Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In Conversation with Sam Blake (Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin)

By Gillian Hamer.

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the popular national writing resources website 

She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. 

Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

Hello and welcome! Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?

Hello, and thank you for having me! I write crime as Sam Blake - the first in the Cat Connolly trilogy LITTLE BONES was published in 2016 and was a bestseller in Ireland, it was followed by IN DEEP WATER which is out in the UK in February 2018 and the third in the trilogy NO TURNING BACK will be out in Ireland in 2018 and in the UK in 2019.

Congratulations on the huge success of your debut crime novel LITTLE BONES – how has your life changed since its release?

LITTLE BONES was far more successful than I ever expected, it was No 1 in Ireland for 4 weeks and stayed in the top 10 for another 4 which was totally amazing. Now I get to be Sam Blake as well as me and it’s incredible to meet someone who has read it and loved my books! That never ceases to surprise me!

What was the inspiration behind the novel?

Cat Connolly is a twenty-four-year-old detective who is based in Dun Laoghaire just south of Dublin City and LITTLE BONES is about the story that unfolds when she finds a baby’s bones hidden in the hem of a wedding dress.

Stephen King talks about story being the collision of two unrelated ideas – the ideas behind Little Bones weren’t entirely unrelated but they collided one sunny Sunday afternoon as I was driving back from a Readers Day that author Sarah Webb and I had programmed at a hotel in Dublin Airport. I put on the radio and a documentary was starting on RTE about Kerry born playwright George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice is best remembered for his play The Country Dressmaker which he submitted to the Abbey Theatre. It was such a success that it rescued the theatre after the problems of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in the same year. Born in 1877, Fitzmaurice became introverted and isolated as he grew older and died in 1963, in a rented upstairs room in No.3 Harcourt Street, Dublin. He was aged 86 years and left no will and few personal belongings – apart from a copy of every play he had ever published and a few in draft form, which were in a suitcase under his bed.

It was Fitzmaurice’s suitcase that caused the collision of ideas.

Several years previously I’d watched an RTE TV documentary about a young Irish girl who was living in lodgings in Manchester. Belinda Agnes Regan discovered she was pregnant before she left Ireland but, unmarried, had no choice but to hide the pregnancy. She delivered the baby herself, incredibly in a room she shared with another much younger girl who apparently slept through her ordeal. Wrapping the baby in a shawl, she crept to the bathroom but when she returned, the baby wasn’t breathing. Hiding the body in a suitcase, she left it under her bed, returning home to Ireland to talk to the family priest. While she was away, the body was found by her land lady and she was arrested for infanticide.

These two stories, quite separately lit a light bulb in my head and on the drive home I started wondering about dress makers and what would happen if the bones of the baby had ended up in a dress – a wedding dress – the crucial thing that Belinda Agnes Regan must have yearned for, for nine long months. At that point I had no idea who owned the dress, or how the bones got there, or WHY…that was the start!

Why did you choose to write in the genre of crime fiction?

I’ve always read crime and I’m fascinated by puzzles and what makes people tick – why they act and react in a particular way. I think most writers write what they read, and I love a good story that keeps me hooked until the end and then surprises me. That’s what I try to do in my books.

Who are your favourite crime authors and is there one in particular you would list as your inspiration?

I adore Lee Child, Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter. They have all been huge influences. I love the fast action of the Reacher books and the characterisation and complex stories in Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter’s books. Good stories are all about unforgettable characters and all of these writers characters stay with you. I love Alex Barclay’s Ren Bryce for the same reason.

Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

My full name is Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin which is far too long for a book cover and people outside Ireland struggle to pronounce O’Loughlin. The key for any author is that readers can remember their name long enough to find them in a library or on a bookshop shelf - Sam Blake is MUCH nice easier one to remember. Being a B, I’m in great company on the shelf and there is a theory that men don’t like reading books by women, so Sam adds an additional layer of subterfuge...

Would you like to write in a different genre one day? If so, what and why?

Years ago I wrote a romance novel – with lots of intrigue – called TRUE COLOURS, I was between crime novels and had an idea about an interior designer and her lost love. It got rave rejections from publishers when my then agent submitted it, but now I know it wasn’t a big enough story to be a breakout novel, so it didn’t get picked up. It seemed silly to leave it in a drawer so I self-published it, launching it free on World Book Day in 2012 (I think!) it had 25,000 downloads and shot into the top ten in contemporary fiction when it switched to paid, which was rather unexpected to say the least! It definitely wiped its face in terms of costs.

Could you give us a condensed version of your route to publication?

I started writing in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks. Obviously I thought the first book would be a bestseller (it was truly awful – the opening chapter is about a doctor returning to Dublin to commit suicide and he’s dead for the whole book) but despite being rejected by everyone on the planet, the bug had truly bit and I kept writing.

By the time I got to book 3 I knew I was getting better but I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. My husband was in the Irish Police force (Gardai) and worked shifts - I couldn’t get to a creative writing evening class so I decided to set up my own intensive one day fiction writing workshops – all facilitated by best-selling authors. I learned loads!

Inkwell grew into a publishing consultancy and I kept writing – my now agent is Simon Trewin from WME who I was working with doing events and as a scout, but whom I had forgotten to tell that I wrote myself. One day I mentioned it over coffee in London and he wanted to see my book immediately (bit of a scary moment) Thankfully he loved the book, which was then called THE DRESSMAKER. He had lunch with Mark Smith from Bonnier on a Thursday, sent him the book, and Bonnier made an offer for three books on Friday!

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?

Just keep writing – best advice I was ever given from Sarah Webb

Finish your book – Liz Nugent’s top tip

And: Read, read, read. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Edit, edit, edit. – the fabulous Monica McInerney’s advice

And read On Writing by Stephen King (sorry that’s four) – EVERY published writer had read it and has it on their shelf. I could quote from it for ever!

Finally, your next book ‘IN DEEP WATER’ will soon be released - how tough was it writing the ‘difficult second book’?
Not as tough as writing book 3! I had an idea for IN DEEP WATER but had a couple of false starts because I’ve now discovered I need to get the crime exactly right before I begin (I know that sounds rather obvious) – once I knew what had happened and how, I flew through writing it.

I know this sounds mad, but as an unpublished writer you have the huge luxury of time to get your first book right – once you’re under contract that all changes and you have to speed up! Because LITTLE BONES was in fairly good shape, I had more time for IN DEEP WATER and really enjoyed coming up with the twist at the end. My editor wasn’t very keen on the multiple points of view that were in the original draft, so that meant a good bit of rewriting – IN DEEP WATER is a much more linear story than LITTLE BONES, but keeps you hooked.

When I came to write book 3, I only had a few months to come up with an idea and get stuck in. I’d forgotten to ask when my actual deadline was and was at 70k words when I discovered it was the next day! I managed to write 30k words in 9 days and deliver almost on time, but after the first edit I’ve decided I don’t like the end, so I’ve just changed it – it’s with my editor now so fingers crossed she likes it (YIKES!)

Social media

T: @samblakebooks

For Vanessa/Inkwell
T: @inkwellhq
T: @Writing_ie

Instagram for everything!


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