I would have loved, at about 9.50am yesterday morning, to be able to travel back in time about 25 years to let my 17-year-old self know what my schedule looked like yesterday. Yes, I know it breaks all the time-travelling rules to meet yourself, and interact and thus change the future, but 17-year-old me was just about to leave school in the recession-hit 1980s, and was facing emigration and the building site as an almost certain career path; he also wanted to be a writer, and failing that, a journalist of some stripe, journalism being a pretty decent second best to actual writing when it comes to earning a living, although at the time I might as well have wanted to be an astronaut for all the likelihood of my becoming either.
As it happened, my 17-year-old self eventually did emigrate, and worked for a time on a London building site, and not a bit of harm it did me. Fast-forward to yesterday morning, 10am, when I was sitting down with Dennis Lehane to interview him for a newspaper, this at a time when I had roughly 300 pages left to read of Lehane’s magisterial THE GIVEN DAY, about which the worst you can say is that it’s only 702 pages long. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favour and put away your current reading and pick it up. If it’s not the best novel you read all year, you’ll be having a very good reading year indeed.
The good news, by the way, is that Lehane is currently at work on the second part of what is intended to be a ‘Given Day’ trilogy.
Dennis Lehane, I’m delighted to report, is as engaging as he is down-to-earth, which shouldn’t really have been a surprise, given that (a) he hails from South Boston, and (b) it’s a rule of thumb in the crime fiction community that, with very few exceptions, there appears to be some kind of weird ratio in which talent equals a good heart. Odd but true.
That interview done and dusted, I headed out to Stillorgan, there to interview CJ Box, an equally pleasant man who is on tour promoting both his latest offering, the second Cody Hoyt novel BACK OF BEYOND, and the fact that Corvus are in the process of publishing his back catalogue of Joe Pickett novels at a rate of one per month.
Then it was back into town, first to loll about reading 150 pages of THE GIVEN DAY, and then on to Eason’s of O’Connell Street, where I sat down with Dennis Lehane again, this time to quiz him for public interview. It was one of those evenings that could have gone on for hours: we ran 10 minutes over the allotted time for the interview, and even at that I didn’t get to wedge Lehane’s work on ‘The Wire’ into the conversation.
Off then to Wagamama on the Quays for a very nice plate of noodles washed down with Asahi beer, in the company of Dennis, Dave O’Callaghan of Eason’s, the wonderful Margaret Daly, and the lovely Ciara Doorley.
All told, a very good day indeed, and all this in the context, as All Three Regular Readers will know, of my own novel, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, appearing in three weeks time, said tome bearing blurbs on the front and back from John Banville and Ken Bruen, respectively.
Maybe it’s just as well I can’t time-travel. Had I been able to tell my 17-year-old self all of that, he would have broken down in tears and / or had his head explode.
I guess every writer has his or her own motive for writing. Some want to be the best prose stylist ever read. Others want to tell stories. Some get into it to make their fortune. Some just want to be famous, rich or otherwise. And on it goes.
When I was 17, my ambition was to write books that other writers liked. It was as simple as that, and as complicated. It’s no less complicated or simple today. That might well be a bad thing - I can’t think of any other ambition I had at 17 that hasn’t been abandoned or changed, mostly as a result of good sense or reality intruding - but you can’t lie to yourself. I still don’t want to get rich from writing, and I have no particular desire to be famous; maybe I should know better, but really, all I want from writing is for other writers to like my books.
These days, that ambition is a little more pragmatic than ego-tickling; if those readers who became writers like my stuff, then there’s a pretty decent chance that those readers who aren’t writers might too.
What I wouldn’t have told my 17-year-old self, had I been able to time-travel yesterday, is that even 25 years on, I’d still feel like a fake. That when I sit across a table from Dennis Lehane, say, and shoot the breeze about ‘the work’, and how all that matters is what’s produced, rather than the whys and hows, I’ll feel like a charlatan, a spoofer, a con artist. Matters aren’t helped right now by the fact that I’m finding it very difficult to gain traction on a new story I’ve started, which is almost always the case, but right now it feels like a very serious case of amnesia when it comes to writing two sequential sentences that are even remotely interesting to me, let alone anyone else.
But even at the best of times, when I’m writing a thousand words and more per day for four or five days in a row, there’s always the nagging doubt in the back of my head, which manifests itself physically as something slimy slithering around in my guts. Maybe it’s as straightforward as an inferiority complex; maybe it’s a little bit more complicated than that, and derives from the audacity of wanting to rate my own books against those of, say, Dennis Lehane. Ultimately, though, I think it’s probably a fear of being found out, of a good writer one day pointing the finger at me and without malice or any agenda, announcing that I’m the worst case of the emperor’s new clothes he’s ever seen.
Because here’s the conundrum. I want good writers to like my books, which means I need first to be a good writer; but in my heart (and gut) I know my books aren’t good enough for me, never mind anyone else.
“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. “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.