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!