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Clara Dillon: ‘It’s human nature to want to belong. In a herd we’re less likely to be picked off’

Author on her debut novel The Playdate, growing up in London and Dublin, school gate politics and cliques

Tell me about your debut novel, The Playdate

The Playdate is about school gate politics with a menacing undertone. Sara has just moved to Dublin with her shy daughter Lexie. In her over-eagerness to fit in she inadvertently offends Vanessa, the “tricky” mother of the most popular child in Lexie’s class – who then begins to bully Lexie. Desperate to fix things, Sara invites Lexie’s bully on a playdate. But the playdate ends with a seriously ill child being rushed to hospital. And that’s when things take a dark turn.

You had a very peripatetic childhood? How did that affect you?

We moved a lot. I attended 11 different schools. I sometimes feel that I lack a strong identity, I procrastinate a lot and find it difficult to make long-term decisions.

You moved from London to Dublin. How would you compare life in both cities?

I lived in London for three years and adored it. We must have walked hundreds of miles exploring and we never got bored. There’s something quirky, ancient or beautiful to see on every corner. Dublin is less exciting but friendlier and more personal.

Your character Sara is unusually driven but not in the way that people might suspect. Where did she come from?

Sara had a difficult childhood and sometimes feels that her personality has been stunted. Until her daughter is threatened and her long-dormant true self awakens.

Sara is willing to sacrifice everything for her daughter’s happiness. How powerful is the maternal instinct to protect a child?

I think most of us would put our children before ourselves. We’re programmed to feel intense pleasure when they’re happy and unbearable pain if anything happens to them. Clearly the universe wants us to pass our genes on at all costs. Maybe one day we’ll know why.

The adult cliques in the schoolyard are as defined as the children’s. Is this simply human nature? How damaging are these cliques? This is very much a book about power dynamics and status. Where did the desire to analyse this come from?

It’s human nature to want to belong. In a herd we’re less likely to be picked off, so being excluded can cause great anxiety; in the wild it could be a matter of life and death. Sometimes exclusions and cliques are deliberate but often it’s a perception, born of worry. A fellow mum with only four car seats doesn’t have room for one more – perfectly understandable, but when our child is upset our protectiveness makes us catastrophise. Why isn’t my child in the herd? Will they get eaten by lions? Is it my fault?

You look at many types of marriages and romantic love in this book. Can we ever know what goes on behind closed doors?

I believe Will Ferrell said that before you marry a person you should make them use a computer with slow internet to see who they really are.

You also look at how childhood trauma can affect a person’s life?

Adverse childhood experiences can alter brain and social development, even physical appearance and lifespan. So where does that leave free will? Although there are people who get off on hurting others I think most people believe their actions are justified. I’m a believer in everyone learning why humans behave as they do so we can redirect our instincts into behaviours that don’t harm ourselves and others.

Which projects are you working on?

Some ideas but nothing definite.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I’m planning a UK Arvon retreat if that counts.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Just hurl the emotions on to the page and worry about the writing later.

Who do you admire the most?

As a writer, George Orwell. Highly relevant to this day.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Killing children is a red line, never justified for any reason.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray.

Which public event affected you most?

The Omagh bomb was chilling. Fifteen-year-old Claire Bowes losing her sight particularly affected me. Social media means we can now watch live while children are maimed and killed. It’s deeply upsetting but nothing can be denied or hidden any more and I hope that will be a good thing.

The most remarkable place you have visited?


Your most treasured possession?

My children.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Nancy Mitford, Oscar Wilde, Douglas Adams and Agatha Christie.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The best things about Blackrock are the sea and the fantastic coffee shops. The worst is the horrible-smelling rotting beach algae during the summers.

What is your favourite quotation?

If you have to choose between what’s right and what’s kind, choose the kind thing because in the end that will always be the right thing.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Nicola Marlowe from Antonia Forrest’s Kingscote books.

A book to make me laugh?

Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor.

A book that might move me to tears?

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe.

The Playdate is published by Sandycove