Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...
What crime novel would you most like to have written?
Usually the last one I’ve read, if it’s any good. So with that in mind, I’d love to have written ASK THE PARROT by Richard Stark, whom I have only just discovered (I am a bit of a an innocent in the world of crime fiction). During the rugby world cup you may well have heard various television windbag-pundits use the phrase ‘get the basics right’ – well, the same applies for writers. Sometimes writers forget the basic rules (in as far as you can have rules) and become self-indulgent; a trend, alas, far too common in established authors. Philip Roth, though I love his work dearly, could do with a good editor and perhaps a bit of a bitch-slapping. Or he could read anything by Richard Stark. With Stark, you don’t find out what the sky looked like that morning or what colour the landscape was or even what anyone feels: you are straight into the story, and anything you are going to find out about the characters, it will be from what they say, and more importantly, what they do. Yet even with this minimal approach, Stark is able to imply a rich back story for his characters without even telling us anything about them: he gives the sense that the story has already begun, we’ve arrived late and need to catch up. And yes, yes, I know that the more-knowledgeable-than-me among you (which is probably all of you) are already screaming at your screen that Richard Stark is only a nom-de-plume. After I read my first Stark novel, I enjoyed it so much I didn’t Google him: I didn’t want to discover that he was in reality a portly 53-year-old man from Leicester who wears Jethro Tull tee-shirts and visits naturist beaches every summer. In my imagination, he was a grizzled old geezer who has churned out every sort of potboiler; honing his skills over decades. Because after all, good writing is good writing, no matter where it is found. Curiosity, of course, got the better of me - and brought me to one of those rare moments in life when things were actually as I imagined them: Richard Stark is Donald Westlake, a grizzled old New York geezer who has probably forgotten how many books he’s written - on his website, he can’t even remember all of the titles - as well as screenplays, most notably THE GRIFTERS and least notably a really terrible TV pilot called Supertrain (I’ve actually seen it). I like the idea of people like Donald Westlake: writers who are serious but not precious about what they do. Oh yes: and we can claim him too. He is 75 per cent Irish, though he was born on July 12th, a little fact which he says “led to my first awareness of comedy as a consumer.”
Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Can’t really think of anything I’m guilty about reading, apart from pornography. And technically, that’s not reading. Like most people who give out about cultural snobbery, I’m a complete snob. If I don’t like the first page, I won’t read it.
Most satisfying writing moment?
Oh, just had one of those. I suppose it varies from person to person, but when I make the commitment to actually start writing a book, it’s a bit like committing to get married to someone you’ve just met on the bus. Who has just told you about her seven kids. And her psychopathic and extremely jealous ex-husband. In other words, I generally have no idea what is going to happen. Now this doesn’t mean I'm waiting for the spirit of the characters to inhabit me or some guff like that - I have a rough plan for where it should be going. But no matter how you ‘get the basics right’, you are still waiting for something to click, some ingredient X in there that lets you know that what you’ve written has the breath of life in it. And sometimes it doesn’t come. Sometimes the characters are wooden and the story is tedious, and you have to think of a way of fixing this or dumping it altogether. I’m currently ten thousand words into a new novel, and had convinced myself that it was utter crap - until I read it back for the first time and realised that it was OK and that my main character is headed in a very clear direction . So it was a mixture of huge relief that I’ve not been wasting my time and a Eureka-type realisation that another book is definitely on the way. With any book you hit various problems and the work slows down a bit, but at the moment it feels like I can’t get the words out fast enough. It’s the greatest of all buzzes.
The best Irish crime novel is …?
Oh, I dunno. Ken Bruen springs to mind. His work has a great sense of Irish melancholia. And I like the way his heroes are all a bit crap at what they do.
What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Ken Bruen again, though it would have to be done just right.
Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The best thing is you get to live inside your own head for long periods of time. The worst thing is you get to live inside your own head for long periods of time - which isn’t always so great if you occasionally have to emerge into the outside world and deal with spouses and kids, etc. I am lucky in that I split my time between writing in the morning and doing a radio show in the afternoon: two forms of work which, obviously, are quite different to each other, so I maintain some degree of balance.
The pitch for your next novel is …?
She cosies up to me on the bus seat, grinning slightly. “Why don’t we get married?” I say. She nods slowly, as if she’s just been thinking the same thing. “OK,” she whispers. “I mean, as long as my kids - I have seven - think it’s a good idea. And I suppose I’ll have to tell my ex-husband. He’s still extremely jealous. He’s getting out of prison next week. Who knows? Perhaps this time it’s done something to help him control his murderous temper.” I shrug, as if these are the sort of problems we all have to deal with, though mine is more imminent. We’ve only just met and already I can’t remember her name ...
Who are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing THE LAY OF THE LAND by Richard Ford. Wonderful, thoughtful, funny, loveable book, which to my mind is his best work. And by the standards of Richard Ford, it’s action packed.
The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Notions about himself.
Sean Moncrieff’s THE HISTORY OF THINGS is available now.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.