Tuesday 16 October 2012

An Interview - Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. His first book, the non-fiction GAA Confidential, was published by Hodder. He also released a comic novel, Cold! Steel! Justice!!!, as an e-book under the name Alexander O’Hara. For more than a decade he has written reviews, features and opinion columns for several papers, including The Irish Independent, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. Several of his short stories have appeared in literary journals, in Ireland and the US. He lives in the west of Ireland. See darraghmcmanus.com for articles, updates, book excerpts and more.

Q1. What are you writing at the minute?

Two things: a novel set in mid-1990s Cork, about a group of slackers and post-college layabouts, well, laying about and slacking. Hoping for a feel somewhere between a less-sentimental Douglas Coupland (though I do like his books) and a Richard Linklater movie. As in, nothing much happens, at all – but it’s enjoyable to hang out with them. Also working on a Young Adult novel – won’t give away too many details but it’s basically a horror set in a small town, about a plague of…I’ll stop there. Totally cool title, though. Which I’m keeping to myself, ha.

Q2. Can you give us an idea of your typical up-to-the-armpits-in-ideas-and-time writing day?

Ideally I write fiction in the morning, because I’m mentally fresher. But, article deadlines often land before lunchtime, so sometimes that’s what I’m doing when I’d probably prefer to be writing fiction! As for the act itself, generally I start a book with an idea – could be broad theme, could be specific incident/character. And then you sort of work your way into it. I find the plot etc. suggests itself as you go along. Only once or twice have I had to stop and actually plot the thing out. This happened with my next crime novel, The Polka Dot Girl (blatant plug alert: it’s out on January 24, 2013) – I had pretty much gotten lost inside this byzantine story I was inventing.

Q3. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Try to sleep as much as possible! Read as much as possible, though again, with the lack of sleep, etc… I run a bit, mainly to lose weight and so I don’t die in the next few years. Watch a lot of movies, usually something I’ve already seen – you know, like the film version of comfort-eating? Also enjoy watching The Mentalist and Simpsons re-runs, but that’s about the only telly. And my guitar stands forlornly in the corner, hoping for me to pick it up someday and learn how to play more than eight chords…

Q4. Any advice for a greenhorn trying to break into the crime fiction scene?

Ooh, gosh…I don’t know. Whatever about getting published, I will give one bit of advice re. writing itself: read plenty crime fiction, get a feel for it, get to know its conventions and reader expectations, its limits and possibilities…but ALSO read lots of other books, too. Literature especially. It mightn’t seem like it, but I really do feel that a broad and (especially) deep reading history makes you a better writer, in genre fiction or whatever the case may be.

Q5. Which crime writers have impressed you this year?

All oldies (I tend not to read fiction as and when it comes out, for some reason, unless for review). But they’re all goodies, for different reasons: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez Reverto, N is for Noose by Sue Grafton, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosely, The Cold Moon by Jeffery Deaver. Am currently eyeballing Antonio Tabucci’s Vanishing Point and an ancient Lawrence Block title, A Diet of Treacle, which was reissued by Hard Case a few years back. Eyeballing them like a crazed drill sergeant, I am.

Q6. What are you reading right now?

George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn (it’s short but taking me ages to finish), a disappointing latest issue of National Geographic, and these words I’m typing…now.

Q7. Plans for the future?

Ideally, my own planet where I’ll throw kitschy, retro-1960s “moon parties” 24-7. No, ideally make some money out of Even Flow and Polka Dot Girl, sell the YA urban fantasy title I currently have out with an agent, and make this whole game financially viable. Artistically/literarily, I hope to finish my Coupland/Linklater mash-up, finish the YA horror, then – fingers crossed – get cracking on two sequels to the YA fantasy mentioned above.

Q8. With regards to your writing career to date, would you do anything differently?

I think I’d probably start writing sooner! Apart from bad poetry and newspaper/magazine articles, I never wrote a word until I was 28. Then I struggled with a literary novel for a year, but managed to finish it which convinced me, yes, maybe you can make it as a writer after all. And from the financial perspective, I wonder if I should have started with a genre title, which let’s face it is more likely to sell than my self-indulgent debut novel. It was pretty decent, but nobody was interested and I can’t really blame them! I then followed up with an avant-garde collection of short stories on one theme…urgh. Dumbkopf.

Q9. Do you fancy sharing your worst writing experience?

Oh Christ – where do I start? They’re almost literally uncountable! Mostly to do with stupid agents, lazy publishers, stupid/lazy agent/publishers, and so on – I’m sure you have the same stories yourself. I could write a book on this…which wouldn’t get sold. Okay, this is probably the most ignorant and ill-mannered of the lot:

I emailed, under a pseudonym, a certain famous agency: “I see on your website you do not ‘currently accept unsolicited submissions’. I don’t understand. What do you mean by unsolicited? Does the writer have to get another agent who then approaches yours, or something?”

I get this reply: “We do not accept work that has not been previously published. In the past we have received work from budding, amateur authors trying to break into the industry, and they send their work to us in the hope that we will represent them and greatly improve their chances of getting a book deal.”

I write back: “‘Budding amateur authors sending their work to literary agencies in the hope of improving their chances of a book deal’ – is that not the whole point of agencies? What other function does a literary agency fulfil? This is a serious question, I am not being funny.”

Them (from a different office): “‘Unsolicited manuscripts’ are those not sent to us from a publisher or international agency.”

And me again: “And thank you for me this meaningless answer, which doesn't actually explain anything. Although it was at least not as sneery and condescending as your other office's email to my question. I leave you – in the absence of any great expectation that I will ever get a polite, respectful and informative reply – with a little piece of advice: maybe you shouldn't be so quick to needlessly antagonise people for no reason. You know that old maxim about treating people well on the way up, because you may meet them on your way down? Well, not all of us will forever remain ‘budding amateur authors’. Some of us will have some real power someday.”

Then, they reply – in an apparent state of mild panic – “I am sorry to hear you are frustrated. Perhaps I can help address the questions you posed? (Blah blah…waffle waffle…until finally) You are welcome to submit a query. And we wish you and all ‘budding amateurs’ the best of luck.”

And me once more: “Right, I think I understand now. You DON'T accept unsolicited MS, but you DO accept query letters/pitches? I must have got confused with the line on the website about not currently accepting "unsolicited submissions". BTW I'm not actually a "budding amateur author" at all: I've been published by a major house under a different name, and write for several newspapers in more than one country. I just didn't like XXX’s sneery little jibe, as I'm sure you can understand. But you were very polite. Thanks.”

I didn’t bother submitting. No further correspondence followed… 

Q10. Anything you want to say that I haven’t asked you about?

Thank you! That’d be the main thing. Oh, and a little plug for the book if I may: Even Flow, a cinematic, thrilling, funny and provocative novel about a group of vigilantes inspired by feminism and gay rights, and bringing the pain to New York City’s macho men. Out now, in shops and online, print copy and e-book whatchamacallit. Second crime novel, The Polka Dot Girl, published next January 24, is a Chandler-style noir with a twist: all the characters are female. It’s Sam Spade in lipstick and a dress…

Thank you, Darragh McManus!

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