‘If you’re from a working-class background, you don’t have a friend who’s an agent or a relative in the publishing industry’ — writer Jo Spain on crime, class and ambition
On the release of her new novel Six Wicked Reasons, IMAGE sat down with Jo Spain to talk crime, class and plans for world domination
Dark and dreary January nights call for crime — well-written thrillers that transport us away from the trudge of the New Year. Dublin crime novelist Jo Spain’s latest venture, Six Wicked Reasons is the perfect escape. A missing sibling, a family in ruin, contention, tension, and plenty of old scars resurfaced makes for perfect winter reading, and Spain isn’t stopping there.
With another book, this time the next in her famed Tom Reynolds series, released this summer, and a wealth of upcoming TV work under her belt, Spain’s career has been steadily ramping up since its beginnings in 2015 — which all started with a competition entry.
Spain’s first novel came about as a result of the Richard and Judy Bestseller competition, where they searched for an unpublished work to push into the mainstream. Working 9-5 and writing in the evenings when the kids were in bed, the email landing in Spain’s inbox was a surprise.
“I knew even at the time that it was something huge — most people would submit for years until an agent would even look at it. It went from a draft on my computer to a published book in a mad amount of time,” she says.
Spain has kept up that breakneck speed ever since, publishing an average of two books a year as well as writing for the screen. How does she keep it up?
“I do write fairly quickly but I never intended to write two books a year. I started with my Tom Reynolds series, but I had a standalone story in my mind (which turned into The Confession, published in 2018) that I knew didn’t fit with that series.
I decided to just write it and send it into my publishers to see what they would say, and they immediately pushed it through, saying it would be a number one bestseller — which it was. I keep writing my Tom Reynolds series because people love to read him, but I also have to deliver these standalone stories.”
We’re in a time of major movement when it comes to Irish women in literature. The Sally Rooneys and Emilie Pines are making waves internationally for their work on the minutiae of relationships, creating stories from the most ordinary aspects of life. Spain, however, writes big, busting crime novels, with thrilling storylines and drama as the backbone of her stories. But she maintains that the spotlight has room for everyone.
“Literary writers are definitely getting attention lately, but Irish crime is very well known around the world too.
“I’m just obsessed with crime — I love crime shows and crime novels, and I was never going to write anything different. But I think that I still write crime as an examination of people; it’s all based on psychology, and locally centred on a family or a village. I don’t go for international CIA thrillers — I like that domestic noir that we do so well in this country.”
While crime and mystery are universal themes, Spain is famed for the undertones in her work — specifically, political and sociological. Many of her books examine crime from a perspective of class or race, and is also a focus of her most recent Irish TV series Taken Down. Growing up in Coolock in North Dublin, Spain explains that being politically minded comes naturally.
“There was so much laughter and wit in my area growing up, but looking back, there was also this presence of sheer deprivation and poverty too. I know being poor is relative across generations, but Dublin in the ’80s, when the scourge of heroin in the city was starting, was a dark time. And I grew up with my eyes wide open to that existence.
“It wasn’t until I went to college I realised what a massive achievement it was for me to finish school and go to Trinity. I met lovely friends in college, but it didn’t take me long to see that they had grown up in a kind of bubble, and did not see the types of things that I did growing up. But getting older, I realised how much that would come in handy for me as a writer — being exposed to all aspects of humanity helps you to have a much wider reach of emotions and experiences.
“I never want to be preachy with my books — they are escapism at the end of the day. But I want the topics I cover to be dealt with sensitively too. For example, in one, the backdrop is a mother and baby home, which was a huge issue in the news at the time, and I also had found out that my own father had been in a mother and baby home. But when you fictionalise these subjects, you make it accessible for people — they can learn from being entertained.”
Access and success
A growing conversation in the arts is the access, or lack thereof, for artists from working-class backgrounds. Chatting to Spain, I say that the lack of a working-class voice can always be felt when these types of stories are shown on screen.
“I don’t think you can say that writers who haven’t experienced poverty can’t use their imagination and do these stories well, but you will always be missing something special not having an authentic voice in the room,” Spain explains.
“There are gates but there are also opportunities. I got my break in a blind competition, where they didn’t know who I was or my background, and I got there on talent alone. It may take some luck, but, in literature, a good editor will see talent and work with it.”
But TV, Spain explains, is a different beast. “It’s a lot more difficult, and it’s more about who you know. I broke into TV because I was already a successful writer, but if you’re from an estate or a working-class background, you don’t have a friend who’s an agent or a relative in the publishing industry who can get you an interview.
“You don’t have the information to take the first step — who do I call? Who do I send my book to? How do I access an agent? And that can be really debilitating. There has to be a combination of the industry throwing the ladder down and then people having the confidence to grab it. ”
It feels almost reductive to ask Spain her plans for the future — two books a year and multiple TV series in the works makes for a very busy 2020. Instead, I ask her goals for the Jo Spain name — is world domination on the cards?
The short answer is yes. Spain is planning to break American with a 2021 novel she and her publishers affectionately refer to as Gone Girl, after the 2012 smash hit by Gillian Flynn, whose success she’d like to emulate on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. Her TV work will also ramp up, with a series set to be broadcast next year with a Hollywood name attached. Spain has no intention of slowing down.
“If you set the bar high, even if you don’t get there, you’ll have plenty of successes under your belt working towards it.”
Jo Spain’s Six Wicked Reasons is in stores now
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