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Michelle McDonagh: Writing the book, Ann Lovett, and her heartbroken sister Patricia, were at the forefront of my mind

McDonagh, author of Somebody Knows, talks about inspirations for her writing, her new podcast and more

Tell me about your new thriller, Somebody Knows.

As her adoptive mother lies dying, local journalist Cara Joyce overhears a shocking piece of information about her origins that connects her to the tragic death of Lucia Casey, a young woman whose body was found buried in a Connemara bog nearly 30 years ago. Cara’s quest to find out the truth about her birth mother becomes an obsession that begins to take over her life. It’s a story of dangerous secrets and the lengths people will go to keep them.

You’re a journalist as is your fictional protagonist, Cara Joyce. How do the two forms of writing compare? Does one feed the other?

As a news journalist, you’re trained to take yourself and your feelings out of the story, and to remain balanced and unbiased. Fiction writing is completely different, and involves using the creative brain a lot more. I found I had to take a step away from journalism for a while to write my first book, as the journalist in me kept trying to edit as I was writing, but it comes in very handy at the editing stage.

You were very young when the Ann Lovett case came to light. Did it inspire some of the storyline?

I was 12 when Ann Lovett died in 1984 and even though I didn’t fully understand what had happened to her, I knew it was something bad. I remember hearing Gay Byrne reading out letters on the radio from girls like Ann, who like Lucia in my book, had “got themselves into trouble”. As I wrote the book, Ann and her heartbroken sister Patricia, who took her own life less than three months after Ann’s death, and all the girls and women who wrote to Gay and the many who didn’t, were at the forefront of my mind.

Kylemore Abbey is a setting. Did its history also inspire you?

I spent a few wonderful days down in Kylemore while I was researching this book, staying in a gorgeous studio apartment called Fisherman’s Perch, only minutes from the abbey with stunning three-way views over the lake, the Inagh Valley and Connemara National Park.

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Even though I had visited Kylemore Abbey on a number of occasions before, this was the first time I did the full tour and learnt about the tragic history of this beautiful place. It definitely did inspire me while writing the book, and worked its way into the story.

Your debut, There’s Something I Have To Tell You, has been likened to John B Keane meets Agatha Christie and a rural Succession. What can you tell us about difficult families?

There are very few families who don’t have their differences from time to time, but when you combine a dysfunctional family with a threat to a farm or the land, it can lead to bitter fallouts and even fatalities. We read about these stories in the paper, shocking tragedies that rock small communities and devastate families. Modern day Field scenarios.

Tell me about your new books podcast, Natter, with fellow writer and broadcaster Kate Durrant.

Ireland is a nation of storytellers and our new podcast, Natter (launching in June 2024), is all about telling some of those stories. While many of our guests will be authors and people involved in the publishing industry, many will have never written a word, but have their own amazing stories to tell. The format is chatty, no notions and honest.

From the controversial author of worldwide bestseller of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins, to author Siobhan MacGowan, sister of the late, great Pogues frontman Shane, our guests are interesting, funny and thought-provoking.

Your first guest, Jeanine Cummins, faced accusations of cultural appropriation over her bestseller, American Dirt. What’s your take?

I’d be inclined to agree with Sebastian Barry, one of the few writers prepared to put their heads above the parapet in support of Jeanine when he says “there won’t be any literature unless the writer is free to have their own sense of responsibility for what they write”.

Which projects are you working on?

I’m currently working on my third novel, which is set, not in Galway for once, but in North Cork.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy and that hard.” Neil Gaiman.

Who do you admire the most?

The absolute powerhouse that is Kate Durrant, Ireland’s most inspirational person 2019, and the most positive person I know.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

That no child should ever be homeless.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Earth by John Boyne; Where the Crawdads Sing; Newstalk’s Inside the Crime.

Which public event affected you most?

9/11. My mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

The Beara peninsula.

Your most treasured possession?

My communion dress, yellowing now, but made by my mother.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Maeve Binchy, Andrea Mara, Edel Coffey, Marian Keyes, Liz Nugent.

The best and worst things about where you live?

Being so close to everything: schools, shops, the city; it’s not Galway!

What is your favourite quotation?

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you imagined.” Thoreau.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I couldn’t possibly chose one.

A book to make me laugh?

Glitterballs by Michele Howarth Rashman (due to be self-published later this year).

A book that might move me to tears?

Jeanine Cummins’ memoir, A Rip in Heaven.

Somebody Knows is published by Hachette Books Ireland