Andrea Carter: ‘I’m a fan of the golden age of crime fiction, so I tend to write in that style’

The author on her legal background, writing advice and why the Inishowen peninsula is so special

Andrea Carter

The Inishowen peninsula in Donegal is the setting for all your books. Why is it so significant to you?

The straightforward answer is that I lived in Inishowen for over a decade and set up my legal practice there. But the truth is more complex than that. Inishowen is a singular place, a place apart, unique in its geographical location, landscape and people. When I moved there in my twenties it grabbed hold of my heart and hasn’t let go since.

What drew you to crime writing, and in particular to the type of crime fiction you specialise in?

I write what I like to read. I’m a fan of the golden age of crime fiction, so I tend to write in that style: a traditional mystery with a body at the beginning, an amateur sleuth, a limited cast of suspects, and a solution at the end. I also enjoy writers who are drawn to setting, such as PD James.

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How helpful is your legal background and why do so many legal figures become writers?

A love of language and a skill for storytelling are common to both writers and lawyers. But for me it is the discipline I learned as a lawyer that has been particularly helpful. Writing is now my job and I treat it as such. I make my deadlines!

Your friends call you Andy and your protagonist is Ben (short for Benedicta) O’Keeffe, a solicitor like you. How alike are you?

No matter what answer I give to this, denying the similarities doesn’t seem to work. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me for “killing her off”, although my brother doesn’t seem to mind not existing at all.

You thank fellow writers Henrietta McKervey and Neil Hegarty for their help. How collaborative a process is writing a book?

I’d be in trouble if the first person to see my book was my editor! Henrietta and Neil have both read early drafts of my books; I trust them and value their opinions. They’ve also come up with one Inishowen title each.

You studied for an MFA in creative writing with Henrietta. What did it teach you?

Primarily it taught me to read as a writer, to learn from the masters and unpick their processes. In particular, a series of Jane Austen workshops with Frank McGuinness made me read her novels in a completely different way.

What projects are you working on?

My next book will be a standalone, a departure from the series. It’s exciting and slightly terrifying to be dealing with new characters in a new setting.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Like many people I’ve been to Haworth in Yorkshire, the home of the Brontës. The day we visited was New Year’s Day and the parsonage was closed, so we walked in icy wind and rain across the moors to Top Withens, the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. We had it completely to ourselves. I’ll never forget it.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

When a character isn’t working, write three scenes from earlier in their lives: childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. You may not use them but they will allow you and your character to become better acquainted. Every time I do this, I find my character springs to life. It’s a tip I received from Éilis ní Dhuibhne and I’ve passed it on in all of the workshops I’ve taught.

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

I’d ban industrial farming across the globe. The way we treat animals in the food industry is appalling. We are a cruel species.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

I really liked Mark O’Connell’s sensitively written A Thread of Violence. Pushing the definition of film but I’m watching the TV series The Sixth Commandment. Beautifully written by Sarah Phelps, it includes a chilling performance from Irish actor, Éanna Hardwicke. The podcast Bone Valley is a terrifying indictment of the US justice system.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Lockdown and our lurcher, Liath, put a halt to our long-haul travels so we have to content ourselves with memories. One of the most remarkable was hiking in the Virunga Mountains, Uganda, to see the mountain gorillas.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

A brown hardback copy of The Wind in The Willows, with worn and buttery pages, which I’ve had since I was a child.

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

Patricia Highsmith (will she arrive with her handbag full of snails and announce that they are her companions for the evening, as she did at that London cocktail party?). Richard Ford, because I met him at this year’s Belfast Book Festival and would love to chat to him again. And of course, the queen, Agatha Christie.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Joan was that newborn who supposedly screamed, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ at a pitch so shrill that one of the old women attending the birth clawed out her hearing aid.” It’s one of the opening lines to Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy. I don’t think I’ve looked at a baby the same way since.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Thirteen-year-old Duchess Day Radley from Chris Whitaker’s novel We Begin at the End. I’m dropping a big hint to Chris that I’d love to read about her as an adult.

Death Writes by Andrea Carter is published by Constable

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times