Subscriber OnlyBooks

Author Andrew Hughes on his new novel, writing the mind of a teenager and Killua Castle

Hughes’s new book, Emma, Disappeared, follows James Lyster, whose life begins to unravel after the disappearance of a high-achieving university graduate

Tell us about your new novel, Emma, Disappeared.

Emma Harte, a high-achieving university graduate, has disappeared without trace. While a national debate about women’s safety rages, archivist James Lyster seems to be following her story with undue interest. When a sympathetic tweet he makes about Emma goes viral, he finds himself drawn into the world of idealistic university students involved in the search – and attracting the attention of a police detective. As the net tightens, James’s comfortable middle-class life begins to unravel. Is he a victim or murderer? Feminist ally or callous liar? For James isn’t the only one with secrets.

You made your name writing historical fiction, so how big a challenge was it setting a book in the present day?

It required a shift in mindset more than anything. I tend to write in the first-person, so once you find the voice of the character there’s little difference between writing historical and contemporary fiction.

Your first book, Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922, was recently reissued. Who is your favourite former resident?

Margaret McGarry, a Sinn Féin councillor who kept a safe house in No 5 for ministers of the First Dáil on the run during the War of Independence.

Your second novel, The Coroner’s Daughter, was last year’s One Dublin One Book title. What was the highlight of the month for you?

The Anatomy of Crime with state pathologists Heidi Okkers and Jill Roman, moderated by Conor Brady and held in the wonderful rooms of the Royal Irish Academy, was something special.

Your heroine Abigail Lawless, the 18-year-old daughter of Dublin’s coroner in 1816, proves herself an able sleuth. The novel’s first line captures her personality well: “For my 18th birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.” Will we see her again?

A sequel is in the works, but first I’m writing a follow-up to Emma, Disappeared. I’d love for Abigail to be a recurring character in a series of books.

The protagonist of your debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt, is a much less attractive individual, a real-life child-killer and informer. Tell us more.

When Daniel O’Connell was tried in 1844 he complained that his jury would have convicted him of the murder of the Italian boy, referring to an unsolved case of 1841. When I went digging I found references to the crown witness John Delahunt, a spy in Dublin Castle who later turned his hand to murder.

What was more challenging to write, the mind of a murderer or an 18-year-old young woman?

Abigail was more challenging, but only in the sense that in crime fiction the villain drives the plot. Abigail always had to react to things that occurred off the page.

You’ve also written a history of Killua Castle?

Killua Castle in Westmeath was rescued from ruin some 20 years ago and has been completely restored by its current owners. They asked me to write a full history of the castle and its erstwhile owners, the Chapmans. Lawrence of Arabia was the illegitimate son of the final Baronet Chapman.

John Givens, author of A Friend in the Police and Living Alone, and brother of Liffey Press publisher David, ran a historical fiction workshop you attended in the Irish Writers Centre. How big an influence was he?

John is a fantastic mentor and I’ve hugely relied on his insight and encouragement. The workshop is ongoing, and several members have gone on to publish novels.

Your native Enniscorthy is rich in history. Might you set a work there one day?

It’s very possible, though it would be difficult to go toe to toe with [Colm] Tóibín!

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Recently my family found roots in Co Monaghan quite close to Inniskeen. While exploring we visited [Patrick] Kavanagh’s grave.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

From Dermot Bolger: “Always remove unnecessary words from a sentence.”

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Juliana Adelman’s debut The Grateful Water coming out in May is a wonderful historical detective novel. I hugely enjoyed Dune: Part Two. I don’t really listen to podcasts.

Which public event affected you most?

I was in the front row of a packed pub in Enniscorthy when David O’Leary slotted that penalty in Italia ‘90. A lifelong love of football has ensued.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

São Paulo.

Your most treasured possession?

My guitar.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The hardback edition of the Killua book is gorgeous. Dark green cloth, gold lettering, with its own slipcase. They were produced by Duffy Bookbinders.

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

Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Agatha Christie and Blindboy Boatclub.

What is your favourite quotation?

There’s a line at the start of a Magnetic Fields song that I like: “Billie, you’re a miracle, and God knows I need one.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

William of Baskerville.

A book to make me laugh?

[Terry] Pratchett has made me laugh the most. Probably Guards! Guards!

A book that might move me to tears?

Serena Molloy is a member of the Givens workshop. The closing stanzas of both her verse novels Wider Than The Sea and The Tree That Sang To Me have made me tear up. I think she does it on purpose.

Emma, Disappeared by Andrew Hughes is published by Hachette Books Ireland