Tuesday, 31 May 2011
“David Who?” My friend asked.
“Morrell,” I answered. “How can you love thriller fiction and not know who David Morrell is. He’s like the
...” I think I began spluttering at this point and couldn’t come up with a suitable comparison.
“First Blood,’ I eventually managed to say. “He’s the guy who wrote First Blood.”
I was rewarded with a stare into the distance, some memory gazing and then, “Nope. Don’t know him.”
“Rambo,” I gave him the most obvious clue I could think of.
“Riiiight,” he stuck his lower lip out like a shelf. I resisted the urge to grab it and yank him over towards my bookcase. “So, Rambo wasn’t Stallone’s creation?”
“Haw, fannybaws,” I said. “Call yourself a booklover?”
“I cannae possibly know every feckin’ writer in the world,” he holds his hands out by his side.
‘But he’s David Morrell. He’s ...”
Anywho, enough of my fascinating dialogue with my bookloving chump of a friend. For anyone reading this who is also going, David Who ... David Morrell published First Blood in 1972 (the movie Rambo was released in 1982) and has gone on to publish a further 28 novels (according to Wikipedia). He’s quite simply a fantastic writer, who is still producing quality work all these years later.
So, this kinda ticked me off on a couple of levels. First, how can someone this good stay under my friend’s reading radar – given some of the sub-standard stuff I know he reads (I’m not going to name names. OK, James Patterson. There. I said it. I’ll now hang my head in shame.) And second, the movie gets all the awareness while the source material gets ignored. This REALLY pisses me off.
- back to David Morrell... he was the first writer I developed a fan-crush on. He has been called the father of the modern action thriller and is quite simply THE master of intrigue and tension. His books are hugely entertaining and “hypnotically readable” (borrowed that wee quote from Stephen King). If you enjoy this kind of novel and you haven’t read him, then you really must do yourself a favour and buy (or borrow from your local library) one of his books.
You can also approach him on facebook to become one of his FB buds. He is very active on that forum and often posts informative and thought-provoking comments on movies and books.
What about you? Are there any masters flying under the radar that you’d want to champion?
Saturday, 28 May 2011
Thursday, 26 May 2011
The wee fella has clearly been observing my method of feedback. I call it The Shit Sandwich. (You know, you say something nice, then talk about the part that needs to be worked on and then you finish with something nice.)
However, the wee fella’s mastery of said Shit Sandwich is a wee bit off. Let me demonstrate by replaying a conversation we had last night.
Me – That’s me finished reading Game of Thrones. Oh my god, wait till you see what happens!
Wee Fella – (silence) (the milk in my coffee is turning sour from his expression)
Me – What?
Wee Fella – Dad, you are a lovely man but you can be REALLY annoying. (SEE. No nice ending.)
Me – eh?
Wee Fella – That was OUR thing. We watch it together and now you’re going to be gloating when we watch it ‘cos you know what happened next.
Me – But I swear I won’t say anything.
Wee Fella – (says nothing but goes back to full glower)
Me – do you want to know what happens?
Wee Fella – NO! Eeesh, you ARE annoying.
Anywho, what a book! This Martin guy certainly knows how to deliver a bad guy and boy can he plot.
As a fan of the fantasy genre I don’t understand why I’ve not read this collection of books yet and as the TV series has played out I’ve been itching to get at it.
The blessing in all of this is that I have a shocking memory so by the time the TV series draws to an end I’ll be as clueless as the wee fella and we can watch it en famille without any gloating whatsoever.
What about you? Enjoying the series? Are you a fan of the books and has the live action lived up to your expectations?
Monday, 23 May 2011
We fill our lives with it. We are defined by it.
Whether we like it or not; whether we mean it or not, we all judge people/ people judge you by the clothes on your back, the phone in your pocket, the car in your drive, the house you live in. A house you cram with even more stuff – more clothes, more gadgets, more STUFF so that we are better than our neighbour and we can impress our friends and passing strangers.
We work in jobs most of us despise (if the stats are to be believed)to pay for this stuff and then feeling miserable we buy even more stuff to try and fill the hole caused by the misery of working a 9 to 5 that leaves us feeling completely unfulfilled. Then we have to work longer hours in the job we can’t stand to pay the credit card bill for all the stuff we’ve bought to make us feel better about ourselves. Then we look for people to blame for making it so easy for us to fall into debt.
If Carl Marx were still alive today, he’d change his famous quote. You know the one, where he said that religion was the opiate of the masses? Now he’d be using the C word.
‘What’s eating your gusset?’ You might ask.
Don’t worry I’m not going to ditch the day job and go live in a mud hut somewhere – however tempted – this is my response to a book I’ve been reading.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a fascinating and beautifully written account of a young man called Chris McCandlish who vanished into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. From a well-to-do family, loving parents and siblings, he gave all his money to charity, abandoned his car and possessions, burnt all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new/ old existence for himself. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a hunter. He was 24.
If you’re annoyed that I’ve given the story away, don’t be. Chris’ fate is posted in the blurb on the back of the book. In any case, when his story came out in the early nineties he became a bit of a cause celebre.
He had his detractors. People queued up after the event to say what a stupid, selfish, arrogant whacko. How could he do something like that to his family?
And sure, if my son did something like that I don’t think I could live with myself.
There is a however, however. Krakauer’s depiction if the young man in question lets us get under the skin of McCandlish and see what he was trying to achieve. The writer goes back to his old friends, his family and the people McCandlish met on his odyssey and provides a view of his motivation. All of these people without exception – regardless of the length of time of their meeting – were deeply affected by his intelligence, moral standing, empathy and fortitude. One old fella even wanted to adopt him.
McCandlish was not some bumbling dreamer. When the writer examined his life he found a young man who was preparing himself for such an event. For years before he was pushing himself, testing his stamina and endurance through a number of trials so that when he did enter the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but clothes and a backpack he could deal with whatever came his way.
In Jon Krakauer, this intrepid young man has found a sympathetic biographer and being an explorer himself, someone uniquely qualified to take his movements and extrapolate sound motivations from them.
This is a fascinating book, for all kinds of reasons. If you haven’t read it, get your arse to a bookshop now and dive in.
Friday, 20 May 2011
Newspapers, TV and blogs around the world pick up on the latest stats of e-book sales and queue up in delight to tell us that the book is dead. Or is, at the very least, dying.
Dying, my arse.
The problem with stats is that you can get them to say pretty much what you like because the real news people is that although e-book sales are rising at an incredible rate, that is from a standing start. Make no mistake they are still a LOOOOONG way away from the total sales of hold in your hand, paper bound, old-fashioned ones.
I was watching a news programme where the interviewer was desperately trying to ignore what the book industry spokesman was saying when he highlighted the fact that total ebook sales are around 6% of paper ones. Because the presenter clearly follows the modern media dictum that says it ain’t news if it ain’t bad news.
Pisses me off, and each time I hear it I throw the closest thing to hand at the TV. Which is usually a book. Funny that.
These worry-monger also point to the music industry and how it was affected by downloads. Again, pish and piffle. Sure downloads have affected record sales but the truth is that MOST people still buy actual CDs.
I’ve got my e-reader but a real book is still where it’s at for me. I’ve downloaded a handful of books onto my kindle. Well , maybe two handfuls. However, in the meantime I’ve bought at least double that and been sent the same again in review copies. Sure my e-reader is a nice wee gadget but when it comes to settling down for a read I kinda almost forget that it’s there and pick up a nicely packaged bundle of paper.
Sure, you’d be a fool to ignore the continued impact of digital books but we are good distance from them ever killing off the traditional version.
What about you guys? Have you bought an e-reader and if so how has it changed your reading habits?
Monday, 16 May 2011
Sunday, 15 May 2011
Those terribly nice peeps over at Orion have been busy posting me review copies of some of my favourite authors.
As per, the reviews will appear in due course over at CRIMESQUAD
Here’s a wee taster.
End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina (available now)
The Blurby stuff reads like this ...
When notorious millionaire banker Lars Anderson hangs himself from the old oak tree in front of his Kent mansion his death attracts no sympathy. One less shark is little loss to a world nursing a financial hangover. But the legacy of a life time of self-serving is widespread, the carnage most acute among those he ought to be protecting: his family. He leaves behind two deeply damaged children and a broken wife.
Meanwhile, in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow, a young woman is found savagely murdered in her home. The genteel community is stunned by what appears a vicious, random attack. When DS Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant with twins, is called in to investigate, she soon discovers that behind the murder lurks a tangled web of lies. A web that will spiral through the local community, through Scotland and ultimately right back to a swinging rope hundreds of miles away.
The End of the Wasp Season is an accomplished, compelling and multi-layered novel, which traces the damaging consequences of one man's selfish actions in a world ravaged by recession and questioning everything it previously held sacred.
The Cut by George Pelecanos (available in the UK - August 2011)
Blurb read thusly ...
Spero Lucas has a new line of work. Since he returned home after serving in Iraq, he has been doing special investigations for a defence attorney. He's good at it, and he has carved out a niche: recovering stolen property, no questions asked. His cut is forty percent. A high-profile crime boss who has heard of Lucas's speciality hires him to find out who has been stealing from his operation.
It's the biggest job Lucas has ever been offered, and he quickly gets a sense of what's going on. But before he can close in on what's been taken, he tangles with a world of men whose amorality and violence leave him reeling. Is any cut worth your family, your lover, your life?
Spero Lucas is George Pelecanos's greatest creation, a young man making his place in the world one battle and one mission at a time. The first in a new series of thrillers featuring Spero Lucas, The Cut is the latest confirmation of why George Pelecanos is 'perhaps the greatest living crime writer.' (Stephen King)
I ain’t going to argue with Stevie-boy. No sirree.
When the Thrill is Gone – Walter Mosley (available now)
You’ll be wanting the blurb ...
The economy has hit the PI business hard, and Leonid McGill is getting job offers only from the criminals he's worked so hard to leave behind. So how can he say no to the beautiful young woman who walks into his office with a stack of cash?
She's an artist, she tells him, who's escaped poverty via marriage to a rich collector. A rich collector with two ex-wives whose deaths are shrouded in mystery. She says she fears for her life, and needs Leonid's help. Though Leonid knows better than to believe every word, this isn't a job he can afford to turn away.
Meanwhile, Leonid's personal life grows ever more chequered: his favourite stepson, Twill, drops out of school for mysteriously lucrative pursuits; his wife takes a new lover, infuriating the old one and endangering the whole family; and Leonid's girlfriend, Aura, is back but intent on some serious conversations... Is the client at his door who she seems and - if his family's misadventures don't kill him first - will sorting out the woman's crooked tale bring Leonid straight to death's door?
This is me rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of reading these fine writers.
Wednesday, 11 May 2011
MJM– You have 3 words, describe Night Watcher.
Chris – Scary, dark story.
MJM – You now have another 21 words – give us some more details.
Chris – Psychological thriller featuring two different kinds of stalker. A woman seeking revenge and the disturbed Night Watcher who has killed before.
MJM – Your first published novel – Dead Wood – won the Dundee Book Prize and a very nice, large cheque. Tell us how that felt.
Chris – I wish everyone could have had that experience. It was exciting, fabulous, mind-numbing and surreal. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe it.
It all started one afternoon in November 2008, when I received the phone call. The woman at the other end asked if I was sitting down, my stupid reply was – did I have to be – and yes, it would have helped if I’d been sitting down, but as usual I walk about with the phone in my hand. When she told me I had won the prize, I thought it was a scam, but she assured me it was real. I think that was when I kind of went numb and everything started to jumble about in my brain, so I can’t really describe how I felt, only that I needed to tell someone, otherwise my brain would burst. So I told my two best friends, Liz and Betty, they read my manuscripts – Liz for grammar (she’s picky) and Betty for continuity (she’s the one who will pick up anything that doesn’t make sense).
After that I went back to the disbelieving state again and was sure someone was having a joke at my expense. Then the letter came. It was from the Lord Provost of
Dundee, and that was the moment it became real for me. The only thing was, there were two conditions. The first one was that my title would have to be changed – I had called the book The Screaming Woods which I thought was a good, catchy title, but I would have agreed to anything at that stage. If they had said ‘jump’, I would have said ‘how high’. The second condition was I had to tell no one I had won the prize, there was a moratorium on the information until the publication day. I panicked. I’d already told Liz and Betty, and I was terrified they would take the prize away from because I’d gone against the moratorium, so Liz and Betty were sworn to secrecy.
There was another problem with this, because it prevented me from approaching an agent for representation until after the book was published. You can imagine what any agent would feel when I approached them afterwards.
I know it sounds trite but when I feared I would lose the prize, it wasn’t the cash element I was afraid to lose it was the publishing part of the deal. I don’t suppose anyone other than a wannabe writer would understand that. But I had been writing for twenty years, the past ten of which I had been trying to get novels published. So publication was a big deal for me.
I entered into the next phase, the surreal phase, after a meeting with the Book Prize organisers. You see everything went quiet for months after that, so it became unreal, as if it hadn’t happened. I heard nothing until April 2009, and after that things started to move. There was the contract to sign, the editing to get through. The removal of 7,000 words, the addition of 7,000 new words, a further removal of 7,000 words – where did those 14,000 words go I wonder now, but boy it was a learning experience in the value of editing.
So finally the launch. I was whisked up to
Dundee with a mesmerised son who hadn’t a clue why I had demanded his presence. It was a whirlwind experience with interviews by the news media and the telly, followed by a publicity shoot in Templeton Woods, which one photographer described as ‘spooky’. Then the big fancy reception where my identity was revealed and the cheque handed over. Oh, and at last, the joy of signing my very own book. I felt I had reached the heights of success.
MJM – From the irony in your tone, I’m guessing you came back down to earth with a thump?
Chris - Alas, even though the first print run sold out within four months, and we are now into reprints, the publisher declined to publish my second book. So my fame was fleeting. Never mind, I thought, someone else will want it. But I hadn’t bargained on the recession which hit publishers as much as anybody else, and after two years of prostrating myself to publishers and agents, I’d had enough, and Night Watcher was published as an eBook.
So now I am testing pastures new (yes I know that’s a cliché) and hoping that people will like Night Watcher as much as they liked Dead Wood.
MJM – I know it’s early days but what has been your experience of ‘going solo’ with the e-book format so far?
Chris – In one word ‘liberating’.
I spent the last two years wondering if I would ever get my second novel published. I started to doubt myself, as most authors do. Going from the heights when I thought Night Watcher was brilliant, to the lows when I thought it was crap. Luckily my readers seem to like it. I had periods (the crap ones) when I did nothing to seek publication, and periods where I sent it to publishers and agents hoping I would strike lucky. In the meantime the hassle of chasing agents and publishers was getting in the way of writing the next one.
So when I finally made the decision to e-publish it lifted a great weight off me and I now wonder why on earth I didn’t do it before. As you know I’m a bit of a techno geek, so I researched how to go about making Night Watcher an e-book. In the process I discovered masses of information out there, and at the end of the day it wasn’t too difficult.
Having taken the plunge, Night Watcher is now on sale for Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook and iPad.
MJM – What have been the pitfalls?
Chris – The main problem after publishing is, of course, promotion. How on earth was I to get my book noticed in a saturated market of other e-books, particularly when some of them were selling for pennies. I decided that I wanted to sell it relatively cheaply, but not so cheaply that readers would think it couldn’t be up to much. So I decided on $3.99, which works out at £2.82 (Amazon added VAT) as that seemed to be a price that was affordable but did not devalue the book.
The other aspect is the time taken up with promotion – a new blog to service, keeping my web site up to date, posting on a variety of forums. I discovered Kindle Boards which is fun. Facebooking regularly, Tweeting (hadn’t done that before and still learning) Begging readers to put reviews up, and whatever I think will attract readers’ attention. One thing I discovered is that many of the Kindle forums, with the exception of Kindle Boards, don’t take kindly to self promotion, and the comments can be quite cutting.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall for an e-publishing author, and that is the matter of tax. As a
UK author, tax is paid in the UK, but if you sell in the US you are also liable for tax – a double whammy. There is a way round this which is quite convoluted. The UK has an agreement with the US that British earners should be exempt from US tax, however to qualify for this exemption an author is required to get an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) from the US tax authorities (IRS). The only way to get this is to send or take your passport (original) to the US authorities along with the necessary paperwork. US
However you also need an IRS mandated signed-on-letterhead letter from your publisher or distributor and as far as I am aware Amazon do not supply this. Smashwords will supply the letter but only after you have earned $10 from your sales.
The ITIN once obtained can be used to send all e-book publishers, including Amazon, the necessary forms to exempt the author from paying US tax. I have applied for my letter which will take 6 weeks to come and after that I will be applying for an ITIN. Once the procedure is complete I’ll put up a blog on the process.
Be aware, an author who does not apply for an ITIN will lose 30% of earnings to US tax.
MJM – What's your next project?
Chris - I have 2 writing projects and 1 editing project on the go just now. I have started a historical crime but I want to keep the subject matter under wraps for the moment because this is something I don’t think has been done before. I’m also a third of the way into another contemporary crime based on a girl who has been missing for 5 years and internet predators. This is another dark one. My editing project involves resurrecting the first novel I ever wrote – wait for it – it’s a historical fishing saga. I had intended to leave that one in the bottom drawer but it’s actually quite a good story, so I’m revising, polishing and editing, in preparation for making it an e-book. Won’t all my friends be surprised?
(and there we finish on a big lesson to all new writers – you need to keep working!)
Saturday, 7 May 2011
It was announced last week that William Heinemann is to publish a prequel to Puzo’s The Godfather series. This will be written by Ed Falco (who he?) and based on an unproduced Puzo screenplay. The book will be released next summer.
Last month we had Don Winslow taking on Trevanian’s superspy Nicolas Hel and later on this month we’ll have Jeffrey Deaver’s version of James Bond. (REALLY looking forward to that one.)
Proof of what we book lovers have known all along - ye cannae keep a good character down.
Here’s a question for you - which literary creation would you like to see being brought back to life and who do you think would be worthy of putting that character back on the page?
Wednesday, 4 May 2011
(If you were one of the unlucky people who missed part one go HERE and be delighted and amazed.)
Part Deux ...
Me - Back to your man, Harry. One of the many things in Eightball Boogie that fascinated me was his relationship with his psycho brother. Tell us where that came from.
Declan - Another tough question. The honest answer is that I don’t know - if I did, I probably wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing a book about it. But these things tend to be buried pretty deep in our psyches, and take quite a bit of excavating.
As with all the ostensibly bad guys in my books - Rossi in THE BIG O, Karlsson in ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL - I have a lot of sympathy for Gonzo, who is Harry’s brother in EIGHTBALL BOOGIE. He’s an exaggerated version of the milder kind of sociopath that people tend to meet in their lives - the bullying boss at work, the aggressive moron who lashes out at the end of the night after one too many beers, the passive-aggressive manipulator we’ve all met at some point in our lives. Gene Kerrigan makes the point that most criminals aren’t all that different to law-abiding citizens, they simply want to pay their mortgage off quicker, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. To a certain extent, Harry and Gonzo are two sides of the same coin, brothers who grew up the hard way and whose lives were directed down slightly different paths by their individual experiences. Harry, possibly belatedly, discovers a brake on his impulses at a particular time in his life; Gonzo doesn’t, and feels free to do whatever he needs to do in order to get what he wants. He’s a typical bully, a borderline sociopath who doesn’t have the ability to empathise with other people. Given that EIGHTBALL is a crime novel, it was inevitable, I suppose, that Gonzo would at some point end up with a gun in his hand, but that’s not what was interesting to me. What I was interested in was why Gonzo became that bully in the first place, in the factors that created his particular pathology.
EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is told in a first-person narrative, and Harry is a freelance journalist-cum-private investigator (he calls himself a ‘research consultant’) as a nod to Chandler’s Marlowe, so it’s Harry’s story; but the epigraph I used at the start of the book, from Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, is dedicated in my mind to Gonzo: ‘Yeah, I reckon that’s all unless our kind gets another chance in the Next Place. Our kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.
So Gonzo is Harry’s doppelganger, in a way, his alter-ego. But I suppose too that both Harry and Gonzo are aspects of my own personality. In a parallel universe, I turned out like Gonzo; in another parallel universe, I ended up like Harry. Happily, I live in this universe, and don’t have to be either.
Me - Another pleasure for me in Eightball Boogie is your facility for the bon mot, the wisecrack and the banter. Go on make me jealous - does this come naturally to you or do you have to work at it? And part 2 of this question - did you feel you had to add the humour to leaven the darker stuff?
Declan - Well, you’re very kind, sir, and I appreciate the good word. To be honest, at this remove, I think there’s probably too much wise-cracking in EIGHTBALL - there are times, I think, when it distracts from what’s happening. I’ve written a sequel to EIGHTBALL called THE BIG EMPTY, and Harry is less inclined to crack wise in that one, although there’s no pretending that he doesn’t have a smart mouth. But when THE BIG EMPTY opens, Harry’s just out of prison after doing five years, and that’s an experience that’ll teach even the smartest arse when to keep his mouth shut.
By the same token, he’s just a slightly subdued version of the Harry we meet in EIGHTBALL - my sense of humour tends to veer towards the absurd and the surreal, which is probably why I enjoy Chandler’s one-liners so much. And most of the humour in EIGHTBALL is in there because I was writing an homage to Chandler, in part, and I did deliberately over-egg the pudding because I wanted people to know that I wasn’t just trying (and failing miserably) to imitate Chandler’s style, I was trying incorporate that kind of style into a contemporary Irish setting - which is itself, of course, an absurd thing to do.
I’m afraid that the answer to your first question is yes, that I find comedy easy to write - or far easier, I should say, than writing consistently serious material. I’ve tried in the past to write a serious novel, but it either flops miserably, or it twists itself into something funny. It’s probably a failing of mine that I can’t write anything without raising an arched eyebrow above it, but then, the crime novel these days verges on self-parody as it is, so all I’m doing is giving the conventions a bit of a tickle once in a while. Maybe some day I’ll run out of gags, and then I’ll get to write a proper, serious novel. It’d be a nice change of pace, if nothing else.
That said, I’m a big fan of the notion peddled by the ancient Greeks that tragedy is simply underdeveloped comedy, although they had a different interpretation of ‘comedy’ than we do. Still, I can’t see why you shouldn’t write a novel that has something serious to say, and not leaven the darkness in the process, as you suggest. Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut, Spike Milligan, Colin Bateman, Carl Hiaasen, Barry Gifford, Chandler himself - there’s a very good reason why I’ve read virtually everything those writers have written. Eoin Colfer’s PLUGGED, incidentally, is a welcome addition to those ranks.
Me - A wee birdy (well, your blog) tells me you're bringing to market a book about this new and exciting wave of Irish Crime Fiction. Tell us about that.
Declan - DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY is a collection of essays, interviews and short stories written by Irish crime writers about the phenomenon that is the current explosion in Irish crime writing. And it’s not simply a case of quantity, as the roll-call suggests: John Connolly, Tana French, Eoin McNamee, Adrian McKinty, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Arlene Hunt, Gene Kerrigan, Stuart Neville, Jane Casey, Colin Bateman, John Banville, Declan Hughes, Niamh O’Connor, Alan Glynn, Brian McGilloway, Alex Barclay, Ken Bruen … they’re all writers who can hold their own in any company, crime or otherwise.
It just seemed to me that a whole generation of writers was coming through at the same time, all writing during a period of time in Ireland that has proved convulsive - from the murder of Veronica Guerin and the IRA ceasefires in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s, through the rise of the Celtic Tiger economic miracle, and then the decline and fall into economic meltdown - and I thought it might be an interesting exercise to have the writers themselves explore the reasons - personal, political, commercial, literary - why they chose to write crime fiction.
Hopefully it’ll appeal to crime fiction fans all over the world, though, because the writers mentioned above have already proven that Irish crime writing can compete with the best the international stage has to offer.
Me - Now I'm going to do to you what you do to your victims, sorry guests on your own excellent blog (If you're not a follower, get your butt over there pronto) CRIME ALWAYS PAYS - God dictates you can only read OR write, which do you go for?
Declan - Read. Read, read, read, read, read. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write, and God knows I get like a hungover bear if I don’t get to write when I need to. But if I had to make a choice, and being all too aware of my own limitations as a writer, and all too aware of the fact that there are writers out there that I couldn’t match in a thousand years of trying, then I’d be happy to sit back and read until my eyesight fails.
To write is to be; to read is to live.
Monday, 2 May 2011
Declan Burke is an author and freelance writer. He writes a monthly crime column for the Irish Times, and reviews fiction for a variety of other outlets, including RTE radio’s Arena programme, the Sunday Business Post, and the Sunday Independent. He is the editor ofDOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY (Liberties Press). His novel Eightball Boogie was reviewed on these here pages recently and I was so in awe of his talent I thought I should have a few words with him on your behalf. If you like books, you're gonna love this ...
Me. You have 3 words. Describe Eightball Boogie.
Declan: Chandler on poitín.
Me. I had to look that up. It's that illegal alcoholic brain-rot stuff, innit. (Pocheen) Declan, you now have another 21 ...
Declan: Irish freelance journalist Harry Rigby gets caught up in a paramilitary feud investigating the story behind a politician’s wife’s apparent suicide.
Me. Why fiction? Why crime?
Declan: They say that most writers write their first books because the book they most want to read hasn’t been written yet. I like to read all kinds of books - different types of fiction, and non-fictions - but I’ve never yet read a non-fiction that made me feel like I wanted to write a better biography / history / pop science book, mainly because I’m not qualified enough in any one area to do so. And then there’s the fact that books that are made up, invented, require the least amount of research. I quite like the fact that I am, as a friend once pointed out to me, the world’s greatest living expert on Harry Rigby. He’s the one topic on which I can’t be contradicted.
As for why crime: I like that the crime novel has an in-built narrative arc, and that its narrative arc is very similar to the classical three-act tragedy. It’d be tough to reinvent the wheel every time, although when I’m writing, I always do my best to push the conventions as far out of shape as possible. Plus, crime stories tend to favour life-or-death scenarios, which gives good crime writing an edge over less intense tales. It’s also true that I have a personality that is disposed to peeking over the edge of abyss, and crime novels, by and large, tend to drag you into dark places that you wouldn’t normally dream of going in your day-to-day life.
Me. You talk about peeking into the abyss and the dark places. Do you ever get strange looks or comments from friends or readers who wonder if the violence you describe (not that you're particularly violent in the grand scheme of things) is really you?
Declan - Not really, I have to say. As you suggest, my books aren’t overly violent anyway, although there have been a few scenes here and there when I pushed the boat out. Actually, one of my motivations for writing THE BIG O was to see if I could write a believable crime fiction novel that had no murders and the absolute bare minimum of violence. What violence does happen in that book happens ‘off-stage’, other than an accidental knee-capping.
My latest book, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, which will be published in September, is a different matter entirely. It’s a story in which an author engages with the protagonist of a draft he’s abandoned, and the two decide to rewrite the novel to see if they could make the protagonist a more likeable sociopath, in the process blowing up a hospital. The author in the book is unnamed, although it’s made explicit that he is the author of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O, and together the pair descend into a rare kind of madness …
When it was finished, I sent the book out to some writers I know and respect, hoping they might give it a few kind words, which most of them did. But I also got a couple of follow-up emails, asking if I was, y’know, okay, and hoping my mental health was sound. Which suggests that the book, for all its failings, achieved what it set out to do. And yes, thanks for asking, my mental health is perfectly fine. When I’m not writing, anyway.”
Me - Now, let's jump into the abyss ... when writers write about violent events what, if any, responsibility to the reader do they have?
Declan - That’s a very tough question to answer. The easy way to do it, I think, is to take flight for the moral high ground, and say that the writer’s only responsibility is to the story, following it to its logical conclusion to the best of his or her ability. Once the story is written, it’s up to the reader to accept or reject what the writer says, or what he or she has the characters do.
I suppose it’s all to do with intent, and perhaps even as much to do with the kind of violence being described. For example, there seems to be a fascination at present with some writers (and readers too, obviously) for a graphic depiction of rape, torture and other kinds of degrading violence towards women. I can understand the logic behind that kind of story, because the majority of fiction readers are women, who live their lives, if the statistics are to be believed, with an acute awareness of the possibility, or threat, of sexual violence hanging over them; in that context, a story in which a physically or sexually abused woman exacts vengeance on her abusers can be read as, ultimately, an uplifting one. In a sense, such novels are simply grotesque exaggerations of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale.
What matters there, I think, is the fine line between a graphic description of such violence for the sake of verisimilitude, and one which is simply exploitative and titillating. In that scenario, the writer - or the serious writer, at least - most certainly has a responsibility to his or her readers.
But it really is a matter of intent, and context. I remember when the movie ‘Fight Club’ came out first, and it was hammered for its depictions of violence, which were shown - particularly in the fight club scenes themselves - in all their gory detail. In other words, when you hit someone hard, bones crack, blood flows, suffering follows. That same month, the latest Bond movie was released, in which God only knows how many people were wiped out with machine-gun fire and explosions in the opening sequence alone. By contrast, only one person dies violently in ‘Fight Club’, and it’s a death that has very serious consequences, whereas Bond simply goes his merry way, bedding women and blasting baddies. Bizarrely, the movie that got the sordid reputation for being overtly violent was the one that engaged with violence and death as a serious issue, while the glorified cartoon of mass killing was greeted with whoops and cheers.
I’ve been in fights, in my time. Not many, and always for defensive reasons, but the experiences were such that I never take violence lightly, either as a writer or a reader.
Me - Oooo - not a man to mess with then.
(Note to reader - all 3 of you - the interview with Declan was so good I've stretched it out over two posts. Come back next time for more crime fiction goodness.)
Sunday, 1 May 2011
It's the first of the month and for all you crime and mystery fiction lovers time for some excellence over at CRIMESQUAD.
My pleasure this month was to review the book shown above. Those mystery fans of a certain age will have come across the redoubtable Nicholai Hel through the work of the old master of thrillers, Trevanian and his novel “Shibumi” (1979). When I heard Don Winslow had taken up the baton I couldn’t have been more excited. The mantle of a legendary novelist is assumed up by one of the most exciting writers working in the genre today: what’s not to love.
Right, that’s you up to speed with the genesis of this particular book, but was it any good I hear you ask?
Absolutely fantastic. Loved it.
This book has everything the fan of the spy novel could ask for. High –octane action, fight set-pieces as carefully choreographed as anything Jackie Chan put on the big screen and scenes that take us to almost every exotic location on the planet.
Hel, himself is a wonderful character. One of my favourites ever to run across the pages of a book. He is part Russian, part Japanese. He is a scholar and a linguist and an assassin who makes James Bond appear like a heavy-handed buffoon.
Winslow is a fine prose stylist and in this outing he demonstrates his versatility by adopting the more straight-forward approach of Trevanian. An approach that is more suitable to this sub-genre given the characters and locations.
One of the pleasures of Shibumi was Trevanian’s depiction of the eastern mind-set and Winslow proves he is equally adept at describing this. Satori blends the cultural heritage of Japanese society with Buddhist influences, set amid the oppressive politics of 1950's Maoist China and the chaos of Vietnam.
Then for added flavour we have the running motif of life in the form of the Japanese board game of Go, a beautiful, deadly woman, Hel’s supernatural ability to sense people, and an hilariously melodramatic Basque dwarf who provides intelligence for our hero.
The result of Winslow’s effort to pay respect to the achievement of Trevanian, while bringing the character to life in the new century is nothing short of remarkable. Winslow's attention to historical detail is fascinating, and it's seamlessly stitched to a relentless plot which compels the reader onwards.
Satori is a world-class thriller; I defy any fan not to enjoy it. Until now Don Winslow has been the genre’s best kept secret, with Satori he is about to go mainstream.