Tag Archives: Can Anybody Help Me?

The Intel: Sinéad Crowley

Sinead CrowleyEarlier in the week we reviewed Sinéad Crowley’s chilling tale about what happens when — sleep-deprived and vulnerable — you place your trust in the hands of an anonymous person on the internet. Can Anybody Help Me? has generated a lot of buzz since it was published last year, and Sinéad’s growing legion of fans await with anticipation the next novel to feature her feisty, no-nonsense heroine Claire Boyle.

In the meantime, we’re delighted to say that Sinéad — the Arts and Media Correspondent for RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster — has kindly agreed to  give us the intel on the inspiration for her debut novel, online dangers, and waiting for the ‘Big Idea’…

Where did you get the inspiration for Can Anybody Help Me?

Online! When I was pregnant, and then on maternity leave with my first child in 2009 I became a frequent user of parenting forums. One day I recognised another poster from the ‘real world’ and it made me conscious of just how much information these women were sharing, all thinking they were completely anonymous. I started to wonder what would happen if one forum user recognised another user online and didn’t wish them well. . .

How would you describe Claire Boyle to a new reader?

Clever, driven, pregnant and cranky! She’s a very ambitious Detective Sergeant who is working on her first murder investigation and doesn’t want to let the fact that she’s six months pregnant interfere with that. Even when her body starts to slow her down, her mind is still racing ahead to solve the crime. She’s great fun to write.

Why do you think we are so ready to reach out to a total stranger on the internet? 

These days, no matter what problem we have or question we want answered, we Google it. Women who are pregnant for the first time, or are first time parents have a million questions and sometimes they don’t want to bother their nearest and dearest with them, or are embarrassed to do so. So it makes total sense to talk to a stranger who you think might have the exact answer you need, or who you feel won’t judge you. That’s not a bad thing, by the way!

I communicated with several really interesting women online when I had my first baby and had some great chats, discussions and debates. You just have to be sensible about it, don’t take medical advice from a total stranger and don’t say or do anything online that you wouldn’t be happy to say or do in the real world.  And be careful when somebody who you only know online wants to meet in real life! That’s not always a bad thing either, of course it isn’t. But you have to take certain precautions.

Can Anybody Help Me?The novel is partly set in the Dublin media world – did you draw on your colleagues for any inspiration for the characters?

No, I didn’t. One of my main characters, Yvonne, the new mother, has a husband who works in the media. I needed her to feel very isolated and lonely, so I needed him to have a job that kept him out of the house for hours, and busy and preoccupied even when he was at home. It made sense to give him a job in the media because I knew I’d be able to write that accurately. It also added a bit of glamour to the book as I could add in a night at a TV awards show.

But I very deliberately didn’t base the characters on anyone in real life and I even invented an entirely new Irish television station to avoid confusion. My second book also has a journalist in it but he also works for Ireland 24, a totally made up station.

You set yourself the task of writing a novel before your 40th birthday – why put such pressure on yourself?

I started my first novel when I was 7! I got a typewriter for my birthday and sat down and immediately typed the words ‘Chapter 1’. So the goal was always there. I also wrote a novel in my late 20s, it wasn’t published but at least it proved I could finish a substantial piece of work. The main problem with that book was that it didn’t have a strong enough hook, and it wasn’t until I started using the parenting websites six or seven years later that I got that ‘Big Idea’ that I needed. So I just said, right, you’re in your late 30s, this has always been the dream. Throw everything at it now, give yourself a deadline and, if it doesn’t work out then at least you know you tried your best. I’m a journalist, I work best to deadlines.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

The idea is the easy bit! I have lots of ideas floating around for books, but sitting down and writing them is a totally different matter. It’s like running a marathon, one step at a time. Don’t think of the 26 miles, just the end of the next page.

How do you deal with feedback?

There was a lot of work to be done on my first draft but I really enjoyed working with my editor. It definitely helped that I’m a journalist because I’m using to other people having an input into my work. It also helped that I got on very well with my editor. So I think I’m okay with feedback, actually!

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Oh, so many! In the crime genre – Erin Kelly, Jane Casey, Val McDermid, Adrian McKinty to name a very few. I loved Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” and Clare Mackintosh wrote one of my favourite recent debuts, “I Let You Go.” What they all have in common is the ability to combine a great plot with the story behind the crime, and they all write really believable and interesting characters. I want to hear about the investigator’s life after he or she leaves the office for the day. Having said that I love Agatha Christie too for pure plot heaven

Outside the crime genre I read widely. I don’t like to discriminate between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction – you can get excellent books (and some dodgy ones) in every genre

Give me some advice about writing…

Make time for it. It can feel very self indulgent, especially if you have a family or a busy life to close the door on the world and spend time writing fiction. But think of it as time for yourself. If you wanted to run a marathon nobody would blink if you told them you were getting up at 5am to train or that you were giving up your Sunday afternoons to do long runs. Treat writing the same way, time for yourself, time to do something you really want to do. Even if you have to work late into the night or get up at 5am. It’s worth it.

What’s next for you?

There will be a minimum of three books in the Claire Boyle series, book 2 is with the editor and I’ve just started book 3. So all going well there will be three books in the series initially and then I think I’d like to write something else. But I may well return to Claire after that – she’s a great character to work with.

Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Can Anybody Help Me?I didn’t manage to read Sinéad Crowley’s debut crime novel Can Anybody Help Me? when it came out, but I’m glad I finally did. It’s a good, old-fashioned page-turner, powered by  the molten core of a strong ”what if’ concept.

The blurb could really do with five minutes shut-eye:

Struggling with a new baby, Yvonne turns to netmammy, an online forum for mothers, for support. Drawn into a world of new friends, she spends increasing amounts of time online and volunteers more and more information about herself.

When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne thinks something is wrong, but dismisses her fears. After all, does she really know this woman?

But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?

Crowley’s first Claire Boyle crime novel asks why we blithely release so much information about ourselves online, placing our trust in virtual strangers. The early part of the book follows Yvonne — a young mother with a high-powered media husband — who moves from London to Dublin.

She’s shattered and lonely and isolated in the new city, and begins to rely on the friendly advice and banter of the other users of the forum, and her experience is mirrored by that of the very pregnant and very feisty Guarda Sergeant Claire Boyle, whose initial cynicism about getting help online dissolves over the course of the book. I like the way that — as mothers, or mothers-to-be — the tangled family histories of both these women impact on their anxieties and relationships.

The intermittent excerpts of conversations between all the women on the forum netmammy — littered with annoying and cliquey acronyms — take on a chilling context when it becomes obvious that hiding behind one of the avatars is a cold-blooded murderer.

Can Anybody Help Me? has a very good sense of time and place, which gives it a bit of daylight between other big city procedurals. Crowley, like other Irish crime writers, makes some wry and rueful observations about the scars left on Dublin in the aftermath of the economic crash — Tana French’s Broken Harbour is a particularly interesting read on that score, if that’s something you’re interested in — and away from the sinister stuff, makes some lovely observations about the competitiveness between mums and about the Dublin media-scene. Her day job is as Arts and Media Correspondent with RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster.

It’s a crime novel which manages the tricky balance of being both chilling, warm and empathetic, and often funny. Crowley’s characters are great, her dialogue is very evocative, and she drops in a great turn of phrase whenever she needs one.

The ending feels a touch rushed, and Yvonne’s role in the narrative, so strong at first, becomes decidedly peripheral as Claire barges her way in to take centre stage, but the revelation of the identity of the murderer is genuinely surprising. Crowley’s book is a fine debut novel, and proof positive that high-concept ideas don’t have to be cold, gleaming things.

And guess what — Sinéad Crowley is going to be giving us the intel on her work later in the week. Look out for that that, so.