Liz Nugent: ‘Scotland was a revelation ... loads of places to dispose of a body’

The author discusses her latest novel, Strange Sally Diamond, plus her ideal presidential candidate, the wisdom of Judge Judy and the book she threw into the bin as fast as she could

Liz Nugent, who doesn't mind what label is put on her books - psych thriller/psych suspense/domestic noir/accessible lit/psychodrama/cookery - so long as people read them

Would you tell me about your new book?

Strange Sally Diamond is the story of a reclusive woman who, after the death of her adoptive father, discovers the grim and harrowing story of a childhood she does not remember. Endearingly odd, Sally is forced to come to terms with her past and find her community. But there’s a man on the other side of the world who knows more about Sally than she does herself, and he’s watching her.

Did you once say you’d feel like a proper writer, having written five books? Does it get easier? Have you changed?

It’s definitely true about the second book being the hardest, because by then I had a genre, a deadline and the weight of expectation. Every subsequent book seems like the hardest one but then it’s published and you forget the pain – a bit like childbirth, I guess.


How big an influence is TV on your work?

I am a big consumer of TV drama. The Sopranos raised the bar and then came Breaking Bad and now, Succession. I don’t think it can be a coincidence that I often write about deeply flawed men (and women). They are far more interesting than the good guys.

The Sopranos: an interesting group of men. Photograph: Getty Images

Your first novel grew out of an award-winning short story. And you’ve written a play. Do you like to stretch yourself as a writer?

I know the question is probably about future screenwriting but while TV companies have approached me about coming up with original TV series ideas, I don’t think I’m quite ready yet. I seem to have a mental block about it. But I’d love to have a go at advertising copywriting or political speechwriting. It’s all about selling and I think I could be a good spindoctor.

Do you see your books as psychological thrillers or is that too reductive and pigeonholing?

I wouldn’t mind if my book was in the cookery section of the bookshop as long as people could find it. There’s so much fuss about labels. I think what most writers want is readers. Publishers need to categorise books and I get that. Luckily for me, psych thrillers/psych suspense/domestic noir/accessible lit/ psychodrama (all labels that have been attached to me) stories have been in demand since the days of Daphne du Maurier, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine. I don’t ever see them going out of fashion.

John Banville’s The Book of Evidence was a big influence. It was partly inspired by the case of Malcolm Macarthur, who is the subject of Mark O’Connell’s new book, A Thread of Violence. Would the project appeal to you?

Would I like to have written that story? Yes! In fact, I pitched it to my publisher as my second book. But I’d just won Crime Novel of the Year and they were very keen that I continue to write sinister fiction. Also they were concerned for my safety and didn’t want Macarthur to profit from such an endeavour. My intention had been to interview him and he would probably want to be paid for his time. Several years later, I had an encounter with him that creeped me out so I’m glad now that I never pursued that project. Can’t wait to read Mark’s book, though. I’d like to know a lot more about the victims Bridie Gargan and Donal Dunne, who I feel have been forgotten among the Gubu.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Yes, I’m a regular visitor to Marian Keyes’ house.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

I have travelled a lot, but Scotland was a revelation. Last year, we spent three weeks driving around and it wasn’t enough. Stunning scenery around every corner and we didn’t even go that far into the Highlands. I have to go back. Also, loads of places to dispose of a body.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Finish it.

Who do you admire the most in Irish public life?

Olivia O’Leary. I’m disappointed to hear that she won’t run for the presidency. She’d be excellent.

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

Not sure if it’s possible, but I would make it illegal to be anonymous on the internet.

Which current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

Book: The Close by Jane Casey. Film: An Cailín Ciúin. TV show: Succession. Podcast: Jarlath Regan’s An Irishman Abroad, particularly the American politics episodes with Marion McKeon

Which public event affected you most?

I was the same age as 15-year-old Ann Lovett when she and her new born baby died in 1984 in a grotto in Granard. Her 14-year-old sister Patricia died by suicide a few months later. I still think about them often. What a cruel and vicious society we were. I like to think we have changed.

Your most treasured possession?

Pathetically, my phone. My whole world is in there.

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

This is a trick question designed so that I leave out one of my writer friends and cause a literary spat.

What is your favourite quotation?

Beauty fades, but dumb is forever. – Judge Judy.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Ulysses Temper from Sarah Winman’s Still Life.

A book to make me laugh?

Duffy and Son by Damien Owens.

A book that might move me to tears?

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis – tears of rage. I couldn’t get it into the bin fast enough.

Strange Sally Diamond is published by Sandycove. Liz Nugent is in conversation with Sinéad Crowley at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, this Sunday, March 26, at 8pm. Book here.