Interview: Retired teacher from Louth publishes debut novel

Local retired teacher Florence Gillan has been making up stories for as long as she can remember.

“I first started writing when I was very young, I just loved to read,” she told the Democrat.

“It was like an addiction, and then I started telling my little sister stories in bed at night, and then I started writing them down.”

Decades later, she wrote and published her first book, a mystery thriller called Let Them Lie.

In the book: Aoife O’Driscoll travels home to Sligo for a family reunion to mark the twentieth anniversary of her father’s death.

While there, the discovery of a long-buried box and its disturbing contents sends her on a terrifying journey through her family’s past.

Chasing secrets, while trying to keep her life together, becomes increasingly difficult. Breaking up with her fiancé Connor at a time when she desperately needs support, she falls deeper into an obsession with finding the truth, knowing that her investigations threaten to shatter the lives of everyone she loves – her mother, her brother Sam, her sister Kate, her young niece and nephew.

She is left to face the question: what price is she willing to pay to protect her family and can she live with the consequences?

“It’s a crime thriller, but it’s not a police procedural, there’s no detective or anything like that,” says Florence.

“The protagonist of the story, Aoife, kind of becomes a detective in her own life and it’s about the things she discovers and what she decides to do with that knowledge.

“What appears to be a perfect family has a dark underbelly.”

Originally from Lissadell, County Sligo, Florence left at 17 to become a religion and history teacher, spending most of her career in Louth and settling in Newry.

“I’ve worked on the Cooley Peninsula my entire adult life. I started in Dunleer and then Dundalk at O’ Fiaich College and then transferred to Bush in about 1985 or 1986 and stayed there until almost retirement.

“I must say that this is a special place. It wasn’t difficult to travel down every morning and the views coming down from Omeath and Carlingford were simply beautiful.

Florence wrote her first novel ‘Tragedies in France’ when she was nine years old, and she got the title ‘tragically wrong’, she jokes.

“I just knew that when I started writing, I’d never felt happier reading or writing, which was so exciting and I loved it.

“I read literally everything, from thrillers to classics, every genre you can think of.

“I loved funny books like PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharp and people like that. I was completely addicted to Agatha Christie. Her plots are genius.

“When I went to secondary school, I kind of lost my heart about it, because while in primary school you have a lot of room for imagination, high school is a lot more about exams and grammar and punctuation and those less exciting things.

“For such a long time I lost confidence in my writing and for years I talked myself out of it.

“Someone once told me that you have to have a plan when you’re writing a book, and I’m sure I never knew when I sat down what was going to come out, so I just gave up for a long time.”

Whatever spark Florence had was reignited in her forties when she read a book that suggested getting up early in the morning and writing three pages of whatever immediately came to mind.

“So I’d get up early at half past five or six and sit in the dark because I didn’t want to wake my husband or get out of bed, and I’d write things like ‘this is so boring, why are you doing this by yourself?’, ‘this is a waste of time.’

“But then I gradually discovered that I started writing down the things that go through your head every day, your worries, your problems, the things that make you happy, the things that make you sad, and I did that every day religiously for about six months and it released something in me, I think, and started to make me think about writing again.”

Encouraged by her new sources of inspiration, Florence began work on the novel with the opening chapters receiving praise from publishers who wanted to see the rest.

“I finished it before it was ready and they ended up rejecting it,” says Florence.

“But it was a big boost to my ego and it gave me a bit of encouragement because I thought it couldn’t have been too bad if they wanted to see all that.

Having stopped writing for a while, she returned to it during Covid focusing on a story idea that had been in her head for a while.

“During Covid, I sat down and it just came. I bullied a few friends and family into reading it and they didn’t think it was awful, which encouraged me.

“After revising and receiving constructive criticism, which is not easy for a teacher, I decided to send it to Poolbeg.

After three months of waiting, she got an answer.

“I got an email saying they were interested and wanted to see the rest, but I wasn’t too excited because I had already been there.”

However, she needn’t have worried because the publishers came back saying they liked her and offered a three-book deal.

“I know it sounds corny, but it really was a dream come true. I’ve wanted to do this my whole life and here I am at 61 and I’ve heard that I’m going to get this amazing thing that I’ve wanted my whole life, and I’m almost afraid to believe it. It was fantastic.

Florence’s success must have something to do with her dedicated writing schedule.

“I’m definitely not one of those who write at night, maybe I think about things related to the book at night, but I start working around 9 am and I need an hour and a half or two hours break for a couple of hours, then come back and stop around 7 o’clock.

“If I’m stuck on something, I’ll take a notebook or phone to bed so that if I wake up and remember something, I can write it down and hope it makes sense in the morning, which sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you wonder what on earth you were dreaming about, he laughs.

“I think you use everything around you when you’re writing a book, even listening to snippets of conversations. You think ‘oh my god that sentence was brilliant’, you get inspiration from everywhere.

“I love real writing. It’s hard work to craft and rework, and listening to people criticize it can be challenging.

But I have to say that my kids were fantastic with things like the language used by the young characters, which are mostly young characters in the novel.

“They would tell me ‘look, that doesn’t sound like a young person would say it.’

“I was instructed a few times and I changed some of the language around things like slang.

“But having people willing to read and critique is something I find very helpful. Sometimes you fall in love with an idea and you need someone to tell you that you’re talking too fancy and you’re going to alienate anyone who reads it.”

As for her next book, Florence was already busy working.

“They’re interested in another one coming out this time next year, and I’ve got a rough, rough draft of another one and I hope they like it, and if they do, it’s a matter of refining it and doing some drafts.”

Florence’s book; Let Them Lie is available in a number of bookshops and online with signed copies available from Easons in Dundalk.

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