Please welcome our September author of the month, Declan Burke
Irish Crime writer Declan Burke is establishing an ever-growing footprint in the field. His first novel, Eightball Boogie, had an undeservedly short shelf life, based on its positive reviews. His second effort, The Big O, has earned him comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Donald Westlake and Richard Stark. The Big O’s success in Ireland and the UK led Harcourt to publish it in the United States, with a September 2008 release date. In addition to the demands of new fatherhood, Burke is en editor, reviewer, and manages to find time to update his blog approximately thirty-five times a day. (http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.com/)
New Mystery Reader’s Dana King managed to grab a few minutes with him between diaper changings and blog postings.
NMR: Who do you consider to be your major influences as a writer?
Declan Burke: Right in there with the tough questions from the get-go, aren’t you?
There are some writers whose styles I love so much that I’ve made it very obvious (I hope) that I’m paying homage to them – Raymond Chandler for my first book, Eightball Boogie, and Elmore Leonard and Barry Gifford for my second, The Big O. But mostly it’s not a case of ‘who’ and more a case of ‘what’ – in other words, I’m more inspired by books than I am writers. I’d love to write a book as good as The Magus, for example, or Peter Pan. Or, to phrase it another way, I’d love to write a book that had as much of an impact on other people as my favourite books had on me. So I guess my favourite books are my major influence. I had a pretty good English teacher when I was a teenager too, a guy called John McLoughlin, he encouraged me to write and write and write. Reading Colin Bateman’s Divorcing Jack was a bit of a shock to the system at the time – I didn’t realise you were even allowed write comedy crime fiction set in Ireland. That one certainly got me thinking …
NMR: You’ve said your girlfriend (now wife) gave you the idea for The Big O. (Insert pregnant pause here.) She was reading some chick lit thing and asked you to write a book about a female bank robber. How did the rest of the characters come about? Did you have an idea of a cast in your head at some point, or did you just create them as the need arose until you had the proper ensemble?
DB: I’ll be honest with you, I’m not entirely comfortable talking about ‘the process’ and creating characters and whatnot. Because that suggests that I know what I’m doing and I generally don’t. It’s a fairly messy process for me. I just sit down and start writing and try to stay true to the characters once they’ve appeared, and it doesn’t always work out too well. But once I get a handle on a person (I hate calling them ‘characters’ – these people are alive to me), I get a good idea of what they’re likely to do and say. With Karen, say, once I had her in my head, I knew straight away she wouldn’t have too many friends but that the friends she had, she’d be rock solid with them. I knew she wouldn’t make friends easy, and she wouldn’t give them up easily either. And the way I write is, I find a person or two fascinating and I want to follow them on their journey, see how things work out for them. So I guess I started out with Karen very real in my head, and everything else and everyone else kind of fell into place around her because of the person she was.
NMR: Rossi is a villain Elmore Leonard or The Wire could be proud of. Vicious and not as smart as he thinks. He’s also the funniest character, though never intentionally; he’s unaware of his humor, because he’s being serious. Was there a temptation to write funny for him, or was it easy just to let him go and dig his own holes?
DB: Well, this is what I mean when I say writing for me is messy. Rossi started out as a very minor character, someone to give Karen’s story an added impetus. It made sense to me that Karen, who has had pretty much nothing but bad luck with men all her life, would have an ex-con ex-boyfriend. So that was Rossi. But even before I’d finished the chapter where I introduce the guy, I knew he was going to be a major player. I didn’t realise how major – Rossi ending up hijacking the story, as far as I’m concerned. And you’re right, he’s funny because he thinks he’s so serious, but no one else takes him or his schemes seriously. But I think he’s actually comic in the sense of the cosmic joke – what I love about Rossi is that he just won’t quit, he’s an optimist who believes that he has what it takes to make his life right, regardless of how much the world conspires against him. I love him for that …
I went the traditional route with The Big O, sending it off to publishers, but got the usual raft of rejections, most of which ran along the lines of, “It’s not commercial enough”. So I ended up co-publishing the novel with Marsha Swan of Hag’s Head Press, on a 50-50 costs-and-profits split. In a sense, Rossi’s refusal to accept the crappy hand that life has dealt him is emblematic of the book’s journey to publication. I think he’s the star of the piece. He is for me, anyway.
NMR: The Big O is laugh out loud funny in several spots, and I had a smile on my face through most of it, yet you rarely seem to go for a laugh; it’s all organic to the characters, who are usually funny without meaning to be. Are you thinking of the laugh when you write it, then craft the character’s action or speech around it, or do they just appear and you look back and say, “Oh, that’s a keeper?”
DB: I think most people, myself included, are ‘funny without meaning to be’, if only you can get back far enough to get a perspective on them. It’s like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” I wanted to write a story about fairly ordinary people, who have schemes and make plans that very rarely come to fruition, but who do the best they can in adapting to their changing circumstances. That’s life, after all. Has anyone ever looked back at their life and said, “Yep, that’s exactly the way I planned it.” And I suppose it is funny when you see people struggling to join the dots of their lives, but I don’t intend it to be the kind of funny whereby you sit back and laugh at them. I’d hope that people will laugh with the people in The Big O, recognising something of their own struggles and hopes and failures and tiny triumphs.
NMR: Why did four years pass between Eightball Boogie and The Big O?
DB: Well, there’s a thousand reasons. Eightball Boogie got some good reviews and then sank without trace and the publisher declined to publish the follow-up. Which is something that happens every day. I spent a couple of years writing two more Harry Rigby private eye stories, which remain in the drawer, and then I felt like I wanted to try something a little different, something that wasn’t written from the first-person narrator perspective. I’ve always loved Elmore Leonard’s multi-character novels, so I took that as a template after Aileen made her suggestion. And once that was written, there was the process of sending The Big O out to publishers, as I’ve mentioned above, and having it rejected; then hooking up with Marsha Swan of Hag’s Head, and making the decision to co-publish. So all that takes time. And, like most writers, I’m not writing full-time, I’m a part-timer who has a job, and a personal life, and everything that goes with that. But – at the risk of sounding a bit precious – getting published isn’t the be-all to me that it probably should be. I’m in this for the joy of putting one word in front of another, and I was always writing during those four years. Like, one of the novels I wrote, A Gonzo Noir (http://agonzonoir.blogspot.com/), I went ahead and published to the web earlier this year just for the hell of it. It’s great to be published, no doubt about it, but the writing is the thing.
NMR: What’s next?
DB: Breakfast, once I get through talking with you! Books-wise, Harcourt was kind enough to sign me up on a two-book deal when they decided to run with The Big O, and I’ve written the sequel, the proof edits of which have already gone away. That will appear in 2009, and follows more or less the same gang of people as they deal with the consequences of what happened in The Big O.
Elsewhere, I might try to find a publisher for A Gonzo Noir, because I’ve had some interesting feedback on it. Then again, I might just leave it as a web-only publication, because I like the idea of that. I’m also working on a novel I’ve already spent about six years on (and off) at this stage, which is another change in style and pace. I get bored very easily, especially if I’m writing about the same people. This one is radically different to both Eightball and The Big O, which is good because it forces me to stretch myself (although it’s bad news for publishers, who like to market series novels). I’m having a lot of fun with it, though, having started another rewrite a couple of weeks ago. And that’s the main thing for me – fun. If it’s not fun to do, I can’t imagine it’d be fun to read. And my writing time is so precious that I need it to be fun.
NMR: Lucky for me, I seem to have evolved into the Unofficial Irish Crime Fiction Reviewer for NMR, since this is the Golden Age of Irish Crime fiction, with you, Declan Hughes, Adrian McKinty, Ken Bruen, and John Connolly all leaving your marks on the genre. Why now?
DB: If I can be so bold as to add some names to your list … Tana French is going gangbusters all over the world, and has won a debut Edgar; Gene Kerrigan is a terrific writer you really should read; Brian McGilloway has just been published in the US. Ruth Dudley Edwards is a very funny crime writer. And there’s a lot more …
Why now? There’s a few reasons, I think. Two events in 1996, the IRA’s ceasefire and its subsequent diversification into ordinary criminality, and the murder of the investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, made a huge impact on the Irish psyche, which has started to manifest itself in fiction over the last ten years, and especially the last five. And Ireland experienced an unprecedented economic boom over the last decade, which invariably fuels crime and hence crime fiction. It’s also the case that Ireland was traditionally very serious about its literature, with Joyce and Beckett and whatnot, and that genre fiction wasn’t very popular – it was very much looked down upon. But the rise of ‘chick lit’ in Ireland has kind of paved the way for other genres, crime fiction included.
Ken Bruen recently said that he didn’t want to write crime in Ireland until we got the mean streets, and we’ve sure got ’em now. So that’s another element. Rising crime levels, loads of loot sloshing around, an increased awareness of criminality, an acceptance of genre fiction … there’s a lot of reasons all feeding into the current explosion in Irish crime fiction.
NMR: Do you work front to back, rewriting as you go, or do you get a draft down and do a series of rewrites?
DB: Like I said before, I don’t really have a modus operandi. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the story told. If a line or a paragraph or a chapter works the first time around, great. If not, I’ll rework it until it does. The same applies, on the macro scale, to the book itself. I just keep on working it until it comes out the way I want it. That’s not very professional, I know, but it’s what works for me …
Lawrence Durrell used to work in blocks of 10,000 words, and if he read back over it the next day and wasn’t happy, he’d scrap the entire 10,000 words and start again. I’d love to have that quality of instinctive elegance that Durrell had, and I’d also love to have the time he had to spend on scrapping blocks of 10,000 words. I don’t have either, so I kind of grub a story out one word at a time.
NMR: What book do you wish you’d written?
DB: Crikey! I couldn’t say ‘book’, I’d have to say ‘books’ …
The Magus. Peter Pan. The Long Goodbye. The Catcher in the Rye. The Lord of the Flies. Any of Elmore Leonard’s novels. LA Confidential. At-Swim-Two-Birds. When Eight Bells Toll. All The Pretty Horses. Lord Jim. Two more recent offerings: Dead I Well May Be and Dirty Sweet. It goes on and on …
NMR: What question would you most like to answer but are never asked?
DB: Erm … “Exactly how many noughts would you like on this cheque, Mr Burke?”
NMR: Last, but not least: Harp or Guinness?
DB: Good God, man – Guinness! Have you ever drank Harp? I take it you haven’t, or you’d never have asked such a thing …