When the poet, and short-story writer Paul Perry suggested that he and his friend Karen Gillece should write a novel together, Karen was sceptical. The novelist of four successful books was busy working on a fifth. And besides, she couldn’t see how it would work. But she agreed to try, thinking it might be quite fun.
The duo worked out a process. Taking a married couple, Paul wrote the husband’s lines, and Karen the wife’s. Then they swapped and edited each other’s sections. It worked brilliantly! The Boy That Never Was – a family based psychological thriller – became a bestseller, and has now been optioned for a movie. And the three books that have followed in as many years have also been published to acclaim.
Their recently released fourth novel, Can You Keep a Secret? is a bit of a departure for them. It has the same mystery element as the other three – but the structure is entirely different. It’s narrated by just one character, Lindsey.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves,” says Karen, when the three of us meet to discuss the book over coffee. “Our third book, Girl Unknown, started off as a single narrative. A husband found out he had a daughter from an old relationship, but early on, we realised that the wife needed a voice too.”
Can You Keep a Secret? concerns friends, close as teenagers, who reunite after twenty years. The meet in the crumbling mansion where they spent so much time together.
“We wanted to do a big house book,” says Karen. “Friends were going to gather for a weekend to clear the land of crows, and something will happen while they are there. But we didn’t know what would happen.”
“We didn’t know for a very long time,” he says. “But it was the character of Lindsey who intrigued us. Karen came up with the idea that Lindsey was a forensic photographer, and that has so many possibilities that we stuck with just her. She had a really interesting past.”
Some books, they say, come to them easily. But with others, they have to try harder – and write their way in.
“It’s part of the pleasure and the pain,” says Paul. “You’re writing to discover what is going to happen yourself. And you don’t know. The drafting process helps you to get there.”
Lindsey is a wonderfully complex character. From a modest background, as a teenager she is dazzled by Rachel – of Thornbury Hall – and thrilled when the more sophisticated girl singles her out as her best friend. But something went very wrong, and the two haven’t seen each other since their schooldays.
The former friends are both at a crossroads in their lives. Whilst Rachel’s marriage has recently ended, Lindsey has started dating Rachel’s brother, Patrick. It’s going well, but her health is worrying her. She’s recently been diagnosed with a brain-tumour.
“I’m at that stage in life where friends are having to deal with things like this,” says Karen. “My best friend died from cancer when I was writing my fourth novel, The Absent Wife.
“I was interested in how, dealing with the tumour would colour Lindsey’s judgement, and add an extra challenge. Everything must become so much more heightened when you are going through something like that. I am sure someone with cancer will look back at their formative years and the errors they have made. They would try to re-examine them.
“I think we are all made up of our pasts, the good as well as the bad parts. Some people have more errors to contend with but all experiences form us. How you react is the interesting part; whether you choose to bury the memories, or confront them and try to change.”
Before she became a writer, Karen once took a drama class. The teacher got the students to inhabit the skin of a character, visualising them, imagining how it felt to be inside their body. It proved to be an extremely useful exercise.
“Whenever I teach a creative writing class I try and get people to do that – just so that they understand that if you want to write about a fictional character you have to really try and see what it is like to live in their body and feel their emotions.”
What was it like becoming Lindsey?
“It was hard, actually, because it did feel very oppressive.” Karen presses the side of her head. “This thing in her head felt very cloying.”
The decaying Thornbury Hall adds to this sense of claustrophobia, adds Paul..
“Lindsey is bound by her past, and the relationships she formed in that time, but the house is the site of conflict in her life. She’s attracted to it, and repelled at the same time.”
Paul and Karen have hectic lives. Paul teaches writing two days a week at University College Dublin; he has three children, Karen has two. We talk about deadlines – and about the difficulty of producing a book a year. Karen would love the luxury of being able to put a manuscript away for a time, and come to it fresh.
“I work when my girls are at school, and grab time in the evenings and at weekends, but the book is still in my head when I am with my girls – now aged 5 and 8. And that means I feel constantly guilty.”
Karen goes to the Arts Council funded writer’s retreat, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig at times when her husband – a university lecturer – is not teaching.
“I get an enormous amount done there,” she says.
Paul laughs, and reminds her of the time, earlier this year, when she had booked to go there and work on the edits.
“The edits didn’t come through! I had a week there with no work to do, and it was brilliant! Anytime other time, I’ve always been under pressure. I don’t sit at the table late, having the chat, whereas this time I was able to go for long meditative walks, and sit around having tea. I could have a think about where I am in my career and what I want to achieve – things I never normally have time to think about.”
All their books – but perhaps especially Can You Keep a Secret – are beautifully paced, with mysteries held back until the exactly opportune moment. Is that difficult to achieve?
“It’s a fluid process,” says Paul. “You’re constantly rereading to see where the best place for a revelation is. The nature of this genre is delaying the revelations and misdirecting the reader, and every so often disguising what that revelation might be.”
“It’s a very subtle art,” agrees Karen. “You have to give the reader something, it can’t be, all out of the box at the end.”
The duo have taken the summer off, but are now set to collaborate on the screenplay of The Boy That Never Was. What about their separate projects? Has Paul written any poetry of late?
“Poems have taken me unawares. I have written them, almost without knowing. The poems come to you, whereas you go to the prose. You finish that chapter; you write so many words. Sometimes, the poems come from a different place.”
As for Karen’s fifth solo novel – that is sitting in a drawer, untouched.
“The Karen Perry books have been all consuming for the past six years. I’ve had no time for anything else.”
Collaborating has its good and bad points. There are times, Paul says, that it can be carnage. Yet in general, it works.
“It’s an extra editorial layer,” says Karen. “And it’s someone to bounce ideas off. You do find, when the book goes backwards and forwards that we’ve agreed for it to go one way and it goes another, but that can be exciting. It provides an extra spark.”
Can You Keep a Secret? Karen Perry. Penguin Books. €14.28. Kindle: €8.78.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 25th November, 2017
© Sue Leonard. 2017.