Derry Journal reporter Claire Allan’s latest novel ‘If Only You Knew’ is set to be released this weekend. With a growing fanbase, the local author as been described as “one of Ireland’s finest Chick Lit authors” and next month will also see the publication of her first novel in Norway. With her star on the rise, Claire speaks to Journal News Editor ERIN HUTCHEON about her hopes for the future, the slightly darker tone of her new book and what she hopes the City of Culture will mean for local writers.
“I’m more nervous about this book than I have been about any of the others,” Claire admits. “It really did take blood, sweat and tears to write and the last year has been an exceptional learning curve for me as a writer.”
Five books in you would think Claire Allan knows exactly what she is doing. Her four previous books, all published by Irish power house Poolbeg Press, who launched the careers of Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly, Melissa Hill and others have all fared well in the bestsellers chart. The critics have been kind and her readership has grown steadily with her books However she freely admits that writing each novel is “like starting from scratch all over again” and “If Only You Knew” was her biggest project to date.
“I wanted the book to be a little different. It’s still chick lit, or women’s fiction if you prefer to call it that. There is still a lot of humour in the book, and essentially it is about friendship and forgiveness, and in true chick lit style, it does feature a particularly gorgeous pair of purple shoes but I hope it digs deeper too.
“For the first time I have made reference to some aspects of the Troubles, with a portion of the book set in Derry in the mid to late 70s. I can’t reveal too much of that storyline but it was something which made me look very deeply at our past and which I was nervous about getting wrong.
“Hopefully it has worked and people will respond well to it. It was very emotional to write - and I got a real education myself while writing it.”
“If Only You Knew” is the story of cousins Ava and Hope who find themselves thrown together when their beloved, but eccentric, aunt Betty dies in France and tasks them with clearing out her belongings and fulfilling her last wishes.
The two women, who lead very different lives, find themselves uncovering a series of letters from their aunt, some of which contain some pretty explosive secrets which will change their lives forever.
“Hope and Ava are very different characters. Ava is married, sensible, has a young child and is permanently exhausted from the stress of motherhood and work. All it takes is a spanner in the works for her life to go into a tailspin.
“While Hope is a single and working as a freelance journalist in Belfast. Everyone thinks Hope has the life of it, but the truth is she is madly in love with her bestfriend Dylan - who just so happens to be madly in love with someone else, and is stuck in a rut, “ Claire explained.
“The drama is there before they even leave for France, and before they find the letters from Betty - who was a real character in herself.”
Setting the book largely in the South of France was one of Claire’s favourite things about the novel. “I spent hours online researching gorgeous villas, beautiful French towns and dreaming of hunky French men. One of whom may make an appearance in the book.”
Claire said the question she gets asked most often about her writing career is just how she fits it all in. She continues to work full time with the Journal and has two young children. Joseph (7) and Cara (2).
“I do have to make sacrifices with my time - but writing does, for the most part remain my ‘me time’. I love losing myself in other worlds and getting into the flow of a story. I like being surprised by what happens next. It’s time away from trying to fit in all that mammy stuff - but obviously my children are my first priorty.
“They did feel it this summer though as the edits were pretty intense and I had to lock myself away for more than few days - so the book is dedicated to them and my husband, Neil. I think they’d prefer a trip to Toys R Us, but a book dedication will have to do them,” Claire laughed.
As the book gets ready to hit the shelves, Claire is getting set to hit the publicity trail. Next week she will appear in Dublin as part of the Dublin City of Literature Festival’s Words on the Street festival. “I, along with two fellow authors, will be talking at Whitefriars Church where the relics of St. Valentine are kept. The Words on the Street initiative is about putting authors in unusual settings to talk about their work. I’ll be talking about romance, so the setting is perfect.
“The initiative is brilliant and one we should be drawing on for 2013 when the City of Culture hits. Derry has so many great and emerging writers that we should be looking at what we can do to make a literary impact during Culture year. It would be a crying shame for the year to pass with no nod to our writing successes.
“Dublin has it sorted - it’s buzzing with events for readers and writers alike. Derry needs to follow suit - and there is no reason we can’t.”
With two more books contracted with Poolbeg, Claire is already working on her sixth novel, which has a working title of ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ and once again she will be challenging herself to write about sensitive subjects.
“I’m deep in research mode at the moment, as well as trying to write, about 500 to 1000 words an evening. I’m just reaching the stage where the novel is essentially writing itself - the characters are fully formed and taking on lives of their own. That’s the best part of writing, without a doubt.”
Claire is also preparing for the release of her second novel ‘Feels Like Maybe’ in Norway. “It’s just a bit surreal - seeing the Norwegian cover was mad. I’ve not seen the finished books yet, but I’m really interested to see how some of our more colourful turns of phrase may have been translated.”
And what for the future? “I suppose I’ll keep writing books for as long as people keep wanting to read them. Fingers crossed they will. I’ve been very lucky. I’m really overwhelmed by the support and feedback I’ve had from readers, especially local readers, so hopefully they’ll want more from me.”
If Only You Knew is published by Poolbeg Press and is available from all good bookstores.