Sure, there are two sides to every story. But I may have discovered more sides than I expected as I begin my interview with Dublin-based novelist Karen Perry, the author of the terrific new thriller The Innocent Sleep, which Kirkus calls, “A dark mystery about unimaginable loss and irrevocable choices.” That’s probably because as the novelist flickers onto my screen for this video interview, I find myself looking at two people. This is beginning to sound like some kind of devious riddle.
In reality, “Karen Perry” is the pen name given to the collaboration between award-winning novelist Karen Gillece and the acclaimed poet Paul Perry. After meeting over a decade ago at the Listowel Writers’ Festival in Kerry, they recently retired to the famous Dublin pub Neary’s to hoist a pint and think about writing a novel together. The result is The Innocent Sleep, an unpredictable and unsettling familial drama that has drawn comparisons to the novels of Gillian Flynn and fellow Dubliner Tana French. Pressed for detail, Gillece cuts right to the heart of the novel.
“It’s about a couple, Robin and Harry, whose son Dylan is killed in an earthquake in Tangier,” she says. “Five years later, they have returned home to Dublin to start anew when Harry gets caught up in a violent protest march in the city center. During that march, he sees a boy in the crowd and he is absolutely convinced that this boy is his son who was killed. The book really takes off from there and it’s an exploration of a marriage as much as it is a thriller. Is the boy alive, or is he dead? Is he a figment of Harry’s obsessive neuroses and guilt? If he is alive, what has actually happened and where has he been all these years?”
The authors go on to explain that while Harry and Robin are both artists, Harry has fallen much deeper into the spell of his medium, while Robin has abandoned her passion to take the much safer road of working as an architect.
“We were both interested in the artistic temperament but also the nomadic and feckless life that artists live that yield fruitful and dramatic situations,” Perry explains. “I was also interested in the type of people who choose to become artists and cross that threshold from conventional expectations and pursue their desire to become an artist, and those who don’t. The sacrifices that artists make in service to their art make for compelling characterizations.”
It’s a chilling moment, then, when Robin discovers a cache of drawings in their garage that indicate Harry has been drawing Dylan over and over and over again, not as the child they lost but in eerie portraits that portray how he would look today.
“You know, the Madeleine McCann case is huge over here,” says Gillece, referring to the tragic case of the missing British child who disappeared while on vacation with her parents in Portugal in 2007. “The police produced a likeness showing what she would look like now. I remember seeing that sketch and realized it was always in the back of our minds. This is something Harry would do as an artist, to visualize what Dylan would look like now. Robin’s discovery is the moment when she realizes that she might be married to someone who is concealing more than she thinks he is.”
It’s a very realistic novel as well, far removed from the grittiness of police procedurals and the daring-do of geopolitical spy thrillers.
“We were drawn to the idea of writing about how terrible things can happen suddenly to ordinary people, so we had to populate the world with real humans, I suppose, who are not heroes or villains,” Gillece says. “We all make bad decisions and we make mistakes, even with all the good will in the world.” Perry concurs.
“I think as readers, what fascinates us are not the black-and-white characters, but the gray areas within all of us,” he says. “The quandaries and difficulties that a character experiences making decisions creates more compelling fiction. On reflection, after the many rewrites and editorial interventions, it occurs to me that the book is also about what is outside of the characters’ control—the things that happen they have no agency over. That clash between free will and circumstances that are well outside of their control is interesting as well.”
Both authors are clearly pleased with the unusual results of their collaboration, whose dual narrative arrived in a furious back-and-forth flurry of writing. After collaborating on the prologue, during which Dylan is buried in an earthquake while Harry has slipped out to buy a birthday present, the authors took possession of their characters, with Perry writing as Harry and Gillece writing as Robin.
“It’s just so much fun,” Perry agrees. “As I’m primarily writing poetry and Karen is writing her own novels, we’re each alone in a room most of the time. Yes, even with The Innocent Sleep there are the brass tacks of plot points and characterization and language but there’s just this pure excitement of sitting down with someone in the way scriptwriters might, bouncing ideas off of each other and progressing the plot in a way you wouldn’t normally do on your own.”
As readers discover the captivating, if tense, pleasures of The Innocent Sleep, they may be pleased to know that the first draft of Karen Perry’s follow-up, Carry Me Home, is already completed. Another dual narrative about old lovers set in Ireland and Kenya, it’s very likely to enjoy the warm response that this so-called debut novel is getting.
“It’s quite a fast-paced novel because we did what I call a relay write,” Gillece says of The Innocent Sleep. “Paul would write a chapter and send it to me, so the impetus was on me to write my responding chapter and send it back to him. Your competitive side comes out when you’re writing in tandem. He would send me a chapter that I thought was really good and I had to match that effort. While we work out general plot points, we allow each other a certain amount of freedom in which to work. That means when I receive a chapter from Paul, I don’t always know what’s going to be in it. I think people are picking up on the fact that this is no ordinary thriller.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.