- 12 May 21
A deep dive with the hugely successful crime author and TV writer, whose gripping new thriller The Perfect Lie arrives this week
One of Ireland’s most successful crime authors, Jo Spain this week publishes another rip-roaring thriller in the shape of The Perfect Lie. It tells the story of Irish émigré Erin Kennedy, who relocated to New York several years back following a family tragedy.
Apparently living a blissful life in Long Island, everything is turned upside down for Erin when her detective husband, Danny, jumps to his death one morning following a visit from his police colleagues. Charged with Danny’s murder, Erin is forced to investigate his past and uncover some long-hidden secrets.
Brilliantly plotted, The Perfect Lie has the addictive, compulsively readable quality of an Ian Rankin or James Ellroy. It’s the latest in a string of superb novels from Spain, who has also found success with her Inspector Tom Reynolds series.
Away from the books, Spain – an Trinity graduate who previously worked as a journalist – is also a hugely in-demand TV writer. Having co-written RTE’s acclaimed Taken Down with Love/Hate’s Stuart Carolan, she is currently working on several other shows, including series set in Iceland and Lapland, as well as one focusing on the ’80s music scene in Sheffield.
This month, meanwhile, shooting commences in Dublin on Harry Wild, a thriller series starring Jane Seymour, and co-written by Spain and English screenwriter David Logan.
All this and more was on the agenda when I recently caught up for a chat with the hugely engaging author.
PAUL NOLAN: You’ve said the impulse for The Perfect Lie came from wanting to explore how someone might deal with a crisis whilst living thousands of miles from home.
JO SPAIN: Yeah, that was in my head. I suppose like all Irish people, I’ve got friends and family living abroad. I started the novel before Covid, but it was really compounded during the pandemic. I’ve a friend who’s battling cancer and I haven’t been able to see her, and I’ve got family who haven’t been home in a year-and-a-half, who’d usually be home for Xmas.
To date, I’ve based all my books in Ireland. I was thinking, ‘Okay, we’re familiar with the Irish justice system, we’re familiar with the way of things, you’ve got your family and friends to call on if anything ever goes wrong.’ I guess like a lot of people of my generation, I’ve considered emigrating at certain points, for work, quality of life or being able to buy an affordable house.
You’re thinking it’s such a leap, and you’re leaving everything that’s safe and familiar. People seem to do it fine and enjoy their lives, but I guess what’s always stopped me is that feeling of, ‘What if something goes wrong when you’re away and so far from home?’ Okay, it’s different if you’re in Britain –I have a psychological thing where I think, ‘If you can get the boat, you’re fine!’
But if something goes spectacularly wrong, and you’re reliant on planes, you’re really far from home. Before I had the plot or anything, I had the idea that I’d put that in a book at some point. Somebody is in a distant country, and they seem to have a life and friends there, but when the shit hits the proverbial fan, they’re on their own essentially.
How did you choose where to set it?
Well it was going to be somewhere nice! I knew that much. The next book is set in Lapland, and I’m doing a show there as well – I was location scouting there In February 2020 and it’s a fascinating place. When Covid hit, all I could think about was wanting to go back there. It’s so different and nice.
Anyway, I’ve been to New York a few times and I was there when I got the location for The Perfect Lie. It’s away but it’s also familiar to anyone from Ireland or Britain. At one point, I went into an Irish bar over there with my husband. It was freezing cold, and they gave us Irish coffees that were green. I was like, ‘What is in this?!’ I thought it was going to blow up my insides, but it was some sort of colouring that they’d added to make it ‘Irish’.
The book was either going to be America or Australia, and New York is somewhere I’d be more familiar with – I’ve never been to Australia. So I said, ‘This is where she’s going to live.’ Many of us have been to New York, and just to make it more exotic, I’d been reading a series of books at the time by Nelson DeMille set in Long Island – I started watching everything I could find set in Long Island.
I was like, ‘This is where she lives, because it’s bucolic, it’s the idyll; it’s where you would go if you had the money.’ You get to live on the sandy beaches. I just wanted to set it somewhere that I would be happy being in my head while I was writing it.
Did you go to Long Island?
No, the last time I was in New York, what I said was, ‘I’ll come back and go to Long Island while I’m writing the book.’ That’s when Covid hit, so I found all these great sites that bring you places, though Google Maps were the absolute best. But hadn’t actually physically been, I went, ‘Okay, I’ll make it a fictional town.’ I’m cautious – if you haven’t actually physically been in a place, it’s difficult to write about it properly.
At least with a fictional town, you’re touching on everything that’s real but also using your imagination.
Sometimes I wonder do we get too hung up on settings – it’s the characters, the story and the style that really grab you.
I know some people who are very critical if you set a story somewhere you haven’t been. I’m like, my favourite book is Lord Of The Rings! He’d been to WW1, so he’d kind of been to Mordor, but technically… If you’re an author and you’re creative, you’ve got to have that breadth of imagination. Okay, if someone is writing a book set in Dublin, but they’ve done no research and they’re describing Dublin as Paris, that’s jarring.
But if you’ve done your research, and any decent author should be able to situate themselves in a place, it’s all about the story. Like you say, the story should be bringing you along – you can be as descriptive as you like, but if you’re thinking more about the road they’re on than the characters, the author’s lost you.
I always think of Seven – they don’t even name the city!
Americans always get away with that – America’s so big. I’ve read so many books set in “small town America”. If you did a tour of these small towns, where would it bring you?!
EARLY DAYS & INSPECTOR TOM REYNOLDS
Did you always have the ambition to be an author?
I read everything when I was a kid. I was unusual in that I was in a very working class area – I grew up in Belcamp in Coolock. I read everything in the house, the local library, in school, and I wrote little stories all the time. But where I grew up, saying you were going to be an author was like saying you’re going to be an astronaut. It wasn’t a career choice.
Growing up where I was, my goal in life was to go to college, and to go to Trinity, because that was somewhere where nobody went. I had good teachers and they encouraged me in that way. But it was a struggle – I was working two jobs to get myself through college. Still, I knew I wanted to write, and when I was working in Leinster House I was writing speeches, legislation; nothing enjoyable!
It was a good job, but it wasn’t creative writing. Then it was one of those things – when you work creatively, you have to do it. People say, ‘I really want to write a book.’ And I’m like, ‘If you want to write it, you will.’
It’s almost a compulsion.
Yeah, when I wrote that first book, I was working 11- or 12-hour days, and coming home to two babies – I have four now. I was writing that book at night when my husband was watching Champions League. Nobody commissioned it. I was writing it for me, thinking, ‘I guess I’ll write it up, send it off and get 60 rejection slips. Maybe I’ll keep writing and get better.’ But really thinking I wouldn’t because of the amount of effort it was taking.
I mean, there’s always luck involved – there has to be. I entered the Richard and Judy competition on TV, and I was shortlisted and got a publishing deal straight away. I could have sent it to agents and got responses like, ‘Not my style’, ‘There’s too many of these on the market’ etc. I could have gone around that roundabout for a long time. So you can’t not say sometimes luck is on your on side.
The lead character in your first book was Inspector Tom Reynolds, who you’ve since built a series around.
Yeah, I’ve done six with him in total and I’m giving him a break now. The first one was called With Our Blessing. My dad had been born in a Mother and Baby home – I was writing it before the scandals really broke. A nun is murdered at the start of the book, and then we go into the whole history of the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby homes. So I picked this male detective, because the book is very female-centric, and I wanted to do it through him.
I based it very loosely on my husband, so he’s into football and red wine. I didn’t know I was going to end up with that character.
Was that first book a success?
It did well – it was a bestseller in Ireland, and it was critically acclaimed in Britain, though it didn’t really take off commercially there. It has grown and grown, but my first book to properly take off was a standalone, The Confession. It’s something I’ve learned, and I do say this to anybody starting off as a new writer: series are tough. It’s very hard to launch a massive debut with a series. People tend to find series later on.
I mean, I remember reading Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman and then finding out he had four or five books before that. I was astonished. I’d never heard of him – he was big in Norway but he wasn’t big anywhere else. That book was a break out for him, and everybody went and bought the rest of the series. If you think of big bestsellers over the past few years, The Woman In The Window and things like that, they’ve been stand-alone books. Everybody will come out and buy them.
It’s tough enough at the start. I was going, ‘Everybody is saying this book is great, so why is not taking off?’ The book industry is a funny place. I saw something recently that said, 90 percent of writers stop before they get to five or six books. Because it’s hard, unless you are one of the big breakout writers… And even then, that can be tough. If you sign a six-figure deal on your first book, and the difficult second book doesn’t deliver, you could be looking at no deal for the third book.
Perhaps it’s better for things to grow incrementally?
It’s better if you build up the success, but that can be soul-destroying. You assume when you get a book deal that you’re leaving your job, and everything’s going to work out for you. It tends to take a while before that can happen. So I was banging away with this series that people loved, but it wasn’t selling enough and I wasn’t making money from it.
Then I said okay – I left work: jumped off a cliff, with four kids at home – and my husband was unemployed! I said, I’ve just got to go hard with this and see if I can make it work. And if doesn’t, well okay, fuck! (laughs)
And what happened?
I got a number one in bestseller, The Confession, and I was offered a show with RTE. After that I was doing two books a year to keep everybody happy, but I was making all the money from the stand-alones, not the series. Since I really got into TV, I do one book a year.
You did Taken Down with Stuart Carolan, who created Love/Hate. How did that come about?
RTE had been reading the Tom Reynolds series, and though they didn’t want to adapt that, they asked if I wanted to write for TV. I didn’t know it at the time – cos who knows what it’s like to write for TV? – but if you can write with speed, and you can write visually, then you’re very well suited to TV. I always say to people, just because you can run, it doesn’t mean you can run every distance. They are two different disciplines, but I’ve an aptitude for it.
How did you go about writing Taken Down?
I had the idea for it, but I’d never written for screen before, so I had to match with someone who knew what the hell they were doing. We wrote it together – he helped me loads with it. I’ve gone on now and done my own stuff, cos it is difficult working with a co-writer, especially when you’re used to being an author. But it depends, I’ve got show a show filming in May. I’m doing that with a guy and we’re like twins separated at birth, we finish each other’s sentences. But that’s very rare.
You’re now in-demand internationally.
It’s luck matched with hard work, because in TV, the amount of hours is soul-destroying – you’re never off. But I was lucky in that straight away, I was a script-doctoring. I did a Danish show, and I can’t tell you what the show was called, because another writer gets the credit; I just get the money! That’s cos I wasn’t big enough. But because I did such a good job doctoring those scripts, I straight away got more work.
Were it not for Covid, I’d have plenty of stuff on air at the moment, but everything was postponed. Now though, we’re filming an Irish show in May. And I’m doing a dystopian drama in Iceland, a crime thriller in Finland, a show about the music scene in Sheffield in the ‘80s…
Is that about Pulp, The Human League and those kind of groups?
Everything. I’m the head writer on this, so I can come up with my own music. This couple in the book, they’re kind of eccentric and they’re really into music. I have them into Nick Drake and Northern Sky – I love writing with music. So when they give me any power at all, I add the score. And then they come back and say, ‘You know, it’s going to cost us a million to buy that song!’
But Sheffield in the ‘80s – I spent the whole weekend watching This Is England, just to immerse myself in it. The music scene there was massive right through. You had The Human League – and then last night, I was writing a scene where they were at a party listening to ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17!
- The Perfect Lie is published by Quercus on May 13.