New twist in a twist in the tale of The Spinster Wife from novelist Christina McKenna
Writer Christina McKenna holds the record of having the most reviewed Irish novel on Amazon, while her books, several set in a fictional version of her native Draperstown, have sold 800,000 copies worldwide. She tells Joanne Sweeney tells how her latest thriller ventures into darker territory
ALTHOUGH writer Christina McKenna may not believe in organised religion any more, she describes the outstanding success of her 2011 debut novel The Misremembered Man as "an absolute miracle".
While all four of her fiction titles, 'the Tailorstown trilogy' of The Misremembered Man, The Disenchanted Widow, The Godforsaken Daughter and her latest novel, The Spinster Wife, are based in her native Draperstown, McKenna gets her creative inspiration from her time living in a little town in the province of Guanajuato in Mexico every spring.
"My husband David and I go to this little town in January every year and one year I started to write a book set there," she recalls. "I was five chapters in and I knew that I didn't really want to write the book. But that night I said to myself [looking to the heavens], if You are up there, give me inspiration for a novel that I must write."
"I woke up the next morning with Jamie McCloone's name in my head. I sat down and said to my husband, 'I have to write this first page'. And I couldn't stop writing."
Jamie McCloone, The Misremembered Man of her debut novel's title, is a lonely bachelor living on a farm in Tailorstown, McKenna's fictionalised Draperstown, who decides to look for love by placing a lonely hearts ad while still coming to terms with his experiences as a child in an orphanage.
"I wrote 1,000 words every day," McKenna says. "You couldn't keep me from telling this man's story."
While initially no publisher in Ireland, Britain or the north would agree to publish the novel, a New York agent totally believed in it and managed to get a small company to publish the book in 2009. However, the following year the publishing company folded and McKenna thought her days as novelist were over.
But a "divine" intervention came a few months later by way of an editor from Amazon Encore who, having been scouting for titles from defunct publishers, wanted to publish The Misremembered Man, both online and in paperback.
"That was the door which opened into a golden world," laughs McKenna, who is currently living in Newry. "I was an absolute nobody when it was published. Then the reviews started to come in. I was getting 30 five-star reviews a day on Amazon UK and America. It just kept building."
McKenna holds the record for being the most reviewed Irish book on Amazon, 1,272 reviews to date. Since 2013, she has sold 800,000 copies of all her books worldwide, making her one of the most successful Irish writers of recent years.
"It was all just extraordinary. At one point I was number one in the top 100 books on Amazon with Donna Tartt (the American Pulitzer prize-winner) at number two.
"It was an absolute miracle and I got so many emails from people around the world saying how much they laughed and wept as they recognised this man struggling with his inner demons but who is able to find joy in the end."
The book also found success as a stage play and McKenna's screenplay is still waiting to be turned into a film. It was put on hold after a Hollywood producer enlisted a major British actor who had planned to star in it and make his directorial debut.
The Spinster Wife, McKenna's fourth novel, is something of a genre departure. She acknowledges that it may surprise some of her loyal fans who have loved her Tailorstown trilogy, her 2004 memoir My Mother Wore a Yellow Dress and two non-fiction books about people's real-life paranormal experiences, The Dark Sacrament and Ireland's Haunted Women.
"The new one is a suspense thriller, which is different from the Tailorstown trilogy. All that I will say about this book is that the twist at the end is a twist upon a twist that no reader will ever see coming," McKenna boasts.
"The big challenge for the thriller was putting in enough twists and turns to cover yourself in every chapter to the very last couple of pages and have a cliff-hanger ending each chapter to pitch the reader over into the next.
"One woman, Dorinda Walsh, wakes up in Portaluca, a seaside village, with no memory of how she got there, so her story is traced on how she can find her way back to who she was.
"Simultaneously, Rita-Mae Ruttle wakes up in Larne and discovers from a note that her abusive husband is away to work on construction sites in London and won't be back for a while. She sees this as her chance to escape and responds to an ad for a little house in the village of Killoran, which is Magherafelt.
"She meets the landlord, Abraham Hilditch there, so the story is really about her coming to terms with her new life and how she can reinvent herself after coming out of a very abusive marriage but without giving too much away of herself to these new people in her life.
"That's why it's called The Spinster Wife, as to them she's a spinster."
McKenna is one of nine children raised on a farm. She initially saw her life in art as a painter before a degree in English took her teaching it as a foreign language for 10 years in Spain, Turkey, Italy, Ecuador and Mexico.
While raised as a Catholic, her life experience has led her to question her faith and the role of organised religion in people's lives.
"I don't believe in organised religion but I definitely believe in a higher power," says McKenna. "I'm very interested in the inner journey as a writer, which is more important to me than the outer one that we make in life and how we handle the bad things that happen to us along the way.
"Unfortunately, there are people for whom the darkness cannot be lifted because whatever happened is too much to bear. When I look back at my own life, everything that I looked at as a really bad thing at the time sent me on a path, a path to the point where I am now and where I wouldn't swap being here at this point for anything."
:: The Spinster Wife by Christine McKenna is available in bookshops now at £8.99 and online from Amazon on Kindle at £3.98.