“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “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. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Good Think, Interrupted

I tuned in late to the Masters last night, long after Rory McIlroy (right) had blown his four-shot lead at the start of the day, but just in time to watch Rory disintegrate in considerable style as he took the long way home, hacking his way through the undergrowth of the more remote parts of Augusta’s back nine. Commiserations to Rory, although it’s hard to feel truly sorry for him - if you’re good enough to establish a four-shot lead going into the last day of the Masters, then you’re good, period.
  Back in the days when I used to swing a golf club, in the process exploring the more exotic flora of whatever course I was on, I used to call that ‘value for money’. People did try to persuade me that the point of the exercise was to take the minimum number of shots to get around, but investing good money in a set of clubs and not using them as often as possible made no sense to me.
  I don’t golf anymore. I like the game, but I can’t be doing with all the bullshit that has to be negotiated between the car park and the first tee. Plus, it’s a time-consuming sport. Besides, writing is a much more exquisite form of self-torture. If golf is a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain suggested, then writing is all too often a good think interrupted.
  It occurred to me last night, and not for the first time, that golf and writing have much in common. The pursuit of an impossible excellence, for one. How the finest difference in intent and execution can result in triumph or disaster. One of Rory McIlroy’s drives last night was perhaps only a millimetre off when club struck ball, for example, but that put it two feet off its trajectory when the ball hit a tree branch, and the branch deflected the ball a couple of hundred yards away from where it should have been.
  At the time, Rory was a shot clear of a chasing pack which included Tiger Woods, and such competition brings with it its own pressures. Ultimately, though, when Rory stood over that shot, or any of his shots, he wasn’t competing against anyone but himself. He was competing with the limits of his skill, his facility for grace under pressure, his ability to keep his inner demons at bay whilst maintaining an outward façade of calm efficiency.
  In the end, Rory lost his battle with himself, which will probably be the most disappointing thing for him when he wakes up this morning. To be beaten by a better golfer is one thing, and nothing to be ashamed of. To be beaten by yourself, though, sabotaged from within, that’s a whole different issue.
  Most writers I know are prone to self-sabotage, most of it connected to the nebulous concept of confidence. They might have just written a brilliant book, but when it comes to starting the next one, they can’t remember how it’s done. And there’s no point in telling yourself that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again - there’s always the possibility that the last time was a fluke. Hell, even I hit a hole-in-one once. But I could stand on the same tee from now until Judgement Day, swinging the club in exactly the same way, and never hit that hole-in-one again.
  In the more extreme versions, some writers - yours truly being one example - go through this every day.
  All of which is a roundabout way of saying that confidence plays a huge part in the writing process. And it’s nice, on those occasions when you find yourself ankle-deep in the rough, and possibly out-of-bounds, to get a shot of confidence, aka a positive review. Seana Graham, a long-time friend of Irish crime writing, who blogs over at Confessions of Ignorance, provided such a shot in the arm this weekend, when she posted a reader’s review of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE on Amazon, with the gist running thusly:
“THE BIG O could justly be called an Elmore Leonard style caper book, with a madcap carnival of characters keeping the action going. Though EIGHTBALL BOOGIE could never be accused of being less than lively, and plot-wise it is probably just as complicated, the story is perhaps a bit more grounded in the character of its protagonist, one Harry Rigby. Rigby’s got all the usual P.I. problems - women trouble, cop trouble, and smart mouth trouble. Unlike some similar protagonists I’ve read recently, I’m not all together convinced that he’s a good guy. But he does have one core value, and that’s protecting his son Ben. Trace that through, and you’ll see that everything he does is motivated by that one objective. Everything.
  “In one aspect, anyway, this book is a straight up homage to Raymond Chandler, and of course it’s a brave thing to offer yourself up for comparison to an American master of detective fiction. But in my book, Burke is up to it. There are countless throwaway lines that show the same kind of spark of cleverness, and I think the first one where I realized I should slow down and start paying better attention was: “Conway lived two miles out of town, the house only three drainpipes short of a mansion.” This is the kind of book that fans will love to dig such nuggets out of, but why should I spoil your pleasure by revealing more?
  “There are many plot twists in this story, and some of them I did manage to see coming. But there is one great piece of finesse that figures in towards the end, and I admired it immensely. I think there is something in this one for everyone, though I will say that as with much Irish crime fiction I’ve read, there was one moment of brutality that was a bit beyond my tolerance level. Well, make that two.
  “But hey, if you’re going to read Irish crime fiction, you’re going to have to get used to this stuff.” - Seana Graham
  All of which is very nice indeed, and I thank you kindly, ma’am. Do I honestly believe that THE BIG O is entitled to be mentioned in the same breath as Elmore Leonard, or EIGHTBALL BOOGIE compared with Raymond Chandler? No, I don’t. But such references go a long way towards bolstering a fragile confidence, tantalising whispers that suggest if I stay the course, and keep doing what I do, that some day, somehow, I’ll write a book that does deserve such exalted company. Even if it does turn out to be a fluke.

4 comments:

Dana King said...

I had the same philosophy about my golf when I played regularly: my round was less expensive than my opponents' on a per stroke basis. I also got to experience scenery none of them ever did. Hell, I got to visit with scenery the course designer didn't even know about.

Alan Griffiths said...

Hi Dec,

I recently treated myself to a Kindle and the first book I've decided to crack the electronic spine is Crime Always Pays. And, I'm loving it.

TBO and EBB are terrific reads - I'm lucky to have both in hard copy and CAP is shaping up to be another crazy and highly enjoyable caper. Super stuff and super writing.

seana said...

Declan, I was very happy to tryn and help get this book out to more people.

In the long run, though, quelling the inner demons is more important. You're a fine writer, and it's the times not the text that are the problem. One of my young friends just quit her job in the publishing world, saying it was a horrible business. She's decided to go into social work.

Maybe we can get Bookwitch to cast a spell on those demons and make them vanish. Or at least lay off. omonelh

Declan Burke said...

Dana - I always thought there was something Freudian about golf, all that 'driving' and 'putting' the little ball into the hole ... Of course, that says more about me than it does about golf.

Alan - Much obliged, sir. CAP was probably the most fun book I've ever written, so hopefully you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Keep me posted ...

Seana - Yon demons, they're essential, I think. Without them, there'd be no one prodding my nether regions with pitchforks to crack on and just do it. So it's a matter of balance, I think - keep them at bay, but not so far away that they're not within prodding distance ...

Cheers, Dec