Viper: A Q&A with Nicola White

10 February 2020

Her head was bowed, and the hands braced on the chair arms were not like hands at all, but the dry dark claws of a bird…

The Macnamara sisters hadn’t been seen for months before anyone noticed. It was Father Timoney who finally broke down the door, who saw what had become of them. Berenice was sitting in her armchair, surrounded by religious tracts. Rosaleen had crawled under her own bed, her face frozen in terror. Both had starved themselves to death.

Francesca Macnamara returns to Dublin after decades in the US, to find her family in ruins. Meanwhile, Detectives Vincent Swan and Gina Considine are convinced that there is more to the deaths than suicide. Because what little evidence there is, shows that someone was watching the sisters die…

Poignant and haunting, A Famished Heart is the first in a powerful new trilogy set in 1980’s Dublin, exploring the power of the Catholic Church and the powerlessness of unmarried women.

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nicola white


Nicola White won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award in 2008 and in 2012 was Leverhulme Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. Her novel The Rosary Garden won the Dundee International Book Prize, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, and selected as one of the four best debuts by Val McDermid at Harrogate. She grew up in Dublin and New York, and now lives in the Scottish Highlands.

MJ: In writing about the deaths in A Famished Heart, how much inspiration did you take from real life?

NW: Each of the books takes a real-life case as its starting point – not in the sense of retelling those stories, but of taking elements from those circumstances to create something new. A Famished Heart is embedded in the real story of a family who starved themselves to death in a small suburban house in Dublin in 2000, but also has echoes of the murder of Angelika Kluk in a church in Glasgow in 2006. Certain true stories seem to stick in me, like thorns, until I find a way to remake them as fiction.
MJ: What have you found the hardest part about writing a crime novel? And the most enjoyable? 

NW: I think the biggest challenge is how much to reveal, and how much to conceal. I don’t want to bamboozle a reader, but I don’t want to bore them either with obvious signposting. The bit I enjoy best is the view from those sunny foothills before you even start to get anything down; the delicious distractions of research and the conviction that this time – yes THIS time – you are going to write something astonishingly perfect.
MJ: Which character do you think readers will most respond to? 

NW: Am I allowed to say all of them? Too greedy? The book is told through the eyes of three different characters – the melancholy detective Vincent Swan, the hard-nosed actress Francesca Macnamara, reluctantly dragged back to Ireland by her family’s tragedy, and the hapless, bullied priest Father Timoney. I love their every flaw.
MJ: Which crime writers most inspire you?

NW: I read a lot of Simenon’s Maigret books as a teenager, which gave me a taste for atmosphere and Gitanes. Patricia Highsmith was the first writer who seduced me into cheering for the murderer, which blew my mind, and of contemporary writers I particularly enjoy the spookiness and depth of Tana French and the emotional power of Denise Mina. But ask me on another day and I’ll name a different line-up. There’s an intimidating amount of talent out there.
MJ: Tell us a little bit about your next book, The Rosary Garden.

NW: The next book is set two years on from the first, in 1984, a particularly volatile time in Ireland’s social history. The story open with the discovery of a murdered newborn in the grounds of an exclusive convent school, and leads Swan down a labyrinthine path involving an earlier case of infanticide.

Follow @mirandajewess and @whiteheadednic on Twitter.