Q&A with Catherine O'Flynn

what was lost book cover

Following our March Book of the Month discussion of her novel What Was Lost, author Catherine O'Flynn answered your questions by email... 

Shopping centres | Entombing children | Kate's detective agency | The 7Up mystery | Gavin's motives | Alternative endings


Shopping centres

Q. CarrieMumsnet: It's such an unusual setting for a story - where did the idea come from? Did you spend time with security guards?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: The setting came before the story. I was working in a shopping centre like Green Oaks, in a job like Lisa's and found myself fascinated by the place. At night I'd lock up the shop where I worked and walk through the empty mall and there was something quite eerie about the atmosphere, something almost malevolent. It was maybe just my awareness of the constant surveillance by the security cameras, but it was also something to do with watching the shoppers during the daytime and noticing how lost and aimless many of them seemed to be. The centre seemed to have a power of its own.

I'd get home from work in the evenings and want to forget all about it but, instead, to my annoyance, I'd find myself writing about it, trying to capture the atmosphere of the place. It was never my intention to write a novel at that stage – I would have considered the idea ridiculous as I'd never written so much as a short story before. So these notes were just descriptive – bizarre exchanges with customers, staffroom scenes, the service corridors – then, one day, a security guard I worked with told me a story he'd heard about the image of a child being seen on the CCTV monitors in the middle of the night. I think now that the story was almost certainly apocryphal – a classic shaggy dog story – but I'm a gullible fool and it made a massive impression on me. There was something about this image that stayed with me and seemed to draw together a lot of the thoughts I'd been having about the centre – about its power and its atmosphere. I started thinking of possible stories about who the child might be and I suppose that was the starting point for writing the novel.

Q. TillyBookclub: Do you believe shopping centres are truly awful or are you actually quite nostalgic for/attached to them?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: It was never my intention in the book to sneer at people who spent their time in shopping centres, I knew I was one of those people, too, and still am. I think many of us, for most of the time have no clear idea of what to do with ourselves. We gravitate towards shopping centres as it seems a good, or at least a "normal" way to pass the hours. I'm not sure it's any more pointless or empty than going on country rambles or visiting National Trust properties. I suppose the particularly sad or ridiculous element of it, though, is the idea that endless consumption will fill some ill-defined hole.


Entombing children

Q. mollythetortoise: Are they really entombed children all over Europe? Did people really think that brought prosperity? I couldn't get the image in your book of a crying child being given an apple while they entombed her out of my mind afterwards. Is that story true?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: To be honest, I'm not sure. When I was writing the book, I remembered vaguely hearing something about this and I tried to find out more. I found a few references to incidents like the ones described by Gavin, but it was never that clear to me if these were genuine historical events or just myths that had grown up. Naturally, I hope the latter.


Kate's detective agency

Q. whistlejacket: What gave you the inspiration for Kate's detective agency? Was it something you did as a child and did you actually come across a book like the one Kate's dad gave her?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: I thought of myself as a detective when I was a child, but I was nowhere near as professional as Kate is - she has the office I dreamed of. When I was growing up in the late 70s/early 80s, there were a whole series of excellent books for children published by Usborne called things like Clues and Suspects and Fakes and Forgeries. They were full of what now appear to be insane tips for children on how to follow suspicious-looking men down dark alleys at night. I loved them and took them completely seriously. My detective work was limited really to sitting outside the local bank and taking down car registration numbers in case there was a robbery. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life that nothing remotely clandestine ever happened during my watch. A few years ago, I drove my husband around my old neighbourhood and showed him the bank where I had wasted so many hours. To my great disbelief and anguish, there was a police sign outside, saying, "Robbery here: did you see anything?" If only I’d kept watch for another 20 years!


The 7Up mystery

Q. missclovis: Was Teresa's stepdad's liking for the hot lemon tea drink Lift and Gavin's drinking of 7Up heated in a microwave with a tea bag dipped in it, a clue/red herring/coincidence?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: Oh dear – I think that's just a coincidence. I say "oh dear" because I've just written something else where a slightly strange character is able to drink coffee at blisteringly hot temperatures. I clearly have some kind of association in my head between eccentric/menacing characters and perverse drink choices. Thank you for pointing this out – I shall try and curb this subconscious prejudice.


Gavin's motives

Q. EachPeachPearMum: What would Gavin have done if she hadn't taken his bait and fallen down the hole? How would he have entombed her then?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: I don't think Gavin set out with a plan to entomb Kate. I don't think he had much of a plan at all when Kate was following him. Maybe he liked to pretend he did in retrospect. I think the entombed child myth was something he found after Kate's fall and it seemed to make sense of it all to him and to give some justification for his decision to tell no one what happened to her.


Alternative endings

Q. simnel303: What (if any) alternative endings had you considered before deciding on the one in the book?

A. Catherine O'Flynn: There were no significantly different endings. Teresa ended up having more of a role in the story than I originally thought she would. The only real difference was that I spelled out in more detail what had happened to Kate, whereas my original inclination was to leave it a little less explicitly stated.

Last updated: 7 months ago