The evening of August 10 was the official launch of Declan Burke’s new novel, Absolute Zero Cool. As is traditional, a launch party was held at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin. (That’s Dublin, Ireland, for the more parochial Americans among you. And not that it’s traditional to hold launch parties at the Gutter Bookshop. They may be held anywhere. And for those who may feel a bit of gloom because you’d hope Dec’s career would be out of the gutter by now, fear not. By all accounts, the Gutter Bookshop intends its name ironically and is owned and operated by splendid folk he’d be a fool to disassociate himself from. Now that we have set the record for Longest Parenthetical Comment (contact Guiness, assuming they’re not still worn out from deliveries to the Gutter Bookshop), we shall proceed.)
The talented Mr. Burke was kind enough to submit to some questioning after
his recovery from the debauchery festivities.
One Bite at a Time: First, congratulations on the publication of Absolute Zero Cool. My review will be forthcoming, but today let’s talk a little about the launch party. How many attended, not including the police who arrived near the end?
Declan Burke: Many thanks for the kind words, sir. I was hugely pleased with the turn-out for the launch party, not least because it took place on a typically Irish summer evening - grey skies, squally showers, intermittent gales. As to how many people were there, well, I’m afraid numbers have never been my strong suit. Words are my - actually, scratch that. I’d say there were about 80 people there, at one point or another, with which I was well pleased. And, yes, the SWAT team showed up at the end, but they were there to get John Connolly to sign their copies of HELL’S BELLS. So they don’t count.
OBAAT: Any names you’d care to share without risking legal action?
DB: Said John Connolly was good enough to launch the book on Liberties Press’ behalf, and lie through his teeth on mine. It was all very strange - at one point I thought my heterosexual male Irish soul would shrivel up and die with all the nice things being said. John also said he had read ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL not once, but twice, which might account for the slightly manic gleam in his eye during the proceedings. Actually, and all kidding aside, I was very chuffed by the fact that quite a few Irish writers turned out to support the evening - Arlene Hunt, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, John Banville, Alan Glynn, Ed O’Loughlin, Alan Monaghan, KT McCaffrey, Joe Joyce and Seamus Smyth were all there. Also, two names you might want to watch out for in the future - Rob Kitchin and Frank McGrath. All told, it was quite the humbling experience.
OBAAT: Considering the premise of the book, did any fictional characters appear?
DB: Well, given that the book’s main characters are an ‘unnamed writer’ - who has previously published EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O - and a character he previously created for an unpublished manuscript, the hospital porter Billy Karlsson, I guess you could say that one fictional character turned up on the night. And y’know, without getting too clever-clever about it, there is an element of truth in that. I mean, John Connolly was talking about ‘Declan Burke, the writer’, but Declan Burke the writer only exists for a couple of hours in any given day - most of the time, Declan Burke is way too busy trying to pay the mortgage and collect his baby girl from playschool, and mow the lawn, and doing all the 101 things that need to be done in any given day. Every time I sit down to write, it’s as if I need to reinvent ‘Declan Burke the writer’ - and I know that that’s an experience that most writers have. Other than myself, though, no other fictional characters showed up; or if they did, they didn’t make themselves known to me. Which, given that Billy Karlsson is a sociopathic hospital porter who takes it upon himself to blow up the hospital where he works, that’s probably for the best.
OBAAT: Can you describe a highlight or two from the festivities?
DB: Hand on heart, I can say that the highlight for me was being in a position - finally - where I could publicly acknowledge all the people who had helped to bring ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL to the point where we were having a launch party for it. Writers tend to bang on a bit about how writing is such a lonely existence, and it’s true, certainly, that it’s a job that needs to be done in isolation. But no man is an island, as they say, and it was great to be able to thank my wife, for example, for all the support she provides, in the way she helps to create the environment in which I do get to write; and Ed O’Loughlin, for example, who gave the manuscript a very severe and thorough read-through before it went to the publishers; the publisher himself, Sean O’Keeffe; and the in-house editor, Dan Bolger, the Pride of Philadelphia; and of course, everyone who paved the way all down the years, particularly my parents, who always had our house well stocked with books when I was a kid, and created an environment in which reading - and writing, for that matter - was so normal as to be unremarkable (although, when I did start to try to taking writing seriously, there were plenty of remarks made, all of them supportive). So yeah, my highlight was being in a position to say thanks to all those people who’d made it happen.
OBAAT: While I realize most readers hang on this blog’s every word like an infant clings to its mother’s breast, there may be the random stranger stopping by. Please give a brief description of what AZC is about, and how it came to be. (As I need not remind a writer as gifted as you, don’t allow the truth to get in the way of a good story here.)
DB: AZC is essentially about a hospital porter, Karlsson, who sets out to blow up the hospital where he works. Why? Well, throw another sod of turf on the fire and let me take you back a couple of years (picture grows fuzzy, soundtrack provided by a vibraphone) … I guess, like virtually everyone else on the planet, the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers had a pretty profound effect on me; I wrote the first draft of the story not long after that happened. At the time, though, a lot of the commentary revolved around the fact that these terrorists had taken Western civilisation’s technology and used it against itself. Which was, in its own way, pretty frightening. What was even scarier to me, though, was the idea of people who weren’t outsiders, who weren’t necessarily of a different creed or colour, insiders, I guess - anyway, what happens when it’s one of your own, for the want of a better phrase, who sets out to strike at the heart of your civilised society? And Irish people, unfortunately, had been long conditioned to, or at least familiar with, the idea of Irish people blowing up Irish people, most of it taking place in Northern Ireland. Anyway, I started to wonder about what kind of target would be the most tempting for a terrorist who wanted to strike at the heart of Irish civilisation, and I quickly came up with the building that generally takes pride of place in most Irish towns in these increasingly secular times, the hospital. Now the hospital, in my opinion, represents the epitome of human advancement, being a kind of totem to compassion, the place where we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves - the sick, the old, the very young. Karlsson, hospital porter, more or less agrees, although - his mind diseased by logic - he believes that hospitals are actually a bad thing, in that eventually the process of keeping the sick and aged alive beyond their allotted span will eventually lead to a fatal weakening of the human race. And so, Karlsson believes, he needs to blow up a hospital in order to alert humanity to its clear and present danger …
So that was the first draft, which went in the drawer to gather dust while I went off to write THE BIG O, which was a comedy caper crime novel, and a lot more fun to write. Fast forward a few years, to when my wife was about to have our first baby; being totally clueless about what being a father would entail, I made the grand gesture (or so I thought) of announcing that I wouldn’t write at all for six months after the baby was born, so that I might be in some way useful. Writing being what it is, that lasted about three weeks; the compromise I suggested was that instead of writing something new, I’d redraft an old story (of which there were quite a few in the drawer at this stage). A couple of days later, standing at the office window staring out into my back yard (an essential part of the creative process, or so I’m led to believe), Karlsson ‘appeared‘, saying, “What about me? You created me, you brought me to life - but I’m stuck in this half-life limbo, this purgatory. Publish or I’m damned.” And so Karlsson - now calling himself Billy - and I sat down to rewrite the story. My part was to make him a more likeable sociopath, so he wouldn’t overly scare the horses; his job was to follow through and actually blow up the hospital, so as to give publishers a ‘high concept’ hook to hang the book on. And now, dear reader, read on …
OBAAT: Casting aside your renowned humility for a second, how did you get such an unorthodox book published in the current climate?
DB: Persistence and the kindness of strangers. AZC went out to a host of publishers, most of whom replied with rejection letters that began, “This is a wonderful story, but …” Eventually, I put the manuscript away again, and started working on something else. Then a colleague of mine (I review movies as part of my day job) asked to read it; she came back to me very enthusiastic about the book, and demanded that I start sending it out again, virtually shaming me into doing something about it. I took her at her word, and began sending out the book again. It was very quickly snapped up by Liberties Press, which is a relatively small but perfectly formed and very ambitious Irish publisher … In a way it’s very gratifying, particularly as the hard road to getting published is bound up in the story of AZC, and - grotesquely exaggerated, of course - how constant rejection can be so punishing as to impact negatively on the mind. Had I written the story and had it published straight away, I’d feel like a bit of a fraud; doing it this way, the long way, the hard way, makes it feel like I’ve actually earned it.
Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Declan. Absolute Zero Cool can be purchased (as a paperback or e-book) from either Amazon in the US or Amazon UK. Don’t dawdle, or you’ll feel like a twit when everyone else is giggling behind their copies and you still haven’t got the joke. Until you realize it’s on you.