Jo Spain was born in Dublin and lives in Ireland with her family.
Her career has spanned journalist, political advisor,
and most important of all, mum of four.
These days she’s a bestselling novelist and much-in-demand scriptwriter –
and she’s still bringing up four children!
Her novel writing career was launched by the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, in which she was shortlisted. That led to her Tom Reynolds police procedural series, set in rural and urban areas of Ireland,
the first of which was published by Quercus in 2015.
Six standalones followed, the most recent of which is Don’t Look Back.
Lynne: Jo, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I don’t know how you find the time to promote your books – four young children are enough of a full-time job for most women, and you’ve written a dozen novels and a growing pile of TV scripts as well. My first question has to be – how do you do it? What’s your secret? Can I please have the address of that shop that sells forty-eight hour days?
Jo: If you find the address for the shop that sells forty-eight-hour days, please let me have it! Life is busy, I can’t say otherwise. But I have a good organisational brain and my children’s dad also does a lot of the day-to-day school lunches, football runs, dentist appointments etc. I write quite fast, which also helps. If you do anything enough, it starts to get a little easier. I do get quite stressed about juggling so much at times. It’s a first world
problem, though. I need to write and as long as people want to pay me to do it, I’m not complaining.
Lynne: The disruption caused by the Covid pandemic is fading into the past, thank goodness, but you were writing all the way through it. How did the lockdowns affect you?
Jo: Not as much as some people who couldn’t work from home. I’m used to it. I wasn’t used to having children there all day and home schooling while trying to do my job, so that took its toll. But I also had the advantage of being able to go places in my imagination, and over that period all the books I wrote were set outside of Ireland: The Perfect Lie in Long Island on the east coast of the USA; The Last to Disappear in Lapland; and this new one, Don’t Look Back, on a Caribbean island. That was very much driven by Covid!
Lynne: That leads me neatly into my next question: how do you research your novels? Don’t Look Back is set largely in the Caribbean, and I read The Perfect Lie a while ago. Do you visit the places you write about? And what about your characters, who seem to jump off the page and have their own lives outside the story? Are they based, however loosely, on people you know, or do they come entirely from your imagination?
Jo: For a long time, I only wrote novels in places I’d been to. That changed over Covid and the Long Island novel was done entirely with Google maps and research (and by creating a fictional town in Long Island so locals wouldn’t get upset with me!) I’d been to Lapland, so I could use that. For Don’t Look Back, I created an entirely fictional island. It’s just easier, and it’s not a struggle for me to summon these places in my imagination. The characters are similarly fictional, but I certainly steal nuggets from things I’ve overheard or traits in people I meet. The character of Mickey [in Don’t Look Back] is original, but she has bits of all the strong women I’ve met over the years.
Lynne: You used to be a journalist, a very different style of writing. What made you decide to make the move to fiction?
Jo: One thing journalism taught me is hook the reader with the first few lines. And even when you’re writing facts, like in newspapers or speeches, you are still telling a story if you’re a decent writer. But my head has always been in ‘what if’ mode. I imagine bonkers scenarios all the time, so it was inevitable I’d move into fiction writing, even if I’d never been lucky enough to get published.
Lynne: Are you the kind of writer who has been creating stories as long as you can remember, or did you come to it later?
Jo: As long as I can remember. I used to write boarding school stories and mysteries and poems and song lyrics, scrawled in copy books in the worst handwriting you can imagine. But I didn’t think I could make it a job, so I studied politics in Trinity College and went to work first in journalism, then in Leinster House (Irish parliament) where I wrote speeches and legislation and so on. I didn’t write my first novel until 2014 and that was published in 2015. I became a full-time writer in 2016.
Lynne: And now you’ve moved again – into script writing; you’ve even developed a series for TV. How did that happen? How is this kind of storytelling different from straightforward narrative fiction?
Jo: I wrote my first TV show for the Irish TV station RTE in 2018, a murder mystery which was also quite political. I was very lucky, the drama commissioner there at the time had been recommended my novels by another screenwriter and she liked my style of writing. Since then, I’ve co-written three seasons of Harry Wild, starring Jane Seymour, and I’ve also written for the Jane Austen period drama Sanditon, on PBS Masterpiece.
Storytelling for screen is a very different discipline. It’s show, don’t tell, whereas in novels you can have a lot more internal monologue. And it’s also a much more collaborative effort. My novels are just me. My scripts are me and my co-writer, my producers, my director, the actors, the locations manager, the budget office and most important of all, the networks. There can be no ego in TV. Just hard, hard work.
Lynne: Even your novels show different approaches to crime fiction: a police procedural series, followed by a generous handful of standalones, including your latest, Don’t Look Back. Was it a deliberate decision to change tack, or did something spark the standalones? In fact – what does strike that initial spark for you when a new novel begins to form in your mind?
Jo: It has to be something that grabs my attention, whether it’s a plot that’s landed in my head, or a place I’ve visited, or a character I can’t shake. As regards how and when I choose to write the series or standalone, some of that is an industry matter. Standalones sell better. I like writing both, but to be a writer today and to make it work financially, sometimes you have to come at it with your business head on.
Lynne: What is the Jo Spain method of writing? Do you make timelines and spider charts and character sketches, and plan everything out? Or are you the kind of writer who enjoys finding out what happens as you go along?
Jo: I’m a one-laptop woman. I have no charts or FBI type case-boards (I have no room, my kids expand to fill the space). Most of my writing is done in my head before I even sit down with the empty Word or Final Draft document. But I do plan. For a novel, I’ll write a loose outline, maybe five or six pages. That’s never the final version, I add a lot as I go along but it is the general gist of the plot.
Lynne: Sorry, it’s a long time ago, but I have to ask this: the Richard and Judy bestseller competition which launched your crime writing career. Can you remember how it felt to be told your novel was shortlisted? And what happened next? How did it feel to hold that first copy of your debut novel in your hand?
Jo: It was honestly one of the most exciting days of my life. I knew that it would change the course of my future. It was like somebody saying, that dream you have, we’re going to help you make it come true. And then, I didn’t win it. Which was a blow because I had a ten-day-old baby and I was broke and I really, really wanted it to be good news. But it was in the end, because Quercus, the publisher involved, offered me a two-book deal soon after. I thought publication would be immediate – the one thing you don’t realise when you get your first novel deal is how long everything takes. It was a full year later before With Our Blessing was released and when it was, I couldn’t believe that I had a book out. To be frank, I still can’t believe they’re my books on the shelves and I’ve written thirteen.
Lynne: OK, back to the present. A major theme of Don’t Look Back is domestic violence and the effect it has on the victim. Is this something you have a personal interest in? How did you research it?
Jo: Each of my books has touched on some political or social or historical issue. It’s what I like to do. I love a murder mystery, but I like my stories to have a little depth. My background is politics and I’m interested in topical issues. Domestic violence is something I think most women, sadly, grow up having either witnessed directly or knowing somebody who has, so I didn’t have to do a huge amount of research into it. The only thing I had to do was treat it as sensitively as possible and try to do the issue justice. Which I hope I did.
Lynne: And finally – what are you working on at the moment, now that Don’t Look Back is done and dusted? Can we look forward to more novels in the future, or has scriptwriting moved into that space in your life?
Jo: I’m editing book thirteen right now, due out in 2024. It’s another standalone, a thriller set in a completely different world from a Caribbean island. We’re just about to finish filming Harry Wild seasons 2 and 3 and I’ll be post-producing them for the next few months. And then I’m working on some new shows to come after. What comes next? More writing, I hope. And a glass of champagne to celebrate the release of Don’t Look Back is certainly on the cards!
Lynne: Thank you so much for taking the time for this, Jo. I hope Don’t Look Back is the bestseller it deserves to be, and that the future holds lots more success for you.
Inspector Tom Reynolds
With Our Blessing (2015
Beneath the Surface (2026
The Darkest Place (2018
The Boy Who Fell (2019)
After the Fire (2020)
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.