Writer Claire Allan: Going dark for my first thriller was really exhilarating
Derry novelist Claire Allan has turned from women's fiction to writing her first thriller, Her Name Was Rose. The ex-journalist tells Joanne Sweeney how a dearly loved former colleague inspired her to write her first book
LIKE many an unpublished hopeful, Derry writer Claire Allan used to devour the novels of best-selling author Marian Keyes while dreaming of writing her own one day.
That dream might never have been realised had Allan, now the author of nine books, not been inspired by her dear friend and mentor, journalist Siobhan McEleney, who died in 2005.
The former highly respected deputy editor of the Derry Journal took Allan under her wing when she went to her local newspaper for work experience at age 16 and then as her editor and colleague when they worked together as journalists for 17 years.
"Siobhan and I used to talk books all the time at work and always wanted me to write a book in a Marian Keyes style," Allan recalls.
"Then early in 2005, Siobhan took ill around the time when I had my first child. We very quickly learnt it was a brain tumour and it was terminal. She was such a wonderful person and the mother of four daughters – it was just absolutely devastating.
"Before she died, we were asked to go to the hospital and we sort of knew were going in to say our goodbyes without actually saying goodbye. There was the usual banter about work, of course, and as I was leaving, she said to me, 'You better write a book for me, girl'."
Siobhan died that October and Allan began to write her first book the following January as she approached the age of 30. It was a women's fiction novel called Rainy Days and Tuesdays, based on some of her own experiences with postnatal depression, published by Poolbeg Press in 2007.
Novels such as Feels Like Maybe, Jumping in Puddles, It's Got to Be Perfect, If Only You Knew, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, The First Time I Said Goodbye and Still You quickly followed over the next nine years.
"Siobhan never got the chance to read it but I dedicated it to her. I think her death really made me think, 'Don't think about stuff, just do it and grab your chance'," says Allan in her soft Derry lilt.
Now – in a twist and outcome worthy of fans of The Secret, the self-help book about the power of positive visioning – Marian Keyes is officially raving about Allan’s first thriller novel, Her Name Was Rose, describing it as "amazing".
"I read it in one go. I was totally hooked," Keyes has said.
The novel, due to be published by HarperCollins at the end of the month, gives full rein to Allan's 'dark side'. It's creating a real buzz on social media as Irish women's fiction writers give the 41-year-old their full support on her genre switch.
Its title also taps into women's anger and sorrow which sprung up in the #HernamewasClodagh social media campaign following the 2016 murder-suicide of Clodagh Hawe and her three children by her husband in Co Cavan.
"I'm afraid I can't take credit for that. It was the brilliant marketing people at HarperCollins," admits Allan.
Set in present-day Derry, the thriller opens with Emily witnessing the violent death of a young mother called Rose in a hit-and-run. Instead of going to the police to tell them what she saw, Emily somehow believes that an ex-boyfriend is out to harm her and that she was the intended victim, not Rose.
She becomes obsessed with Rose and stalks her social media pages which are dominated by a public outpouring of loss for the young woman. But she takes one step too far and becomes embroiled in something that she can't easily get out of. Throw a drop-dead gorgeous grieving widower into the mix, and Emily's world dramatically changes.
"Everybody's life is so open on Facebook but they only show us the side of their life that they want us to believe," says Allan, parent to Joseph (14) and Cara, who is nine, with her husband Neil.
"Facebook has become a bit like a show home. It only shows the days when the kids are washed and they are smiling and you’re making cupcakes. It’s never facing the drudgery of the third wash in a row or dealing with banana mashed into the carpet.
"Emily is so vulnerable as she has had every ounce of confidence pulled out of her due to a previous failed relationship. She has an over-reliance on medication and drink and what starts as a silly joke leads her to somewhere really dark.
"She's this really flawed character and you will want to shake her and say, 'What are you doing, you mad woman?' But making bad choices is what vulnerable people do, those who have a legacy of abuse behind them."
Although Allan had built up a loyal fan base for her women's fiction titles, she decided several years ago that she needed another challenge in her writing as her personal life lurched off its axis.
"I was turning 40 and had a difficult number of years in my personal life. I had a hysterectomy and developed sepsis after that and was really very ill for quite a while. Then my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s so as a family we had all these big issues really close together to deal with.
"I found that life wasn’t all sunshine and roses and had its challenges. I wanted to really challenge myself and knew if I was going to have a chance of moving on [in writing] I needed to do something different. I had walked away from my previous publishing contact because I wanted to write darker and more serious stuff and they didn’t want me to go down that road."
However, her new editor encouraged Allan to find her dark side.
"It was the most exhilarating and thrilling writing experience that I ever had as I gave myself permission to do something that’s completely not me and so far outside of my normal comfort zone.
"I really enjoy going dark and writing the baddie yet I don’t think I have this sociopath part of me waiting to get out. But my new rule of thumb is the first time you write it and you think it’s dark, then go darker. "
:: Her Name Was Rose by Claire Allan, published by AVON, will be launched by New York Times best-selling author Brian McGilloway in No Alibis book store, 83 Botantic Avenue, Belfast at 4-6pm on Saturday June 30 and in the Central Library, Derry, on Monday July 2 at 7pm. It costs £7.99 or 99p on Ebook.