Author Interview: Declan Burke

Declan Burke, crime author, has edited Down These Green Streets, which will be available soon from Liberties Press. It's a wonderfully detailed collection of essays, interview and short fiction. The contributors list includes a number of distinguished and internationally renowned crime writers, such as John Connolly, Tana French, John Banville and Alex Barclay, featuring rare and unpublished pieces.

Liberties Press spoke to him about writing crime fiction, his favourite authors and how Irish crime fiction fares internationally.

What first attracted to you to crime writing?
Crime reading, really. Like a lot of children, I was weaned on Famous Five and Secret Seven books, and I graduated from there to Agatha Christie at a fairly young age - young enough not to know that I was reading a particular kind of book, anyway. I just liked the fact that the stories were exciting, there was always something happening, something to be discovered - what we’d call the ‘page-turning quality’ these days, I suppose. And they do say that you should write about what you know … I always tried, when I was writing essays in school, to write short stories that had a thriller or mystery element to them. They just seemed far more interesting to write than the merely descriptive type of essay, or the debate-style of composition.
       I’d always known I’d wanted to write books, at least I did from about 11 or 12 years onward, and when I finally sat down to seriously try to write one, it seemed totally natural to me to try to write a crime story. So natural that I didn’t even think about trying to write anything else. Plus, at the time, the late ’90s, Ireland was really changing - we had had the murder of Veronica Guerin, the IRA cease-fires, gangland crime and murders were on the front page of every newspaper. It seemed to me that the only kind of book that really mattered was a crime novel, not necessarily to explain the way Ireland had changed, but maybe just to reflect those changes. At the same time, I was in love with the classic private eyes, and particularly Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, so I tried to write a modern Irish crime novel featuring a private eye who was knowingly modelled on those classic private eyes. The result was Eightball Boogie, which was published by Lilliput in 2003.

 Do you think crime fiction has an edge over other genres? And if so what is it?
I’m not sure if it has an edge ‘over’ other genres. As a reader, I’m perfectly happy to read any kind of good book - crime, sf, women’s fiction, literary history, biography, science, etc. That said, I’m drawn more to crime fiction than any other kind of book, and for a variety of reasons. The first is that crime writers tend to dip their ink in the darker pools of the human psyche, and tend to be more cutting-edge when it comes to broaching societal taboos, etc. It’s also true, possibly because crime writers tend to publish more often than other writers, that the novels tend to be more timely than other kinds of fiction, and therefore more pertinent to their times - although, that said, I’m as happy reading a crime novel set in the past as I am in the present, or the future for that matter. There’s also the fact that it’s incumbent on the crime novel, being a genre novel, to entertain; in other words, the page-turning quality of a crime novel is a given at this point. Taking all those factors into account, and accepting that the finest crime writers are the equal of any of their peers working in other fields in terms of their facility for prose, then perhaps crime fiction does have an ‘edge’ over other kinds of books.

How do you think Irish crime fiction fares internationally?
It fares very well. The best Irish crime writers are on a par with the best international crime writers, and that’s not a matter of my opinion - Irish writers have been turning up on the shortlists for the prestigious crime prizes, in the US and the UK, for some years now. John Connolly and Ken Bruen are both multiple prize winners, as is Tana French, and Ruth Dudley Edwards, Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville and Declan Hughes have all won big prizes. At the time of writing, Stuart Neville’s ‘Collusion’ is on the shortlist for the LA Times’ Crime / Mystery Award, and William Ryan’s debut ‘The Holy Thief’ has just been nominated for a CWA award in the UK.
    It’s fair to assume that I’m slightly biased in favour of Irish crime writers, of course, but that wasn’t always the case - there was a time when I preferred US crime writers to all others. These days, though, when you have the likes of all those named above, along with Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway, Alan Glynn, Arlene Hunt, Jane Casey and Kevin McCarthy, and more, there’s a whole body of Irish writers who are operating at the same level as the best in the world, be they American, British, Scandinavian or Italian.

What kind of research would you prepare before beginning to write a book?
Very little, I’m afraid. I tend to make things up as I go along, on the tenuous basis that if I’m surprising myself then I’ll probably be surprising the reader too, so that doesn’t allow for much plotting in advance. If I come up against something that I’m not familiar with, then I’ll go and research it. By the same token, my books tend to be about ordinary people getting caught up in extraordinary events, which mean that there’s not a huge amount of research required.
    That said, my current book, ‘Absolute Zero Cool’, kind of reverses the researching argument. It’s about a hospital porter who decides to blow up a hospital. With something like that, where do you start researching? You can’t just walk into a hospital and ask them how best to blow it up. So you have to depend on imagination, and work things out for yourself. I think most readers are pretty generous in that respect. So long as you’re not taking them for granted, and your story reads plausibly, they’ll play along.
    The worst thing for me is a writer who does a lot of research, and wants the reader to know that he has done all the work, and crams too much detail onto the page, breaking the flow of the story.

What do you find the most challenging aspect of writing?
Finding the time to write is the most difficult thing - I have a full-time job, and a young family, so I write in the very early hours, or very late. Mind you, once I do get an hour or two here and there, writing doesn’t come easy to me - I’m not an instinctive writer, my prose doesn’t flow, I grub every word out one at a time. And I tend to redraft as I’m writing, so it’s very much a case of three steps forward, two steps back. I think that that’s partly to do with time being so precious - having spent that hour or two on a story, I need to believe that whatever I’ve done - 100 words, 500 words - is good. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than walking away from the desk feeling like you’ve just wasted a couple of hours.

What are the best conditions for writing?
When I die and go to heaven, my daily routine will include six hours in an empty room where I can indulge selfish isolation and complete silence, with cigarettes and coffee on tap.

Are you ever worried about what the reaction to your books will be like?
Always. I tend to read eight or ten books a month, maybe more, fitting them in around my work schedule. So my reading time is very precious to me, and I’m always acutely conscious of not wanting to waste someone else’s precious reading time. I’m not so worried about their wasting money, because I’d be confident enough that the books represent good value for money, providing a reader approaches them with an open mind.
      By the same token, I don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t like one of my books. You can’t please everyone all the time, and personal taste is a very subjective thing.
      I had someone tell me recently that they didn’t like one of my books on the basis that the setting was realistically Irish, but the tone and dialogue were quasi-American, in the style of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Which was fair comment, because that’s exactly the blend I was aiming for. What to do in a situation like that? You can be disappointed that the reader didn’t ‘get’ what you were trying to achieve, and then wonder if you didn’t achieve it well enough to convince, but ultimately all you can do is your best, to be as honest as you can in terms of your craft and skill, and then hope that that’s good enough. A book, as I’ve learned, doesn’t belong to the writer once it’s published - at that stage, it belongs half to the writer and half to any reader who cares to read it. And if the reader doesn’t like it, well, that’s that.

Are you working on a book now?
I’m currently in the throes of a final, last-ditch redraft of ‘Absolute Zero Cool’, which will be published later this year. Once that’s finished, I’ll be taking a little break, but I already know what I’ll be working on when I come back to writing - I have another redraft of an existing novel planned, which should take a couple of months, and then I have two story ideas I’ve been working with on-and-off for a couple of years.
     I think if you’re a writer, though, you’re always ‘working’ on a book. Standing in a queue at the bank, watching a movie, reading a book, eating dinner, chatting in the pub - there’s a part of your brain where the cogs and gears are always turning, whether you’re fully aware of it or not.

In regards to your writing, did you have much encouragement in your early days?
I had massive support and encouragement when I was young and decided that I’d like to write. My family is a typical enough Irish family, working-class, but we always had plenty of books in the house, and reading was always encouraged as a good thing. Once I started to write, and show people what I’d written, I got tremendous positive feedback from home and from one particular teacher in school - not that what I’d written was particularly good, necessarily, but they were very positive about my ambitions to write. I’ve been lucky in that respect - my friends and family have always been supportive. They may have thought I was deluded, but they were prepared to give me enough rope to hang myself. And that kind of encouragement can’t be underestimated, it’s a huge thing for someone who is tentatively trying to write, because the writing life is littered with obstacles and hurdles, the biggest of which is probably your own confidence in your ability to write well. If it hadn’t been for all the support, if I’d been laughed at and criticised for my ambition at an early age, there’s a good chance I’d have eventually given up and accepted that writing wasn’t for me.

What was the last book you read?
I’ve just finished ‘Little Girl Lost’ by Brian McGilloway. It’s a standalone - Brian has previously published four novels in his Inspector Devlin series, set in Donegal - but I think ‘Little Girl Lost’ is probably his best work yet, very assured and mature.

Which crime authors do you particularly recommend or enjoy?
Crikey. How long have you got? I’ve already mentioned a number of very fine Irish crime writers, but apart from them, the authors I love tend to be the American greats: Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James Cain. I also have a soft spot for Barry Gifford and WR Burnett.
  There’s a relatively new author called John Hart, I thoroughly recommend his novels, and particularly ‘The Last Child’. Recently published recommendations include ‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’ by Tom Franklin, which is the best novel of any kind I’ve read this year. Henning Mankell’s ‘The Troubled Man’ is superb. James Lee Burke’s ‘The Glass Rainbow’ is excellent, as is Sara Gran’s ‘City of the Dead’.

What advice would you give to anyone trying to write or publish their work?
I doubt very much that my advice would be worth anything, but seeing as you’ve asked … Anyone trying to write should read, read, read. Read the best you can find, although it can be good to read a rubbish book once in a while too, to boost your own confidence. It’s also important to try to write every day - an Olympic athlete won’t win any medals by training at weekends, or a couple of times a week. Have the courage of your convictions - don’t let anyone put you off, don’t take no for an answer, adopt the Beckettian mantra of ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’ Try to cultivate some relationships with writers in or around your own level of publication, for the sake of mutual feedback and critique - with the best will in the world, your friends and family won’t tell you the truth. Learn the basic rules of writing, then decide how best to break them in order to suit your particular kind of storytelling. Open yourself up to criticism and change, but never lose sight of what makes your story or style unique. Write for the sake of writing, not for money or fame, and dedicate yourself to making your story the best it can possibly be. And love what you do. If you don’t, no one else will.

If you were heading on your holidays in the next week what book or books would you bring?
Actually, I am going on holidays in the next couple of weeks. Right now I have a long and messy list of books I’d love to read, which I can’t fit in around my need-to-read schedule. They include ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada, ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ by David Mitchell, James Frey’s ‘The Final Testament of the Holy Bible’, Alan Glynn’s ‘Bloodland’, Adrian McKinty’s ‘Falling Glass’, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ by Javier Cercas, ‘The Boy in the Gap’ by Paul Soye. I’d also like to fit in some re-reads - ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy, ‘Julius Winsome’ by Gerard Donovan, and ‘Justine’ by Lawrence Durrell. If I get even half of those read, it should be a very fine holiday indeed.

Read more about Declan and his work on his blog.