Siobhan MacDonald was born in Cork in the Republic of Ireland. She studied in Galway and worked as a writer in the technology industry in Scotland for ten years, then in France, before returning to Ireland. She now lives in Limerick with her husband and two sons.
And her book…TWISTED RIVER (A Penguin Mystery Original, March 22, 2016, $16) the riveting debut psychological thriller by Siobhan MacDonald. Two families agree to a holiday house swap, each hoping a vacation will help fix their troubled marriage. But when a woman is murdered in the driveway of one house in an apparently random attack, the secrets holding each marriage together start to come to light with shocking consequences.
Q: Before becoming a novelist, you studied engineering and made a living by writing for software companies, academic institutions, and government agencies. What made you decide to break into fiction and specifically into the mystery/suspense genre?
Siobhan: I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and those with a mystery at their core intrigue me. I can’t recall a time when telling stories and committing stories to paper wasn’t part of my life. In my teenage years I dabbled in poetry and wrote some one-act plays that I and a friend performed for competitions. Later, I used annual leave from work to write short stories. I studied engineering in college and when I graduated I got a writing job creating information products for a financial software company. Technical and business writing is subject to a particular set of constraints. Fiction provided an antidote to the rigors imposed by that kind of writing.
Growing up in a large family, there was a premium attached to being able to tell a good story. My mother taught speech and drama and was a proficient story-teller herself, spending many childhood nights in air-raid shelters in the north of England during the second world war. As a child myself, I recall dark winter’s nights driving home through the Knockmealdown mountains from my grandmother’s house. Instead of playing “I Spy,” we kids sat in the back and would each have to tell a story. My grandmother often told stories of the ghosts she had seen. My mother’s stories too had an edge – which upped the ante for the rest of us. She had the ability to make the ordinary sound fantastical. Even the most mundane trip to the local supermarket was alive with a host of dramatic possibilities. A trip for groceries could often sound like a scene from The Bourne Identity.
I don’t think that I consciously chose the mystery and suspense genre – I rather think that it chose me. I naturally gravitate towards this style of writing. My first attempt at novel-writing started life as romantic memoir but half-way through became suspense. I didn’t set out to write like that but neither could I stop it. It happened almost by stealth. I suspect there are many curious stories lurking in my subconscious and sometimes the plotlines or the characters write themselves. It’s intriguing to unspool the stories hidden inside my head.
Fiction provides a release from everyday life. A good novel allows you to pass through a portal to a different existence. For me, mystery and suspense proves a most absorbing genre. Often, what you see on the surface is often not what lies beneath and there can be many versions of the same story. This particular genre provides the thrill of the unexpected – the deliciously tingling “I didn’t see that one coming” gasps.
I become easily fascinated by real-life mysteries and I think that my alter ego is probably a detective. I’m naturally cautious and not particularly brave in the face of real danger, so writing suspense allows me to enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of detective work along with all the adrenaline and thrills from the comfort of my study. Suspense and mystery novels allow readers to become armchair detectives, too. I enjoy the challenge of creating a story to capture and sustain a reader’s attention. It’s difficult to compete in a world of touch-button entertainment offered by social media, and services such as Netflix.
Q: Was there a specific event that inspired you to write TWISTED RIVER?
Siobhan: The plot hinges on the central theme of a house swap. House swapping became a talking point when planning a family holiday to New York a number of years ago, as a way of having an interesting alternative to a regular package holiday. While friends had happy experiences with exchanges, to me the suggestion was riddled with hazards. I decided to explore and tease out these potential hazards. I also thought it was an interesting platform to explore notions of privacy in the “share” generation of social media.
Q: The book centers around two families who are on vacation when events spiral out of control. Do you think there is something about traveling that can bring problems that were lingering just under the surface to a head?
Siobhan: The period prior to going on vacation can be a flashpoint for all kinds of emotion. The excitement and anticipation of a vacation is often blighted by the stress of completing work projects or domestic tasks, and efforts to organize end up in a never-ending checklist. I personally find packing a suitcase for an outward journey a particularly loathsome task. Unless of course you’re traveling First Class, traveling invariably involves standing in line and being squashed together in confined spaces and all the irritations that brings. When traveling in close confines, it’s much more difficult to ignore the unsaid conversation or strange behavior, and secrets are harder to hide.
Q: Has anything extreme like this ever occurred during your own travels?
Siobhan: I’ve had some bizarre experiences, mostly when traveling alone. On one particular business trip, I returned to find the grounds of the English country house where I was staying swarming with police. The hotel manager accompanied me to my room in an annex on the grounds, explaining the police presence was due to the arrival of golfing celebrities. The local TV news bulletin in my hotel room told a different story. When challenged, the police in the corridor outside my room confirmed that the couple stabbed in the murder/suicide on the news bulletin were in the room right next door to mine. The violent events had taken place the previous night .
On another occasion, while on a business trip to Long Island, I missed the company-arranged transport back to JFK for my flight home and had to use the services of a freelance taxi driver. The car that arrived wasn’t in great shape. Neither was its owner. There were NAM VET stickers all over the bumper. When the driver learned that I was a technical writer his driving became even more erratic. He threatened to abduct me so that I could write of his experience of US government conspiracies denying knowledge of US soldiers trapped on the border between Laos and Vietnam. He also maintained there were efforts to poison him while on his way to fight the drug war in South America. I managed to persuade him to get me as far as JFK whereupon I made a swift exit and left him shouting and kicking at his car in rage.
Q: The O’Briens and the Harveys decide to do a house swap with each other for their vacations to New York City and Limerick, Ireland. In the age of AirBnB, CouchSurfing, home exchanges, and other online sites that allow travelers to stay in the home of a perfect stranger, do you see a darker side to this mode of travel?
Siobhan: When transactions like this are conducted on the internet, what guarantees do we really have that people are who they say they are, or indeed that they are the owners or occupants of a property in question? This was recently evidenced by my son who is a college student. He had a near-miss in a property rental scam involving a false domain name and identity theft.
Q: In TWISTED RIVER, the O’Briens, who live in Limerick, are struggling to make ends meet during Ireland’s recession. They are also faced with the growing social divide, which leads to the bullying of their youngest child at school. What was your experience living in Limerick during the recession and why did you choose to explore this time period in your book?
Siobhan: According to media reports, Ireland is reporting strong economic growth and is officially out of recession. That may be evident on the streets of the capital but many folk are still struggling to find evidence of a recovery away from the power base of Dublin. Capital cities often distort the view of other cities and are not indicative of a country as a whole. This is true of my home city.
Recessions exacerbate social divides—the rich get richer and the poor become poorer. Ireland is no stranger to recession but this time around is different. This recession has bred a new group of disenfranchised people—the professional and educated middle classes faced with tax hikes to bail out the banks and their profligate lenders. Recessions give us time to reflect on the mistakes and excesses of the past. However, the greatest sin of the architects of this recession seems to be that they got found out. Indeed, the collegiate atmosphere between bankers, developers and politicians appears to be alive and well. However dismaying, it’s not unthinkable that the ugly specter of a disease-resistant Celtic tiger might once again rear its head. Using the backdrop of this recession allowed me to explore how usually reasonable people might behave when cornered.
Q: Family dynamics play a central role in your book, and, as the novel progresses, the O’Briens’ and Harveys’ relationships become more and more strained for different reasons. The reader is slowly granted access to their secrets and the dark undercurrents to their affairs. What made you decide to delve into the more sinister side of domestic life?
Siobhan: I’m a firm believer that the truth is stranger than fiction. Domestic life provides ample material for a suspense novel. Dramas play out every day around the kitchen table or in the bedrooms of family homes. Ireland has an interesting social history where in the past, keeping up appearances was of paramount importance. Up until very recently, anyone who was an embarrassment to their family for even the most tenuous of reasons could be committed against their will and out of sight to an institution, for example a mental institution or an institution for unmarried mothers and “wayward” women. Generally speaking, when life has to be presented as “perfect” to the outside world, you very often find strange goings-on behind closed doors. We only have to look to the bizarre and dubious private behaviors of high profile people in public life to attest to this.
Q: The book is told from multiple points of view: all four of the O’Brien and Harvey spouses are heard. Did you have a hard time switching from character to character and did you try to give each his/her own style or tone?
Siobhan: As I mentioned earlier there can be many versions of the same story, depending on the point of view. And all of these versions can be true. It’s sometimes up to the reader to adjudicate and decide on what’s the correct version of a story. This device was used effectively in The Affair starring Dominic West. I was able to visualize and hear all four of the Twisted River characters speaking before I wrote about them. And of course their characters developed along the way.