In 2001, I traveled to County Clare, Ireland with my new husband (aka alpha reader and my chief psychological consultant) on our honeymoon. I remember we were struck by the beauty--and moodiness--of the land.
I'm delighted to be joined today by Lisa Alber, who perfectly captures this sense of mystery and longing in her debut novel, KILMOON.
From the official blurb:
Merrit Chase travels to Ireland to meet her father, a celebrated matchmaker, in hopes that she can mend her troubled past. Instead, her arrival triggers a rising tide of violence, and Merrit finds herself both suspect and victim, accomplice and pawn, in a manipulative game that began thirty years previously.
When she discovers that the matchmaker’s treacherous past is at the heart of the chaos, she must decide how far she will go to save him from himself—and to get what she wants, a family.
Lisa, thanks for joining us today. What inspired KILMOON?
Two places in Lisdoonvarna village, County Clare, Ireland, sparked my imagination: The Matchmaker Bar and an early Christian ruin called Kilmoon Church. The Matchmaker Bar represents the village’s annual matchmaking festival and Kilmoon Church represents secrets long buried. Together they grounded me in place and set my thoughts churning about a matchmaker with a dark past.
My dad’s death also inspired this story. I was grieving his passing (from cancer), and it was only later that I realized I was processing our relationship through the father-daughter themes that run through the novel. Of course, in the novel they’re far darker than anything from my life. Thank goodness!
Your locale is very evocative—sometimes dreamy, sometimes harsh. How did you settle on County Clare for your location? Did you spend much time there?
You might say I accidentally ended up in County Clare. I traveled to Clare for the first time to see an ecological area called The Burren, which is a vast area of limestone leftover from the Ice Age. I’d read about it in a memoir. I planted myself in a random B&B near The Burren—in Lisdoonvarna, as luck would have it. While there, I discovered that Lisdoon (as the locals sometimes call it) hosts an annual matchmaking festival. I visited the area three times for novel research.
I found the landscape both harsh and dreamy. How interesting that these aspects of the locale came across to you in the novel! The Burren has a harsh appearance, that’s for sure, and the winds that come in off the Atlantic can be dismal. On the other hand, on mild days, the rolling green hills with their drystone walls are peaceful and otherworldly—like the landscape hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
Can you tell us a little about the matchmaking festival that you describe in your book? Is this really a big thing? Did you go?
My fictional matchmaking festival is a hyped-up version of the real thing in the sense of it being internationally known and full of foreigners. In reality, the festival is well-known only in Ireland … Actually, I just looked it up, and it’s grown since I went a decade ago! It’s got its own website and is the largest matchmaking festival in Europe. Holy cow. It was a total party then—it’s gotta be super nuts now. Here’s the website if you’re curious: http://www.matchmakerireland.com/
There’s a bona fide matchmaker. His name is Willie Daly, and he’s a local celebrity. Everyone knows him, where he lives, and what he’s up to. He has his own room in the Matchmaker Bar. I had a chance to ask him questions, but I didn’t base my fictional matchmaker on him because in this case reality needed a boost. My matchmaker is almost super-human in his ability to match people successfully.
I was surprised by the sheer number of people you can cram into a pub. Forget fire safety laws, we were jammed in like sardines. Seriously. I found it claustrophobic. Total sensory overload. All the pubs around Lisdoon’s plaza blasted music in competition with each other. There was lots of Irish dancing and drinking, and even a man with a boom box on the plaza playing this tunes while older couples danced. It was crazy and quaint at the same time. (Seems like “quaint” might be a thing of the past though.)
How long did it take you to write KILMOON?
Oh man, I started KILMOON in 2002! Life got in the way, as it does, and I got in my own way. I’d enter into periods of despair over the manuscript, set it aside, and write a first draft for another novel. I started three or four other novels, only to set them aside. I kept coming back to KILMOON; I couldn’t let it go.
What was the easiest/most enjoyable part of the process? What was the hardest/least enjoyable part?
I love working with characters. Give me a character analysis over a plot outline any day. I find character development fun. In fact, some of my favorite scenes are the quiet ones. Least enjoyable? Ironing out my plot! Ohmegod, that took me forever. The story is quite complex because of the ensemble cast, the layers of secrets, the various agendas, and the murder mystery elements—this is why I set it aside so many times. I didn’t know how to work with what I had. I didn’t know enough about the craft, and it took years to know enough.
KILMOON is your first novel. What has been the most surprising thing, for you, about the process of publishing your debut novel?
After all the editing, copy editing, and proofing you can still find errors and typos. I was reading the galley proofs for the second—not first, but second—time when I found a locked door that should have been unlocked and a woman standing in front of a house rather than a church. Those errors had been there since the beginning!
Let’s not talk about typos. I can hope that none remain in the final version. I can hope!
What advice would you offer to aspiring novelists? Did you receive any advice that you found particularly helpful in your journey to publication?
My advice is to not hurry the process. I know what it’s like to feel eager for the agent and then the deal. But don’t rush the process of learning your craft. I made the mistake of querying agents far too early. The catch-22 is that as a young novelist you don’t know what you don’t know. You can believe with all your heart that your manuscript is ready, but unless you’re a prodigy, have hired a professional editor to help you, or you’ve completed the 20th draft with the help of good feedback, your masterpiece probably isn’t ready for prime time.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was from master mystery writer Elizabeth George. She told me that during the revision process I must read as a reader, not a writer. The goal isn’t to please myself but to ensure that readers don’t get confused, lose the flow, get bored, and so on. She used to say, Orient the reader.
I’m revising the second novel in the series, which I’m calling GREY MAN. This story centers on the detective, Danny, who along with a Californian newcomer named Merrit, are the series protagonists. (Kilmoon is Merrit’s story.) Things get personal, oh so personal, for Danny when a teenage boy dies and disaster hits Danny’s family as a result.
Thanks for inviting me today, Susanna!
Lisa Alber received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on KILMOON. Ever distractable, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa lives in the Pacific Northwest. KILMOON is her first novel.
You can find Lisa at her website (http://lisaalber.com), on Facebook and twitter.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.
Blogs I enjoy
Cozy Mystery List Blog (great conversations about mysteries!)
Jungle Red Writers (Eight crime fiction writers)