Jo Spain is at the vanguard of Ireland’s flourishing crime writing scene, one that is being led by women. As she publishes her eighth novel, and works on international TV scripts, the sky’s the limit for the prolific author, says
Home may be where the heart is but for writer Jo Spain, it is where evil deeds and bad tidings lurk around every corner. And very happy she is about it too.
I have this endless capacity for horrific scenarios in my head. I have an incredibly overactive imagination — I do that thing every night before I go to bed of checking every door, window, wardrobe, under the bed.
“Since I was a child, I’ve been able to go beyond a normal situation and imagine the worst possible thing that could happen. And that seems to work really well in crime fiction,” she laughs.
Spain may be a best-selling author but her writing quarters are far from fancy — not for her a wood-panelled study or cosy garden studio, rather she cooks up all her twisty and fiendish plots somewhere more prosaic.
“I write in the kitchen. I have a remarkable ability to tune out noise,” she says.
The 40-year-old Dublin native is in the vanguard of Ireland’s flourishing crime fiction scene, one that is being led by women.
“It’s phenomenal. There was that whole Scandi noir phase for a while and then the light seemed to just swing on to Ireland. People say writers breed other writers — you’re looking at somebody else doing it and saying, why can’t I? Because we are so close to England and their culture, I would have grown up reading British authors — then when the likes of Tana French and John Connolly came along I thought, well Irish authors are equally able to write at that level. And obviously there were a whole lot of us thinking that at the same time — it has just exploded and there’s a lot more coming behind us.”
Spain secured a publishing deal after she was shortlisted in theRichard and Judy ‘Search for aBestseller’ competition in 2015, and since then has published seven books; her eighth and latest is the gripping thriller Six Wicked Reasons about a family whose secrets come back to haunt them when their missing brother shows up.
This one is very much about dysfunctional families, something I think Irish people do very well — we all know them.
Spain, who previously worked as a journalist, gave up her full-time job as a Sinn Féin political advisor shortly after she got her publishing deal.
“It was like jumping off the side of a cliff and hoping the parachute would work. It was hairy — there was at least a year there where I was looking at sales numbers and thinking this is not going to happen for me, and then suddenly it clicked into place.”
While it may have seemed a big risk at the time, Spain says she always believed she had the talent to succeed as a writer. She was raised in Belcamp, near Coolock in Dublin, and says reading helped her navigate the challenges of growing up in sometimes difficult circumstances.
“It was real working-class Dublin, there was a lot of smart and funny people around but at the same time, it was a tough place to be growing up. And it looked awful, fields with bonfires burned out, horses tied up, boarded-up houses. And yet I was reading these books by people like Enid Blyton, set in these really lovely places and realising there was a world beyond where I was growing up. I was a voracious reader, I lived in the library. Also, I had a run of fantastic teachers in school who really put a lot of effort into me, and made me believe I was a very good writer. So whatever else I was dealing with, I had that confidence instilled in me.”
While Spain has made her name with her tautly-plotted crime fiction and psychological thrillers, she also has a burgeoning career as a sought-after scriptwriter, with scripts in development for markets including Iceland, Sweden and Finland. Last year, she made a splash with the RTÉ drama Taken Down, which explored the world of direct provision centres and sex trafficking. When it came to making the transition to writing for television, Spain was undaunted.
“I probably found it a lot more straightforward, coming from a crime fiction background, because you already know that plot and pace are really important and that’s what matters on screen. And so I probably slipped into it.”
Spain is also a firm believer in maintaining control over her creative output, adapting her own work wherever possible rather than handing it over to a production company and other writers.
“I know a lot of crime authors and I tell them that just handing over your option is not the only way of getting your book on to the screen — you’ve created this original story, it is yours. There’s a dearth of good scriptwriters, particularly good scriptwriters that can adapt novels, so, if you can, adapt your work for the screen yourself.
If you learn to butcher your babies and bring your book to screen you’re already in an elevated position as far as producers are concerned.
“There are a lot of authors now who sell their option for a few grand and then sit there hoping that it gets made. But you’ve generated the original idea and I think it’s not instilled in authors enough that the original idea counts for an awful lot.”
Spain and her husband Martin are now based in the Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown and have four children ranging in age from five to 14. She has become accustomed to the questions about how she balances what seems like an exhausting workload with raising a family.
“I don’t mind being asked how I juggle it all — but as a feminist, I think we should also be asking men how they juggle it all and not always assume that the men have women at home who are running everything. To ask any parent how they manage a job and family life is a normal question. It is tough. In our situation, we have the feminist answer — my husband stays at home. He is a former editor, so he edits scripts and books for me. He also does the biggest lot of childcare, that is one of his jobs. But I’m here all the time as well — when you have no office to travel to, it saves a lot of pain.”
And while Spain says she can come up with all kinds of evil exploits for her books, there is one subject that she would find difficult to tackle.
“I can’t do kids — I can’t read about it, I can’t write about it. Sometimes my editor will suggest I read a book and there will be kids in it but she will read it for me and check it first and say, you should avoid this or you’ll actually be okay. As a mother, I find it hard to move beyond that empathy I have. I couldn’t do anything to a character in a book that involved children, like take away their kids.”
Spain’s success also means that she is first port of call for aspiring authors looking to get their books noticed.
“I get so many proofs sent to me for blurbs, I’m averaging about three a day at this stage — the postman hates us,” she laughs. “It is important for me that I throw the ladder back down, particularly for people who I know need it.”
While Spain’s books are hugely popular throughout Europe, one of her remaining ambitions is to crack the lucrative American market.
I’ve got a big book out in 2021 — while I’m published in the States at the moment, it is kind of just ticking along. But this will be the one that we would like to break the States. In TV, there are also a few things I’m working on that I have a good feeling about.
As for her writing process, Spain says her training as a journalist has been a big asset when it comes to getting word count up.
“I mean, it is a phenomenal amount of work. I work all day, every day when I’m on script or novel deadlines. I can work very well like that. I can work for two weeks in a row and then take a few days off — it’s almost like shift work. When I was a journalist, I could just shut everything out, write anything, anywhere.”
Spain’s ‘just get on with it’ approach does draw comment from some of her writing pals, however.
“My favourite quote was from Ruth Rendell who said she considered herself to be a writer not an author, because she looked on writing as a job. You can’t look at her books and think any less of them than someone who took five years to write theirs. I think she had her head screwed on. I have some writer friends who look at me and just say, ‘I want to kill you’. I’m like, ‘put it in a book’.”