Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 21st march 2009.
Harry Martinez, the lead character in the Insider, became a hacker at 13. Daughter of a man in prison for insider dealing, she has become an ingenious security expert. Now, though she’s in danger from her father’s crooked partners.
Harry loves finding her way into a computer system, describing it as ‘finding the truth.’ And that’s a sentiment shared by her creator, the debut novelist Ava McCarthy.
Ava, now 46, chose to study physics at UCD, taking a Masters in Nuclear medicine, because she loved the logic of it; and the scientific jargon.
“It’s looking for something; and probing; and going on until you have got the answers,” she says, as we chat over coffee in the Radisson St Helen’s Hotel. .
“It is like finding the truth. And when I researched hackers, many had said that was a reason they did it. They really wanted to see what things would work.”
That’s not the only characteristic Ava shares with Harry. Both love poker. They’re both dyslexic about directions too. But whilst Harry relishes risk, and seems to enjoy the rush of keeping one step ahead of her killers, Ava has always been risk adverse.
“It’s why I didn’t become a writer instead of going to college,” she says. “I loved writing, but it always seemed too vague. I was always career orientated; always wanted to support myself.”
After college, Ava worked as a medical physicist in Cork; a job she relished.
“In those days the radiotherapist would sign up the dosage for a patient, and the physicist then worked out how to set up the machine; and at what angle. It was fascinating, and I loved the hospital environment.”
After a stint at a hospital in Portsmouth, though, Ava moved into computers in Surrey. And from there she had a spell in The Stock Exchange, working with a team of software engineers to keep the systems going in the period after the big bang.
She continued working as a software engineer after her return to Ireland in 1992. But it was then that she started dabbling with writing.
“I remember reading ‘The Girl from the South’ by Joanna Trollope. I got completely lost in the story, and I was sorry when I finished it.
“I was just drawn in, and could believe every word. I thought it would be such a powerful thing to have that effect on people.
“I tried writing women’s fiction, and I sent a few chapters to a company in England called Cornerstones. You pay them to read your work. They sent me a detailed report which said, ‘go and learn your craft. This book is not working for many reasons.’ I was horrified. I had thought some bits were good, and that I had a natural ability for writing. It was a brutal awakening.”
Swallowing her pride, Ava spent a year studying all the books about writing that she could find. Then she began revising her book, swapping chapters with a friend at work who was also trying to write.
“I researched hacking for a minor character, and wrote a chapter that became the first chapter of ‘the Insider.’ My friend said, ‘forget about that book; this is what you need to write about. This is really interesting.’ That,” she says, “was my big turnaround.”
Ava worked really hard on making the book both exciting, and authentic.
“I studied hacking. I bought loads of books on hacking and defending hacking from Amazon, and made pages of notes. I wanted to use the odd detail so that someone who knows the subject will not be going, ‘oh that is nonsense.’
“I was really interested in the story I was creating,” she says. “And on translating the pictures I could see in my head onto paper. I was trying to write more than a whodunit. It’s also about Harry’s journey; and the metaphor of burglary.”
Meanwhile, though, Ava had met and married Tom, and had produced two children; Mark, now 10, and Megan, 9. She was working part time, and was determined that there would never be a closed door between her and the children. So how did she find the time to write?
“I got up at 5.45, and drove to work, missing the traffic,” she says. “I’d sit outside the office in my car and write on my laptop until 8.30. If I went into the office I was distracted by the to do list and the emails. Or my boss would arrive early and start asking me to do things.
“I’d write later, in the car outside the schoolyard; and sometimes, in the evenings, I would drive down the road and write a little more.”
The Insider is a brilliant, well written thriller. It kept me up half the night, so it’s no surprise that Cornerstones, seeing the draft, were impressed enough to help Ava find an agent; or that the agent was able to procure a six figure advance within a week.
Ava is, naturally, thrilled with her deal. Especially as the rights have been sold throughout Europe and in Russia. She’s now writing her second ‘Harry’ book, and has plans for a few more.
“Harper Collins have pitched it to sky,” she says, sounding amazed. “But best of all was a reader’s reaction. Someone said ‘I couldn’t put it down. I finished it and I am really going to miss Harry.’ That was really nice.”
She would like to become a full time writer, and has taken a sabbatical from work in order to complete the second book. Surely, with an advance like that, she could have jacked in the job altogether?
“I am too afraid that the book might not sell,” she says, laughing. “I have called myself ‘a writer’ occasionally, instead of a software manager, but I need to know I can pay my bills.”
The Insider by Ava McCarthy is published by Harper Collins at 12.99 euro.