Eightball Boogie, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Eightball Boogie?
DECLAN BURKE: ‘Down in the Old Quarter, two times out of three you flip a double-headed coin, it comes down on its edge. Last time, it doesn’t come down at all …’
When the wife of a politician keeping the Government in power is murdered, Sligo journalist Harry Rigby is one of the first on the scene. He very quickly discovers that he’s in out of his depth when it transpires that the woman’s murder is linked to an ex-paramilitary gang’s attempt to seize control of the burgeoning cocaine market in the Irish Northwest. Harry’s ongoing feud with his ex-partner Denise over their young son’s future doesn’t help matters, and then there’s Harry’s ex-con brother Gonzo, back on the streets and mean as a jilted shark…
The change in the Irish criminal landscape that followed the various ceasefires in Northern Ireland is still ongoing, and is something that fascinates me. I wanted to write a story about how gangs who were previously politically motivated—officially, at least—turned to more prosaic criminality once their political justifications for drug-running, bank-robbing, hijacking et al were removed. I also love Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels, and the black-and-white noir movies, and I wanted to write a story that played out as if it were a classic private eye story set in modern Ireland. In other words, the story is very much a contemporary one, but I wanted to pay homage to the books and movies I’ve always loved. It was a really fun thing to write, I have to say.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you create and maintain dramatic tension?
DECLAN BURKE: That’s a difficult question for me to answer, as is any question to do with the craft of writing—I’m an impulsive, instinctive writer, which often works to my detriment, as it often involves extensive re-writes. Basically, I suppose, I tend to try to push the characters to their extremes, without ever pushing them beyond the bounds of the story’s internal logic. In other words, I like to paint myself into corners and then challenge myself to get back out of those corners in a way that’s both interesting and plausible. That way, I’m keeping myself on my toes. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, then it’s highly unlikely that the reader will either. And tension, ultimately, derives from not knowing what’s coming next.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
DECLAN BURKE: I guess characters tend to develop themselves, to a large extent. They always start off as a seed as a real person, or a combination of real people, although those people may be as different as someone you know as well as your wife, or someone you only once glimpsed turning a street corner. Very quickly, though, characters tend to become themselves and to fight for their own identity—trying to get a character to do something ‘out of character’ can be an exhausting and ultimately pointless exercise. I’m not trying to suggest that they ‘write’ themselves, because the writer is always in total control of what the story is and where it’s going; and, of course, the essence of a good story is when a character does encounter events or scenarios that cause him or her to behave in a way that they might never have considered before. But if you’ve established a character as a certain kind of person, and to the extent that the reader believes in that person and who they are, then having them behave in an antithetical way is akin to saying that they have blue eyes, and then later changing their eye colour to brown. I really don’t know what the answer to this is; as with virtually everything else to do with writing, in my experience at least, it’s all about the writer’s ‘feel’. It’s not really something that can be measured or explained in clear or exact terms, I think.
As for differentiating characters, well, that’s a matter of observation. There are six billion people on the planet, and counting; every one of them is as unique as a fingerprint. It’s the easiest thing in the world to simply look around you on a daily basis and mentally note interesting physical features, or the way a woman wears a scarf, or how a man walks, and so forth. One tip I heard early on when I was trying to write characters that I found useful was to base your ‘good’, or empathic, characters on the personality traits of people you don’t like, and vice versa. It’s actually a surprisingly good way to give characters unexpected depth.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
DECLAN BURKE: You. Anyone reading this right now. Anyone at all. I don’t have an ideal reader, not by any means. It might sound like bunkum, but I still get a massive thrill when someone mentions that they read my book. It’s even better when they say they liked it, of course, but people are generally nice wherever you go, and it’s rare that someone will tell you they read your book in order to then say it was garbage.
I do have a guy—maybe this is what you mean by an ideal reader—who reads over my shoulder when I write, a former editor of mine when I was writing theatre reviews for the Sunday Times’ Culture section, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. He was a pretty good editor, and tough with it—you really had to be on your toes, every week, or he’d pull you up on the slightest inconsistency, or misuse of language, or whatever it happened to be. So he’s the guy who metaphorically reads over my shoulder while I’m writing, a kind of avenging guardian angel ready to swoop down on anything that’s loose or clichéd or unnecessary. Sometimes that can be a pain—most times it is a pain—but my ideal is to get to a point where I can write a novel where even he would nod approvingly. So maybe he’s my ideal reader.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
DECLAN BURKE: Well, it’s still on-going. The convention is that you’re only as good as your last book; as far as I’m concerned, you’re only as good as your next book. It’s like Beckett said—“Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” I think if you’re a writer—or pretty much anything, really—and you think you’ve become as good as it’s possible to be, and that your journey is over, then it’s time to start thinking about a whole new journey, or a different way of making it.
Going way back, though, I always loved to write—I was that geeky kid in English class who couldn’t wait for essay homework to be given out on a Friday afternoon, so I could go off and write a short story over the weekend. And I guess, without ever thinking about it then in concrete terms, that I always wanted to write a book. We had a class in school in Irish (gaeilge), which is officially Ireland’s first language, although relatively few people are fluent in it; anyway, the class is compulsory in Irish education. I used to spend my Irish classes writing spoof versions of Shakespeare plays blended with Monty Python stories, the plays being produced by the cast of the Muppet Show. No, seriously, etc. And then I’d get together with a few friends in front of a tape recorder, and we’d record an audio version of the play. A couple of years later, I was at college, and the first week we were there I was chatting to a guy about this; and the girl in the row in front, she was from the other side of the country, she turned around and said, “Did you write that? I heard that.” I couldn’t believe it; gobsmacked was the word. I have no idea of how the tape, or a version of it, got into her hands, but I still vividly remember the feeling that came with it. So maybe that was the first time I realised what it might be like to publish a real book.
I kept on writing through college, and managed to finish a novel a year or so after I finished college, and although it was complete rubbish, it did confirm for me that at the very least I had the stamina to write a story of novel length. A few years after that, I got the idea for Eightball Boogie. It started out as a short story homage to the classic scene in private eye novels, in which the client appears in the private eye’s office with a case; and I liked the character of Harry Rigby so much that I decided to keep going with it, just to see how he’d fare out. I finished the novel about eighteen months later, not really having any idea of what I was doing, and sent out some chapters to two Irish agents; about six months later I’d had a rejection from one, and had almost forgotten about the other. I really had no expectations of the story; it was just a fun thing to do. Anyway, the second agent liked the sample I’d sent, and asked to see the rest, and about a year after that, in 2003, Eightball Boogie was published.
I’ve written six novels since, although only two have been published: The Big O in 2007, and Crime Always Pays in 2009. My latest novel will be published later this year; formerly known as The Baby Killers, it now revels in the working title Absolute Zero Cool. It’s about a hospital porter deranged by his singular brand of logic, who decides to blow up the hospital where he works. It’s a comedy, by the way. John Banville has described it as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien, with which I am well pleased.
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
DECLAN BURKE: I have a full-time job as an arts journalist, and my wife and I have a baby girl, so I need to squeeze my writing time in around the margins of the day-to-day stuff. So my ‘process’ tends to be adaptable. When I am writing, though, by which I mean when I’m fully committed to a novel, then I write from about 5.30am to 7am, or 8am. I’m not a natural writer, at least not in the way that someone like Lawrence Durrell was, who could write 10,000 words at a sitting and then scrap the entire block the next day if he wasn’t happy with it, and write another 10,000. I tend to grind the words out very slowly, and it’s very much three steps forward, two steps back. I set myself a target of 500 words per day, and if I write 1,000 words, then that’s a very good day indeed. It takes a year or so to get a first draft together, and then I’ll let that sit for a few months, and go back to it with (hopefully) fresh eyes. After that, it’ll take as many drafts as it takes to get it right, or to the point where I think any more tinkering will be pointless or self-defeating.
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
DECLAN BURKE: Well, different writers inspire me for different reasons. When things aren’t going well, and I find myself bitching about all the pressures that are keeping me away from writing, I try to keep Jim Thompson in mind, and the times when he’d come home from the drudgery of his day job and lock himself in the bathroom with the typewriter on his knees, and start writing. Then there are writers like James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy, who can tell a terrific story while manipulating language in a wonderfully inventive way. I love Lawrence Durrell for his facility with language, even though his novels aren’t particularly interesting plot-wise. John Connolly is a big inspiration, firstly as the first of a new breed of Irish crime writers to excel by the standards of the American crime novel, but also for his willingness to try different things, as with The Book of Lost Things, and his newer novels for young adults. But those names are just the tip of the iceberg—there are many, many writers I’d look to for inspiration, and each one for a different reason.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you’d written yourself?
DECLAN BURKE: I’m going to pick a few, if that’s okay. Peter Pan by JM Barrie is an exquisitely written fairytale, it’s probably my favourite story. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler—when I read the first paragraph of that novel for the first time, I had the very weird sensation that I was coming home, which is something I’ve experienced only rarely with a novel. Another one was The Magus by John Fowles, a brilliant example of a literary thriller, with the added bonus of being set in the Greek islands—although the last quarter of it, to my mind, is superfluous (Kingsley Amis, on being asked shortly before he died if he would change anything about his life, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I wouldn’t read The Magus again.”). But, as with inspiring writers, there are dozens and dozens of books I’d love to have written—The Catcher in the Rye, Treasure Island, LA Confidential, When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair McLean, Adrian McKinty’s As Dead I Well May Be, Pronto by Elmore Leonard, The Double Tongue by William Golding … it’s a very, very long list.
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
DECLAN BURKE: As an arts journalist, I have some decent contacts in the Irish media, but when Eightball Boogie was published, the publisher pretty much told me to sit on my hands, that they would take care of the marketing and promotion themselves—apparently it was considered unseemly for an author to get his or her hands dirty that way. I’ll never make that mistake again. Eightball got some terrific reviews, and was short-listed for the Irish Books Awards that year, and yet the amount of promotion and marketing it received was minimal at best. Which was, as you can imagine, very frustrating.
When it came to The Big O, I co-published the novel with Hag’s Head Press on a 50-50 costs-and-profits basis, and we had literally no budget for promotion. So I established the Crime Always Pays blog, in part to promote The Big O, in part to celebrate Irish crime writing, and went forth into the blogosphere to spread the word. That was, and continues to be, a very rewarding experience. The online crime writing community was very welcoming, very helpful, and it played no small part in The Big O being picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US on a two-book deal. Which was great in itself, but the bonus that I didn’t expect was that I’d meet so many like-minded people, and develop such strong friendships online. Of course, I’m very happy to receive mainstream (print) reviews too, and The Big O did very well in that respect; but the big advantage of promotion and/or marketing online is that it doesn’t feel like it’s promotion and marketing—it’s more of an on-going conversation, with an ever-expanding number of friends.
When I published Crime Always Pays as an ebook, I couldn’t foresee at the time that it would coincide with a particularly busy period in my personal life, which meant that everything superfluous—writing, promotion, blogging, etc.—went by the wayside for a while. So I didn’t really have the time to invest in promoting Crime Always Pays, which is one of my few regrets about publishing it as an ebook.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
DECLAN BURKE: I suppose it would be quicker to give my reasons for not publishing on Kindle. I love print books, as most readers do, but what’s fundamental to me about books are the stories and the quality of writing. In other words, it’s the content rather than the delivery system that matters most, and at the same time, the ebook format incorporates a convenience and accessibility that the traditional book (and bookstore) doesn’t have. As well as that, I love the immediacy of e-publishing, and the freedom it affords an author to bypass the traditional publishing model, if he or she so chooses, and speak directly to the reader. It’s a brave new world in publishing at the moment, and the ebook format seems to me to be delivering what a whole new generation of readers require, and particularly a generation reared to be technology-friendly.
But I think the potential inherent in ebooks offers even more than that. My agent, Allan Guthrie, likens the impact of e-publishing to that of the introduction of paperback originals in the 1940s and '50s, particularly in terms of the horrified response from the conservative elements of the publishing industry, but I’d suggest that the long-term impact will be even more dramatic than that. I think, given the potential of the Kindle and various e-readers, and particularly in terms of the format and delivery system, a radical new way of storytelling is about to dawn, akin to the one that occurred when the oral tradition of storytelling developed into to classical theatre. In other words, I think the potential is there for a much more inclusive, immersive and interactive kind of storytelling. It’s very early days yet, of course, but ebooks offer the opportunity to a writer to tell a story that incorporates sound and vision, digressions into other stories and information resources … It’ll get complicated, but I think storytelling is about to advance onto an entirely more complex plane.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
DECLAN BURKE: Well, it’s very early days for me in terms of Kindle publishing, so I wouldn’t presume to offer advice to anyone. For what it’s worth, though, my experience is that self-publishing to Kindle isn’t the quick-fix route to publishing that some people might think it is. If you believe that, then your potential readers are going to see that very quickly, and will move past your books to read someone who takes the publishing process every bit as seriously as the traditional publishers do. In other words, the fundamentals are every bit as vital: a good story, well written; a professional approach to editing, formatting, sub-editing; particular attention given to your first contact with potential readers, i.e., the cover. I’d also suggest that, once the book is published, that the writer bear in mind that self-promotion and marketing are just as important as the book itself; even if it’s the best book ever written, it needs to be brought to the attention of potential readers, or otherwise it’ll just wither away. As for any other advice, well, I’m very much at the beginning of a steep learning curve, so I’d appreciate any and all advice any readers can give me.
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O (2007). He lives in Wicklow with his wife Aileen and baby daughter Lily, and hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays.
Read his blog, find him on facebook, and follow him on twitter.
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