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Culture Northern Ireland Interview

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My Cultural Life: Brian McGilloway

Author of The Rising on Tom Waits, The Great Gatsby and overcoming rejection

When did you start writing, Brian?

I’ve loved writing since I was a kid. I started seriously when I was about eighteen, but didn’t do anything with the stuff. I sent a manuscript of an early book I wrote to one publisher who rejected it. ‘Must be rubbish,’ I decided and never sent it to anyone else. I started the Devlin books in 2002 when...

...my wife was expecting our first child. Lucky I had a little more confidence and a lot more persistence that time around when it came to sending it out to people.

Can you tell us about your writing habits? Do you have a set regime or any rituals?

I write whenever I can. I tend to work in thirds with a book. I plan the first third then write it. While I’m writing, I plan the second section. When I finish the first third I take a break of a few days, then revise, bearing in mind the plotting for the second section and so on. In terms of rituals, I need to have a mug of tea before I start. I always print out the first complete draft and put it in the same lever arch file each year, and the first person to read each book is a friend of mine called Bob McKimm. Day to day, I write late at night, or whenever the kids are out. I aim for 1000 words a day and write for about two hours at a time per day.

Your first published novel was the Inspector Devlin novel, Borderlands. Was that the first book you’d ever written?

As I mention above, I did write an earlier book called One So High about two psychiatrists, one of whom is a patient in his own asylum and may be mad, or may be pretending to be so to avoid prison over something that happened in his past. I’d been reading Hamlet at the time, I think. I still like the book, though I’ve never shown it to anyone since its first rejection.

What drew you to the crime genre?

I love reading crime fiction. I love the control of the genre and the intricacy of plotting. I also admire those authors who use setting as an extra character or dimension in their work. Crime writers tend to be strong on that. And the genre is well placed to respond to and engage with social and cultural changes in ways that other genres don’t. Plus, I love the entertainment value of crime novels; though particularly when it is matched with well-crafted prose.

In addition to your writing career you are Head of English at St Columb’s College, are your students there impressed at having a crime writer as a teacher?

I’m not sure. I tend not to talk about the books, unless they specifically ask. I’m wary of them feeling obliged to buy the books – particularly the younger students. The books aren’t really suitable for 11 year olds! My friends and colleagues in the school are incredibly supportive of the books, for which I am very grateful.

What do you think sets Inspector Devlin apart from other fictional detectives, what’s his Unique Selling Point.

I suppose I deliberately set out to make him different in a few ways. The most obvious is that he’s fairly happily married with kids. In addition he doesn’t carry around too many demons, or an alcohol addiction. That said, he has his own issues, mostly to do with trying his best as a father and husband. I think exploring the tension within a marriage is as interesting as having one disintegrate because of the detective’s work.

You’ve just published the fourth book in the Inspector Devlin series. Can you tell us a little about it?

The Rising deals with a number of strands. Mostly, it’s about the rising drugs trade around the border. Coupled with that is the growth in vigilante groups, targeting drugs dealers for political clout. On a more personal level for Devlin, it marks the return of Caroline Williams, his ex-partner. In a way, The Rising completes the first phase of the Devlin novels, tying together a number of plots which have been running through the series since Borderlands.

Inspector Devlin is obviously a very popular character, but have you any other characters in your head you’d like to write about?

My next novel, Little Girl Lost, leaves Devlin for a year and introduces a new character, PSNI DS Lucy Black. Lucy works with the Public Protection Unit. The story involves the discovery of a young child wandering in Prehen woods in Derry in a snow storm. She will not speak and no one reports her missing. Then they discover a mist of blood on her clothes – but it’s not her blood. I really enjoyed writing about Lucy and it allowed me to explore Derry in a book for a change, which is where I grew up.

If someone is writing a crime novel what would your advice to them be?

Read as much as you can. It’s impossible to be a writer unless you are a reader first and foremost. And write every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Even if what you write in any one day is rubbish, you’ll still feel like you’re making progress of some sort. Besides, you will always change it in the redrafting.

Which writers have most inspired you and why?

In terms of crime writers, I’m a big fan of Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke. Burke is a stunning prose stylist. John Connolly likewise matches great plotting with beautiful writing. Plus, he showed that an Irish writer could tackle the crime genre as well as anyone. That knowledge gave confidence to a lot of the current crop of Irish crime writers to try to do likewise. Certainly that was the case for me.

Do you have a favourite book?

That’s very difficult to say; The Great Gatsby is one which I love coming back to every so often. Snow Falling on Cedars and The Name of the Rose, likewise. In terms of crime? Last Car to Elysian Fields is a wonderfully elegiac novel.

Favourite film?

The great thing about having kids is that you get to go to all the Pixar movies in the cinema. As a studio, I think their output is genius. Up was a stunning film. I’m a fan of The Godfather saga. I’m a bit of a Bond fan as well – in fact there is a reference to Bond somewhere in each of the books. One of the doctors in Borderlands is called Ian Fleming.

Favourite music?

Depends on my mood. Tom Waits, Ed Harcourt (whose song 'Bleed A River Deep' gave book 3 its title), Divine Comedy, Duke Special. I’m listening to Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More and The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists a lot at the moment.

In the US TV show Castle a famous crime writer consults with the local homicide department to solve crimes. If the BBC were doing a British version called McGilloway how do you think the first episode would go?

I watched the first episode of Castle and quite liked the fact that it highlighted how, for writers, there must always be a story. We need to impose meaning on things when, in reality, there often is no meaning, no complex motive behind a crime. I love the intricacy of plotting, so I’m not sure I’d be very good in that situation.

Tammy Moore

Visit www.culturenorthernireland.org for more on Northern Ireland's Art's scene.

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Brian McGilloway is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Inspector Benedict Devlin and DS Lucy Black series. He was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1974. After studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast, he took up a teaching position in St Columb’s College in Derry, where he was Head of English. 

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