The Last Lost Girl by Maria Hoey
Unravelling the past can be dangerous . . .
On a perfect July evening in the sizzling Irish summer of 1976, fifteen-year-old Festival Queen Lilly Brennan disappears. Thirty-seven years later, as the anniversary of Lilly’s disappearance approaches, her sister Jacqueline returns to their childhood home in Blackberry Lane. There she stumbles upon something that reopens the mystery, setting her on a search for the truth a search that leads her to surprising places and challenging encounters.
Jacqueline feels increasingly compelled to find the answer to what happened to Lilly all those years ago and finally lay her ghost to rest. But at what cost? For unravelling the past proves to be a dangerous and painful thing, and her path to the truth leads her ever closer to a dark secret she may not wish to know.
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) I grew up in Swords, a once (though not any longer!) small town in North County Dublin, Ireland. I now live in Portmarnock, Co Dublin with my husband, Garrett. I have one daughter, Rebecca. I began writing at about eight years old and over the years have had poetry and short stories published by various magazines including Poetry Ireland. I have also had articles and travel-writing published but my dream has always been to write a novel and have it published. In 1999 I won first prize in the Swords Festival Short Story Competition, the story went to be runner-up in the Mslexia International Short Story. My work was also shortlisted for the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award. In the summer of 2017 I finished my debut novel, The Last Lost Girl and submitted it (unsolicited) to three publishers. Two came back to me with interest and I finally signed with Poolbeg. The novel was published in July 2018 under their Crimson imprint.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) I have always had a real interest in the subject of missing people and I originally wrote a short story on that subject. The story stayed with me, as did the idea that it was incomplete, that I had to follow it through and so the idea of a novel grew. I knew that the story would have to move between two time-settings i.e. the past and the present and so decided to set the earlier sections in 1976 because that hot summer has stayed with my vividly all my life – I was 16 that year!
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) I am a huge fan of the classics, Austen, the Brontes, Hardy, Forsythe but I also love good detective fiction. I have a special fondness for Agatha Christie and also love PD James, Anne Cleves, Josephine Tey, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Henning Mankel and other Scandi-noir authors. Also Daphne du Maurier, Anne Enright, Colm Tobin, William Trevor, I love good writing period.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
A) Enid Blyton, Lucy Maud Montgomery – her Ann of Green Gables series, the Just William books, Billy Bunter and the Angela Brazil school stories. As a teenager I discovered Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell and moved on to Jane Eyre and other classics.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) Looking up at my book launch and seeing a queue of people waiting for me to sign their copies – it made me so proud and so humble all at the same time. Also reading a review of my book in the Sunday Times was pretty special.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) My daughter Rebecca has always encouraged me in my writing as has my sister, Caroline. My husband, Garrett has been a huge support to me in the actual day-to-day business of being a writer. He has also been invaluable to me as a discerning reader and editor!
MISSING – LILLY AND JACQUELINE BRENNAN: – TWO FIGMENTS OF MY IMAGINATION
When I first thought about writing a novel I had all sorts of ideas and grand themes. I did not suddenly decide that the subject matter would be that of a missing person, but somewhere along the way, the notion took hold and my debut novel, The Last Lost Girl began to take shape. The book, which alternates between the hot Irish summer of 1976 and the present day, explores what happens to a family when one of its members simply vanishes. In truth I have always been intrigued by the subject of missing people. In the course of the past two decades in Ireland, a string of young women have disappeared and have never been found. I cannot help thinking about them and not just about them, but also about the people who knew and loved them best. What happens to those left behind? How do they cope with the uncertainty, the unknowing? How do they go on living?
That was the kernel of the idea for the book and it just possessed me – as did the missing Lilly. Lilly is at the heart of my book, a beautiful and wilful teenager. The book begins and ends with her and yet, intrinsically it is not really about her. Rather it follows the journey of her sister, Jacqueline who is only eleven-years-old when Lilly disappears. The story follows Jacqueline in her struggles with loss, guilt and grief and, finally, it follows her in her search for answers as she begins to unravel the mystery and make sense of what has happened to her sister. And so it is into Jacqueline’s heart and mind that the reader is permitted to see, while Lilly throughout remains somewhat of a mystery – in every way the missing person, even I must confess, despite my resolution of her disappearance, to me.
But even Jacqueline, who, during the time I was writing the book, behaved herself reasonably well, left me with a strong sense of having escaped into her own world, a world beyond my book in which, once the cover was closed once more, she would carry on having adventures in which I played no part, while doing and saying exactly as she pleased.
And in a sense, as writers, our characters always eventually elude us. It may be clichéd to say that the process of creative writing is a mystery, but clichés are clichés for a reason. We may live with our characters inside our heads long before we commit them to paper, and some of us may even dream up elaborate and detailed back-stories for them – I have heard of writers who go so far as to plot their character’s horoscopes, pinning down to the second the moment of their birth. We may believe we know the exact shade of our characters’ eyes and hair, their height and weight, even the timbre of their voices. We may see ourselves as having created them, but I firmly believe that they use us authors simply as mediums and once we write a character into being they take on a life of their own. While I was writing The Last Lost Girl the voices of Lilly and Jacqueline rang in my head every single day until they became almost background noise. Now there is an eerie silence, soon to be filled again I hope with the people of another book, and yet I know they are out there somewhere, Lilly and Jacqueline Brennan. So if you see them, will you please let me know?
The Last Lost Girl (Poolbeg)