Patricia and I meet in The Clayton Hotel in Dublin. She’s spent the night there after a book club event but didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. The reason? Back in Mullingar, her daughter was in the process of giving birth to her second child – a daughter, and Patricia’s fourth grandchild.
They’re a close family. Patricia met Aidan, the love of her life, when she was just 14. They married on the eve of her 21st birthday, and, 27 years later, were happy, with three teenagers. Life was good. Aidan’s job in the army kept him away a lot, but Patricia enjoyed her role as an administrator for the county council. Then tragedy struck.
Aidan got sick. Diagnosed with cancer, he died just three months later. In shock, Patricia just kept going. Her daughters were facing the Leaving and Junior Certificate and she was in a kind of bubble. Then grief flattened her.
“A year and a half after Aidan died I went through a really dark depression,” she says. “It was like a deep hole. I couldn’t function. I gave up my job, but I still find admin very difficult. I still can’t do it.”
Needing a crutch, Patricia found herself relying on wine – anything to get her through the day and into the next one – but then she decided to focus her attention on writing. She had always been a voracious reader, and she began going to classes in the Irish Writer’s Centre. She made writer friends, started attending festivals, and had soon completed her first crime novel.
It featured Detective Lottie Parker, who, recently widowed, struggles to cope with her job, her teenage children, and her wine consumption.
“There was a lot of me in Lottie in that first book. I was going through a grieving process, and I poured a lot of emotion into her character.”
There were differences. Lottie had to deal with a serial killer, whilst investigating crimes from the past. And when it all started to get a bit close to home, her stress levels became stratospheric.
Once she was happy with the book, Patricia acquired her agent, Ger Nichol, who started sending it out in January 2016. The usual rejections came, but in May, a digital publisher, Bookouture, expressing interest, asked Ger if Patricia had written anything else.
As it happened, she had.
“I wanted to keep myself busy and not get despondent over the rejections, so I’d kept writing, and was half way through a second novel. They made me a proposal for four books in the series.”
Patricia knew very little about digital publishing back then. There was no advance, but all she knew, is that anything was better than trying to self-publish.
“I’d self-published a picture book in 2010. It was well received around the town, but I couldn’t do the publicity and I was left with boxes of books.”
She decided to give Bookouture a go and was amazed when The Missing Ones sold 100,000 copies in the first month. And it didn’t stop there. It kept selling, doing well in the states, Australia, Canada and India. And now, with a total of five books out digitally, one every six months, she has sold over a million digital books.
“When people hear that they think I must be a millionaire,” she says. “But the price point, at £0.99 was very low. Once Amazon, the publisher and my agent have taken their cut, there’s very little left. But I didn’t write to make money,” she stresses.
When Bookouture teamed up with Hachette to produce their most successful books in traditional form, and chose Patricia’s series, her first reaction was terror.
“The Missing ones came out with Sphere last January, and suddenly there it was, on the shelf. It was, Oh My God! I couldn’t hide behind a screen anymore and didn’t know how it would be received. It was real!”
She needn’t have worried. It was well received, as was The Lost Girls, published six months later. That book gained her a nomination at the An Post Irish Book Awards.
“I was absolutely honoured and so grateful. I couldn’t believe it!”
Perhaps more exciting still, the character, Detective Lottie Parker was nominated for a Dead Good Read Award at Harrogate, as a character who has been put through the wringer. Lee Child won, for Jack Reacher, but Patricia hosted a table at the Lee Child Author’s dinner.
“I met all my heroes, like Steve Cavanagh and Ian Rankin. It was wonderful realising they were real people!”
We’ve met to discuss The Lost Child, the third of the five books that are currently on line which has just been released in print form. Lottie Parker’s life is still a mess. She’s struggling with yet another serial killer, wondering why several members of one family are targeted. When she discovers that the murder is linked to an old case investigated by her father before he took his own life, she’s left reeling in shock.
Closer to home, her household has grown. It’s been joined by Louis, a baby born to 20-year- old Katie. Those scenes, as the young girl struggles to cope, yet is unable or unwilling to ask for help, are quite beautifully drawn.
“I thought back to when my children were teenagers, and what the dynamic would be like if a baby suddenly arrived into it – and what that would do to Lottie, who is, already all over the place trying to cope with her grief and her children, and her job with serial killers.”
Patricia is a modest writer – she constantly stresses that she is still learning her craft, but feels she is getting better with every book – but how, I wondered, does she think up such complex and dark plots? Does she have to map it all out beforehand?
“I usually start with a murder, even if the murder doesn’t appear at the beginning of the book. After that you have to strip off layers. I knew Lottie’s back story was going to come into this one, but I didn’t know what that story was. It just weaved its way in. It comes to me.
“It’s really exciting. When I’m 15,000 words in, and have a handle on the plot, I really enjoy it. Another tangent might develop into the main plot, and I’ll have to go back editing and changing it, but I enjoy it all. It’s like being an artist with a blank canvas. You put colour on it, and it starts coming to life.”
Patricia writes in the morning – continuing for four hours, when her eyesight lets her down.
“I get spots in front of my eyes. I try and leave the manuscript in the middle of a paragraph so that when I get back to it, I can get straight back in.”
She used to write in the evenings but couldn’t sleep, because the plot was going around in her head. Does she ever scare herself?
“I totally visualise the scenes while I write them, and sometimes I think, where the hell did that come from, but it doesn’t scare me,” she says. “I like it when I write something emotional and it makes me cry. Then, I feel I’ve got into the emotion of the character well.”
Now contracted for nine books, she has foreign rights for 12, or 13 countries, and has just gained a print contract for America. The price of her eBooks has risen to £1.99, assuring her a higher return. Her future looks assured. What does she most hope for?
“Just to be able to keep writing.”
Right now, though, she’s off to Mullingar Hospital to meet that new granddaughter.
The Lost Child by Patricia Gibney. Sphere: €12.97. Kindle: €2.27.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 23rd February.
© Sue Leonard. 2019