With Our Blessing, Jo Spain’s debut crime novel featuring Irish Inspector tom Reynolds, is a book ripped straight from shocking headlines. It’s set against a background of the infamous Irish Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes where young mothers were subject to physical and mental abuse.
Jo has worked as a journalist and a party advisor on the economy in the Irish parliament, and as vice-chair of the business body InterTrade Ireland. With Our Blessing is her first novel and was one of seven books shortlisted in the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition 2015. She lives in Dublin with her husband and their four young children.
A generous interviewee, Jo gives us the intel on her debut novel – and how her research into the topic also revealed an astonishing family secret. And she’s got some really interesting things to say about her own writing process – so dig in and enjoy!
How would you describe Inspector Tom Reynolds?
Tom is a gentleman – relaxed, smart, witty. He likes to indulge in the odd cigar and a nice glass of red, or pale ale. Tom married his college sweetheart and they have one daughter, who they both adore. Unlike many fictional detectives, Tom’s family life works well, but he is struggling to get his head around his only child growing up in With Our Blessing.
Tom’s approach to an investigation is to have a strong team around him and play to their strengths. He’s not threatened by the abilities of his subordinates and he’s happy with where he has reached in his career. He doesn’t want to go further up the ladder, he takes pleasure in solving the puzzles his cases throw up. His strength as a detective is his insight into human behaviour. He interacts well with people, engaging them with an intelligence and kindness they don’t always expect from the police.
Most importantly, Tom has a sense of humour which hasn’t diminished despite his job being oft times harrowing. He still sees the good in the world.
The idea from With Our Blessing came from your own family roots – what was the inspiration?
It’s actually the other way round – when I was researching With Our Blessing, it inspired me to look into my family history and I discovered some astonishing facts. I’d always known my late Dad was adopted, but when looking into the history of mother & baby homes for With Our Blessing, it occured to me that, having been born in 1951, he must have been adopted from such a place. It took painstaking work, but I eventually discovered that his mother had given birth to him in 1951 in Dublin but refused to allow the nuns to take him for adoption. That was incredibly strong of her and virtually unheard of for the time.
She took him out of the home in 1953, but in 1955, alone and most likely destitute, she brought him back and reluctantly gave him up. He was adopted in 1955, age 4. My dad knew none of this and lived a tragic life, always feeling that he’d been abandoned. He died in a fire in 1995, aged 44.
The novel is set against the background of the notorious Irish Magdalene Laundries – what happened there?
I should point out that while the Laundries were fairly prolific in Ireland, they’re not a particularly Irish phenomenon and also not unique to Catholicism. Across the world, there are examples of homes for unwanted or ‘wanton’ women. The Magdalene Laundries seemed to begin as charitable refuges. At some point, that changed and the women and girls held in them were made to work for their bed and meals, even though the State afforded stipends to the institutions for the women there. I don’t have enough word space to go into the history of the Laundries.
Suffice to say, the testimonies of the women who went through them speak of imprisonment, back-breaking manual labour to make profit for the religious orders, physical and mental abuse, torture and hunger. Not in every case, but in most. I recommend the Channel Four documentary Sex in a Cold Climate as a starting point for further information.
How has Ireland come to terms with the recent shocking revelations about mother and baby homes?
There’s a part in With Our Blessing where Tom is engaged in a very telling conversation with an elderly nun. She points out that while society holds its hands up and expresses shock at revelations about religious institutions, the same society was responsible for sending their daughters/sisters to those places. As she says, nobody wanted to see a single mother pushing a pram around, evidence of her sin. One of Tom’s detectives points out that society was conditioned by the Church to believe certain things. There’s some truth in that, but there have always been superstitions and stigmas about women, especially single, pregnant women.
Irish people did spend a long time under the cosh of the Church and much of that has faded. What hasn’t faded to the same extent is a particularly Irish trait of not washing your dirty linen in public – keeping family secrets, secret. It has been very empowering for the women who’ve come forward and told the truth about the homes and the sheer emotion of their experiences has forced larger society and the State to recognise the issue and address the legacy.
But that doesn’t mean all people have come to terms with it. There are many elderly people who would dispute the women’s stories and the religious orders deny them. The State has set up an investigation and is moving to give adopted people rights, but the process is shockingly slow and far behind Britain.
There is a general acceptance, though, that thousands of women were forced to give up their children in mother and baby homes, often in illegal adoption situations, and that babies were even sold from such institutions.
With Our Blessing was shortlisted for the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition – what kind of platform did that provide for you as a writer?
It got me a book deal! I’d just finished my first draft of the book when I saw the competition advertised, with a few days to go before the closing date. I entered because it was free and then forgot about it, because it seemed like such a prestigious thing and I hadn’t even edited my submission. When I found out I’d been shortlisted, I knew life was going to change because even that was going to look pretty good in my ‘please publish me’ letter.
My youngest was 12 days old when I got the email saying that while I hadn’t won, Quercus were interested in talking to me about the book and taking it further. A couple of weeks later, they came back with the offer of a two-book deal. I couldn’t scream down the phone because I was holding the baby, but I was yelling inside with happiness. I figured I’d a good five years or more of rejection slips ahead of me, so it was overwhelming.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I guess that a publishing deal doesn’t equate to you becoming a full-time writer, which is what I imagine most writers aspire to. Maybe one day, but right now, I have two full-time jobs and I write on top of them, along with minding four small children. The six-figure deals that make the headlines are the exception, not the rule. Writing is my dream but it takes a while before it can also become your living and that makes it tough.
Who are the authors you admire and why?
I’m currently obsessed with Tom Rob Smith. I can’t believe I missed Child 44 when it came out – I read it recently and it blew my socks off. It wasn’t just that it’s a great thriller and page turner. It’s beautifully written and the time period is fascinating.
I do tend to veer towards crime books mostly, but I like them best when they’re well written – when it’s not just a plot-focused book or fast-paced action. I love Fred Vargas for her wit and unique style. I love Louise Penny’s Gamache series because I want to spend time with her characters. I love Jo Nesbo because the first time I read The Snowman it sent shivers down my spine. For British authors, it has to be Agatha Christie (who made me want to be a crime writer), Ann Cleeves (for the beauty of her settings and observations about life) and Colin Dexter (because Morse is just so clever).
I could go on and on here… I speed read and have been known to do a book in a day, so there are a lot of authors I love!
Give me some advice about writing.
Plan your novel in advance. Sit down and write it from start to finish, don’t dither going back over sections. Edit it diligently yourself. Then allow yourself to be edited. My husband (a former editor) edits my books before I send them into Quercus and after going through the process twice, I can hand on heart say our marriage could now survive anything. Respect people’s trades. You’re a writer; he or she is the editor.
Hand it over to a couple of good friends (choose these people very carefully) and ask them for honest, constructive criticism. Some people are deliberate ego-crushers, others are just idiots – watch out for them and don’t trust them with your baby. And prepare yourself for subjectivity. Remember that you don’t like every book you read, sometimes even books that sell off the shelves.
What’s next for you?
Aside from world domination? Ha!
I’m at the final edit stage of book two, preparing to send it into Quercus. I’m on my hols as I write and I’ve just done the plot outline for book three, which has me very excited.
I’m hoping my debut will be well received. It’s utterly nerve-wracking sending your hopes and dreams out to the world to be judged. I’d like people who love it to shower me with praise and those who don’t, well, if they could just keep that to themselves…
With Our Blessing by Jo Spain is out now in original paperback, priced at £12.99.