Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Five Questions -- Brian McGilloway

Brian McGilloway was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1974. After studying English at Queen's University, Belfast, he took up a teaching position in St Columb's College in Derry, where he was Head of English.

His first novel, Borderlands, published by Macmillan New Writing, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2007 and was hailed by The Times as 'one of (2007's) most impressive debuts.' The second novel in the series, Gallows Lane, was shortlisted for the 2009 Irish Book Awards/Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year. The third Devlin, Bleed a River Deep, was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of their Best Books of 2010. The first DS Lucy Black novel, Little Girl Lost, became an Amazon Kindle No 1 Bestseller in 2013. The follow-up novel featuring Lucy Black, Hurt, is published in November 2013.

Brian lives near the Irish borderlands with his wife and their four children.

Gerard: Preserve the Dead features Lucy Black, your PSNI series character. Now, I very much enjoy your Inspector Ben Devlin books (set on the other side of the Irish border), but I really do prefer DS Black. She has a little more grit in her belly, I think. Have you heard this often? Do you have a favourite yourself, or is that like ranking your kids?

Brian: Thanks Gerard. It’s strange because there's no consensus. The Lucy books have obviously done better in terms of sales and that, but I still get emails from people saying they like the books but would love another Devlin again soon. I suppose the books have different qualities. The Devlin books tend to be more reflective on account of being a first person narrative whereas the Lucy books move faster because they’re third person. In terms of which I prefer, I couldn’t say. I do miss Devlin, and I like writing in that voice which is, truth be told, not a million miles away from my own, with a few minor differences. But I enjoy writing the Lucy books very much and like her as a character and the way in which she’s developing across the series - and I do have a definite ending for her story. And I’m very fond of her mum, even if she isn’t. The Devlin books are constrained a little by his family life and by the fact that his kids are growing up and have to impact on the narrative; Lucy is freer to do things than Devlin is because there’s no one waiting for her to be home at a certain time. That probably means that Devlin would have a much healthier work/life balance!

Gerard: I suppose you could argue, though, that Devlin has a hell of a lot more to lose than Black... Time will tell, I suppose. So you've an ending in mind for Lucy? That's interesting. Are you able to project/predict how many more volumes it'll take to complete her tale?

Brian: To an extent, I guess. Devlin has mostly managed to keep his family and professional life separate - though what happens in one is normally reflected in the other. It’s a deliberate choice - it’s too much of a cliche to have the family in peril in every single story. It happened in Borderlands, which was my first, and I think that’s really it. Much more interesting for me is how he balances the two sides of his life, like plates spinning. As for Lucy, she does have her own network of sorts and, as the books go on, that will continue to grow. She was an outsider in Little Girl Lost. By this new book, she’s beginning to make friends, some in more forced situations than others and is having to be more honest with some others about her relationship with her mother. Lucy has withheld one too many secrets in this book and gets called out on them. She needs to learn to be more trusting. As for the ending, I had thought 5 books, but as I’m working on the fourth at the moment and I’m no much nearer the ending, that might change. Ultimately, Lucy’s story will be tied to the story of Mary Quigg, the little girl who is lost in the book of that name. From the start I knew where I wanted the Lucy books to end; I don’t have that with Devlin. I guess in both cases, they’ll end when I have no more stories to tell for those characters.

Gerard: Two multi-novel series seems like a hell of a lot of story to hold in your head. Do you ever wish that you could write a standalone just to take a break from the long game? Maybe even write in a different form?

Brian: Yes. To be honest, Little Girl Lost was intended as a stand lone for a break from Devlin, but I found that after I’d finished it, I wanted to find out more about Lucy and her story still had some distance to go. I do have an idea for a standalone that I started last year but the story wasn’t ready - I intend to revisit that when it’s more fully formed. I suppose the big problem with two series is trying to ensure that one does;t end up morphing into the other. Keeping them distinct, with the voices of the main characters clear and different is a major concern when I’m writing them. And at times I have an idea and think it’s great, then realise the next day that I already used something similar in one of the Devlins. As for writing outside of crime - I’ll write whatever the story is that I have to tell. If it so happens that that story isn’t a crime one, then so be it. In term of forms, I’m doing some screenwriting at the moment which I’m enjoying very much. It’s more concentrated than writing the novel as you have to know where it’s going from the start, whereas I rarely do with a book. The timeframe is much tighter, too, though it’s much more collaborative than a novel. Certainly its something I’d like to develop further if I can.

Gerard: Something I noticed about Preserve the Dead is that there seemed to be a little more tongue-in-cheek humour than in the prequels. You had a little fun at the expense of English teachers in an early chapter that made me smile. Was this intentional? Perhaps a way to further separate Lucy Black from Ben Devlin?

Brian: I think the first two Lucy books were quite cold - especially Little Girl Lost. Part of the reason for that was that both books dealt with crimes against or involving children. Nothing about that topic suggests humour to me and as a result, both books feel a little cold to me. The Devlin books, I think, have a warmth from Devlin’s voice and from his family life which, again, the Lucy books don’t have - her family is anything but warm, although there is a thawing between her and her mother. The other thing which struck me is that, by this third book, the various agencies and teams know one another now and would be fairly comfortable with one another, so that hopefully is reflected in the banter between them. Of course it’s also a Northern Irish thing - humour in the face of horror. The English teacher joke is about all poems being about sex or death from what I remember. I’ve used that line myself in class and I know of several other English teachers who subscribe to the same theory. The poem he mentions was one that was taught to me by my own teacher, who was a poet called Paul Wilkins. Paul was a superb teacher, a fine poet and a good friend. He died a few months before Borderlands was published, but he was hugely influential in my wanting to be a writer when I was at school. The scene with Fleming is a personal light hearted nod to Paul who I imagine would appreciate the joke.

Gerard: So who gets the next outing? Inspector Devlin or DS Black?

Brian: It’s another Lucy. To be honest, I started it as a Devlin - the book is about hate and complicity in crime; a religious pastor who makes some inflammatory comments about homosexuality in the wake of which a gay youth is killed. The problem was that I made it to chapter 15 and hit a brick wall. So many of the sub plots I wanted to introduce to parallel the main plot didn’t suit the border setting or Devlin’s family life. After three weeks of struggling to move it forward I started it again as a Lucy novel and it just seemed to work - the sub plots make more sense and the setting seems more appropriate to the storyline. I would like to revisit Devlin again when he has another story, but for now the next one is a Lucy. I had played with the idea of them meeting earlier in the series, and Jim Hendry appears in Little Girl Lost, so they exist in the same world. In fact, the first draft of LGL ended with Lucy phoning Devlin to ask for help in tracking down  Mary Quigg’s killer. Henry refers to a friend over the border earlier in the book. But the two series were optioned by two different TV companies and I was warned that they couldn’t appear in a novel together or it would cause all kinds of complications with who owned the rights to which character. They shared a one off story called The Sacrifice, which I wrote for Radio 4 as part of the Derry City of Culture celebrations, but I suspect that will be it with regards a crossover.

Brian McGilloway has a brand spanking new website that you've got to check out. Right now! Also, he can be found on Twitter, and the really privileged might be able to befriend him on Facebook.

What are you waiting for?

Monday, 20 July 2015

Five Questions -- Kelly Creighton

Kelly Creighton is a poet and fiction writer with work in literary journals The Stinging Fly, Long Story, Short, Wordlegs, The Galway Review, A New Ulster, The Boyne Berries and numerous other publications.

She was awarded second place in the Abroad Writers’ Conference Short Story Competition judged by Robert Olen Butler, long-listed for The RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story contest and shortlisted for the Carousel Writers.

Gerard: Brian McGilloway described The Bones of It as "A brilliant crime debut, chilling, compulsive and beautifully written." Being a fan of Mr McGilloway's work, I was very keen to have a look. Did you set out to write a crime novel, or was this a case of a literary text that veered into the crime world?

Kelly: I set out to write a thriller, even although nothing else I'd written up to that point was crime, and I wasn't really sure how The Bones of It would eventually be marketed. It is the direction I went because that's what the story called for. That said, I'm very happy to have wound up in the crime world.

Gerard: I'm happy too, especially since your contribution to the Northern Irish crime fiction scene has doubled the number of women writers in our wee community (shout-out to Claire McGowan). I have heard that Lucy Caldwell is writing a crime fiction novel too, which is more great news. Any theories on why it's taken this long for our female talent to shine in the crime world?

Kelly: Doubled! That's a depressing statistic! Lately I've been reading all these articles about how 'so many women read crime', and how 'female crime writers write gorier stuff than men', and 'why today's most exciting crime writers are women', and yet here in NI, where there's a recent explosion in emerging crime writers, there aren't many women writing in the genre.

I don't know why this is. I suppose we don't know what people are getting up to on their pcs until the work is out there for us to read. In The Bones of It, the narrator is a young man, so I'm making sure the next book is from a woman's point of view.

I hope some local women writers get in touch and let me know that they write crime too.

Gerard: I'm glad you mentioned your narrator. I thought you nailed the masculine voice. Quite an accomplishment given Scott's less than conventional personality. Did you have any difficulty writing from his perspective or did it come naturally?

Kelly: Thanks very much, Gerard! It was only after I'd started on the book that I heard a couple of people say, 'How can a woman write from a man's perspective?' and vice versa. The thought that it was strange hadn't occurred to me before that. I still don't know if it is. My stories are probably half and half. I love writing from different perspectives, different ages. That's a big part of what interests me - finding the voice. I think we all start in our own voice, writing semi-autobiographical stuff. As I go on I want to explore characters that aren't familiar to me. There has to be an emotional truth in there that I feel I understand. It doesn't have to be my truth, if you know what I mean. I knew Scott really well before I even started writing, that gave me the confidence to slip into his mindset. The book was written and redrafted in quick bursts, so that made it easier.

Gerard: Was the transition from poetry to prose difficult for you?

Kelly: It's more a back-and-forth between the two than a transition really. I write the odd poem but prose is more my thing. It's so hard to write a poem I'm ever really happy with. I'm in awe of 'proper' poets. Prose has much more freedom and it suits me better.

Gerard: So, what's the craic with the next book?

Kelly: I'm working on two books right now - one is a collection of linked short fiction and the other is a detective novel from the POV of a female detective. This summer is all about finishing the story collection because the house is full of noise and there isn't the headspace to give the novel the attention it needs. I should be wrapping up the novel by the end of the year, then I have the structure in place for the next one. If someone could just arrange more hours in the day, I'd be sorted.

You can follow Kelly on Twitter or send her a friend request on Facebook if you're feeling lucky. And you should get yourself a copy of The Bones of It. CSNI approved.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Five Questions -- Jason Johnson

JASON JOHNSON'S novels focus on people facing extreme situations over short periods of time.

His latest is ALOYSIUS TEMPO (2015), the tale of an unkempt, maverick assassin recruited by the Irish government. It's published by Liberties Press, Dublin.

Previous works:

WOUNDLICKER (2005) - a serial killer's confession - set in Northern Ireland.

ALINA (2006) - the hunt for a vanished sex worker - set in Romania.

SINKER (2014) - where drinking alcohol is a professional sport - set in Majorca. (SINKER extract available for free in 'HERE'S THE STORY' - Download from this page)

The Irish Independent describes blackly comic SINKER as "a lean, nasty, tripped-out shocker... a cracking book, a jolt to the senses like a line of flaming shots."

ALINA, says US author and critic Frank Sennett, "delivers a climax as harrowing as one might hope to find in contemporary crime fiction."

And WOUNDLICKER is "dark and gritty", says The Sunday Times.

Jason's from Enniskillen and lives in Belfast.

Gerard: I've only just finished Aloysius Tempo and I feel like there's a hell of a lot of potential for further adventures featuring this protagonist. Maybe because he seems better built to handle his self-destructive nature than your previous characters. Any chance of a sequel?

Jason: I think so. I’m hoping to write another one next year. Ideally I will write four or five adventures for Aloysius.

In each he will lose a body part or two and become a few percentage points more insane and haunted. Basically, he’s spiraling downwards, deconstructing himself. Chapter by chapter he’ll grow weaker yet more dangerous and end up being ground into the dust. This book, I hope, has teed that up.

Next year I plan to write the second installment, to send him to join ISIS on effectively a suicide mission for Ireland just on the cusp of the state’s centenary.

As a character he is going to move further beyond living and operating within established moral frameworks, so Syria seems like a good place for him to be next time around.

Gerard: Nationalism was very much a theme in the first book. Looks like that'll be the case for the future instalments too. Is this your way of wrestling with your own national identity?

Jason: You know, it probably is. My roots are Irish, English, Scottish, Maori, Protestant, Catholic and atheist. Anyone who wants to insult me has a lot of material to work with. A few of my characters have been mongrels in the Northern Ireland sense of the word, so you’re probably right.

The thing I wanted to touch on in the novel was patriotism, which is at the heart of a lot of our gut reactions here. Patriotism can be intoxicating, joyful, positive, negative, childish and laughable all at the same time, and it’s always around.

Aloysius grew up hating Irish society – the Troubles, the church, the ethos – so he’s a bit stuck when he gets asked if he will kill for his country, yet he can’t help seeing some nobility in it.

The book explains how he isn’t sure who his father was, that Aloysius was born to a woman who had been with both a ruthless member of the IRA and a ruthless UDR soldier.

That lack of clarity, lack of category in Irish terms, interests me. It suggests betrayal may mean something different to him than it does to the rest of us. It hopefully creates unexpected friction or unexpected ease in some of his decisions.

Aloysius’ journey basically involves him falling in love with the modern, smart, reinvigorated Ireland to which he is being introduced, but he may stop in with a mistress along the way.

Gerard: So you yourself are hard to classify. What about your writing? To me, Aloysius Tempo is a terrific black-comedic thriller. Your previous novels (Woundlicker, Alina and Sinker), while all quite different animals, contain crime elements of varying degrees, though they might not be found in the crime fiction section at a local bookshop. Do you consider your work literary fiction, crime fiction, comedy or some sort of mongrel?

Jason: Some sort of mongrel. It's about trying to cram relatively big ideas into the heads of people who don't always want them.

I always find I’m trying to write the thoughts of characters who realise they are discovering truths.

For some reason they first seem to end up finding some purity outside of themselves – great works of art, people of beauty, people who possess or who have achieved great things – and I bounce them off that. That helps give them something to compare themselves too, and generally helps them realise how far they have to go in their journey. If there’s literary lingering in my novels, that’s the only sort of thing the characters linger on.

That sounds so wanky that it may, in some small way, suggest the hue of literary fiction. But that would be unfair to the majority of the text which is, more or less, the written equivalent of dropping characters down lift shafts and seeing what happens.

There is always crime, which may suggest some hybrid of crime fiction, but I do think if I called myself a crime writer then crime writers would whisper that I didn’t really understand the genre. The same goes if I called myself a writer of literary fiction.

What I know for sure is I’m never going to write a great novel in the grand sense of the word, but hopefully I am going to entertain.

The stories are usually a bit dark, with a bit of a laugh, with some dirt and violence and hopefully a few off-road plot points. I try to be brave when I write and usually urge myself forward when I hear the voice of the self-censor in my head. I deal with the resulting shame and cringing after the book is published.

All I really want is for my books to shove people a wee bit.

Gerard: Through your four novels you've created a fascinating universe. Do you think Aloysius could ever run into Woundlicker's Fletcher Fee on a future adventure, or do you see your other titles as quite separate?

Jason: Only a writer who knows the craic could ask that question. You too, Gerard, must have entertained the idea of having characters from different novels impact on each other. (Yup! gb)

It’s fun to think about it, to see if you can come up with a plot to reanimate and connect unconnected characters you’ve enjoyed writing before.

But it would be too indulgent at the seriously low level I’m on as a writer. It would likely bypass just about anybody who read it and probably fall flat.

Characters are created at specific times with a specific job to do, so I don’t think it’s a road I’d go down. I’ve plenty of other scumbags and fools I want to write about without bringing any back.

Gerard: Any plans for a reprint of Woundlicker and Alina? Loved those books and I think more people should have the opportunity to read them.

Jason: That’s very kind of you, and no. I think they’re effectively goners, arriving just before the e-book thing did. Neither sold very many so making an argument for reissue would probably fall at the first hurdle.

Anyway, that was then and this is now.

Woundlicker was very local and set during the horrible birthing pains of the peace process. It’s far out of sync with today.

I did once look into the idea of Woundlicker as a one-man stage show, with a real Mercedes Benz on the stage (it’s set in a Merc), but no theatre people were interested.

And when I think back to Alina I think only of it being some kind of half-arsed, mis-developed statement about the cruelty of pleasure when rich meets poor or some such bollocks, so I hope it’s unavailable forever.

It’s all about looking ahead.

Jason Johnson is published by Liberties Press, a house that had the good sense to sign a band of particularly talented Northern Irish writers that includes Tara West, Jan Carson, Kelly Creighton, Bethany Dawson, Moyra Donaldson and Jason himself. Keep 'er lit, lads!

You can follow Jason on Twitter, and if you're lucky, he might even be your friend on Facebook.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Five Questions -- Nigel Bird

Nigel Bird is the author of several novels, novellas and short story collections, including Southsiders, In Loco Parentis, Smoke, Mr Suit and Dirty Old Town.

His work has appeared in a number of prestigious magazines and collections, including 2 editions of The Best Of British Crime,The Reader, Crimespree and Needle.

He lives on the East Coast of Scotland in Dunbar (Sunny Dunny) with his wife and three children.

As well as writing fiction, he has been a teacher for twenty-five years and has worked in a number of mainstream and special schools.

Gerard: You've named the chapters after songs. Is this the unofficial soundtrack or simply the best title for each chapter?

Nigel: For Jesse Garon and his father, music is hugely important in their lives. They are lovers of the rock and roll of the 1950s in general and Elvis Presley in particular. This passion provides just about the only glue their relationship has. For Jesse it goes further in the sense that it gives his outsider status in the community an identity. He’s a modern day rockabilly rebel in a place and time that have forgotten about the king and about rebellion. Using song titles as chapter headings came as a natural extension of that. Essentially it became something of a game. I had a piece of writing in front of me and had to find a track to match it, which meant I had hours of fun working through my records and CDs and got to listen to some mighty fine songs while I was working. I also finally discovered that You Tube has a purpose.

Gerard: Well, one of those chapters, 'Suspicious Minds', contains an observation, one of many, that made this book stand out for me. The subject of the observation is Jesse's social worker, Wallace. If you don't mind, I'll quote it here:

"Swearing was another one of those things people like Wallace could get away with. Like using words like damned and buggered made him an all right guy. Just like the people he was sent to work with except for the job, the clothes, the posh accent and the lifetime of opportunities."

Jesse's ANGRY, isn't he?

Nigel: Oh yes. And he has every right to be. The violence and neglect that he has experienced at home has been overwhelming. Worse, the system that purports to save him when things get really heavy is just as bad in a different way. He’s young, but he already knows a huge amount about injustice. What I like about him is the way he doesn’t let it extinguish all his hope. Instead, he allows his love of music to carry him forward with a glimmer of optimism as a guiding light.

As an aside, there were some amazing figures published very recently about the proportion of children who have been in care who end up in prison. It’s ridiculously high and points to the need for a major reform in the way we operate.

Here’s a quote from The Who Cares Trust:

‘23% of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison).’

I’m not suggesting there’s a simple answer to helping kids who have begun life in traumatic circumstances, but I imagine that money, the opportunity to explore enlightened attitudes and making this a real priority for our society might be a good thing.

Gerard: And then there's Jesse's dad, Ray. He seems to counterpoint Jesse's anger with a sense of defeat. I do think you've sown enough hints to suggest that there was a fire in him before this book. Will this be reignited? Perhaps in a follow-on tale?

Nigel:  Very astute. Ray has a violent past that was rooted in a gang culture. The change came when he went solo and met his wife-to-be. It wasn’t long before he became the victim of her violent outbursts. Something in his upbringing wouldn’t allow him to fight back against a woman and he became trapped by his love for her. Imagine the humiliation a hard man might feel after regular kickings from his missus. It alienated him from the outside world and led him to escape into the bottle. The fire was extinguished and he was wrecked.

This also relates to the previous question about Jesse’s anger. I think that his father’s helplessness and inability to protect his son are key ingredients in that emotional mix.

As for the next book, Ray is a major player and there’s certainly more of his frustration and defeat. Whether that leads to the reigniting of his fuse or not, I’ll leave that to the readers to find out.

Gerard: The chapters written from Jesse's perspective make him seem older than primary school age. It also seems intentional since you counterpoint his character with a lot of innocent notions. Is it safe to assume that you're aware that a tougher life can make kids think and act in surprising ways? Were you worried anybody would challenge Jesse's maturity?

Nigel: I was never too concerned about the question of Jesse’s maturity. You put it well in the question - a tough life can certainly give a child a range of experiences that may force them to grow up very quickly. That maturity is also a veneer that covers the other frailties and vulnerabilities of childhood. My intention was to find the balance between those points and I hope I succeeded.

I did have other concerns about Jesse’s age. I worried that it might be difficult for the book to find an audience. It may be about a young lad in a dysfunctional family, but it certainly isn’t a young adult or new adult book. It’s about darker areas of our world. I think there are people who find it difficult to view youngsters within that context. It might also put off readers who ordinarily enjoy stories within similar settings. The idea of having a twelve-year-old as a main character might suggest that it’s not gritty enough. Even when this was pointed out to me, I decided to stick to my original intention – Jesse was far too ingrained in me by then to alter who he was.

On the flip-side, keeping Jesse young has allowed me to take him on a journey towards adulthood. In my latest visit to his world he was fifteen and growing up extremely quickly. That’s been a real treat for me as a writer.  

Gerard: If you could spend a little time with Jesse and Ray, would you have any advice to impart on them?

Nigel: None that they’d accept. I think Jesse tends to make good decisions - his problem is more that circumstances keep turning against him. I’d tell Ray to stay in Belfast. See if he couldn’t carve out a life over there. That makes a lot of sense.

I do like the idea of spending time with them. They’d be good company. We could talk about music all night and I might be able to get Ray to throw in a few tales of his wild years. That sounds like a lot of fun.

Nigel Bird is published by the awesome Blasted Heath and can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Keep up with this guy!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Sweet Liberty

Click image to enlarge

I was pretty feckin' chuffed to be included in this upcoming Liberties Press event in Belfast. The main aim of the evening is to launch the new Jason Johnson title. Considering how much I enjoyed his last book, Sinker, I'd be as honoured to read from his work instead of my own. But that's not really the done thing at these events.

So now I've to figure out which passage from my (slim) catalogue would fit best for this night... Something to think about over the weekend.

While an example of my non-fiction work has indeed been published by Liberties (see Down These Green Streets), I'm not really one of their new band of Norn Irish scribes. So, I am very much a guest among a talented team of novelists currently working with the Dublin-based publishing house. Thanks for having me, folks.

Check out all the details over at the Liberties Press website. It's BYOB, people. That includes Buckfast. But no shenanigans until after the readings are done.

Readings by: Jason Johnson, Gerard Brennan, Jan Carson, Kelly Creighton, Bethany Dawson, Moyra Donaldson and Tara West.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Five Questions -- Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well known Irish comedian. His first novel, The Twelve, was one of the most critically acclaimed crime débuts of recent years, and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Find out more about Stuart on his website -- http://www.stuartneville.com/ -- and/or follow him on Twitter @stuartneville.

Gerard: Those We Left Behind isn't quite your usual thrill ride. You're well known for your high octane thrillers, but this one seems more thoughtful and displays more emotional depth. Why the change?

Stuart: It just seems to be a natural evolution in my writing. I’m finding myself less interested in pace and action, and more interested in character. I think Flanagan has been a catalyst in that change. She’s opened up a lot of possibilities for me. Mind you, I’d hope this new book will still have the reader turning pages, and I think there’s enough bloodshed to do most people!

Gerard: Oh, yeah. Plenty of bloodshed in this one. But as in your previous books, I can see that you've presented it with restraint. Can I safely assume that you're not a fan of 'torture porn' as applied to crime fiction novels, or indeed TV shows and movies?

Stuart: No, I don’t like torture porn. I’ve no problem with the portrayal of violence in itself, so long as it serves the story. Violence for its own sake always stands out, and it’s obvious when an author is deliberately pushing those buttons just to get a reaction out of the reader. But I think readers are smarter than that, and they know when the writer is trying to manipulate them.

Gerard: Did you find it more difficult to write about young offenders compared to the full-grown gangsters you've explored in the past?

Stuart: To be honest, it made a nice change. I think I’ve pretty well covered the paramilitary gangster angle, and I’ve done a couple of serial killers, so it was time for something new. And again, being less focused on breakneck pace allows more room to explore something like the dysfunctional relationship of the Devine brothers.

Gerard: In Those We Left Behind, you presented one character's POV in present tense and the other characters' POV in past tense. If you can, without spoilers, tell us why. And did you have any difficulty justifying this style decision to your editors?

Stuart: Ciaran’s POV scenes are all told in present tense, but the prose is also very different in those passages. When I was researching the book, I spoke with a probation officer, and he told me something that really struck me: if a twelve-year-old boy like Ciaran Devine was put away, and was released seven years later, he’d come out still a twelve-year-old. I wanted to show his child-like view of the world, so both the present tense and language try to build on that.  My editors were fine with it; I hope it’s not distracting or gimmicky.

Gerard: No, it's not gimmicky. It's very much a style choice. Do you think style is something that writers with a strong voice employ as much to entertain themselves as their readers? Or is it all about the reader?

Stuart: I think you’d drive yourself crazy if you spent your time worrying about the reader’s reaction. The story is king, so that’s always at the forefront of my mind: what will serve the story best? In this case, for the story, I felt the present tense seemed more natural for Ciaran.

Stuart Neville will launch Those We Left Behind at No Alibis on Thursday 11th June at 6:30pm. Be there or be quare disappointed.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Self Publishing Podcast

I’m writing this blog post as I listen to the Self Publishing Podcast (SPP), episode #158. In previous posts I’ve talked about online tools that are designed to improve sales. SPP covers that sort of thing on a regular basis. However, it is presented by three self-published authors, so while they discuss the business side of things they also tend to drift into conversations about the craft of writing as well. And in the spirit of this podcast -- which regularly and joyfully indulges in straying off the chosen topic -- here’s a quick diversion:

I consider myself a writer above all things. Thinking like a businessman can hamper my creative side, which is why I haven’t tried to start a publishing business. However, I do think it’s important to have an understanding of the business side of my chosen creative art. I might not want to devote my time to numbers and spreadsheets, but it’s dangerous to be clueless about something that can severely impact your writing. Ignore the numbers for the sake of your words and it won’t be long before you can’t afford to write anymore...

The rest of this blog post can be found over at my wee patch of the HASTAC website. Click here to get there.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Five Questions -- Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast and is a practicing lawyer. He holds a certificate in Advanced Advocacy and lectures on various legal subjects (but really he just likes to tell jokes). He is married with two young children. The Defence, has been chosen as one of Amazon's great debuts for 2015, as part of their Amazon Rising Stars programme. In 2015 Steve received the ACES award for Literature from the Northern Ireland Arts Council. 

Steve writes fast-paced legal thrillers set in New York City featuring series character Eddie Flynn. The Defence is his first novel. 

Find out more at http://stevecavanaghbooks.com/ or follow Steve on Twitter @SSCav

Eddie Flynn, lawyer, con man, drunk. How much of this is autobiographical, Steve? I know you're a lawyer. Two out of three wouldn't be too bad...

Well, while I was at University, and probably for a good few years afterwards, I would've been a man with a powerful thirst. One of my best mates, Mark, is a guy from my QUB Institute of Professional Legal Studies class, and the only reason I know him is because we both liked to turn up to the pub an hour before any social event began so that we could have a few before the crowd arrived. We didn't arrange it or anything, we just happened to be men with similar approaches to an evening's entertainment. I remember somebody once handed me a pint, the glass was soaking and the pint simply slipped right through my fingers. I had my order in for another one before the glass hit the ground. Now I have two small children. The rock and roll days are over. As for con man? There is a certain amount of sleight of hand in any good cross examination. That's where the overlap is between the courtroom and the back alley. Eddie straddles that line precariously.

I noticed that you used US spelling (eg color rather than colour) in the UK edition of your book. What's the craic with that?

Glad you spotted that. It was my editor's suggestion. As the book is in US English anyway with an American narrator, may as well go the whole hog. I think it helps a little with authenticating the American voice that I'm going for. I've noticed it before in John Connolly books and to be honest it's fine with me because it means I don't have as much work to do for US publication.

Ah! The mighty Connolly. It must tickle you that you're likely to be stocked out pretty close to him on the crime fiction shelf. Recommend one of his works, for the uninitiated. Please?

There is so much to recommend, but for the crime fan you simply have to read the Charlie Parker series. You can read them out of sequence, I have a little. But you get a far better experience reading them in order. Start with Every Dead Thing and work your way up. EDT is one of the best crime debuts you'll ever read. And the books just keep getting better. That's rare in series fiction. Yeah, I'm stoked that I get to be on a shelf with one of my heroes.

Your story in Belfast Noir was top notch and it featured an actual Belfastian solicitor. Any plans to set a novel in Belfast?

Yes, a solicitor and a barrister with the story focussed on barrister, Mack. I loved writing that story. It's a weird thing, I wrote The Defence as an escape, primarily for me. I was going through a hard time and I wanted to try writing again. If I had come home from a day's work being a lawyer in Northern Ireland and sat down to write for two or three hours about being a lawyer in Northern Ireland I think I probably would've gone insane. At the time I wanted to escape somewhere else for a few hours, into a different world. After I wrote The Defence I knew I wanted to write another book with Eddie Flynn - I find him very interesting and I can pretty much accomplish everything that I want to do right now, in fiction, using that character. If I ever give up the law, I may write a book set in NI but not at the moment. I have a few ideas, but for now I want to concentrate on Eddie's story.

You know we're pretty sold on The Defence at CSNI. Care to share a tag line for the next instalment?

This is the hard part, I'm terrible at writing blurbs. I can tell you that this next book is currently titled The Plea and, among other things, it looks at international money laundering, the grand jury system, and welcomes back some of the characters from The Defence. In the new book Eddie Flynn has two clients. Two cases. Both very different. One client is innocent and the other is guilty. He can only save one of them. It's an easy choice for most lawyers, but what if the guilty client was Eddie's wife? Will he sacrifice the life of an innocent man to save his wife? He's got 48 hours to decide. But no matter what choice he makes, the only certainty is that at eight o'clock on Saint Patrick's Day Eddie Flynn will die.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Award Season

Last week, Stuart Neville filled me with pride and envy at the same time. Pictured below, you'll find our Stu amongst a murder of Edgar Award shortlisters. All scribes pictured have, of course, earned their place on that list. However, it'd be disingenuous to be less than gobsmacked by the presence of Stephen King in this picture. STEPHEN FECKIN' KING!

L-R: Ian Rankin, Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, Stuart Neville and Wiley Cash

As it turned out, King nabbed the prize for his novel, Mr Mercedes. I'm reading said novel right now. Whether or not I'll enjoy it as much as or more than Neville's The Final Silence remains to be seen. So far, it's pretty good, though. I've looked through the King novels listed at the start of Mr Mercedes. Of the 57 books in the list (includes those written under the Bachman pseudonym, the non-fiction books and the Dark Tower series), I've read 47. I read IT when I was 13 years old and have dipped in and out of his work since then. And enjoyed the vast majority of them. Hence my envy, Mr Neville!

Anyway, I got over that tinge of jealousy and remain proud of the fact that one of the writers that I know and respect has hit this level of recognition. You can consider this the official CSNI message of congratulations to one of the leading lights of the Northern Irish crime fiction scene.

Now, from Stuart Neville to Anthony Quinn.

Anthony Quinn at the launch of The Blood Dimmed Tide earlier this year

I learned today that Quinn has been long-listed for the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. You can see the longlist in its entirety over at the Shotsmag Confidential blog. You'll notice that Lee Feckin' Child (along with other top class scribes with the affectionately given middle name of Feckin') is included on this list. However, Anthony Quinn is the only Northern Irish entrant. This makes me sad and happy at the same time. I'd like to see more names from the NI crime fiction set on the longlist, but I also like the fact that I don't have to split my cheerleading attention on this one.

So, here at CSNI, we (by which I mean me, myself and I) are urging you to vote for Anthony Quinn's Disappeared to make it onto that shortlist.

It's a big feckin' deal.

We (and this time I mean everybody reading this)  can't actually vote until the shortlist is announced, but we can show Anthony our support by making a lot of noise about his achievement. So, if you could share this blog post on social media, look for Anthony on Facebook and Twitter so you can congratulate him, or -- most importantly -- READ THE BOOK, that'd be pretty cool of you.

I read Disappeared a few years ago (I got my hands on the US version which was published long before the UK version) but, despite the fact I highly recommend it, I failed to find the time to write a review. Other people have reviewed it, though. Get Googling, people!

Friday, 24 April 2015

My Wee Curly Bap

To all who read what follows. I've been sitting on this piece for almost three years now, entirely unsure of what to do with it. A lot has changed since then, such as Lola the beagle moving on to a new home. However, Jack's genetic condition remains undiagnosed.

Today is Undiagnosed Children's Day. Here's my wee curly bap at the ripe old age of eight. He's a cool dude.

Here's a little snapshot of Jack:

My Wee Curly Bap
By Gerard Brennan

For the third time in three days I take Jack, my five-year-old son, to Dundrum Castle. Lola, our hyperactive beagle pup, comes along. Jack has been asking me all day about this walk. Pestering me. When he gets an idea into his head it sticks. This is part of what makes him who he is. How he is.
We live close to the castle. It’s a five minute walk on your own. Ten minutes with a five-year-old and a puppy. I tread carefully on the shit-littered lane and I watch Jack’s step. He’s a little clumsy and his eyesight is poor. I’m wearing old shoes and Jack has his Spider-Man wellies on. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to get them dirty but I’d prefer to avoid it. I’m so busy watching Jack’s step, and my own, that I don’t notice right away that Lola has found a dead mouse. It’s not that I’m squeamish, but the state this poor wee rodent is in sends ripples of gooseflesh across my skin. We move on.
Halfway along the lane we meet a neighbour walking her dog. I’m not sure of her name. I don’t pay much attention to the people on our street. It’s not out of aloofness or social anxiety. I just don’t have time to go out of my way to meet them or learn their names. Jack recognises the dog she has with her. It’s a greying Cairn Terrier. A decent wee doggie that mopes about on her front garden most days. My wife told me once that the neighbour rescued the terrier. I’m predisposed to liking her.
The neighbour is friendly and asks a couple of polite questions, makes a fuss about Lola and my son’s curls. She’s nice. After Jack is finished petting her dog he’s done with the encounter and wants to move along. With a parting comment about the unexpected sunshine I follow my wee curly bap along the lane.
Jack finds a puddle and asks my permission to jump in. I give it to him with a nod. He rewards me with a magnificent smile.
Soon we’re on the hill leading up to the castle. Jack’s progress slows. This is the point where I need to encourage him to keep up with Lola who is straining on her lead. She’d be half choked if my wife hadn’t bought that harness. After a few rounds of ‘ready, steady, go!’ we’re at the castle’s car park. We don’t go straight to the keep. In Jack’s mind we have to go by the hiking trail at the far end of the car park that circles the castle grounds. It’s pointless to suggest we go straight to the keep. That would be the wrong way to do it.
We meet another dog owner in the car park. She’s an older lady with dyed blonde hair and the look of money about her. Her dog is an overweight King Charles Cavalier. Its fur is red like the long wavy hair of a traditional Irish cailín. My dog and hers sniff each other and the lady tells me she’s come here from Hillsborough. While we’re talking, another woman shouts something at me. I don’t catch what she’s saying so I tilt my head politely; wait for her to repeat herself. She doesn’t. This woman stares at me for longer than I’m comfortable with. Her hair is cut into a perfect bob. It’s thick and black and reminds me of the helmets worn by the Normans who built Dundrum Castle.
Eventually she says, “You look like that fellah that works at our place. Gary Charles.”
I don’t know what to say to this.
“Gary Charles.”
Should I tell her I don’t know who Gary Charles is? She seems to want me to react in some way. I glance down at Jack to make sure he’s okay. He’s examining this new dog so he’ll be fine for a few more minutes. I look back up and the woman with the black hair is closer, giving me a good up and down investigation.
“He looks like Gary Charles, doesn’t he?” She directs this at the blonde woman from Hillsborough.
“This is Margaret,” she says. “We have her home for the weekend.”
Oh. Margaret is a little bit different, then. Maybe a little bit the same as Jack.
“Even your jeans are like his,” Margaret says. “And the way you walk.”
Margaret bends her knees slightly and does a bit of a bounce. Is that how I walk?
I think of something to say. “Well, I hope Gary Charles is a good-looking man.”
She doesn’t laugh. Maybe she doesn’t really care for Gary Charles’s appearance.
The blonde lady says, “She usually tells people that they look like Christopher Lee.”
“I’m not tall enough, I suppose.”
I get a laugh from the blonde lady. Margaret has moved off. She’s gone to stand by a little black Renault Clio that I assume they arrived in. There’s a white-haired lady and a toddler in there. Jack notices them for the first time and skips over to say hello. The white-haired lady asks him for one of his curls. Jack loses interest in her. All he wants to do is close the car door. Open doors bug him. Nobody objects when he slams it shut. I wish he wouldn’t do that, though. I worry about him catching his fingers. He’s been to the hospital too many times already; broken leg, numerous cuts on his head, planned operations on his eyelids… It’s not fair and I don’t want to add to the list. People think I’m over-protective of him, I know they do, even though they don’t tell me to my face. Well, I can’t help it.
We leave Margaret and the blonde lady and Ruby, the red-haired King Charles, and make it to the hiking trail. Jack wants to run down the makeshift steps. I’d like to put a harness and lead on him. It’s easy to control Lola. With Jack I have to use calm and clear instruction to keep Jack at a sensible pace. I’m not always calm and clear. Jack’s not always sensible.
We get down the steps without any slips or trips. But I can’t relax. Not yet. Jack still needs to navigate a tricky slope in the path. Thick tree roots have broken through the earth in places and there are muddy patches that haven’t been dried out by the sun. And Lola zigzags in front of us so that I have to constantly monitor the position of her lead in relation to Jack’s legs. There is the occasional stretch of smoother ground along the trail and I take those moments to admire the beauty of this spot. Little birds flit by the wild grass, bluebells and nettles. The sun filters through the branches overhead in ghostly strands. I don’t know what kind of trees line the trail. It seems like the sort of thing a man should know about a neighbouring wood. Later on that night I will consult Google and learn that ‘the canopy comprises mature beech with some sycamore and ash, scattered oak and wych elm along the lower edge and a few larch and Scot's pine’.
The trail slopes upwards; I swear it’s a gradient close to sixty degrees. Jack and I need to dig deep to keep pace with Lola. We’re granted a short break when the beagle pup notices a flock of sheep in a field to our right. Jack points at one of the lambs and tells me it’s a baby. I point at another one and tell him it’s the daddy. We bleat at each other and giggle. Lola lifts her front-right leg and her tail straightens out, her hunter instincts manifesting physically. I tug on her lead and she snaps out of it. We continue up the slope, giddy with exertion.
At the top of the climb there is a fence with a two-step stile for trekkers. Jack wants to climb it by himself. I agree to this for the first time but stand with my free hand outstretched, prepared to steady him if he wobbles. His balance is better than I realise. My wee curly bap gets up and over with confidence. I scoop Lola up and scramble over the stile with her under my arm. We turn left and continue towards the castle.
Young voices carry from the castle grounds. A gang of kids are playing on the grass. They have a Frisbee and a football. The man who works as the castle’s caretaker is off to one side of them. He’s brought his son to work judging by the similarity of their features. They’re honing their cricket skills, the son throwing and catching the gentle returns from his father’s cricket bat. A content golden Labrador looks on, his long tongue hanging.
One of the kids recognises us. A boy that lives next door to Jack’s granny. He’s twelve but is big enough to pass for fifteen. I search my memory banks for his name. Ryan. He has blond hair, a friendly face and a country build. Ryan has no trouble remembering my son’s name, nor my dog’s. He may not know mine.
“Hi, Jack,” Ryan says. “How’s Lola?”
Jack smiles at him.
Some of the other kids break off from the pack and approach us. They’re mostly interested in Lola. That’s fine by me, so long as they don’t hold us back too long.
One boy, the same size and shape as Ryan but with brown curls similar to Jack’s, lies down on the grass in front of Lola. He lets her lick his face.
“I love this dog,” Ryan’s friend says.
“Do you have one?” I ask.
“A wee Shih Tzu.”
“They’re nice dogs.”
“This one’s nicer.”
A tall skinny girl with red hair snickers. “You ever see a Shih Tzu crossed with a bulldog? They call it bullshit!”
I’ve heard that one a few times but the kids within earshot laugh like drunken demons. The little rips. I look to the caretaker to share a glance of disapproval that I don’t really feel, but he’s busy with his son, the cricket protégé. Jack points at the castle’s keep and I have to pry Lola away from the gang of rascals.
The kid with the brown curls skips in front of Jack and asks him his name. Jack answers as best he can but I can see the kid can’t decipher my wee curly bap’s underdeveloped speech. I’m about to translate but the older boy shares a smile with Jack and pretends he’s understood him. He holds out his hand.
“Give me five.”
Jack slaps the kid’s palm. My son looks delirious with joy. I clear my throat and usher him towards the keep. He’s reluctant now that he’s connected with the gang in a small way but I’m conscious of the time. We need to get moving. I tell him he’ll be able to come and play with these kids when he’s bigger. The look of hope on his face breaks my heart a little. I pray to God that I’m not lying to my son about this; that he’ll be fit to go and play unsupervised when he’s older.
At the keep Jack understands that we can’t go inside and climb the narrow steps to the top. Not with Lola. Instead, we circle the outside a few times. Jack runs his hand along the stonework and I ask him to stop when I notice the sleeve of his hoodie is getting dirty. I challenge him to a race down the slope of the castle grounds. He tears off before I can say, ‘Ready, steady, go!’

Lola strains on her lead to chase Jack but I pull back and let my wee curly bap win. At the bottom of the grassy bank he has just enough breath left to giggle. We sit on a low stone wall for a minute. Then I get up and put Jack on my shoulders. Even with Lola on her lead, this is the easiest way to go. He’ll drag his heels if I let him walk. Besides, I’m sure it won’t be long until my son won’t let me carry him at all. Until then, I’ll enjoy the feel of his hands on top of my head and the sound of his laughter when I walk in exaggerated bounds. He’s not heavy, but carrying him like this makes me feel so strong.