INTERVIEW: Claire Allan

The doyenne of chick-lit chats to Garbhan Downey about edgy new bestseller

Claire Allan writes comedy. I know this to be true, not just because she told me so, but also because I’ve read her books. But don’t go in expecting romantic mush. Allan writes comedy with teeth.

Take her latest, for example, Jumping in Puddles, which has just entered the Irish charts at Number 8. It features domestic abuse, teen parenthood, spousal abandonment and sudden death. But for all that, it’s also very funny. And true to the great chick-lit tradition, all’s well that ends well.

‘Ultimately it’s a comedy about friendship,’ explains Allan. ‘And comedy, for me, must end well. Chick-lit wants a happy ending. It doesn’t mean the characters won’t be put through hell and high water to get there, though. I don’t do fluff.

‘I write books about women, for women. But I don’t believe chick-lit has to concern itself only with love stories, nice shoes and cool glasses of Chardonnay. My books dig deeper. But if something has a miserable ending, I, for one, don’t want to know about it. I had to be dragged to Titanic because I knew how it ended! When I read, I want to feel uplifted.’

Allan has never been afraid to address society’s taboos through her work. Her previous novels have focussed on issues such as post-natal depression – something which affected the writer herself – unplanned pregnancy, and infertility.

‘I’ve got brilliant feedback from women about them. One woman told me that she wished she’d read Rainy Days and Tuesdays 20 years ago, because nobody talked about depression when she became a mother. It inspired her to go into counselling – even after all that time.’

The writer’s day-job as a reporter-cum-columnist with the Derry Journal has provided her with gritty source material for her books. And it’s made her very disciplined as regards continuity, style, deadlines and word-counts. But writing day and night can also pose its own problems.

‘There are times you have to take a break. Occasionally, I would have to take a week or two off – and not be typing at a screen. I have to stop writing about other people and live my own life. But then, after a week or two away, I’ll always be itching to get right back to it.

‘It’s also hard sometimes to switch between the two styles – from the reportage to the creative. And, as a journalist, you also tend never to pad your stories out – you just present the facts. So sometimes my publishers come back looking for more colour.

‘Obviously, you do get inspiration from the stories you hear and the people you meet. And the depiction of domestic abuse in Jumping in Puddles isn’t cursory. It was inspired by my own years working as a scholar and journalist first researching domestic abuse and how it is portrayed in the media, and also through talking to numerous survivors of abuse over the years.’

Despite her tender years – she turns 34 this month – Allan is already a veteran of the Irish chick-lit scene. She set herself a target of writing her first book before she was 30 and, when the ink was barely dry, got snapped up by Poolbeg. She has been producing a best-seller a year ever since and has recently signed a contract to write three more.

Her next offering, It’s Got to be Perfect, will be out

in October – and she’s already hard at work on the one after that, which, she reveals, will have a strong Facebook theme. ‘I like to tap into the zeitgeist,’ she laughs.

But there’s a lot more to selling books than writing, and Allan is in constant demand for book tours and library readings.

‘It can be glamorous but it’s also hard work. I grumble before I go but end up enjoying it. I’ve just spent two days in Dublin trying to cram as much as possible in – bookshops, publishers, agents and media.

‘But it’s great to go out and have a few drinks with the publishers and talk about how it’s all going. You’re a little bit removed from it all in Derry being so far away. But we’d a highly positive chat.

‘The market is tough at the minute, and PR is very important. The scene is so competitive. It used to be that when Poolbeg signed a new author, English publishers would be in trying to steal them right away!’

And while Poolbeg and Allan have the happiest of partnerships, you get the strong sense that the Derry woman’s career is heading beyond Ireland. Indeed, the Evening Herald commented recently: ‘If RTE have any sense, they’ll buy Jumping in Puddles and turn it into a fab series and sell it internationally.’

When she’s not writing, Allan is kept busy at home, where she and her husband Neil are parents to two young children, Joseph aka The Boy, and Cara, The Baby Who Never Sleeps.

‘Because I’m working so much, I make a point of making family time at the weekend. We love days out – we recently went to the Ulster Museum, and ever since the six-year-old is obsessed with Egyptian mummies and how their brains were removed!’

Her family experiences often provide the backdrop for her sharp and snappy Derry Journal column, Skirting the Issue. She also tackles serious social topics, though generally in a humorous vein. Recent columns have included her travails at Weight Watchers and on the school run.

‘To get the best response, you have to be as honest as possible. The school run is hell on earth, and half the women in Derry are at Weight Watchers – so people tune in very quickly to what I’m talking about.’

Allan believes the day is coming when good writing can be recognised as good writing, regardless of genre. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that some of the strongest writers of our generation write in the chick-lit genre, and that their books will stand the test of time.’

Claire Allan's books are available in CultureNorthernIreland's Amazon store.