Monday, 2 May 2011

An Interview with Declan Burke (Part 1)

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.)


  1. Cracking interview.

    I knew someone who criticized Fight Club as being 'too vioent' who was a massive boxing fan. So getting off on real people beating the shit out of each other is fine,then?

  2. an interesting fella, and a great interview, Michael.
    And I must add I just love Irish names! They always sound so ancient :)

  3. Cheers, Paul. You raise a good point. Some people have a skewed sense of perspective, eh?

    Thanks Dezmond. I love to read/ hear from people who are enthusiastic and who really know their subject. As for Irish names, there is a (welcome)trend here in Scotland and in Ireland to use the old gaelic name instead of the anglified version. I like it too. I wonder if there is a old version of my name. answers on a postcard - or the comment book will do.

  4. Looking forward to Part 2.
    Excellent point about 'Fight Club' and Bond.

  5. Well done. Much better than the standard "Here are some questions. Answer them and get back to me." Looking forward to Part 2.

  6. Hey JR and Dana - thanks for popping by. Pleased you like. part 2 will be up in a couple of days.

  7. There are interviews and there are interviews. This is brilliant. Just switch Declan on and out pours (apologies for this, Declan) wisdom. Such a clear awareness of the genre and how to use it. Bravo to both of you.