once in a while a book comes along that sends the critics lurching for the box
marked 'five stars'.
The cynics among us, generally, in
turn lurch for the box marked 'hype', closely followed by a glance at the spine
to see which of the big publishers are to blame this time.
When, however, the press is too
small to register even on the most sensitive of radar, it poses a whole new
question: are the critics for real?
In the case of Declan Burke's
The Big O, published by Hag's Head Press – no, I hadn't heard of them either
– it's safe to assume we are indeed getting the real deal here.
Comparisons to Elmore Leonard and
fulsome praise from the likes of The Irish Times and the Irish Independent have
attached themselves to the young Irish author since The Big O's release.
And some big names have stepped up
to the plate too, like Jason Starr, who said: “Declan
Burke's The Big O
has everything you want in
a crime novel: machinegun dialogue, unforgettable characters, and a wicked plot.
Think George V. Higgins in Ireland on speed.”
All the praise is thoroughly
With his second novel – following
Eightball Boogie – Burke exhibits a Svengali-like control over his
characters to produce a story that's as slick as they come.
A pacey plot, street smarts . . .
it's all there. And, all told with the kind of style you'd expect to pay Harvey
Nicks prices for.
Don't try to convince the author
of this though, as I found during our Q&A for Shots, Declan Burke is far too
modest to accept his very well deserved plaudits.
TONY BLACK: What got you
writing The Big O, I heard, was catching your wife flushing a chick-lit
novel down the khazi ... is it true?
DECLAN BURKE: A
metaphorical khazi … or jacks, as we say in Ireland. No, Aileen’s a fairly avid
reader, she’s part of a book-group and what have you, and one day she finished
off a book about a thirty-something woman who had perfect taste in everything
except men, yadda-yadda, and she threw the book down (she’s generally not so
abusive of books, I should point out) and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you write about
a thirty-something woman who can’t get married and likes to rob banks or
something?’ Or words to that effect. It was coming up to her birthday, so I
thought it’d be a bit of fun to write a
boy-meets-girl-while-girl-is-sticking-up-gas-station short story. And bang, the
characters – Karen and Ray – just grabbed me. That’s the first (very short)
chapter of The Big O …
TB: So, tell me, did a
chick with a penchant for armed robbery do the trick for Aileen?
DB: Actually, she prefers
Harry Rigby, from my first book, Eightball Boogie. Women - there’s no
pleasing ‘em …
TB: Did you consult her at
any part of the writing process?
DB: At every stage, and I
mean that literally. I was living in Sligo at the time, in the northwest of
Ireland, where I was teaching, and she was living in Dublin, and we were meeting
up at weekends … this was about four years ago – we got married last year.
Anyway, the book kind of evolved in very short chapters because what’d happen
was, I’d write a chapter in the morning, go to work in the afternoon (I was
teaching part-time), then spend an hour on the phone with her in the evening
bringing her up to speed on what was going on with Karen and Ray. So she was on
board, making suggestions, right from the get-go … The original ending I had,
she didn’t really like it, so I changed it because I think she has a really good
ear for characters … and now I much prefer the ending she suggested. Hey, maybe
she should write the books …
TB: The Big O has
some incredible characters, where did they all come from?
DB: Tough question - where
do any characters come from? I guess they’re all multi-creations, y’know, a
little bit people I know or have known, a little bit of some news story I
spotted on TV, a little bit a favourite character from a movie … at least,
that’s how they started out. Then they kind of organised themselves into who
they really were, and started dictating where they were going, what they were
saying, that kind of thing. That sounds a bit wanky, I know, but it’s tough to
try and make a character say something he or she is unlikely to say. You know it
yourself that it sounds wrong, the reader will definitely pick up on it, and
most importantly, the character will go on strike until you stop trying to turn
them into something they’re not.
TB: A lot of writers shy
away from the multi-character viewpoint though, was this something you expressly
wanted to explore?
DB: Big time. I’d spent
quite a bit of time writing first-person narratives, which I hugely enjoy, both
to read and write … but by the time I got to writing The Big O, I’d spent
three years working on a Harry Rigby trilogy, of which Eightball is the
first part, and I was feeling a bit claustrophobic … So I definitely wanted to
broaden things out, try my hand at trying to make a variety of characters’
voices real … I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard (who isn’t?), and I love the way
his multiple-character stories come together. To a certain extent, I was trying
to write The Big O in that style – Barry Gifford’s ‘on the road’ novels
were a big influence on it too. And I loved, from my own point of view, the
liberation of sitting down every day and writing another piece of the jigsaw
from a different character’s POV … it really is a great way to stay fresh.
TB: The book's had some
huge raves in the press ... what's the most flattering comment you've received?
DB: Yep, people have been
generous above and beyond the call of duty, which is something I’m still not
used to … and I hope I never do get used to it. It’s been brilliant that a few
reviewers have mentioned the book in the same breath as Elmore Leonard, although
no one knows better than me how far wide of the mark those comments are,
unfortunately … I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I use an Elmore
Leonard quote to open the story, to be honest. But the most flattering thing for
me is that the word ‘fun’ has popped up so often in the reviews. The Big O
was the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer, it really was a joy – with most
other books I’ve written, there’s an element of grind to it that’s not
enjoyable, even though it’s essential – I’m not a ‘natural’ writer by any means.
But The Big O was a blast from start to finish, and I’m delighted that
that’s coming off the page for people, that they’re finding it fun too.
TB: The Elmore Leonard
remark has been widely repeated, and I actually found it quite apt, with the
style, the plot and the large amounts of dialogue ... but, you really don't
agree with the comparison?
DB: Short answer – no. I’m
so far below the standard set by Elmore Leonard that I get cold sweats,
nosebleeds and vertigo at the thought of looking up to see how far I’d have to
go just to get into the same ball-park … I think he’s one of the most gifted
storytellers of this or any generation. The Big O is well-intended and
genuinely meant, but it’s a very clumsy homage to the kind of stories he
TB: Another great, The
Guv’nor himself, Ken Bruen waxes lyrical about The Big O, his success
must be an inspiration to new Irish crime writers, has he been an influence?
DB: Ken Bruen … man, what
that guy won’t do to help another writer. He’s a full-time gentleman, part-time
writer, if you know what I mean … as for an influence, absolutely. We’ve always
had really good crime writers in Ireland, at least we’ve had them for the last
20 years or so … Vincent Banville, Jim Lusby, Eugene McEldowney, KT McCaffrey,
Colin Bateman … but Ken was the first to set his stories here and break out in a
big way. John Connolly is huge in the States, of course, but he sets his stories
in the States … Ireland has changed a lot in the last 10 or 15 years, and Ken’s
blazed a trail, when he started setting his Jack Taylor series in Galway, for
setting stories on Irish mean streets in a way that translated for an
international audience … Mind you, if any publisher out there wants to pick up a
copy of any of Vincent Banville’s novels, they’ll find a ready-made series
that’ll wow any modern audience … But Ken, in terms of being an inspiration, is
the Irish crime equivalent that U2 was to a whole generation of Irish musicians.
TB: What other writers will
we find on Dec Burke's bookshelves?
DB: Crikey … how long do we
have? I have pretty catholic tastes … I read a lot of crime fiction but I don’t
discriminate against good books, no matter the genre … some of the best books
I’ve read in the last few months are Adrian McKinty’s Dead trilogy, Dan
Kavanagh’s Putting the Boot In, Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo, John
Connolly’s Book of Lost Things, Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant, Half Moon
Investigations by Eoin Colfer, Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome, Brian
McGilloway’s Borderlands, Songs on Bronze: Greek Myths Retold by Nigel Spivey,
Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, Birdsong by
Sebastian Faulks … sorry, it’s a list that just goes on.
TB: Bizarrely, I believe
you struggled to find a publisher for The Big O... what the hell's
wrong with them?
DB: I don’t think there’s
anything wrong with individual publishers per se, I think the issue is the way
the industry is going in general. The rejection letters I got were pretty
complimentary, but the general gist was that The Big O wasn’t ‘commercial
enough’ … which was frustrating, but you have to accept that the big publishers
(and we only sent it to the big UK publishers) have economies of scale – these
days, unless you’re talking about potentially shifting tens of thousands of
units, you’re not going to get into the game. But, naïve as this sounds, I’m in
this for the sheer joy of writing. I’m not in it to become a millionaire, or –
far more importantly – make someone else a millionaire. If the books I write
aren’t going to top the best-seller list, so be it … and to be perfectly honest,
I haven’t read a book off the best-seller list in I don’t know how many years …
no, I lie - but Birdsong this year and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
a few years back, that’s about the height of it (and Book of Lost Things
– that made the best-sellers, right?). But I really do think we’re seeing a
seismic shift happening in terms of book publishing, that we’re in the early
years of it already … I think, in years to come, you’ll have a tiny amount of
writers – or a writing brand, like ‘James Patterson’ – selling tons of books,
while most of the pyramid will be made up of hundreds of thousands of writers
scuffling around selling hundreds of copies of any particular title via indie
labels … and to be perfectly honest, I don’t necessarily think that that’s such
a bad thing. Like the punk revolution, people will have to learn to stop
depending on the big publishers and learn how to circumvent the system and DIY
their books out there by any means necessary … It’s rock ‘n’ roll, man!
TB: How did the Hag's Head
Press deal come about?
DB: I read a novel by
Marsha Swan, the driving force behind Hag’s Head, called Dirty Sky, which
I loved … a brash Ray Carver is how it read to me. Anyway, we got in touch as a
result, and I discovered that she’d worked as editor on my first book,
Eightball Boogie, for Lilliput … So she said she’d like to read anything
else I had going on, and by then I’d decided to either shelve The Big O,
because I’d learned all I’d needed to learn about the Irish publishing industry
with Eightball, most of it bad news, or go ahead and self-publish, just for the
hell of it, to see what I could see … To cut a long story short, Marsha offered
to publish the book through Hag’s Head, with a 50-50 costs-and-profits deal,
which meant I’d get to enjoy the self-publishing hustle but also get to
piggyback Marsha’s experience … plus, she’s a brilliant editor. From her point
of view, I guess she just liked the story and thought it fit in well with the
Hag’s Head canon.
TB: It was a brave move,
one I imagine, fraught with difficulties ... what's been the hardest part of
getting The Big O out there?
DB: Fraught with
difficulties … yep, you could say that! Marsha was taking a leap of faith, and I
was in a position where I’d recently lost my job, so it was a bit of a leap of
faith on my side too, to invest money in a project that the UK publishers said
wasn’t ‘commercial enough’. And there was a moment of truth when Aileen and I
talked it through, and asked ourselves whether we had the courage of our
convictions at a time when, y’know, the mortgage interest rates were starting to
climb and we were planning on starting a family. But nothing good comes easy,
right? And while it was a substantial sum of money to us at the time, the
co-publishing route is relatively cheap, depending on your expectations. From a
purely physical point of view, the actual distribution was the hardest part … I
was walking into bookstores with the book in my sweaty hand, butterflies in my
stomach, thinking, ‘JK Rowling never had to do this …’ And you know what? No
matter what happens in the years to come, I’ll always remember the intense
physicality of doing that, of what it means to hustle in the true sense … I know
most people in the industry look down their noses at self- and co-published
books, but I’m indecently proud of the fact that I got off my arse and hustled
The Big O out there. Worst case scenario – and we’ve already broken even,
selling through the Hag’s Head website – I’ll have a pretty good story for the
TB: Is it a route you'd
recommend? Or, follow again yourself?
DB: Absolutely, I think
it’s something every writer should do, to acquaint themselves with the industry
from the ground-floor up, right from putting the first words on the page to
delivering the book to the shelf. Will I do it again? Absolutely. It’s a lot of
hard work but you get out what you put in … I’ve learned more in the last six
months than I did in the previous 20 years. The sense of self-gratification,
when the reviews started coming in, was immense. Not that they proved anyone
wrong, or anything like that … but it was a justification for Aileen, Marsha and
I for taking that leap of faith.
TB: Your previous novel,
Eightball Boogie was every bit as well received by the critics as The Big
O, did you learn anything from that book's publication that you could use
this time round?
DB: The most important
thing I learned from Eightball was not to listen to publishers / PR guys ‘n’
gals / etc. – no matter what anyone tells you, get out there and hustle your
book as hard as you can. Because no one, no matter what they’ve invested in it,
is going to want it to work as much as you do. The first time someone says to
you, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of it,’ start hunting out a blunt
TB: How healthy is the
Irish crime writing scene right now in your opinion?
DB: The Irish crime writing
scene is in a state of health so rude it’s bordering on arrogant. Ken Bruen is a
one-man industry, as everyone knows, and John Connolly is a law unto himself …
but there’s a new wave of Irish crime coming through now, one that’s reflecting
the changes in Irish society, which – simplistically put for the sake of the
argument – has changed dramatically in the wake of the cessation of hostilities
in Northern Ireland and the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger. In crime writing
terms, that’s meant that there’s a lot more prosaic criminality about … the
streets are mean and getting meaner. There’s a list of writers as long as your
arm … Adrian McKinty, Gene Kerrigan, Tana French (whose In the Woods hit the NY
best-seller list just last week), Brian McGilloway, Declan Hughes, Andrew
Nugent, Claire Kilroy, Derek Landy … these are all writers who’ve been published
in the States to rave reviews in the last six months alone. Really, there’s an
explosion about to happen any day now …
TB: You're now dabbling in
the murky waters of the internet with your website, Crime Always Pays, what
DB: A combination of
factors, really. With Hag’s Head being a tiny publisher, and the promotion
budget non-existent, I thought I should probably try to promote the book on-line
… I’ve been writing for the internet – movie reviews, mainly – on and off for
the last 10 years or so, and I love the medium. I was also the editor of a
sports website for a few months last year, until I realised the bills were never
going to get paid that way … But the bug bit, and I love blogging. In tandem
with all of that, I realised there was a niche out there – the huge amount of
Irish crime fiction writers that I’ve already mentioned – that wasn’t being
covered, so I thought I’d give it some oxygen and promote myself alongside it …
That was before I stumbled across Critical Mick, of course, who has been
ploughing a lone furrow promoting Irish crime fiction for some years now … and
he’s been a brilliant help in getting Crime Always Pays up and running.
TB: Crime Always Pays
updates daily, the workload must be immense, does it cut in to your writing
DB: Definitely. You can’t
do everything, and I work freelance as a writer, doing movie and theatre
reviews, so I made a conscious decision to sacrifice my writing for the time
being, in order to do justice to the decision Marsha, Aileen and I took. So I
decided to not write any fiction at all for at least six months … some hope,
it’s a sickness. But I hugely enjoy blogging with Crime Always Pays, and it’s
brought me into contact with so many writers and other bloggers, people from all
over the publishing industry … and the best thing of all is, the community –
especially the crime fiction community – is so generous with its time and advice
and help that the whole process is just so bloody easy it’s ridiculous.
TB: Do you feel there's too
much pressure on writers to market themselves these days?
DB: Yes and no, but the
answer really depends on the writer’s mentality. Some people have an appetite
for hustle, and they actively enjoy getting out there and flying around the
world half the year … others prefer to lock themselves into a cave and just
write. What bugs me isn’t that writers are pressured to market themselves,
because the self-preservation instinct should be sufficient to get writers out
into the market-place … no, what bugs me is the homogeneity, the way publishers
show no imagination in marketing one writer in one way, another in different
way. It’s the same mentality that views books as ‘units’ and ‘product’ and I
think that, ultimately, in a world that seems to be more and more valuing
individuality over almost every other right, it’s a self-defeating process …
TB: Is there's more of an
appetite for new writers among the online community?
DB: Absolutely. I think the
crime fiction audience, more so than any other, is always looking out for ‘the
next big thing’. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘big’. It’s like when you were a
kid and into the cool bands no one else had ever heard of … as soon as someone
else thought they were cool, it was over. Next! … I think it helps hugely that
the crime fiction church is so broad, that you can accommodate almost any kind
of story and any storyline within the parameters of crime fiction. And the
readers are hugely flexible for the most part, there’s no fussiness or snobbery.
Plus, I’ve found that crime readers tend to read a lot more than other kinds of
readers. And when you’re reading 20 / 40 / 60 books per year, rather than
picking five or ten off the best-seller list, you’re far more open to different
kinds of reading experiences.
TB: And finally, what can
we expect next from Declan Burke?
DB: Well, I’ve been wanting
to set a story in the Greek islands for some time, and I’ve started a story that
I’m really loving at the moment … it’s kind of a Gil Brewer / David Goodis
sexual obsession thing, set in the Cyclades. But as for when or if it’ll ever
see the light of day, I haven’t the faintest idea. Mind you, that’s half the
challenge … like I said before, the joy comes from actually writing the story.
Getting it published, well, right now I can’t even allow myself to worry about
that. If it does, great; if it doesn’t, the world isn’t going to miss one more
or less book.
TB: Dec, thanks for
The Big O, Hag's
Head Press (April 2007) pbk
Black's first novel PAYING FOR IT is to be published by Random House in 2008.
Ken Bruen kindly praised the book, saying it "blasts off the page like a triple
malt . . . one adrenaline-pumped novel that is as moving and compassionate as it
is so stylishly written". More of his writing can be found online at:
Scotsman.com, Books from Scotland, Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher and is forthcoming in
Demolition and Out of the Gutter. Black lives and works in Edinburgh. Reach him