On Genre, Flirty Canadians, and Movie Deals

Melissa Yi: I have to ask you what inspired you to write such an unusual debut novel. For those of you who haven’t yet devoured PETRA’S GHOST, an Irish expatriate named Daniel gathers his wife’s ashes and intends to spread them as he walks the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage through Spain. He follows in the same footsteps of a woman who disappeared while walking the Camino. The missing woman and his wife’s death weigh on Daniel even as he tries to establish a relationship with another pilgrim, an outspoken California librarian named Ginny.

Ginny says “Everyone has a story.” Is this, somehow, your story? Even if it’s only in a metaphorical sense, as with resurrected chickens in Capilla de la Magdalena?

C.S. O’Cinneide: To a large extent, the story in Petra’s Ghost is very much my story of when I walked the Camino Frances in 2015. If you check out the blog entries from my trip (https://www.shekillslit.com/camino/) you will recognize many of the places and experiences contained in the book. What you won’t see in my blog entries is the fact that a woman did indeed go missing off the pilgrimage when I was walking. Her real-life story did not end well. With the exception of one sketchier stretch of the trail, I felt extremely safe walking on my own in Spain, but this poor woman was never far from my mind. So, it was not surprising that when I came home to write that she found her way into my novel. The Camino, much like life in general, has its dark and its light aspects, and I have always enjoyed contrasting those two elements in my writing.

MY: Honestly, as the author of the witty SheKillsLit.com blog, I expected a hilarious, satirical thriller, more like how you describe your next book, The Starr Sting Scale, featuring a six foot three hitwoman. I would call Petra’s Ghost more literary horror. What made you decide to tackle death, guilt, abuse, family, Dante, and the supernatural?
CSO: Yes, The Starr Sting Scale is a very different book! More than one editor has been caught laughing out loud at their desks while working on it. Petra’s Ghost does have humour in it (I can’t seem to write without it), but it has been promoted as literary. The horror label came as a surprise to me (and my publisher) and made me question what horror is and how we assign genre. Do people consider Victorian ghost stories like A Christmas Carol horror? Is The Notebook a romance novel? In any case, I am honoured to have been pegged in the same genre as Shirley Jackson, my writing idol.
As far as how these more horrific elements made it into Petra’s Ghost, I can only say that I don’t seem to have control over that in my writing. One time I tried to write a short story about a woman baking brown bread during the height of the suffragette movement and by the end of it she had poisoned her own children. My writing always seems to go to dark places. It must be a cathartic of some kind. But it is always used as a literary device to look at larger issues, like the economic vulnerability of women in the early 1900’s in the case of the brown bread short story, or in Petra’s Ghost as a vehicle to examine the hell we can make for ourselves when we pair the sisters of guilt and grief.

I was also surprised that there was very little Canada, except for a French Canadian woman hitting on Daniel. When I’ve read other novels by Canadian authors and publishers, they tend to wave the maple leaf. What made you and Dundurn decide to take it in a more international direction?
CSO: Don’t forget the Dutchman’s sister-friend who is Canadian too!

MY: Yes, all hail the flirty Canadian contingent! Kidding.

CSO: The book was completed by the time my publisher got their hands on it, so they had no say on the Canadian content or lack thereof. I love books that feature Canadian places and people. It is so refreshing to read about the things we know and recognize. But I think Canadians are capable of writing books about far more than just Canada. The Camino is a very international experience and it lends itself to an international cast of characters. Most pilgrims are usually from another country other than Spain, but they all become citizens of the Camino when they come to walk it.
In that way I suppose it is a Canadian story, since we live in a country peopled for the most part by those who have come from somewhere else.

MY: These are my favourite lines, and they’re a description of Petra’s teaching. She tended to each pupil as she did to her painting, with appreciation for the different textures and hues. He can remember her laugh as she recalled the pranksters and her furrowed brow as she felt for the shy ones.
I feel the wealth of empathy and could sense her visual art and her art of teaching, all at once. Any comments?

I am the poorest visual artist you will find, having never progressed beyond the passable stick figure. And I am not a teacher. But I think my love and empathy for children comes out in these lines. I have four kids and have unofficially adopted some more into my life over the years. They have all brought me a great deal of joy (and furrowed brows) with their “different textures and hues.”

MY: Four kids plus. Wow!

When I attended Bloody Words and Bouchercon, I noticed a divide between cozy writers and noir writers in that cozies preferred to puzzle out the murder intellectually and avoid any description of blood. Tanis Mallow gave an impassioned defence of gritty crime scenes because that kind of description makes you feel the horror of murder instead of treating it
as entertainment. Petra’s Ghost comes down on the descriptive side. Thoughts on this?

CSO: Hmm. I think it comes down to what you like to write (and read) rather than a defence of one or the other. I think all good mysteries had better give you an intellectual puzzle so I’m not sure if that is really a distinguishing factor. I believe the real question is, do you want the murder in a mystery to be described with the same detail that might be used to describe a sunset in the same story? Once again, I think that just comes down to personal taste. In Petra’s Ghost, the landscapes and architecture as well as the frightening things Daniel sees are described just as evocatively. That’s the way I write. I don’t think I could do it differently. For those who don’t like that amount of detail when it comes to frightening things, this could be jarring. And they can stick with the cozy mysteries and enjoy the sunset. I won’t be offended. Except honestly, they will miss a really good book. : )

I want to ask you about your pen name. Does it have a special meaning to you?
CSO: The initials are my own (my first name is Carole), and O’Cinneide (oh-ki-nay-da) is my last name, Kennedy, in Irish. This is the original version of the surname before it was anglicized by the British. Many people in Ireland still use it. There were so many Carole Kennedy authors out there when I first started publishing, I wanted to differentiate myself. And of course, Ireland holds a very special place in my heart, as you can probably guess from the wonderful Irish ex-pat character of Daniel in Petra’s Ghost.

MY: Yes Congrats on the rave reviews, the critical acclaim and film/TV rights battle for Petra’s Ghost! How are you enjoying this journey so far?
It is a little surreal to tell you the truth. It seems to come in spurts that attention. I am still not sure how it will translate in terms of sales. But I must say I was pretty shocked when I found half a dozen emails in my in-basket inquiring after film rights. That was definitely not something I expected. But I suppose in all that, the most meaningful moment in this debut novel journey was the personal note a reader sent me via Goodreads. She told me that Petra’s Ghost had moved her deeply with its message about guilt, grief and ultimately redemption — and that she had cried while describing the story to her husband. I could get dozens of five-star reviews in the major media and they couldn’t possibly mean as much to me as that.

MY: There you have it. Proof that your personal reviews matter. Thank you for giving such an intelligent, gracious interview, C.S. I hope my friends enjoy Petra’s Ghost as much as I do!