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?


Dana King said...

Outstanding. Great questions and thoughtful, thought-provoking answers. I've come up against several of the things Brian mentions here. Some I came to view as he has; others not. It's good to see these opinions as a way to create a discussion, even if only internally.

As fate would have it, I'm in the process of reading BELFAST NOIR, where both of you have stories. Brian's leads and has had him on my mind for a few days. This interview cements my interest.

(Gerard, your story was not at all what I expected, and showed me why I'm glad to have taken an interest in your writing. Damn fine--and shocking--work.)

seana graham said...

Yes, terrific interview. The only McGilloway I've read so far is that Belfast Noir story. I don't know why I haven't gotten on to the novels yet. Soon, though.