Being the latest in what will probably be yet another short-lived series, in which yours truly reclines on a hammock by the pool with a jeroboam of Elf-Wonking Juice™ and lets a proper writer talk about the origins of his or her characters and stories. This week: Garbhan Downey (right), author of THE AMERICAN ENVOY. To wit:
“I never base my characters on actual people – apart from one, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I do accept that now and again my heroes and villains unwittingly adopt attributes of punters I’ve met in real life.
“Five years ago, for example, a retired IRA man asked me to sign a copy of OFF BROADWAY – a book of short-stories set in the North’s post-ceasefire underworld. I looked at him deadpan and wrote, “To X, an inspiration”. I then handed the book back to him, saying nothing. In fairness, he had the grace to burst out laughing – and told me he was away to ring his lawyer.
“It would be silly to deny that life inspires art. The Barkley family – a gang of dirty businessmen who appear in all six of my novels – share many traits with the rash of carpet-baggers who infest modern Ireland. “Sparkly”, “King-Size” and “Darkly” Barkley have each been responsible for shed-loads of scams, which are thinly disguised accounts of real-life cons I was never to expose as a newspaper editor.
“Sparkly runs a host of quasi-legal shop-fronts for the Boys; King Size is a race-fixing jockey with sidelines in property development and blackmail; while Darkly is a consultant or, if you’d prefer, “the type of guy who stands in front of the brothel and offers to sell you your photo back”. And though I never met a triumvirate quite so crooked in my day job, I’m sure there are a few out there who will occasionally wince with recognition – and perhaps even a little pride – as they’re reading the books.
“Unlike in the real world, however, I have taken great care to spoon out proper retribution to my Barkleys: suspending one from a window-ledge; affixing another to a bunny-boiling wife; and infecting a third with a vicious STD. None of them, you’ll be pleased to learn, live happily ever after – indeed, two don’t live at all any more ...
“The Hurleys – who are central to both RUNNING MATES and THE WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES - are a mostly-decent republican clan, representing those in Northern society who struggle valiantly to put the old ways behind them but occasionally fall back into bad habits. Or, as they’re more often referred to nowadays – “the government”.
“The Hurleys, as you’d expect, are known as “The Hurlers” as a tribute to our national sport and a formerly-preferred method of chastisement. But it is important too that characters develop with the changing times. Hence, Harry the Hurler, the family patriarch, becomes entangled with a glamorous senior police chief; his brother Gerry gets himself a “late-learners degree” and becomes an MLA in Stormont; Jimmy Fidget, the youngest, has a guilt-induced breakdown before setting up his own security company; while Donna, the white sheep, shacks up with the Taoiseach. And again, I would insist that the Hurleys are certainly not based on real people, despite several claims to the contrary (and two unproven lawsuits).
“Lou Johnston, aka Letemout Lou, the leading lady in several of my books, is a bossy and beautiful lawyer-turned judge, who - despite her cranky shell - is kindness itself. I would stress for the record, however, that although I myself am married to a beautiful lawyer who is kindness itself, any and all resemblances are purely coincidental. (Note to editor – I took great care to drop “bossy” from that second clause...)
“The identities of my players are very important to me – I have to have a firm grip in my head as to who they are, when I’m writing them. So it helps if the names are obvious and pertinent: Tommy Bowtie is a solicitor; Shakes Coyle is a dried-out drunk; Getemup Gormley is the failed bank-robber; Time-Gents is a barman; Hate the World is a hitman; Nora Tora Tora has a bad temper; Ruth Ball, the man-eater, becomes “Buster”; Chiselling Phil is a barrister-turned-negotiator; Stammering Stan is a not-very-confident newsreader; the priest who “cures” homosexuals is Fr “Bend-em-Back” Behan; and the Taoiseach’s intelligence expert is John the Bugger.
“Derry people, I believe, are particularly talented at summing up people in a single word or pithy phrase. They work hard at it. I once asked in a pub why a particular man was known as “Jimmy Choo-Choo”, to be told that he had taken part in a training course at the railway station 20 years previously. It always makes sense. A prominent Glasgow republican, now living in Derry is, naturally, known by locals as “Taff”.
“My late brother was an artist at it. He was never bested for the mot juste – so much so that I once even dedicated a story to Rónán “Give Everyone a Middle Name” Downey. I remember sitting with him as we listened to a very stoned friend attempt to sing “Just a Gigolo”. Rónán immediately dubbed him John “I Ain’t Got No Body” Smith*. The name stuck.
“On only one occasion did I directly transpose a real person into a novel. He was heavily fictionalised, though for obvious reasons I am happy that he will never out himself as my muse.
“I have to confess it was Mark Durkan, the Foyle MP, who put the idea into my head. We were swapping yarns in Radio Foyle one morning, when Durks started chatting about a constituent who, when asked to leave his office, went down on all fours and ran around the desk, barking like a dog.
“I couldn’t resist it. In my first novel THE PRIVATE DIARY OF A SUSPENDED MLA, I just had to give him a cameo role. A man whose mission in life is to torment rising political stars. A man who breaks the wing-mirrors off your car, if you don’t come quick with the bail money. A headcase among headcases. The nemesis of all would be young Kennedys. The curse of all Camerons.
“Step forward Mister J. “Bite Me” O’Boyle. You know who you are.” - Garbhan Downey
* Identity changed to protect the victim.
Garbhan Downey’s THE AMERICAN ENVOY is published by Guildhall Press.
“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.