by Betty-Jo Tilley
Flynn Berry is busy: Three novels in less than five years and two children in less than three. Also, she accomplished a whirlwind promotion for her latest thriller, Northern Spy, and a move from West to East Coast with her family during the pandemic.
Northern Spy is set amidst IRA activities in Belfast. When a single working mother discovers her sister has been a terrorist for seven years, sides must be taken, threatening both their family ideals and commitment.
Berry’s Edgar Award-winning debut Under the Harrow challenges a woman, Tessa, with her sister’s dark secrets and grisly murder. The most notorious murder mystery in English royal history inspired Berry’s second psychological thriller, A Double Life, which is focused on a woman whose father disappeared after the unsolved crime. Berry is a Michener Center for Writers graduate and a recipient of a Yaddo fellowship. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages.
Our discussion took place via speaker phone, though for Berry, a far cry from hands-free. She unpacked an ice cream stand to divert her toddler as we began, while baby cooing and small child babbling lent a musical backdrop to her thoughtful entertainment of my questions. We talked about class issues in Ireland, women as spies and terrorists, her fascination with family secrets and lies, and the role of humor in drama and crime fiction.
TCR: Northern Spy has two central conflicts: a woman unraveling her sister’s entanglement with the IRA and the intricacies of the Northern Ireland/UK division. Which first compelled you?
FB: I started off with both, actually. I knew I wanted to write about the IRA and Northern Ireland and look at the Conflict through these two women. I started with alternating chapters from different perspectives, but it slowly became only Tessa’s narration. It also seemed that looking at the Conflict through a family would be an interesting way of getting at how tangled and intricate and complicated it is.
TCR: What was your process in creating two very distinct characters in these two sisters?
FB: For me, it’s by doing lots and lots and lots of drafting and then lots of rewriting. I usually write a very long, very bad first draft by hand, and then I type it and print it out and read it. I then go back and rewrite it based on what it seems the story actually wants to be. The characters sort of emerge from that. Tessa’s job changed in different drafts, and Marian’s character changed quite a bit. I do all of this not really knowing what is accurate in the beginning but by testing out a bunch of ideas and seeing which ones feel right. I’ll read a sentence and think, No, that’s not really right, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and then I’ll get on it and think, Oh, this is their relationship, and this is how they feel about each other, and this is where she works and how she feels about her work. For me, this only comes from lots and lots of trial and error and testing out lots of different options.
TCR: I felt so reassured by Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” in Bird by Bird. Just how shitty was your shitty first draft?
FB: It’s funny, because I read it on the beach, actually, in California, to have a nice backdrop because I knew it would be emotionally intense to read something I’d spent so many months working on. I remember thinking this isn’t right, this isn’t the right plot, this isn’t how this should actually be structured, but there was also something about it that felt accurate or authentic and that I found really exciting. It felt like something was working, even if all the externals were kind of off. Sometimes, I’ll write a first draft and then think there’s no resonance or authenticity to it. Maybe because Tessa had a baby, or I found the conflict so interesting, it felt I could find some energy in the material even if the writing was dreadful in the first draft.
I realized the character felt right, but she was in the wrong position. The initial plot had a hostage scenario, and I remember thinking that wasn’t the right structure for the book. I wanted to start putting my character in different places and seeing what she would do. I think it’s just an incredibly hard thing to read your work as a reader and not a writer. I’d taken a workshop where the instructor advised us to print out the full first draft and read it through without a pen and not let yourself make any edits or take any notes, and in this way, you would get a sense of it with your editor mind turned off, which is a good way of getting the full picture of the work itself.
TCR: Your books reveal intricacies of both historical and contemporary Ireland and England. What have you learned about yourself in taking on a body of work that is inherently outside of your personal experience as an American?
FB: I read to live a life that’s not my own, and I feel for me writing is the same thing. I want to try and explore a character whose experience isn’t like mine. My worst nightmare would be doing work like autofiction, because the beauty and pleasure of reading is that I can get away. In writing, you’re spending two or three years on a novel, and having a larger landscape and the need for research and a lot to learn about other than my own experience is what, I think, keeps me interested. This feels like discovery and that anything I read about or explore in the region I am writing about can inform the novel. That is motivating because I feel I’m constantly working and moving forward even though I’m not at my desk writing. Also, the most fun for me is the research and the dreaming and daydreaming aspect.
TCR: There is so much class disparity in Northern Spy, from the sisters’ mother working as a thankless housekeeper for rich people to the portrayal of the wealthy. How was this important in creating the personal lives of your characters?
FB: That part came through the writing and research, because when you start out, particularly as an outsider, you think it’s a religious conflict, or about land. But the more time you spend talking to people and reading about it, the more you see how class is part of every aspect. During the worst of the Troubles, East and West Belfast were the most dangerous parts of the city, and South Belfast, which was the wealthy region, was almost untouched. You have this sort of strange scenario where some people were living in what actually looked like a war zone, with army tanks and burned-out buildings on their streets, and then a few miles away, you’d have these kind-of-lazy, quiet streets with big brick houses and pretty gardens.
Right now, the New IRA is recruiting mostly young men who aren’t given the benefits of peace their generation was promised. The Good Friday Agreement was made in 1998 with the idea there would be prosperity and that this new generation of cease-fire babies, as they are called, would grow up in a completely different society. But you still have segregated schools and pretty severe income inequality and it seems that class is woven through every aspect of the Conflict.
TCR: Like Northern Spy, Under the Harrow is about secrets between two sisters. And in A Double Life, a woman seeks to resolve secrets thirty years after her father’s brutal crime. Is there a fascination here with family lies and secrets?
FB: In a book group, we joked that the tag line for every book could be “A family with a secret,” because there are so many books about this. I’m not sure where this comes from, but I really love mystery and writing from a sense of friction, or dread even. Often, secrets come through in the writing. I never know what someone will be keeping from me until I’m really around them. I think we’re all fascinated with this. I’m thinking of how many people, like with 23andMe, learn this huge family secret that someone has been keeping all their life. So maybe fiction and crime fiction are just a heightened version of the kinds of secrets every family holds.
TCR: It’s frightening, and so bizarrely relatable, that Marian is a terrorist for seven years before her sister finds out. She thinks back to ordinary occasions, like making a dinner together, or going to market with her baby; all that time she was with her terrorist sister. And there’s her husband’s infidelity. Why did you have her character struggle with the lies of both her sister and her husband?
FB: I felt this was very realistic. I heard about a family that had no idea the father was in the IRA until, at his funeral, there was an IRA salute, with the armed guard firing a shot over the coffin. His wife hadn’t known, his kids hadn’t known, and he died without them knowing. I’ve heard a lot of those stories where you’d have siblings, and one would be involved in the Conflict and the others wouldn’t be and they would not ever know.
For Tessa, I always knew she was a single mother and that she was vulnerable in that way, that she was the only one protecting her son, and that there wasn’t a backup person standing alongside her. I didn’t know exactly what happened in her marriage and that was one of those awkward points where I was testing out different options for her and nothing seemed quite right. Then I wrote the scene where she discovers the lip balm in the car, and I thought, Oh, okay, this is what actually happened. It wasn’t deliberate, but it is one of those things where, if you’re writing a drama—and we talk about this in book clubs a lot too—that a lot of drama is taking someone you like and having bad things happen to them. And you’re sort of testing them and seeing how they respond, and hopefully watching their progress towards the light, or truth, or freedom in some way.
TCR: I love that Tessa’s mother knew, even before her daughter knows, that the husband is not a great guy.
FB: Right. We all have people like that, who are so annoyingly good at figuring out what’s good for you, or what’s bad for you, and you don’t always want to hear it.
TCR: Northern Spy features ordinary characters doing extraordinary things, with action scenes startling or disrupting completely ho-hum daily routines. A makeup artist puts people at ease so they inform, and schoolteachers find out which children have police officer parents to identify them for a kill. An IRA terrorist doubles as a lifesaving paramedic and drags her normal working single mother sister into it. What inspired you to approach the Conflict from such nondescript situations, and how does this serve to heighten suspense?
FB: A lot of the writing around the Troubles has been focused on men, and most of them were presented as soldiers and revolutionaries with political activation. But there were also women in the IRA, or working against it, or working with police. There was actually a schoolteacher who was asking children, “What does your mammy do?” or “What does your daddy do?” and then feeding names as targets to the IRA, and she was just a normal-looking schoolteacher. And there were other women who had double lives in the Conflict, but the ordinary life didn’t go away. It’s not like if you join one of these movements, you’re living underground; you’re still very often raising children. I was interested in that space in between, where a woman is doing extraordinary things but also has to worry about cooking dinner, or paying the gas bill, or waking up at night with the baby because that seemed realistic, too. The ordinary domestic parts of life had to coexist with the Conflict, so that people had this double burden of trying to get by on a daily level and then also trying to survive a war.
TCR: Your female characters engage in brave and murderous acts in distinctly feminine ways. Fake eyelash glue becomes adhesive for an eavesdropping device. And then the shocking hair clasp murder! Should I grow my hair and always wear a barrette, just in case?
FB: [laughs] That felt really fun to write. And it felt realistic because you had girls who had joined the IRA and they would hollow out the wedges of their platform shoes to smuggle explosives through checkpoints. Women used their femininity and the fact that they were less suspicious to act in the war. They would hide bombs in strollers and push them through checkpoints because the police would assume a woman with a stroller would be completely harmless. You had really interesting ways that women were playing with motherhood or femininity to fly under the radar.
TCR: You’ve also conveyed the doldrums of motherhood with a huge respect for what ordinary mothers deal with. How do you hope your female characters will influence the thriller genre?
FB: Oh, God. I think when you’re working on something, you never think that far ahead, right? It seems impossible that anyone would even read the pages you’re working on. But I think there’s often the idea that motherhood is boring and that you shouldn’t even write about it, or it’s not interesting to people outside of it, or that babies are boring, or birth stories are boring, and I think they’re incredibly dramatic and complicated and compelling, and I am fascinated by it. I would listen to anyone’s birth story or about sleep training or getting their kids to eat vegetables. The work of motherhood is really interesting, and I’m always searching out accounts of it. I’m very nosy about other people’s experience, and I think there should be more of this.
TCR: You have elevated some afflictions of our female condition, mastitis [breast inflammation] in particular, to a noble level, and I believe any mother would agree.
FB: [laughs] Thank you. That is honestly the highest compliment I could ever hope to get! Yeah, there is something about nursing, and sleep deprivation, that is really extreme, and it feels like it fits really well with the unease of a thriller, because you are kind of vulnerable and edgy and disoriented in the first year, or even couple of years—at least I am. I do love it when I read novels and I get parenting ideas from what the characters do with their children. It’s like stealing advice inadvertently from other parents.
TCR: When Tessa is in the kitchen slicing blueberries and mopping the floor—and is there a mother who can’t appreciate that?—she glances out the window and sees two masked men scale her garden wall. She knows instantly that they have come to kill her and, even more importantly to her, possibly her child. Wow, what a moment.
FB: Oh, thank you. It really is the fear, and also you have so much more vigilance when you have a little baby. You just have to be wary all the time, about your kid choking, or crawling straight for an electrical outlet, and then, in certain scenarios, you also have to be wary about the sort of violence that women have always had to watch out for. This powered the writing a lot. I was aware of how vulnerable I was once I had children and how desperate you are to keep them safe and protect them. And it’s catharsis, too, if you’re having all these “what if” scenarios; it’s sort of fun to write about them instead of just have them live in your head.
TCR: You’ve written book reviews for The New York Times and The Guardian, and essays for those publications and others. What advice would you give to emerging fiction writers seeking to have their book reviews and nonfiction essays published?
FB: Oh, my gosh; I think it’s so hard, and that the hardest thing to do is probably to place a short story. With nonfiction, the way I got one essay published is that I love The Sunday Times Style magazine, and I adored the writers the editor was commissioning and felt it might be a good fit. I actually guessed her email address and sent it to her unsolicited, and it shouldn’t have worked, but it did. I’d say the best way is to find the name of the actual editor and not send through a general submission folder, and make sure it’s someone whose work you know and admire and reach out that way, because they do want writing, and it is something they are constantly looking for. I would love to be a food writer, or a travel writer, but I have no idea how you actually get that as a full-time job.
Oh, two other things: Poets & Writers magazine and website have a really good submissions database. And I try to read The Best American Essays every year. You can see what publications are listed and what other writers are working on. It’s also really helpful to read the publication and actual columns and tailor your submission to the word count or guidelines. And you have to expect to be rejected over and over again, and to have radio silence over and over again.
TCR: You continue to facilitate book club discussions. Do you do this to keep your literary analysis skills sharp, or to stay in tune with “lay” or “normal” readers’ views of books they read?
FB: My friend had the job, and I couldn’t believe it actually existed. It sounded so wonderful to be paid to talk about contemporary fiction. I have learned so much about craft from the discussions. Sometimes, it’s really hard for a book to capture a group. There are so many books that I think have so much going for them and they just don’t strike a chord with the group. That can be demoralizing when you’re trying to write something new, but it’s also such a real pleasure to see how much books mean to people when they do love a book. Listening to them and how deeply they read a book when they love it, and how moved they are by something, is also very affirming of the whole project. I do it for the same reason that people are in book clubs, that it exposes me to lots of material that I wouldn’t read otherwise.
TCR: I’d like to end on fun because when I asked you for an interview, you said, “That will be fun.” and as an MFA candidate and writer, this perspective is appealing. Northern Spy is really a fun, and very funny, book. Rather than diffusing the tension, your humorous moments exacerbate the mounting suspense. How does humor add dimension to your characters?
FB: I never intend to do it, but it does come naturally. I had a professor, Elizabeth McCracken, whom I loved. She’s an incredible writer, and I still think about her when I’m working. One thing she said is that a book without humor isn’t realistic, and that even in the most tragic or extreme circumstances, there is often humor in the characters’ lives somewhere. I feel this is true, and that you want to show the whole spectrum of your character’s emotional, interior landscape.
At this fortuitous moment of her concluding comments, Berry’s child cried out, “No talk!” Later, she thanked me for tolerating the background cacophony and promised our next meeting would be in a café.
“No thanks,” I proffered. “I’d rather hang with you and the kids. I’ll bring the sprinkles. That will be fun.”
Betty-Jo Tilley writes in Los Angeles and is an MFA candidate in the low-residency creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) program of UC Riverside-Palm Desert.