.
“Cork is a little bit cranky and awkward but beautiful,” she says.
In the novel, Kirwan writes: “Cork is small, with all kind of hidden connections. Information is currency here and news seeps through the cracks in the broken-down pavements.”
Like herself, the main character in Kirwan’s novel, Finn Fitzpatrick, is a practising solicitor who is interested in the arts. When Fitzpatrick is approached by a man to investigate the death of his daughter, her initial instinct is to refuse.
The father is grieving, unable to accept that his daughter committed suicide. The father has reason to believe that his daughter was groomed and abused by Ireland’s ‘most famous film director’ when she went to workshops given by him at a film festival.
Fitzpatrick, despite herself, is somehow drawn to the story and endangers her own life in the course of her investigation. Written in the first person, it’s a pacey page-turner, full of twists.
Kirwan wrote her novel at weekends and during holidays from work, and an extract was short-listed in a competition run by Penguin Random House and the Daily Mail in 2016. One of the judges, Luigi Bonomi, is also a literary agent. He read the novel in full and took Kirwan on as a client.
She did further work on the novel and Century Arrow, part of Penguin Random House, decided to publish it.
After that came the editing process and Kirwan’s fleshing out of some under-written characters.
Shrewdly, Kirwan has created a whole world in her novel with characters such as a garda detective, and others, who will reappear in her next novel of what she hopes will be part of a series.
What is it about the legal profession and its incursion into crime literature? There are a number of crime and thriller authors in this country with a legal background such as Andrea Carter, Michael O’Higgins, and Eoin McNamee.
Kirwan, an avid reader of crime fiction as well as other genres, says: “An awful lot of lawyers were good at English in school and enjoy writing. Also, working in law is about persuading people and constructing arguments. It’s about putting words together. That’s a lot of what I do. It’s very compatible with writing books.”
..apropos to our recent tweet-out for the 3D medium of print & ink👍🏽 we freely admit that we will be buying the audio book of DARKEST TRUTH by Catherine Kirwan [a newly published author residing in this city of writers] which will be narrated by Eileen Walsh. #BuyLocal Always! 📚 pic.twitter.com/sdpsvewPtK— WhazonCork (@whazoncork) November 21, 2018
Asked if there is snobbery about crime fiction being a lesser genre than literary fiction, Kirwan says: “Some people think that. I don’t really. Crime fiction is just different. I think there are only good books and bad books. A really well-written crime novel by John Le Carré can be every bit as good and better than some literary fiction.”
As well as the best writers of crime fiction such as Ian Rankin, Kirwan likes literary fiction by authors such as Anne Enright and Maggie O’Farrell. The river Lee features heavily in Darkest Truth. Kirwan has been involved in the Save Cork City campaign that opposes the plan for flood walls.
“I had spent so long observing the river and writing about it that I was horrified beyond belief at the stupidity and barbarism of the OPW plans. I couldn’t stand by so I got involved in the campaign. I’ve had to step back from it with the book.
Spoken like a true (albeit adopted) Corkonian.
Darkest Truth by Catherine Kirwan is published by Century at €14.99.