Sam Blake has always been passionate about words. And she likes nothing more than writing – losing herself in her characters and intricate plots. She’s published eight crime fiction novels since 2016 – many of them number one best-sellers and has been shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the year. But she still gets a thrill when she hears from readers.
“It’s an absolute pleasure when someone I don’t know from the other side of the world says, ‘I loved your book,’” she says, as we chat over bowls of soup in a county Wicklow café.
We’ve met to discuss her new psychological thriller, The Mystery of Four, set in a renovated county house, which contains four tragic deaths – and four different methods of murder. It’s the week of the grand opening of the Kilfenora house and gardens, and a large cast of local characters are deep in rehearsals for a play.
The house’s owner, Tess, has been receiving threats through social media – and then, is told that there might be a body on her land. She’s just digesting that fact, when one of the actors is seriously injured by a falling stage light. After the subsequent four murders, is the killer closing in on her? Her friend, Clarissa, a former star of stage and screen believes he or she is – her suspicions further roused when she learns that some aconite has been picked from the ‘poison garden’. It’s a wonderfully twisty tale that keeps you guessing until the final pages. But how did Sam get the idea?
“It was a mixture of things,” she says. “I learned of the poisonous flower, aconite, and I love that vivid blue colour – so that sat in my head. And then, when I was in a London hotel room, I watched a documentary of Fred West. The TV crew found the place where, they reckoned, one of the victims was buried. They asked the owners if they could excavate, and the owners refused. I thought that was a really interesting moral dilemma and gave that problem to Tess.”
Sam Blake is the nom de plume for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who is known to many in the book world as the powerhouse behind The Inkwell Group, Writing.ie and Writers Ink – all of which offer practical help and services to emerging writers. She is so wholehearted and successful at this – that it’s rare to find a published debut writer who hasn’t come into contact with her, in some way, along their road to publication.
Her eyes light up when we discuss some of this work.
“I love writer’s Ink more than anything,” she says, talking of the 100 writers from all over the world, currently making use of the online resource. “We do something every day,” she says, “from answering their questions, to giving tips, to giving a prompt, and then going through their 500 words. And we have a live session on Facebook every week. It’s lovely, because you can see their progression.”
It’s not so nice when she has to hand out a dose of reality to wannabe writers.
“I spend half my time telling people they’re not ready for a report,” she says, “and telling them they need to go back to their manuscript and do more work.”
She really knows what she’s talking about, because success, for her, took a long time to arrive. She started life in retail – in England before moving to Ireland with her husband. And she worked in event management.
“I suppose I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” she says.
But she’d always believed she would write a book sometime – in fact, it never occurred to her that she wouldn’t. And she took her chance when her husband, Shane, went away sailing.
“I had all this time on my hands, and I sat down and wrote this terrible book. It was a really terrible book, but I loved doing it. I’d sit down at midday, and suddenly it was four O’clock, and I’d wonder where all the time had gone. It’s that magic that happens and it’s the addiction I loved. I sent it to everybody,” she says. “And it was rejected everywhere.”
Undaunted she tried again. And again. And yet again. And finally, with her fifth book, Little Bones her agent found a publisher, and success arrived.
“I needed those four books to get to that point,” she says. “And to understand the mechanics of story telling and character and plotting and all those things. Even though you can have a mentor helping you, you need to learn those things for yourself. When you stop worrying about the words and focus on the story, then you are there.”
Ideas have always come easily – but sometimes at rather inconvenient times.
“I was in Cornwall finishing a book High Pressure, for my January deadline, and, sitting on the edge of the river, I could ‘see,’ this woman running along the beach. By the time I got home, I had the whole idea for another book, The Dark Room, worked out in my head.
“My editor was very happy with High Pressure. But I emailed her and told her of my new idea. I said, ‘If I can write that between now and January, would you have a look at it?’ She did, and she liked it, so I had an extra book. They published High Pressure as digital, and it’s free if you join the reader’s club.”
I ask Sam what else she’s up to these days, and when she tells me, I feel almost dizzy at the volume of it. I’m surprised she ever sleeps. Her children, at 22 and 18 no longer require much mothering – and the day to day running of writing.ie is now done by others. Yet she still sponsors and runs the Writing.ie Irish Short Story of the Year.
Another huge commitment is running the annual Crime Writing Festival, Murder One, which, last year, she got live streamed in order to provide for a worldwide audience.
“Festivals are a wonderful way for readers to find new writers,” she says. “I remember at Harrogate (crime festival) last year there was a woman in the audience who had heard Steve Cavanagh at Murder One some years before. She said to him, ‘I had never read your books, and now I’ve read every single one.’ She was completely wowed. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sam is on the Board of Management for the Society of Authors and the Crime Writer’s Association, and last year she ran that organisation’s National Crime Writer’s month. She’s currently wading her way through eighty debut crime books in her role as a judge for the John Creasey Dagger Award, again for the Crime Writer’s Association.
And as if that wasn’t enough to keep her happily busy – she’s written her first YA crime book, having been asked to by Gill books. Called, Something Terrible Happened Last Night, it’s due out on 4th May.
“It’s about a 17th birthday party that goes badly wrong,” she says, “and it took me a while to get it right and to find the voices of the characters. But it was fun to write. It’s now done and dusted; the proofs are out, and I’m about to write another one.”
If she was forced to halve her activities, writing would always take priority.
“I want to keep writing better books, and to extend my readership,” she says.
What book would Sam most have liked to write?
“Rebecca,” she says, without any hesitation. “It’s so multi layered that every time I read it, I find more and more. I’d love to write a book like that.”
The Mystery of Four. Corvus: €12.99. Kindle: €3.38.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 21st January. Pic Credit, Alice Rose Jordan.
©Sue J Leonard. 2023