Flynn Berry - NORTHERN SPY

Flynn Berry - NORTHERN SPY

Flynn and I discuss her new mystery Northern Spy, how she creates such a strong sense of place, writing about a place where turmoil is always just under the surface, the roots of radicalization, being selected as a Reese Book Club pick, and much more.

Flynn and I discuss her new mystery Northern Spy, how she creates such a strong sense of place, writing about a place where turmoil is always just under the surface, the roots of radicalization, being selected as a Reese Book Club pick, and much more.

Flynn’s recommended reads are:

  1. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  2. Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell
  3. Being Various: New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell

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If you enjoy reading mysteries and want to listen to more episodes, try J.T. Ellison, Sarah Pearse, Jane Harper, Halley Sutton, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

Northern Spy can be purchased at the Conversations from a Page Bookshop storefront.    


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book, IRA, Northern Ireland, read, write, people, authors, Belfast, Troubles, happening, thought, conflict, called, Ireland, understand, feel, Tessa, sisters, informers, Flynn


Cindy Burnett, Flynn Berry


Cindy Burnett  00:05

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast which is now a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett, and each episode I interview authors about their latest works. For more book recommendations, check out my earlier episodes or my website and follow me on Facebook and Instagram @thoughtsfromapage. I want to say a special thanks to several people who shared my podcast recently on social media. Thanks to bookstagrammers  @homegrownbookpicks and @what.jill.reads and author Erika Robuck for posting about my podcast on Instagram. Word of mouth is really helping me grow the show so know that I very much appreciate the sharing. Today I am interviewing Flynn Berry about Northern Spy. Flynn is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels, Northern Spy, a Reese's Book Club pick, A Double Life, a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and Under the Harrow, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and the Atlantic. The recipient of a Yaddo fellowship, she is a graduate of Brown University and the Michener Center for Writers. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome, Flynn. How are you today?


Flynn Berry  01:15

Doing well. Thank you for having me.


Cindy Burnett  01:17

Oh, I'm so excited to have you. I'm really looking forward to talking about Northern Spy, which is Reese's April book club pick. Why don't we get started with you telling me a little bit about the book? I usually ask authors to just give kind of the basic synopsis for listeners that haven't read the book yet.


Flynn Berry  01:32

Sure. So Northern Spy is a psychological thriller. It's about two sisters, Tessa and Marian, and their involvement with the new IRA in Belfast. And it's about spies and informers, and secrets and loyalties, and sisterhood and motherhood.


Cindy Burnett  01:50

Yes, there's a lot of shifting as the book goes on. So I thought you wove that in very well, when I was thinking one thing was happening, and then something totally different ended up happening. I really liked that.


Flynn Berry  02:00

So glad. Yeah, I write usually a very long first draft, I write longhand, and then revise endlessly and sort of try out different tacks. And I like to sort of stay alongside my character and not plot out ahead so that I hopefully will be surprised as well as the reader by what happens next.


Cindy Burnett  02:18

Oh, that's fascinating. So you're a pantser versus a plotter.


Flynn Berry  02:21

I am, I think plotting sounds really appealing to me, because the way that I work is so inefficient. And I would love to just sort of sit down and start at the beginning and end at the end. But for me, it's much more kind of murky, and I try out different options, and then sort of figure out that the real shape of the story as I'm going and as I'm writing.


Cindy Burnett  02:41

And you write it longhand? You don't type it into the computer, but you sit down like on a yellow pad of paper and write it out?


Flynn Berry  02:47

I do; so I have, I write on plain printer paper, and I use a ballpoint pen. And I think that helps me feel like I'm doing something kind of quiet or intimate, which is my goal. So I think in general with each of my books, the goal is to feel like I'm writing someone else's diary. And I'm telling their own story at that kind of close level. And it helps to write longhand, instead of to be on a computer for that.


Cindy Burnett  03:16

Oh, that's so interesting. It must take a little bit longer. But like you said, maybe it gets the creative juices flowing better.


Flynn Berry  03:22

I think so. And then I type it all up and edit as I'm typing. But it does, it feels a little bit more like drawing or playing around to write longhand. And I also listened to the same music every time I'm writing so I have the same sort of atmosphere in mind when I sit down to work.


Cindy Burnett  03:39

I love that. How about the idea for this one? How did you come up with it?


Flynn Berry  03:43

So this is a book that I had wanted to write for years and been kind of terrified to do so. Actually, I was moving this past summer, and I opened a notebook, and the first sentence in the notebook was an idea for a book about two sisters and the IRA. And I had forgotten I'd even written that down. But that idea was sort of in the back of my mind for a long time. But I was nervous about writing about the conflict in Ireland because it's such a long and complicated struggle and history. And I didn't want to get it wrong. And I think that there are a few different sparks. One was that I saw an archival photo from the Troubles of two young women in skirts and berets standing in a field, holding automatic rifles, and they were members of the IRA posing for a photo shoot. And I remember thinking who are these women and why did they join and what's going on in their minds and being kind of driven by that curiosity. And then another spark for the story was I read an article by the writer Patrick Radden Keefe, who wrote the book Say Nothing. And he talked about a man in Belfast getting into a taxi cab driven by one of the men who had abducted his mother during the Troubles and not saying anything because if he confronted the man he would be in danger. I just thought that was such ripe material for fiction, to write about those kinds of long suspicions or fears under the surface of this society.


Cindy Burnett  05:10

Well, that that is a conflict that has been going on for a very long time in Ireland. And I guess I just wasn't aware that it was still so prevalent, which is ignorance on my part completely. I mean, I see the news now. And I see the Brexit issues and the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and that being an issue, but I didn't realize that the IRA was still so completely prevalent in Northern Ireland.


Flynn Berry  05:32

Yeah, so the book is set, it's actually set a few years in the future. And it's sort of looking at what might happen if things continue on course. It's what I hope won't happen, which is a return to the full kind of sectarian violence of the Troubles. But the IRA hasn't really gone away. It has in some ways. Northern Ireland is a wonderful place to visit, and it's very safe for tourists. And it's this beautiful, lively place, and Belfast is a wonderful city. But then at the same time, a lot of the issues from the Troubles haven't gone away and are still under the surface. And you see that if you're driving around Belfast, like you see, there are peace walls, which are these massive fences to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods so that there won't be violence between them. There are murals on the sides of buildings showing usually men, like masked men, holding guns. And it just is very odd because you have this society that's ostensibly at peace, but there's still quite a lot of turmoil.


Cindy Burnett  06:32

Well, that's interesting, because I was very curious what time period it was set in, and I knew it was somewhat present day, but I wasn't sure exactly when. And then you know, whether what was happening with the IRA was really happening. So that's interesting. So it's maybe not as extreme as in your book, like the violence and what's happening, but there are still a fair amount of segregation between like neighborhoods and stores and between the two communities.


Flynn Berry  06:57

Yeah, exactly. One of the reasons that I was also curious to write the book is, I was talking to someone who described going to Northern Ireland and driving around with her friend. And she pointed out the Protestant cake shop. And that idea that you know, sort of which side of the political divide someone's on to the point of identifying like bus stops, or towns, or bakeries, along religious lines, seemed really odd, and like ripe material for fiction. And it's, it's interesting, because in a lot of ways, the kind of conflict has, it hasn't like reignited, but this past week, there have been huge riots in Belfast with mostly young people, some children as young as 12 or 13, throwing rocks and petrol bombs at the police. There was a bus that was hijacked and set on fire. And there's a sense that for that generation, maybe they haven't seen all the benefits of peace that they were promised in 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement, and that their society hasn't improved. And they aren't being sort of taken care of by the government in the way that they should be. And so there is some anger still.


Cindy Burnett  08:05

I saw that, in fact, I read one of those articles after I finished your book, because I was so interested in what was happening there currently. But your sense of place is so strong, both for Northern Ireland, and then also for the conflict. How did you go about creating that?


Flynn Berry  08:20

Yeah, so I think one of the biggest things I read for in books is atmosphere and landscape. And it's also something that I care so much about in writing, and I really, really work on. And it's also one of my favorite things is to write about, you know, forests or swimming or a city street when it's raining, and that kind of environment. And so for this book, I did a lot of research with histories of the Troubles and the IRA and the geography and trying to sort of get a sense of that. And then I also went to Northern Ireland, and I stayed in Belfast and lived in a house that becomes Marion's home in the novel, and spent time in Greyabbey, which is the village where Tessa lives with her son, and which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. It's this really gorgeous village on a sort of spit of land between a saltwater lake and the ocean. I just completely fell in love with it. And so I tried to just sort of wander around a lot and filled notebooks with research and overheard dialogue and just description, like sort of snippet descriptions of the landscape.


Cindy Burnett  09:26

I think you definitely brought Northern Ireland to life, and I felt like I was right there alongside Tessa. What about your research for the IRA? I mean, I was so curious how you found out some of that or how you decided to portray it, all of it.


Flynn Berry  09:40

Hmm. Yeah. So there's quite a lot of material actually, because for the sad reason that the IRA has been active for so long, and especially since the Troubles in the 1970s. There have been quite a few documentary series done on the IRA or Northern Ireland, and I watched them. I read everything I could find. I read a few memoirs by former IRA members who would become informers who really detail the ins and outs of both IRA membership and what it's like to run an operation. And also informing and what it was like to work with a handler from MI-5, the British spy agency. So I read, I read that. I interviewed former IRA members in Belfast, and tried to sort of understand how someone would be radicalized. Because I think the thing that is sometimes hard to remember, but I wanted to remember while writing the book is that everyone in this conflict thinks that they're the good guys. Everyone thinks that they're on the moral side, and that they're protecting their families or building a better world. And so you have to sort of try to understand from their position why someone might join an armed movement like the IRA.


Cindy Burnett  10:55

I kept thinking over and over again, as I was reading about that portion of it, it sort of paralleled a little bit, what we're going through here in the United States. Not the armed as much, though, actually a little bit in recent times. But just the idea that you've got these two very different sides, and everybody feels like they are on the right side, and that they are the moral person and the right person. And so it's difficult to even try to bridge the gap to see the other side. And I think if you throw religion in there, where you've got the Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other, and a conflict that's been going on for a very, very long time, it's probably even much harder to bridge that gap.


Flynn Berry  11:33

Yeah. And I'm so glad that you that you felt that way while reading it, because I think a lot of people have asked what it was like writing about this as an American. And in a way, I think this is pretty universal now. I think the sense of maybe being under threat, or being in a society that might implode seems kind of prevalent here too. I don't think it's completely foreign anymore. And especially I was interested in what happens in a family when people take such different sort of routes for their lives. I had heard in my research about a family with two sisters, and one of them left Northern Ireland and went away to university and the other join the IRA. And so while one sister was studying in a library, the other was lying in a ditch watching a police station for a surveillance operation. And I was just curious about what happens in a family when people take such different routes? And how do you sort of try to find one another, across that divide, which is something that isn't, you know, limited to Northern Ireland. I think, I think we can all sort of look at that from our own families as well.


Cindy Burnett  12:38

Again, something that's played out a lot here. I see that with my friends, you know, some of their siblings, or parents or whomever. It makes family events very difficult, because you've got people that are on polar opposite sides of some of these conflicts here. And people are very adamant about their own side.


Flynn Berry  12:56

I think that tension is also really interesting, because the stakes are so high for a lot of the issues in Northern Ireland; it is a matter of life or death for the people in the story.


Cindy Burnett  13:08

Yes, and you know, what I thought was interesting, and this will not be a spoiler, but when they talk about being recruited, you know, just generally being recruited. A lot of times, the IRA will start with some very small thing, like go watch the police station, but you just know, oh, that's only the beginning. You know, so as you're, you're kind of thinking this is going to go somewhere. So I thought that was very interesting that they have definitely taken the mental aspects of it, and the best way to begin to bring somebody into the fold, and then, you know, run with it. And that's been very effective for them.


Flynn Berry  13:40

Yeah, I was so interested in recruitment while I was working on this book. And one thing that I heard that actually, I put in the book verbatim, was a radio show where someone was describing recruitment. And so that the recruiters will say something along the lines have come where you are needed, come where you are loved. And I thought that was so interesting that we think of radicalization as maybe being rooted in hate or violence. But for a lot of people, it's rooted in kind of belonging, and a sense of purpose, and of having someone who's going to take care of them. I talked to one woman who was recruited unsuccessfully by a friend, and they were just sitting in her car, in his car, and they're sharing a chicken pakora from an Indian takeaway place. And he just said, You should come work for us. And it wasn't this sort of big dramatic overture from a kind of like terrorist mastermind. It was her friend. And I think that's shadowy realm that I wanted to write about. You know, I'd read about also teenage boys in Northern Ireland who were recruited, and they're sort of lured in by older men buying them new shoes or taking them to McDonald's for food, and how appealing that might be for someone who maybe feels like they've been forgotten by the rest of the world.


Cindy Burnett  14:58

And I think that it's like you're saying it's not this initial, come join the IRA, this big terrorist organization. Instead, it's this little tiny pull, like, let me treat you to a meal or your friend is sitting in the car with you, whatever it is. So you're not really thinking I'm joining the IRA, and I'm going to be involved in these huge things. Instead, it's just, oh, here's a group that wants me, I feel like that would be a nice sense of community, and then all of a sudden, you're drawn into much darker things.


Flynn Berry  15:25

Yeah. And then it also seemed like the process would escalate like you're saying with, you know, someone might be asked to deliver a letter or to let people use their apartment for a meeting or their home for a meeting or to store some sort of contraband in their homes. Which isn't something that maybe you would feel comfortable saying no to if you're part of a community that's been intimidated by paramilitaries, and then it can escalate from there.


Cindy Burnett  15:50

Right or draw a sibling in, like, if you don't do this, it could really hurt your sister, your brother, you know, there's just many different ways, but I thought you portrayed that really well, because I think it's important today to understand all sides of a variety of these conflicts and to understand how people were drawn in. Because then I think it's, it's helpful to figure out how to draw them out. You can understand, okay, this is what happened and instead of condemning, try to work within that system, then that potentially is a good way to try to fix the problem.


Flynn Berry  16:20

Yeah, definitely. I think the deradicalization can only really get going if you understand the radicalization part.


Cindy Burnett  16:27

Exactly. Well, I love following both Reese and Jenna's book club selections. And I'm always so excited to see what they pick. I would love to hear more about how that all went down for you.


Flynn Berry  16:37

Oh, my gosh, it was so exciting. And I'm so glad I can talk about now. Because we found out in January. My editor called me to tell me the news. And we kind of shouted on the phone for a while about how excited we were. And then we couldn't tell anyone. You know, my best friend and I went for a walk, and she was asking how my day was. I was like it was fine. Nothing happened.


Cindy Burnett  16:59

Nothing really big, like a phone call from Reese Witherspoon happened.


Flynn Berry  17:02

Nothing of note whatsoever. And I'm pretty terrible at keeping my own secret. So that was really hard. But it's, it's just so wonderful. And then the way that Reese Witherspoon announces it to the book group is there was a pick party last Tuesday morning, and people sign on from all over the world and are in a live chat. And I got teary during it because there are people from everywhere. And they're so excited about reading. And they're so warm and kind with one another and with the authors. It's just this really extraordinary community that she's built. I'm just so I'm so over the moon that I get to be part of it this month.


Cindy Burnett  17:39

It is such a warm and welcoming community. And that's one of the things I like so much about it, I feel like everybody is positive. And they love to read and they love seeing who she picks. And then you know, she does all sorts of cool stuff with the authors. And I just think it's wonderful. Her decision to run this club and to really promote female authors with strong female characters is just such a gift for the book world.


Flynn Berry  18:01

It really is. And it's so fun for me as a reader to to see so many more stories about women and by women in the books that they adapt as well, to film and television. So it's just it's just pretty extraordinary that this has been built from nothing.


Cindy Burnett  18:19

So they reached out to your editor. And then she reached out to you. That was sort of how it all got started?


Flynn Berry  18:24

Yes, yeah.


Cindy Burnett  18:25

That's so exciting. You must have, like you said, just been jumping up and down and thrilled to pieces and then having to wait, what is it like two and a half months. So you could say anything?


Flynn Berry  18:33

I told I told my toddler who's two and a half. And he was like, just not super enthusiastic about the whole thing, did not understand the significance of it. And it just felt like having this wonderful secret until the publication. I think, you know, publication is so nerve wracking, you're, you're so kind of hopeful that the book will affect readers the way that you have been working towards, but you have no control over it. And you don't really know what will happen once it's out in the world. And so this felt like a really kind of joyful way for it to be to be launched.


Cindy Burnett  19:09

Especially right now in the middle of a pandemic. I think it really has impacted authors and books and everything. So yes, to have something like this, that will send it out across the world, like you said, I think is just fantastic.


Flynn Berry  19:21

Yeah, it's been such a strange year. I read a book that I love by a woman named Megan Nolan called Acts of Desperation that's been kind of compared to Sally Rooney. She's a young writer from, she lives in Dublin. Lived in Dublin, now she lives in London. And she was talking about how strange it is to have a debut novel come out in the middle of a time when bookstores were closed. Really, really hard for anyone having a book coming out right now. And for book shops in general and it on the on the flip side, though I read somewhere that people are reading for an average of like three more hours a week, which is pretty wonderful news.


Cindy Burnett  19:57

I do think people have more time to read and are more focused on it. But it's just a matter of making sure your book reaches readers, you know. And so something like Reese's club or Jenna's book club is a great way to make sure it reaches many, many readers. Congratulations. I'm not even sure I said that. That's just really very exciting.


Flynn Berry  20:14

Well, thank you so much.


Cindy Burnett  20:15

Well, speaking of other books, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you would recommend.


Flynn Berry  20:20

Yeah, so I just over the weekend started the book called Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. And I am completely obsessed with it. It's sort of like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It's just wonderful. It's really wonderful. And then for anyone who's interested in Northern Ireland or Ireland, there's a writer named Lucy Caldwell from East Belfast, and she has a book of short stories called Intimacies, that's out next month. And then she also added an anthology called Being Various that is writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland. And I really love the anthology because it shows how kind of varied the writing is coming out of Ireland at the moment, and each of the stories in that collection is a gem.


Cindy Burnett  21:08

After reading your book, it made me want to learn more about Ireland, so I'm going to have to check that one out.


Flynn Berry  21:13



Cindy Burnett  21:14

Well, Flynn, thank you so much for joining me today in the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really, really enjoyed speaking with you.


Flynn Berry  21:20

Oh, it's such a pleasure. Thank you for the interview.


Cindy Burnett  21:21

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it or subscribe to it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. Flynn's book can be purchased at the Conversations from a Page Bookshop storefront, and the link is in the show notes. I hope you'll tune in next time.