The Missing Sister
Q & A
1. How did you approach the research in Ireland, the country of your birth? Were you surprised by what you found out?
I loved the research process on Irish history, because it meant I could be based at my home in West Cork during the Covid-19 lockdown. Very kindly, my friends and neighbours all rallied round and helped me, not only in locating places and existing historical texts but also locating families who had elderly relatives who could explain what daily life was like in West Cork early in the 20th century. I discovered that so much history was not written down and just passed down the generations orally, particularly local history from a female perspective. A good example of this are the stories about the Irish Women’s Council, Cumann na mBan, who played such a major role in the fighting for an Irish republic but the details of their contributions are only now coming to light (please see my website for more details).
I was surprised to discover how ill-prepared the Irish were when they began the fight for independence from the British. It was also a miracle that the volunteers of the IRA, with Michael Collins at the helm, managed to engineer a truce when they were so outnumbered in terms of manpower and arms. The Irish had used pitchforks and home-made explosives and exploited their intimate knowledge of the land – in essence, guerilla warfare. While I have written about war before (as in ‘The Light Behind the Window’, where I featured the British women of the SOE during WWII), this is the first time I have written about the practicalities and machinations of military conflict in more detail.
2. Given the complex history of Ireland, what was the most difficult aspect to write about?
My aim was to get to the heart of people’s motivations during the conflicts, and not to simply describe the many skirmishes and battles that occurred. Since the ‘Troubles’ are not too distant in people’s memories, and the subject of Partition is still a sensitive one, it was never my intention to come down on one side or the other, but simply to tell the stories of those who fought on either side. My greatest struggle perhaps was navigating the truth and the lies in the historical texts and witness accounts, particularly when it came to the Civil War – there were, and still are, family rifts caused by the anti-Treaty and pro-Treaty divide.
3. How closely were you inspired by the myths of Merope in ‘The Missing Sister’?
As with all the other sisters in the series, the story of their mythical counterpart is always at the back of my mind. In the case of Merope, she is perhaps most famous for being the wife of Sisyphus, who was punished for cheating death by being forced to push a large boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll down each time – which is where the term ‘Sisyphean task’ comes from. Obviously I haven’t subjected Merry McDougal to this kind of marriage! But what has been a central theme of the Seven Sisters series has been the Pleiades’ evading Orion’s chase. In ‘The Missing Sister’. Merry has been running her entire life from a dangerous man, Bobby Noiro. As the lost Pleiad, she is also chased by her own sisters.
Readers who are also fans of Greek mythology and philosophy will have already spotted mythical allusions throughout the series, but this book is particularly studded with them. It was a joy to write the character Ambrose because I was able to quote my favorite philosophers and delve further into the myths behind the Pleiades star cluster.
4. Have you had very clear vision of who the missing sister was since the beginning of the series in 2014, or did it develop as you wrote each book?
Though from the beginning of writing the series I had known who the missing sister would be in relation to Pa Salt, her essence as a character only started to develop as I was finishing writing ‘The Sun Sister’. I always felt that she would be brave and protective of her family.
5. Finding family, whether biological or not, is at the heart of ‘The Missing Sister’ and the Seven Sisters series – have you had experience of non-biological family yourself?
To me, my children are my world, and being a mother is a strong part of my identity. Of course, being a mother isn’t limited to loving your biological offspring, but wanting to nurture and care for those in need of it. Both my husband and I have been married before and we have seven children between us, meaning that they all have step-siblings and half-siblings – and our passion has always been to bring them up as one close family – and I hope that is one of the core themes of the Seven Sisters series that comes across – that your family isn’t limited by biology.
6. You’ve revealed that the series will continue with Book 8, ‘Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt’. Had you planned this from the very beginning?
The series was always only going to be seven books, but over the years, the story grew and grew, and the characters took on a life of their own. When I finished writing Electra’s story, I knew it would be impossible to wrap up all the strands in one book. I wanted to do the story justice, and out of respect to all the readers who have followed the series for so long, I wanted them to not only have the story of the missing sister, but that of Pa Salt too.
7. How did you feel about re-visiting each of the D’Aplièse sisters as they embark on their hunt across the globe for Merry?
I loved it! It feels like meeting an old friend who you haven’t seen in a long time. In Maia’s case in particular, I hadn’t written in her voice since Book 1, which was released in 2014. I could feel how she as a character had changed throughout her journey, and how her relationship to her sisters had changed too. In Ally’s case, I knew she would be a driving force in the search for the missing sister, as Ally is the natural leader of the sisters – and being there with her as she rediscovers love after the grief she has been through was one of my favourite parts of the book to write.
8. How did you navigate the complexity of tying up plot strands and having so many characters come together?
It was a major challenge. I had to consult the previous books in the series in great detail to ensure that I had each sister’s story correct. Particularly in this book, there is frequent travel between continents and many overlapping characters, so the editing process was intense. Everything had to be double-checked, whether it was flight-times, time zones, or which sister was where. Also, each ‘faction’ in the book had varying degrees of information at a time – whether it was about the sapphire ring, Mary-Kate’s background or Merry’s ‘adoption’ – and I had to make sure that characters found out important plot points at the right times.
9. We now know that there is going to be a book 8 ‘Atlas – The Story of Pa Salt’. What can you tell us about it and how does it feel to know that this eight-year adventure is coming to an end?
There are so many stories to tell – from the very beginning, the main mystery has always been #whoispasalt? Who is this mysterious wealthy man who decided to collect children from all over the world and care for them? What was his real name, where is he from and who is Kreeg Ezru? Why was he buried at sea so mysteriously?
We have now discovered the origins of the adopted sisters and finally the identity of the Missing Sister and how she fits into this strange, disparate family. Savvy readers might have found clues as to how it all fits together… and now the story of Atlas will be the final puzzle piece that lets the entire picture emerge clearly.
Writing the Seven Sisters series has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. To be honest, when I had the germ of an idea that night, looking up at the stars in 2013, I couldn’t imagine reaching the end of that journey… and now here I am, already having begun to write the final book in the series, ‘Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt’. The sisters have brought me so much joy, and so many opportunities to travel the world and meet people. It is very difficult to say goodbye to them…but I hope to announce soon the plans to make a TV series of The Seven Sisters which will keep my sisters very much ‘front of mind’ for many more years to come.