Derry man, Brian McGilloway, is the author of the Inspector Devlin Mysteries. The first novel of the series, Borderlands, was published by Macmillan New Writing in 2007. Macmillan New Writing is an imprint of the Macmillan group renowned for taking chances with brand new authors. In McGilloway’s case, it was a chance that paid back in spades. He is reputedly the most successful author to have come from their stable, and the first to see his debut released in the US.
Gallows Lane, the second in the series, was published in the UK in 2008 by Macmillan New Writing to even more acclaim. Based on the success of the first two books, Pan Macmillan extended an offer for a further three-book deal. Now, in 2009, his third novel, Bleed a River Deep, has been published in the UK and Gallows Lane is set for its US release at the end of this month. I caught up with Brian to find out how exciting it is at this stage of a snow-balling writing career.
Gerard Brennan: It’s been quite a journey for you and Inspector Devlin over the last three years. What were some of the highlights?
Brian McGilloway: The whole experience has been incredibly surreal and I consider myself to be very lucky to have made it even as far as this. In terms of highlights, there have been a lot. Meeting some of the writers who I’ve admired for years and finding out that they’re, to a person, lovely people and massively supportive, has been wonderful. Seeing the Japanese translation of Borderlands was a unique experience too. Green Park Films recently optioned the books for television, which was very exciting. I suppose being short listed for the CWA Dagger for Borderlands was also a highlight, augmented by getting a note of congratulations following it from Colin Dexter. Ultimately, meeting people in the crime fiction field – whether writers, readers and even bloggers - making new friends and seeing your books in print, being read is the nicest part of the whole publication thing.
GB: You’ve been compared by many to the giants of the crime fiction genre such as Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter and James Lee Burke. Is that as giddying as I sounds?
BM: I’d be lying if I said that such comparisons aren’t gratifying. Those three writers in particular are the ones that I read as a crime reader and whose novels inspired me to write myself. That said, I suppose it is inevitable that any new crime writer will be measured against the standard-bearers of the genre. I’m immensely lucky that, to date, the comparisons have been largely positive. Still, while it’s nice to be compared to such great writers, I hope that the Devlin books bring something different to the crime field and have a voice of their own.
GB: Although those comparisons have been made, Inspector Devlin stands out as a character cut from a different cloth. Did you find it easy to break away from the cliché of a haunted or emotionally-stunted police inspector?
BM: I wanted above all else with Devlin to make him human. I love the crime fiction genre both as a reader and a writer but I did deliberately want Devlin to reflect my own concerns as a person. At the time I started writing the books this meant being married with a young family and struggling to balance work and family life. And giving up smoking of course, which explains why, though Devlin may not drink too much, he smokes like a train. I felt that there were enough heavy drinking, divorcee mavericks in the ranks of crime fiction without adding another. I suppose it seemed a way to make him a little different and to give him something fresh to say and bring to an already crowded field of fictional detectives. In the course of writing the book, his character became increasingly emotionally involved in the cases. In one of the first scenes in Borderlands, I felt Devlin would want to cover the naked corpse with his coat, both to protect her from the elements and to preserve some final element of dignity for the victim, even in death. That one incident really set the tone for how he responds to the crimes he investigates, prompted perhaps by the fact that he has children of his own. Having children certainly made me view the world very differently.
GB: Why did you decide to write about a Garda Inspector, rather than a PSNI detective?
BM: The border setting seemed too perfect not to exploit, both in terms of its relative uniqueness in crime fiction and its use in plots as an escape route for criminals and the tensions that existed between North and South. I had considered making Devlin a PSNI man but assumed that, if I did so, people would look for a political angle to the character. I didn’t want political baggage with the books – I wanted to write a straight forward crime novel that happened to be set in Ireland. Plus, the PSNI was changing so much at the time as part of the peace process and was so intricately tied into that that anything I wrote would have been outdated by the time it was published.
GB: Bleed a River Deep explores quite a few social issues that have affected modern Ireland. This is a trend that runs throughout the Devlin Mysteries. Do you plan to continue this social commentary in future volumes?
BM: It depends on each story. Book four is currently called the Rising and is concerned with drug dealing and the community response to it. It’s a more personal story and reintroduces Devlin’s old partner, Caroline Williams, though in a slightly different context. I suppose it’s hard not to write about things that anger you or concern you. Devlin is my own personal way of making the world a better place so it’s no surprise the books deal with issues that concern me at a social level. I believe the novelist has a duty to reflect on society and the way in which we treat others. The crime fiction genre in particular is perfectly placed to do this.
GB: The guys at Pan MacMillan have signed you up for another two books. Will you take this opportunity to further explore Benedict Devlin, or do you think you’ll hand the reins over to a new character in the near future?
BM: I’m still learning about Devlin myself with each book and finding his voice growing stronger in each book. Initially I had considered allowing some of the other characters to lead a narrative, but in the end, each book I start seems to develop in Devlin’s voice. If I have stories to tell about Devlin, and if the books’ readers and I are still learning new things about him, I imagine he’ll continue to feature in my writing. I may well take a break from Devlin for a book – I’m at the early stages of planning a stand-alone novel, which I don’t think would fit into Devlin’s world. I’ll see how it develops.
GB: As well as writing, you teach English full-time at St Columb’s College in Derry, and with three young sons, you and your wife are practically raising a small tribe. How do you squeeze it all in?
BM: I’m lucky to have a very supportive wife, which helps a lot. I still consider writing to be a hobby which I enjoy rather than a job which I have to do, so perhaps that mindset has helped. I tend to write at night, or during school holidays. I plan the novels during the year while I’m teaching (not literally obviously) and then the physical writing tends to be done during the summer holidays and late at night during the first term between September and Christmas. To be honest, I couldn’t not write, so it’s something I have to do anyway. As I say, I’ve been blessed with both a supportive wife, and great support from the Principal and staff in St Columb’s.
GB: When you do have a spare thirty seconds or so, what else do you do?
BM: I try to read as much as I can and I’m a cinema fan – movies are simply another form of storytelling anyway. I also started watching The Wire last year on DVD and ended up watching the five seasons one after another over the course of two months or so. It was just fantastic. I suppose by the time the kids go to bed and everything is done, lounging on the sofa for half an hour and watching whatever is on TV is about as good as it gets anyway.
GB: I read somewhere that you’ve a murky past as a playwright. Think you’ll ever revisit the form?
BM: When I started writing it tended to be dramas rather than stories which I suppose helps hone skills in writing dialogue. Declan Hughes is a case in point there – his dialogue in the Ed Loy books is razor sharp probably because of his background in theatre. I haven’t written a stage script in years and, at the moment, enjoy using prose too much to change that.
GB: The Northern Irish crime fiction scene is really thriving right now. Have you any thoughts on where the current trend might take us?
BM: I suppose it’s no surprise that crime fiction has flourished both in Ireland in general with the rise of the drugs gangsters in the South, and in the North in particular with the end of the Troubles. While there has been an increase in the number of crime writers, I’m not sure that has been matched yet with an increased readership. As readers realise that Irish crime fiction isn’t necessarily parochial or Troubles-centred we’ll hopefully see the genre develop even further.
GB: Thanks a million for taking the time, Brian McGilloway.
BM: Thank you!