The 46-year-old Dub is warm, friendly and full of chat. Perched on a sofa in the lobby of The Westbury Hotel, Carroll isn’t pint-sized, she’s gin and slimline tonic size, almost fragile, with kind eyes and her trademark poker straight blonde hair.
This month, her 11th novel hits the shelves (she’s already 90,000 words through her 12th). After ten years of writing (and 300,000 paperbacks sold) where do the ideas keep coming from? ‘Hospital’ is the short answer for her latest book. After a bad fall that smashed her arm “into smithereens” she needed an operation. While laid up in hospital she was “catching up on trashy magazines” when she came across an article about divorce hotels.
“I thought it was a joke,” she explains.
Divorce hotels might sound stranger than fiction, but they do exist and Carroll became fascinated by the story of a Dutch hotelier who had been through a divorce and was horrified by how the legal system dragged the process out. He wanted to offer an alternative, a hotel where guests could “check in married and check out single”. That tagline was “too good to be true” so Carroll ran with the idea for Love Me Or Leave Me, creating four central female characters who find themselves in a divorce hotel.
It’s a decade since Carroll’s first bestseller He Loves Me Not, He Loves Me came out, but despite being a prolific author she is still probably best-known for playing Nicola Prendergast, “the horrible old cow everyone loved to hate” in Fair City. “I went in for a week and stayed 15 years,” she says of the show, but acting was nothing new to her. “I was one of those really annoying showbiz kids who used go into school asking to take time off for auditions.”
She attended Loreto College on Stephen’s Green and The Betty Ann Norton Theatre School. Later, Carroll studied commerce in UCD and tried teaching in her old school before landing Fair City, where she says there was often as much drama behind the scenes as here was on screen. It’s the one part of acting she misses, the fun, the drama, the gossip — the life of a writer can be a lonely one.
Being part of a close-knit circle of female Irish writers helps. “Our job is lonely and it’s isolated. You agree with your editor what you’ll write about and then you are left on your own.” She makes a habit of meeting up with others who know what she’s going through to “yak and bounce off each other”.
She’s also taken the advice of Marian Keyes who said writing should be like a nine-to-five office job. It helps on days when she feels distracted. “When you are stuck looking at a mound of laundry... I think if I was in a post office or a bank I wouldn’t be able to skive off and start cleaning!” She describes herself as a “complete disciplinarian” now but says she takes weekends off. “You need to have a life and you need a break from it as well — it’s intense.”
It was in her Fair City dressing room that Carroll first started scribbling plots for stories of her own instead of learning her lines. Being in a soap opera taught her the importance of creating strong characters. “Storylines come and go, but it’s the character that the audience follow,” she says.
It was the encouragement of friend, former Fair City director and award-winning author Anita Notaro that gave her the confidence to get a first draft together and send it to a publisher. Notaro was her “rock” and Carroll says: “I have her to thank”.
The late Maeve Binchy was also “very encouraging”. When asked how she feels about those who are dismissive of her genre, Carroll cites a great story of Binchy’s: “Maeve was walking down the road after Circle of Friends came out and someone stopped her said ‘I read your book’. When Binchy asked what they thought, the stranger said ‘I could have written that myself’, to which Binchy remarked ‘but you didn’t’. I thought that was brilliant.”
Carroll loves talking and “boasting about my friends”, who shouldn’t be surprised if they recognise themselves in her storylines. On nights out, over wine and “juicy gossip” she is often warned “Don’t you dare write about this!”
“I do a lot of tweaking,” she admits. “Otherwise I’d have no friends.”
While Carroll is more than happy to tell tales about the adventures (and misadventures) of friends, getting her to open up about herself is not as easy. I ask if she puts any of herself into her characters and for the first time she has trouble answering.
“Eh, do I? I think, I never thought about that actually. Y’know, well, I’m writing a character at the moment that is a bit of an everywoman.” After a moment she says, “but it’s a bit like acting, you tend to think what would she do? Not what would I do” and then, “I love writing characters that are nothing like me, I’m just a very ordinary boring middle-aged women with cats and dogs.”
How then would those who know her best describe her? “I hope they’d say I’m a good friend,” she says and it’s back to chatting about her friends.
She will say that she has dipped her toe in internet dating. “There was one fella I met online who sounded nice,” but when the time came to meet, alarm bells started ringing. “He said he wasn’t available at weekends, but he was free weekdays from 9 to 4.” Suspecting something, she looked over a picture he sent.
“He said he was best man at his brother’s wedding” but on closer inspection she saw “the bride was photoshopped out, he’s holding her hand and you could just make out a bouquet of peonies… All my dreams come true!” she laughs.
She is single, but “still hopeful” about her own love life saying only: “It would be lovely to be in a relationship with the right person,” plus it’s an endless topic for a romantic fiction writer with such a huge work rate. “There is no subject as mystifying, that intrigues me more than the human search for love.”
So, if she were to write her own life story what kind of book would it be? “It would be the most boring book in the world... and no one would buy it.” Carroll can tell a cracking story, but maybe she’s not ready to tell us her own just yet.
Love Me Or Leave Me by Claudia Carroll is out on May 22.