Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Interview with Declan Burke (part 2)

(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.


  1. Thank God that cruel final question was only hypothetical, Michael. We can't afford to lose a voice like Declan's (and you know I don't stoop to crass flattery). The incisiveness of his perceptions about the writing process (and not just in the crime genre) is brilliant. So far (on your recommendation), I've only read Eight Ball Boogie, but now I know I have to read the rest. Thanks to both of you for this - it was actually uplifting to read it because it's all so honest and so bloody intelligent - now that's something you can't say about all crime writers.

  2. Thanks Bill. I could listen to (read) him all day long.

  3. Brilliant interview -off to buy/download 'Eightball.'

  4. Thanks Myra. Nice to see you here. Did you have trouble leaving a message?