“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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

On Writing, Love And Quantum Physics

In the run-up to the publication of ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, I’ve been offered some very nice opportunities to promote the book, and very grateful I am too. Unfortunately, some of those opportunities have come framed as requests for writing advice, and in particular advice for aspiring writers.
  The problem is actually twofold. One, I’m neither popular or successful enough to be in a position to give anyone advice. Secondly, I have no idea how I write.
  About all I know is that I generally get an idea for a book, as often as not from a setting. ‘Ooooh, this is a nice place, I’d like to write a book set here.’ Then along comes a character, or two, and once they’ve arrived you need to give them something to talk about it. After that, or so it seems to me, there’s an interminable amount of fiddling, scratching and progress stymied by excessive use of the backspace button, virtually all of which is subordinate to my sense of ‘feel’ for that story. And then there’s a book.
  Not much by way of advice, is it?
  Being the (occasionally) responsible type, I did try to write something that looked like advice to aspiring writers, but - as always - I got sidetracked into a number of tangents. The result comes below, but if you’re an aspiring writer, then I suggest you skip it and take the only solid piece of advice I’m in a position to give any writer: if you ever find yourself on a panel with Declan Hughes, read first or go home.
  And now, on with the show …

On Writing, Love And Quantum Physics

1. Writing is a lot like love and quantum physics. If you think you have the answer, you probably haven’t understood the question.

2. This is a good thing. It means there are no wrong or right answers to that question you probably haven’t understood.

3. This is because writing is largely a matter of ‘feel’.

4. The bad news is that this ‘feel’ is earned the hard way. Writing can no more be taught than love.

5. That said, love is its own teacher.

6. Which is to say, it’s a love of words in their best order that will drive you to master the basic components of grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc.

7. Learning how to bend and break those rules to suit your own particular need is what makes writing a matter of ‘feel’. And the better you get, the more it becomes about ‘feel’.

8. More bad news: there is no magic formula. Yes, there are tricks and cheats you can employ to fool the reader into believing you’re a competent writer. Ultimately, though, you’re cheating yourself.

9. Ernest Hemingway believed that a writer should have put in 10,000 hours writing before he or she is first published.

10. In one sense writing is a bit like physical exercise. You need to burn off the fat, boil off the toxins, before you get down to the solid muscle.

11. In a lot of ways, though, writing is a lot like love.

12. I’m talking about actual love, not romantic love. And neither am I talking about the unqualified love you give your children.

13. I mean a 10,000 hours kind of love. The way you love your wife, husband, intended or partner. The hard-earned love, the kind that remains and endures long after the tummy butterflies have gone to tummy butterfly heaven.

14. Just think about your most important non-child relationship for a moment. Every couple needs to master the basic grammar and syntax of relationships, and then go on to bend and break those rules for their own particular needs.

15. Every relationship, and on a daily basis, depends on both partners being capable of adapting to a whole range of very fluid elements, be they physical, emotional, psychological, etc.

16. Imagine, for a moment, that your partner comes home from work in a funk about who said what to who. Your attempt at empathy is rebuffed, and you say, ‘But honey, I said the exact same thing yesterday, and that made you happy.’

17. Start digging up bones, because you’re headed for the doghouse.

16. Ultimately, as with writing, love comes down to ‘feel’.

17. We can define ‘feel’ as instinct wrung from experience. It’s as simple and complicated as that, and about as easy to pin up over your desk.

18. More bad news. Call it instinct, intuition, hunch or ‘feel’: each time you apply it, you’ve about a 50% chance of being wrong.

19. Worse, you won’t always realise it straight away.

20. If you want to be a writer, get used to digging up bones.

21. Here’s where quantum physics comes into play, and particularly the Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger’s Cat.

22. For the purpose of this tortured analogy, let’s pretend that words are the particles that churn through the chaotic maelstrom at the quantum level.

22. At the quantum level, and according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, you can observe a particle’s position OR observe its direction and momentum. The more you focus on a particle’s position, the more fuzzy becomes its direction and / or momentum.

23. This principle, incidentally, can also be applied to your wife’s mood in the wake of a fractious water cooler incident.

24. In the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat, meanwhile, Schrödinger came up with a wheeze in which an unfortunate moggy is placed inside a box, and due to engineered circumstance is both dead AND alive while the experiment is ongoing, its fate to be revealed only once the box is opened.

25. When you’re immersed in a story, you’re hewing sense out of chaos. Actually, you’re creating something out of nothing, which is a whole different quantum theory, but for the sake of this argument we’ll agree that every writer begins with the most basic particles we have, the alphabet.

26. Every writer has access to those particles. How you assemble those particles in order to make sense from chaos, applying your unique ‘feel’, is what makes you a writer.

27. As to whether you’re a good writer, well, the cat in the box is both dead and alive. And you won’t know until you lift the lid.

28. It’s also true that you might not recognise a dead cat when you see one. A vivid imagination is a blessing but it can also be a curse, particularly when it’s so vivid that it imagines live cats where only dead cats be.

29. But here’s the kicker: this dead cat is your dead cat. And Schrödinger and Heisenberg may not have believed in God, but that cat is dead in a world you created out of nothing. And what’s the point of being God if you can’t indulge in a little resurrection once in a while?

30. I like to call this process ‘redrafting’. Think of it as loving the very same words in a different way, of adapting your ‘feel’.

31. It’s worth repeating that there’s no magic formula. There is hard work, and then more hard work; and if you work harder at it than you’ve ever worked at anything before, harder than you believed you could ever work, then there is the tantalising promise of magic and meaning.

32. It’s elusive, ephemeral and nebulous. But trying breaking love down into an algebraic equation, or discover love’s equivalent of the Higgs’ boson. You might even manage to do so. It won’t be much of a substitute for a good hug when your wife needs a bit of a cry just to flush out the system.

33. Yet more bad news. You’ll never know if you’re a good writer. Even if God Almighty taps you on the shoulder one morning, as you redraft a paragraph for the fortieth or four hundreth time, and says, ‘Y’know, that’s not bad.’

34. ‘Listen,’ you say, ‘no disrespect, but I’m busy. I think the cat might have a pulse.’

35. ‘No,’ He’ll say, ‘seriously, I’ve read a lot of stuff, and that’s pretty good, considering.’

36. And you’ll say, ‘By your standards, maybe.’

37. Depending on whether He’s the Old or New Testament God, the conversation could go either way after that.

38. Providing you haven’t been struck by actual lightning, though, you won’t hear any of it.

39. Because you’ll be listening to yourself. Wondering, always wondering, how your unique ‘feel’ might be best employed for the benefit of others. The truth of writing is the truth of love.

40. As for what’s going on down there at the quantum level, well, who cares so long as it all works up here?

Friday, July 29, 2011

On Loving Colin Bateman, One Inch At A Time

How do I love thee / The artist formerly known as Colin Bateman / Let me count the ways … Yup, we’re up to nine reasons and counting, folks, for lo! A new Dan Starkey novel is on the way, said tome bearing not only the understated title NINE INCHES, but also the subtitle, ‘The Butcher, The Barmaid and The Brothers From Hell’. Oh, and an image of a false leg. Or prosthetic limb, if you prefer. Anyway, the blurb elves have been wittering thusly:
Dan Starkey, the ducking and diving hapless investigator, takes centre stage again in this brilliant new novel by the master of comic crime. Radio shock-jock and self-styled people’s champion Jack Caramac is used to courting controversy - but when his four-year-old son is kidnapped for just one hour, and then sent back with a warning note, he knows he may have finally gone too far. Jack has no choice but to turn to Dan Starkey for help. Recently chucked by his long-suffering wife Patricia, Dan has finally given up on journalism and is now providing a boutique, bespoke service for important people with difficult problems. Dan resolves to catch whoever kidnapped Jack’s son - and very soon finds himself in the middle of a violent feud between rival drug gangs, pursued by jealous husbands, unscrupulous property developers and vicious killers as the case spirals ever more out of his control ...
  Yep, it’s Bangor’s answer to … actually, scratch that. There’s no question in the world that might provide a logical, reasonable answer to the lunacy that is a Dan Starkey novel. Are we happy? Well, yes and no. It’s nice to know a Dan Starkey is on the way, but the book doesn’t hit the shelves until mid-October. Boo, etc. Still, NINE INCHES delayed is NINE INCHES increased, as our sainted Great Aunt Petunia always said …

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You Wait Two Thousand Years For A Messiah To Arrive …

… and then you realise there were two all along. Glenn Meade doesn’t get as much play on these pages as he should, largely because his high-concept thrillers aren’t set in Ireland, or have very little to do or say about the place. Of course, you can say the exact same thing about John Connolly’s novels, so I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I’m a lazy sod who needs to get his radar tuned to a different frequency. (Can you tune radars? Do they even work on frequencies?)
  Anyway, Glenn Meade’s latest offering, THE SECOND MESSIAH, sounds like a cracker; Publishers Weekly certainly took a shine to it. To wit:
The Irish-born author (SNOW WOLF) teeters on the edge of genius and sacrilege with this thriller about a subject known since the time of Christ. When archaeologist Jack Cane discovers ancient documents that point to the existence of another messiah, he also quickly finds out that both Israeli and Catholic authorities have reason to possess, or suppress, such documents. Racked with the pain of personal loss, he meets up with an old friend, Lela, who is part of an Israeli police team investigating multiple crimes, including a cold case involving the possible murder of Cane’s parents—also archaeologists—20 years earlier. Some who have avoided Christian fiction or only dipped in will find this departure from the mould refreshing, even while some regular readers of Christian fiction may find certain passages revolting. Fans of Davis Bunn or Dan Brown won’t bat an eye at Meade’s unblinking look at the Vatican and the religious secrecy that fuels such novels. With a plot that screams, a controversial edge, and characters with attitude and something to prove, this has all the makings to be the next DA VINCI CODE. - Publishers Weekly
  Incidentally, there’s a growing trend for Irish crime writers to set their novels beyond these shores; John Connolly, as noted, has always done so, and most of Adrian McKinty’s novels are set in the US; Alex Barclay’s most recent offerings have been set in the US; forthcoming novels from Arlene Hunt and Ava McCarthy are set in the US and Spain, respectively; Eoin Colfer’s PLUGGED was set in New Jersey; Ken Bruen began writing about London settings, and has since set his non-Jack Taylor books in the US; Conor Fitzgerald’s novels are set in Rome; William Ryan’s books are set in Stalin-era Russia; Jane Casey’s novels are set in London.
  Meanwhile, the whispers filtering down from the higher echelons of publishing is that Ireland, despite producing a significant number of very good writers, is ‘too parochial’ a setting to be commercial. Exactly where that leaves the best-selling Tana French, to name just one example, is anyone’s guess.
  But back to Glenn Meade. There’s a very nice interview with Glenn over at Laurence O’Bryan’s blog, which kicks off with Glenn explaining how he was bitten by the crime bug at a very young age, when he found himself hiding under a table with an escaped prisoner. Great expectations, indeed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cool, Baby, Cool

Well, it’s here. Finally arrived. Yesterday was something of a Red Letter Day for yours truly, folks, as ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL arrived back from the printers, and I’m still a bit giddy. In fact, so giddy was I that I nearly ruined the day entirely by smooching the lovely Alice Dawson of Liberties Press in the lobby of the Guinness Enterprise Centre, and this before she’d even had the chance to show me the book. No wonder editor Dan Bolger hot-footed it out of the building at the first opportunity …
  Anyway, the book is now a book. No big deal in one sense, because there’s far too many books published every day, but ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL is a bit special for me. For one, I wrote the first draft of it about nine years ago, and it’s been a long, winding and tortuous road ever since. If there was ever a lesson in not giving up, a lesson for myself or for any other writer out there with a bad case of concussion from banging their heads against brick walls, AZC is it. And if that wasn’t enough, Liberties Press have done me more than proud with a very fine book indeed. I thank you all kindly, folks.
  In fact, there’s a whole host of people I need to thank, most of whom are covered in the acknowledgements in the book. For our purpose here today, however, I hope it will suffice for me to quote from those acknowledgements. To wit:
“I would also like to thank the writers and readers who, through the pages of the blog Crime Always Pays, have been so blindly optimistic on my behalf over the last number of years. You are too many to name, but be assured that I am very grateful indeed.”
  And yes, that ‘you’ means YOU. Ladies and gentlemen, take a bow …
  Finally, the good news in practical terms means that the book is now officially available on sale. Those of you interested can order it direct from the Liberties Press website; failing that, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL will be in all good bookshops from tomorrow onwards.
  The book will be officially launched on August 10th, by the way, in the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin’s Temple Bar. If you think you might like to get along, just scroll down for all the details; and if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, feel free to clickety-click here

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Play Ball

Many, many moons ago I read Bernard Malamud’s THE NATURAL, and fell head-over-heels for baseball. So profound was the experience that I’ve been unable to read another Malamud to this day, on the basis that, to the best of my knowledge at least, none of his other books are about baseball.
  Of course, it was a young man’s love. By which I mean, I fell in love with the idea of baseball, with its lore and language and what it represented, and particularly its mythic status as America’s national pastime. And so, over the years, I’ve watched plenty of baseball movies, and read some books, in the process putting together a very sketchy understanding of the game its great names, among them Di Maggio, Ruth, Robinson, Mays, Williams, Jackson, Gehrig, and the gloriously despised Ty Cobb. And then there are the team names; the Cubs and the various Sox, the Cardinals, the Tigers and Pirates and Indians and the perfidious Dodgers; and the ball parks themselves, from Fenway to Candlestick.
  It’s impossible to engage with American popular culture and not be infected by baseball by a process of osmosis. One of my favourite novels, for example, William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN, is steeped in the game; the game’s argot is pervasive, seeping into the language of film and novel and play, of casual conversation and political speech. I understood the audacity of stealing a base before I knew what base-stealing was; I could contextualise curveballs and pinch hitters and double plays and the bottom of the ninth long before I understood their technical meaning.
  Fast forward to many moons ago, when I spent a very pleasant week in Atlanta in the company of a very pleasant young woman, who very kindly showed me the town, the highlight of which was a tour of Turner Field. That was in March, unfortunately; still, it was nice to finally step into a ball park.
  But it wasn’t until about a month ago that I actually sat down to watch an entire game of baseball on TV. I have no idea why I did so; these days I don’t even have time to watch a full game of hurling, and I couldn’t even tell you who was playing that night. It took about two innings before I was hooked. Given that most live baseball games run three to four hours, and that most games shown here are on ESPN around midnight, I’ve developed the very bad (i.e., time-consuming) habit of recording a night’s game and watching it the following evening. I’m not rooting for any one team; to be honest, I don’t even care who wins, or the score. I’m just fascinated by what these guys are doing, their technical proficiency in a game of millimetres. And I’m less interested in the Hollywood plays, the booming homer to the second tier, as I am by the more mundane plays; my favourite, as it happens, is the third baseman or short stop picking up an infield drive and rifling it across to the hungry glove on first base. Overall, and contrary to what I would have believed from watching baseball movies, and as thrilling as it is to watch a guy lean back and smack the pill into the middle of next week, I’m far more interested in watching the pitchers than the batters, and the fielding, and particularly that of the infielders.
  When I opened Dennis Lehane’s superb THE GIVEN DAY last week, and discovered that the opening chapter was a beautifully written fictional account of the Babe stepping down off a stalled train to go play ball in a field in the middle of nowhere, it’s safe to say that Lehane was pushing at an open door.
  Which brings me to the point of this post. I have THE NATURAL lined up for a long overdue re-read, but I’m open to suggestions about other books about baseball. I’ve read SHOELESS JOE, and it’s probably a bit too soon to go back to it; but if anyone can suggest a novel about baseball, I’m all ears (suggestions on college baseball particularly welcome). Short stories would work too, given the nature of the game. And if anyone can recommend a good history of baseball, preferably one containing potted histories of the great players and teams, that would be a bonus.
  Finally, I have a Baseball Reader around here somewhere, which I’ve been looking for in vain for the last couple of weeks, one which contains Ty Cobb’s letter to the Hall of Fame detailing his Greatest Team. If anyone can tell me which book that’s in, I’d be very grateful.
  Play ball …

Sunday, July 24, 2011

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Jarrett Rush

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?
It would be great to have my name on any of the classic hard-boiled stuff, but if you make me choose one I’ll take THE MALTESE FALCON. There’s a twist at the beginning of the book that sets up the entire book. I read it on the train to work and when I got to that point in the book I was like a runaway boulder. I was reading every spare moment that day and for the next few days afterward. I ate it up. I read more Hammett after that, and it was good. I enjoyed his Continental Op, but nothing compared to THE MALTEST FALCON.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Any surprise here that it’s THE MALTESE FALCON’S Sam Spade? Weber Rexall, my main character in CHASING FILTHY LUCRE, isn’t a Sam Spade copy, but they are similar. They both have a determination to stick to their convictions that I admire. Despite the tough things they’ve seen, they still try to do what they think is right.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
My wife teaches sixth grade. I help her out by reading some of the newer YA books to find stories that would appeal to the boys in her class. I’ve actually really enjoyed some of the stories. The Percy Jackson series is great. My favorite books, though, have been the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer (hey, he’s Irish). They are the story a of a boy genius who uses his smarts to become a criminal mastermind. The antagonist is a fairy named Holly, so there are some fantasy elements to it. It’s a great series that’s all action from page one. That’s one thing I’ve noticed and enjoyed about young adult books, they don’t waste any time. From the very first page the story is moving and going somewhere. They don’t take a lot of time to assess their feelings or stare at trees.

Most satisfying writing moment?
That would have to be finishing the first draft of CHASING FILTHY LUCRE. I thought I had something that was good. I knew it needed some work in the editing, but I thought I had something with good guts. It took a little polishing to get it where I thought it was ready to be unleashed on the world, but in the end I think I was right. I’m happy with, and proud of, my novella. Judging by the reviews, others seem to be enjoying it also.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
I guess the answers here all depend on who you are and why you write. The worst thing is the rejection. Whether it’s an editor saying that your story isn’t good enough or readers just not connecting with your work, being rejected hurts. I don’t care how thick you think your skin is, or how many times it’s happened. Even the personal rejections that tell you your writing is great, that project just wasn’t for them. They all hurt. It may get a little easier to take, but the sting is always there. Ask me what’s the best thing about being a writer every day of the week and you’ll likely get seven different answers. That’s how often I think of something new that I love about writing. Today, however, the best thing is making a connection with a reader. Having someone leave a message for you at one of the social networking sites or through email saying they liked something you’ve done, is pretty awesome.

The pitch for your next book is …?
I’m working now on Book 2 of the New Eden series. We pick up the story a few months after the end of Book One. Berger and Rexall, our heroes, are in the middle of investigating a kidnapping, looking for missing girl and also trying to stay a few steps ahead of Roma Corp security forces.

Who are you reading right now?
I’m nearing the end of FOLLOW THE MONEY by Fingers Murphy, and I love it. There’s something about the voice in the book that I connected with almost immediately. There’s a casual authority to the main character that I really like. I’ve never been much for the characters that bang cymbals and blow horns trying to get all eyes on them. FOLLOW THE MONEY doesn’t have that. Next up is some Allan Guthrie. I’ve got two of his novellas on my Kindle ready to go.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
If God is making me choose, then I’ll take writing. I’m not one of those writers who says he ‘has’ to write. I just enjoy it too much to want to stop. It’s too much fun taking these trips with characters that I’ve created. Seeing where they want to go then following along. I love reading. I love finding a good book and getting lost in it. But if you are telling me I can only do one, give me writing. It’s much more fun.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Fast-paced, tightly plotted, and hopeful.

Jarrett Rush’s CHASING FILTHY LUCRE is available now in a range of e-formats.