Louise Phillips is a critically acclaimed psychological crime novelist. Her debut, Red Ribbons, was nominated for the Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2012 and her second, The Doll’s House, won the award a year later. Her third, Last Kiss, was shortlisted and now she has a new one out, The Game Changer. Louise met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about her new release and threats to the family in her fictions.
Tell us about your latest novel.
The story opens with a vicious killing in New York and a suspected suicide in Dublin. Although Kate is on leave from work, spending more time with her young son, Charlie, she is soon dragged into the mix.
A personal connection quickly becomes apparent, as Kate discovers she went missing as a child, but her mind has blocked out the memory. Soon, she gets an anonymous note under her door with the words ‘I remember you Kate..’
The story has a multi-layered plot with family secrets and the sins of the father having repercussions long after death.
The character of the Game Changer stalks Kate, wishing to seek revenge. A dangerous individual with a narcissistic personality, the Game Changer is also luring vulnerable individuals into a cult under the guise of a self-help group, and there are deadly consequences for everyone involved, including Kate.
How central are threats to the family to your fictions?
I guess it’s no accident that the main protagonist in my novels is a mother with a young son, nor is it surprising that I write about family a lot, good ones and dysfunctional ones. I’ve experienced both.
I think, our past deeply influences who we become, and the same goes for characters in a story. The opening quote of The Game Changer is one from Chesterson – ‘When we step into a family, by the act of being born, we step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws….’
Consciously or otherwise, somehow my novels are filled with fear, both to the family, and from the family. The family unit, is the first structure of life we come to know. It can be happy and safe, or dangerous and scary. The fallout from both means that those who least expect it, can be hit the hardest.
For me, family is enormously important, including my protection of it. In hindsight, I’ve come to realize that through writing I have tried to face my own worst fears. In Red Ribbons, the first novel, it was young girls at risk, in The Doll’s House, the close relationships of the protagonist, held the most danger, and in Last Kiss the story looked at the fallout of early childhood, posing the big question, how much of who we are is down to nature or nurture? Finally, in The Game Changer, inner family dangers had the potential to fuel external ones.
So to get back to your original question, threats to the family are a big part of my fiction, partly because there is so much to lose, including the people you love most in the world.
How important is the antagonist in your writing and would you say he or she is as important as the protagonist?
Very important. I’ve no interest in characters populating the fictional world unless they have earned their place there. When it comes to antagonists, they are a fundamental part of the high stakes in a crime novel. I want readers to know them. I equally want them to know what they are capable of, and hopefully see the humanity in them. This is not to support what they do, but their actions/desires must be plausible. If they are, they will appear human, and not some hidden monster unlike them. Being fully formed, you hopefully create real fear, basically, because we see ourselves in them. When it comes to ‘bad guys’, finding the ‘who’ is often part of the mystery, but for me, this shouldn’t be done by having a one-dimensional character. They have to be fully formed and visible.
The antagonist versus the protagonist is a tricky one. I try not to purposely make one more powerful than the other, except perhaps that goodness and hope will very often win out over bad, especially in the fictional world .It’s partly why so many people enjoy crime fiction. There is a justice within it that isn’t always found in the real world. At times, I’ve walked a delicate line when it comes to my protagonists and antagonists, where the understanding of the ‘why’ behind a person’s action has the potential to tilt the balance in one or the other’s favour. Overall though, I like to keep it real. People, and therefore characters, are grey, not black and white, but I guess we all root for the good guy in the end, even me!
What else is on the cards for you this year?
I’ve recently been longlisted for a CWA Dagger in the Library Award, which is great, but whatever happens, I’m happy to be on the longlist. I’ll continue to teach Crime Fiction Writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, and I’m sure I’ll squeeze some holiday and family time in too. Hopefully, one way or another, there will be plenty of creativity!
Thank you Louise for a great interview.