Credit: Alice-Rose Jordan
Sam Blake is the No. 1 bestselling author of the Cat Connolly Garda police trilogy (Bonnier), and standalones Keep Your Eyes on Me and The Dark Room (Corvus Books). Across her books she has been an Eason No. 1 bestseller for 8 weeks, an Irish Times No 1 for five weeks, in the Irish top ten for 22 weeks and has outsold Graham Norton (briefly!).
Her first novel Little Bones was shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Sam's latest book, Remember My Name, will be published by Corvus Books on 6th January and is available on our catalogue.
Who were your heroes as you were growing up and when did you first start writing?
My heroes growing up were Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou, I was in my teens in the 80s when apartheid was an acute issue, on the news every night. When I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings it had a lasting effect, Maya Angelou is so full of incredible wisdom. That book should be on the National Curriculum in every country in the world.
I started writing fiction in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks and I had an idea for a book – I had a lot of long dark November evenings to fill (no children then, just cats for company). I’m an insanely positive thinker and I was convinced it was going to be a bestseller, so I sent it out to everyone everywhere, and it was duly rejected by everyone, everywhere. It really wasn’t great – the opening chapter had no dialogue and it focused on a Doctor who was dead for the entire book. I made all the rookie mistakes, I really didn’t know about the importance of rewriting back then!
It took you 15 years of hard work before you were offered a publishing deal. What kept you going in that period?
Once the writing bug truly bit, I loved it so much I didn’t want to stop – it was always about getting published ultimately, but there is real magic in the process.
Despite that first book being whole heartedly rejected, I kept going and realised that I needed to know more about the craft of writing as well as the publishing business, so I began to immerse myself in that world. Knowing how something works is always your key to access.
My husband was in the Irish police and working shifts, and I had two children by then, so I wanted to learn more but couldn’t do an evening class – I found a weekend workshop in Dingle in Kerry, but getting there meant flying my parents in from the UK to mind the children, and lots of lists on the fridge! I knew after doing it that I really needed to learn more about fiction writing technique, so I decided to organise my own writing workshops.
I wanted to hear from bestselling authors and I wanted one day intensive workshops that I could get to easily, so I set up a company called Inkwell – the workshops were on the first Saturday of each month and only in the winter when the children were in school/nursery – they were entirely orientated around my needs but it turned out that lots of other people needed those things too! They became internationally successful.
Inkwell led me to create the website Writing.ie, which is now an award-winning writing resources website, one of the biggest in Europe – all the time I was learning and making connections and writing myself. Then one day I was having coffee with one of the agents I scout for, Simon Trewin, and although I’d known him for several years, I’d forgotten to mention that I wrote books too (I sort of assumed he knew). I told him about this book I’d written about an Irish detective called Cat Connolly who finds a baby’s bones hidden in the hem of a wedding dress. And he wanted to see it straight away. (Cue panic, I hadn’t looked at it for a while and he’s a giant in the literary world. If it was actually rubbish it rather blew my credibility, ahem.)
What is your writing routine?
I love writing on the move, on planes, in coffee shops, hotels - I write best in that fallow time when everyone else is watching TV or relaxing! Because I’m super busy I write whenever I can, I never have down time really. If I haven’t managed to get the words done during the week I have a big session at the weekend. It’s my passion and hobby as well as my job, and the thing that keeps calling me back!
I do find it very difficult to write in my office, and everyone got cross with me in lockdown for taking up the kitchen table, so I set up a writing desk in the spare bedroom with scented candles and a comfortable chair - it’s a great place to write.
How did you invent the character of Garda Detective Cat Connolly and how did your life change with the success of Little Bones?
I think Cat found me! I came up with the idea for the story on a long drive back from a library reader’s day I’d helped organise out near Dublin Airport. Years before I’d watched a documentary about an Irish girl who had become pregnant and gone to Manchester for work – she’d had the baby in secret at her lodgings (in the middle of the night), but it died and obviously deeply disturbed, she’d wrapped it up and left it in her suitcase under her bed. She came home to Ireland and it was discovered, and she was the last person to be convicted of infanticide in the UK. Her story lit a lightbulb in my head.
On the way back from the airport that day I was listening to a radio documentary about a playwright whose play, The Country Dressmaker, had saved the fortunes of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He’d died destitute but he left all his plays to the nation in a suitcase on his bed. The two suitcases joined in my head and I started thinking about the dressmaker - the one thing that Belinda Anne Regan would have wanted was a wedding dress.
When I started writing, it wasn’t a police procedural at all, but I realised about three chapters in that someone needed to find the bones, and Cat Connolly literally pulled up outside the cottage in Dalkey where the dress was hanging, and as she investigated the burglary that she’d been called to, she discovered the hem of the dress had been ripped and what was inside. She was a fabulous character to write – she’s a kick boxing champion and I had to learn to kick box to get her right.
When Simon Trewin asked to see Little Bones (immediately!) he thankfully loved it, and so did Mark Smith the publisher at Bonnier in London. It was released in May 2016 in Ireland, was number 1 for four weeks and stayed in the top 10 for another four, and then was shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year.
The biggest thing that changed for me was the confirmation in my own head that I did know what I was doing, and all the years of hard work and learning had paid off.
Remember my Name is your latest book. Can you tell us about it and what it was like to write?
Since writing the series I’ve switched to psychological thrillers and Remember My Name started life when someone called me and didn’t hang up properly – it’s happened to us all, both making and receiving calls, and I started thinking about what might be overheard in those crucial few seconds…
I love finding new characters and for me they are as important as the plot, so every new book is like meeting a group of new friends. I spend time getting to know them so that when I start writing they are real people. Everyone in Remember My Name has secrets, it’s super twisty, and finding out what those were was very exciting. There’s a final twist at the end that didn’t come (I didn’t know about it) until I was literally writing the scene - it’s a very well concealed secret!
Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
I’ve just released a spiderweb book which features a character from the 3rd Cat Connolly book, Anna Lockharte, and Brioni O’Brien who is in Remember My Name. It’s a digital exclusive, so only on Kindle – it’s like my extra story (inspired by that tweet that Ollie Murs sent from Selfridges, that he heard gunshots, and the chaos that social media can cause). Now I’m starting with a completely new cast on a book that could be described as TV’s Country House Restoration meets Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy – it doesn’t have a title yet though. It’s got a big cast and is a lot of fun to write – it’s also set in the summer which makes a nice change as a lot of my books are autumn/winter!
You live in Ireland now and have links to the UK. How does the book world differ in Ireland from the UK?
Ireland is very small so everyone knows each other – I’ve been immersing myself in the literary world and programming events, particularly for our amazing libraries, for years so I know writers from all genres and everyone knows me. That makes organising things very easy, I just need to email or pick up the phone – they say here that you’re only one person away from the person you need to talk to, and that’s completely true. I’ve had dinner with the President and Booker prize winners, it’s a very level society.
I think the biggest difference between Ireland and the UK is our libraries, the literary tradition is a vital part of Irish heritage and our libraries are incredibly well funded, they organise the most amazing events. Dublin is a City of Literature, and everything relating to that designation is run by the library service - I’ve worked closely with the team to bring all sorts of exciting initiatives together (one of which was filmed by CNN!).
I’m in London at least once a month though, and I’m now on the board of the Society of Authors and the Crime Writers Association, so I’m building the same connections in the UK as I have here – everyone here sees me as English and everyone there sees me as Irish, so I’m truly betwixt and between. I’m developing on a huge project for National Crime Writing Month in June (UK mainly but also Ireland) for the CWA, and I’m very excited about that.
One book that everybody should read?
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, no contest!
What are the best and worst things about being a bestselling author?
Everything is the best, I wouldn’t complain for one moment – sometimes you need a lot of stamina to do PR and keep writing at the same time, and a real work ethic to meet deadlines, but I love that. Everything I do now relates to writing in some shape or form, whether it’s running my festival, the website or promoting a book. It has some mad moments – I once did an evening event in Cork and missed the train back to Dublin (I’d misread the departure time completely – it was arriving in Dublin at 9pm when I needed to get on it in Cork, and I discovered in the process that trains don’t run here at night, it was the last train). I had to be back in Dublin for 7am to be on the TV breakfast programme (make-up on and ready to sparkle). I ended up in Cork airport trying to hire a car, and a GORGEOUS guy in Hertz did a switch with a car that was booked for the morning (because I can’t drive a manual, panic stations – no cars available anywhere) and I drove back in four hours, and got into the TV station on time. With me, booking rail and plane tickets tends to be where things fall apart.
The best bit is meeting new people and the absolute best bit is people I don’t know reading my books and loving them – that’s always a wonderful surprise! Like a lot of writers, I constantly doubt whether a book is really any good and part of me thinks everyone’s just being nice about it, so those random connections with readers are just fantastic.
Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
When I was much too young, I got up one evening and came downstairs while my parents were watching a thriller about a man who dressed up as nun and murdered people. I’ve been secretly and irrationally terrified of nuns ever since. I also have ZERO sense of direction (and we won’t even mention booking travel tickets….)