Unexpected Darkness: An Interview with Cat Hogan
Irish author Cat Hogan’s writing draws together a lifelong love of reading, place, and the sea. “I thought I was going to write something lighthearted,” she tells us, of novels that are anything but. “A writer that knows me quite well had said to me before I started the novel ‘you’re dark, you just don’t realise it yet’. So it seems.”
Cat Hogan launched her debut novel They All Fall Down in 2016. A raw psychological thriller set in a tiny Irish fishing village, it centres on the darkness enveloping Scott Carluccio Randall and its impact on those around him, burning slowly until the tale ignites in a fiery, character-driven blaze.
The follow-up, There Was A Crooked Man, is out now. This one is twisted into the perspective of the same dingy character, but this time flits between Marrakech and Spain, as Hogan takes an already heavy psychological angle and plunges it into the darkest depths.
Hogan has lived in Wexford, in the south west of Ireland, for almost all of her life. We meet her in the Stella Maris Centre in the tiny village of Kilmore Quay, and she’s able to point around at her influences: the pub that appears (renamed) in the book sits 100 metres up the road. So does the church. She talks of walking the beaches and imagining horrors there that become real in her novels, and of how the ebb and flow of the sea—a love of which she inherited from her lightboat man father—permeates much of what she pens.
Equally, Hogan’s always been a compulsive reader, having grown up surrounded by books, she used to wait excitedly for the one day a week when the family treat was to make a trip to the bookshop and replenish the library with a new title each. “I find in a book you might come across a paragraph that’s just so beautiful and evocative, that conjures up an image in your mind’s eye. It’s inspirational,” she explains. “It’s not that what I do is taken directly from any other book, but the visuals you take from what forms in your mind really inspire. I honestly feel that if I could choose between only reading and only writing for the rest of my life, I’d choose to read.”
“The reason I started writing was because of that love I have for books,” she continues. “That feeling that you can be sitting on the couch and also trekking across Nepal or in the Outback. It’s pure escapism. Couple that with the relationship you develop with those characters that’s so telling. We’ve all done it, sat up all night finishing a book and then gone into work the next day tired. I just wanted to do that to one person, take one person on that journey, and leave them feeling bereft about saying goodbye to the characters that I had created. It’s lovely to get good reviews, but what I like the most is when I get emails saying things like ‘my children weren’t fed last night because I was reading your book’. That, to me, is the most precious gift anyone can give a writer. It’s magic, really.”
Hogan’s books are laden with themes that are notably dark; tales of romance that twist around psychological corners and turn down painful alleyways. “It would be easier to explain if these themes did come from my own life,” she jokes. “When I started writing, I thought I’d write women’s fiction, something like the queen of fiction, Marian Keyes. She looks at quite heavy situations, like alcoholism or sickness. I loved her books, she deals with serious issues with a dash of humour. So I thought I’d give that a bash.”
“And then the pen took over. A writer that knows me quite well had said to me ‘you’re dark, you just don’t realise it yet’. So it seems. It was strange. A difference between the first and the second book was I started censoring myself when I was writing with the first one, and that’s a real rookie mistake. The first book was difficult to define. That was the biggest lesson I learnt.”
“From the first page of There Was A Crooked Man, it’s clearly defined, because I stopped censoring myself. Readers sometimes have an expectation of what they want the characters to be, but you can’t write a book based on that. So you just write your book. Once I learnt to block out that noise, things got better.”
“Scott, who is the bad guy, is my favourite. The second book is told from his point of view, but another character popped up out of nowhere in the second book. He’s a sergeant in the local village, and he’s only in a couple of chapters. He’s kind of sitting across the room from me a little bit, and I’m thinking ‘I’ll go and sit down and have a chat with you sometime, you know?’”
“I have a notebook full of plans, with characters I want to take out for a coffee and explore.”
Of course, the idea of ‘meeting’ the characters is not a literal one, but there is a certain literalness that permeates Hogan’s fiction. “I’m quite a visual writer,” she explains. “I did need to walk those beaches and imagine the horrors that would unfold on them. It’s a feeling of place, almost, and of its characters. You have a good understanding of the characters when you know a place, and the people who live in it.”
“With the second one I took a real chance. I took the story to Marrakech. A lot of the book is set there. I’ve never been to Marrakech, so we’ll see how that one goes. I was asked by more than one person how long I’d lived there, so I must have the base things right. But at the end of the day, you research, get those things right, and then you’re writing fiction, you know?”
So what’s brought on such a quick rise for Hogan, and her main man Scott? The former content writer has long been putting pen to paper, which was perhaps a key feature behind the natural fluidity of her writing style, something that publishers clearly noticed, given the speed of her book being whisked from manuscript to highly-praised launch.
“The first book was finished in June 2015. I had an agent by August and a two book deal with an Irish publisher by November,” Hogan recalls of her rapid rise. “The following July rocked around and the first book hit the shelves. Because I had a two-book contract, I had to get going on another one. I’d started another lovely dark tale of destruction and misery. And then the first book started doing really well.”
“It did take me a while to find my feet, because I hadn’t been hanging around on the outskirts for ten or fifteen years, with a hundred rejections under my bed. I went into it quite green, but the more seasoned veterans of the industry kept me on the straight and narrow.”
“People were asking what would come next. So I sat down in December with the publishers and talked about bringing the characters back. That was the book I really wanted to write anyway. The publishers agreed, and I went off and did a couple of months of research, and started writing it in earnest.”
“I have a little folder in my bedroom, a file, with outlines up to book nine. I’d say I’m a book a year person. You constantly want to be honing your craft, and every time I write a book, or I go through the editorial process, I feel like I learn from that. I assimilate that information quite quickly, and apply it to the next one. I want to keep going up and up and up and up. I don’t quite know in what area yet, as I have another two characters in my head that are not really psychological thriller characters, and I want to move on to them. But I might stay where I’m comfortable for now.”
So ultimately, how did Hogan burst onto the scene? Aside from the obvious storytelling ability in her tales, she puts her achievements down to getting past her hang-ups about writing novels, and simply getting on with things.
“It’s like anything, it’s taking little nuggets of information and applying them. Sometimes you just have to write. Sometimes, when people start out, they can spend forever online looking for advice on how to structure a novel, or top tips, all of this stuff. You suck time out of your life. Sometimes it’s important to go to these workshops to arm yourself with the tools. But ultimately I became a writer as I just have to write. So I wrote. That’s it.”