‘I’ve always been socially aware, because of where I come from’
The Dublin author Jo Spain has had five bestsellers in four years, and a hit TV series, ‘Taken Down’
Jo Spain: “For me, going full-time into writing was like setting up a small business. And I had to make it work.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
We all have our dirty little secrets, and Jo Spain is no exception. Warm, forthright, funny and friendly when we meet for a coffee at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute, she harbours a worldview that can only be described as bleak. Set in an exclusive gated community in Co Wicklow, her latest novel, Dirty Little Secrets, is a psychological thriller in which virtually every character is potentially guilty of murder – even the children.
“I have four kids, and they’re all potential killers,” she laughs. “You have to be around kids to realise how sociopathic they actually are. Something happened me recently, I hurt myself, and tears came to my eyes, and my seven-year-old was looking at me – and it was like Anthony Hopkins looking at Jodie Foster, y’know? Like, Lord of the Flies came about for a reason.”
Dirty Little Secrets is Jo Spain’s sixth novel in four years, with all five to date becoming bestsellers. It’s a prodigious output, and one that can be directly traced back to a precocious five-year-old devouring Enid Blyton stories in a bid to escape her “grim surroundings” in North Dublin’s Belcamp.
“The people, yes, there was a lot of love, a lot of humour,” says Spain, “but aesthetically it wasn’t pleasant. There was a field beside us where dead horses would be dumped. I got attacked by a dog once, and the next day the family who owned the dog slit its throat and dumped it in the field rather than pay the vet’s bill. Meanwhile, I was reading Enid Blyton, and I was on Kirrin Island, and Aunt Fanny was making me toasted crumpets . . . I used to dream of midnight feasts. Enid Blyton,” she laughs, “made me hungry all the time.”
Jo Spain laughs a lot, and with good reason. Having met her husband, Martin, when she went to work as a journalist with An Phoblacht, the couple had a mortgage and a young family when Martin lost his editor’s position. By 2013, and now the sole breadwinner, Jo was finding her position as political advisor to Sinn Féin a grind. “Leinster House is demanding, you can’t just get a part-time job in a bar at night,” she says. “And Martin couldn’t get a part-time job, because he was looking after the kids. So, I did this daft thing of just writing a book – and who does that? Now it seems a crazy thing to do.”
With no contacts in the Irish publishing industry, Spain submitted the book – With Our Blessing, a police procedural featuring Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds – to the Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition. Shortlisted from a longlist of thousands, the book was snapped up by Quercus.
“I was on the bus on the way home when I got that email from Richard and Judy,” she says, “and I was in the middle of a really bad week at work, and I was just so tired . . .” She shakes her head and grins. “But when I got that email, it felt like the world just stopped.”
You could argue that a primetime TV drama is more effective than any amount of protests about direct provision
It’s been something of a merry-go-round ever since, though. With Our Blessing was published in 2015; the fourth in the series, The Darkest Place, was published late last year, and there’s been a standalone thriller, The Confession, too. All of her novels have had, to a greater or lesser extent, a political subtext.
“Well, there’s different ways to do politics,” says Spain. “I mean, there’s a political element to all the books I write, whether it’s a commentary on the mother-and-baby homes [With Our Blessing] or the Celtic Tiger crash [The Confession], and Taken Down [recently broadcast on RTÉ] is very political. And you could argue that a primetime TV drama is more effective than any amount of protests about direct provision.”
A six-part crime drama set in Dublin, Taken Down explores “the twilight world of the new Ireland where slum landlords and criminals prey on the vulnerable”.
“I’ve always been socially aware, because of where I come from,” says Spain. “And it’s easy to take a position on class, or say that there’s no class, but people get trapped in these cycles for a reason. Even if it’s something as simple as getting pregnant when you’re young, and not being able to afford childcare to let you go to a job, or not have a family to support you and help mind the child – so you get stuck in that cycle of dependency. I’m probably more internationally political now but, inherently, when I see a situation developing, I’m coming at it, and judging it, from a left-wing perspective.”
Less overtly political
Dirty Little Secrets is less overtly political than, say, Taken Down or The Confession.
“With Dirty Little Secrets, it’s just a story about neighbours. They do live in an exclusive community, and they’re all monied, all well-to-do – but sometimes I feel like those kind of people’s secrets are more intriguing. It’s like Dynasty, or Dallas, versus EastEnders. In EastEnders, Kat and Alfie might be having a screaming match on the Square, and there’s not many secrets there – we know their marriage is falling apart. In Dynasty, they’d kill each other and then arrive at the dinner party all smiles. That’s more intriguing to me from a human perspective.
“I mean, I grew up in a place where everyone knew what was going on in every house, and we were one of the houses where there was poverty and there was drink problems. But I’ve lived in estates since then where, on the surface, it’s a much nicer place, but when you scratch the surface there’s much worse stuff going on underneath. So that’s why I’ve set Dirty Little Secrets in a place with a beautiful façade, as opposed to doing a Roddy Doyle-type neighbourhood where everybody knows what’s going on. It’s a little more wicked.”
I take her back to that five-year-old girl reading Enid Blyton in Belcamp. Did that little girl dream of growing up to become a writer?
“I didn’t think it was even a thing,” she shrugs. “I mean, if you had asked me, I would have said ‘Yeah!’ But to be honest, it was like wanting to be an astronaut. Like, bearing in mind that everybody I grew up with went to work in Dunnes at the age of 16 or 17. Nobody went to college, let alone into jobs. And a lot of people went to prison.”
Nowadays Spain earns a living from sending fictional villains to prison, but she’s entirely pragmatic about her calling. Writing has always been a vocation, but a vocation, crucially, is also a job.
I want to have a New York Times bestseller. That’s where I want to be, y’know?
“Everything I did all the way up was writing,” she says. “There’s no big gap where I was working in a shop, say, and working on a novel. I was writing for newspapers, I was writing speeches – I was always writing, just not commercial fiction. So it was no giant leap for me to start writing the first novel, in terms of putting words on the page. The reason why it’s a job for me is because I’m the breadwinner in our house, and we have four kids. For me, going full-time into writing was like setting up a small business. And I had to make it work.”
It’s not typically the attitude of an Irish writer, that quality of laser focus and clear-eyed ambition. But then, Spain, born and raised in Belcamp, and who vividly remembers Enid Blyton leaving her hungry all the time, is by no means a typical Irish writer.
“Like, I want to have a New York Times bestseller. That’s where I want to be, y’know? And then, I also want to write Bafta-winning screenplays. Not because I need the accolades, but because I need the money that comes with those achievements.”
Jo Spain’s Dirty Little Secrets is published by Quercus. She will be discussing Taken Down as part of the NOIRELAND crime writing festival in Belfast on March 10th
Belfast is the crime-writing scene for NOIRELAND
Crime fiction heavyweight Lee Child described Belfast as “the most noir place on earth”. His father came from the city and he might have been forgiven for seeing only the shadows of its troubled past. But over the last decade Belfast has emerged as a powerhouse of creativity and it is punching well above its weight. Not only is it the home of some of prestige television’s biggest productions, but its prize-winning novels, bestselling authors and acclaimed indie bookshops have firmly established Belfast as one of Europe’s most exciting and culturally rich destinations.
This energising combination of creativity and edge has made Belfast the ideal location for a crime festival. The NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival celebrates Ireland’s passion for crime fiction, on screen and on page. The festival returns this March for another packed weekend of events and discussions, exclusive screenings, walking tours, whiskey receptions and grown-up bedtime stories.
Knowing the Irish appetite for coruscating conversation, it was an exhilarating challenge to come up with suitably meaty subjects for our panels, and to host authors who would engage and entertain our audiences.
The topics are some of the hottest around: the emergence of the genre’s new bad guy in Political Villainy; the groundswell of interest in crime podcasts and documentaries in The Rise of True Crime. Brexit Means . . .? debates the impact of Brexit for crime fiction; while (Anti) Social Media delves into the dark side of new technology.
Alongside themed panels are a series of “in conversation” events with our crime fiction heroes. Jo Spain talks to two of hers – Belinda Bauer and Denise Mina – in An Englishwoman, an Irishwoman and Scotswoman Walk into the Noir. Anthony Horowitz is in the spotlight, talking with Brian McGilloway about his prolific career as an award-winning screenwriter and bestselling author of the multimillion-selling Alex Rider series, along with James Bond and Sherlock Holmes novels. Crime fiction’s driest wits Stuart MacBride and Adrian McKinty will swap one-liners and discuss crime writing. Ann Cleeves will chat about her bestselling series being adapted into two of television’s most popular dramas, Vera and Shetland.
This year sees an innovative new event for our crime festival: Jack-a-NOIR-y, a late-night reading from one of the year’s hottest new titles. We are delighted to launch it with one of Ireland’s greatest crime writers, John Connolly, and his latest novel A Book of Bones (published April 18th).
The festival closes with Behind the Scenes with Taken Down. Jo Spain and the Love/Hate team have produced one of Ireland’s most successful crime dramas. We will look in depth at the hit series’ themes and impact – a fitting end to our celebration of crime fiction and drama in Ireland.
Angela McMahon is co-director of NOIRELAND International Crime Festival, which takes place at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, March 8th-10th