Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), Absolute Zero Cool (winner of the Goldsboro “Last Laugh” Award for 2011 at Crimefest), Slaughter's Hound (sequel to Eightball Boogie, 2012), and his newest, Crime Always Pays, which is a sequel to The Big O. (How there came to be so long between them is discussed below.) A tireless supporter and champion of Irish crime fiction in his blog, Crime Always Pays, he is the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing In The 21st Century, and is the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books To Die For (2012).
More than that, at least to me, is he’s a damn good friend, an enthusiastic supporter of my work who not only talked me out of quitting before I’d been published, but reached across the sheugh to tell me what he thought of Grind Joint person-to-person. That’s why I’m particularly chuffed to be able to so enthusiastically endorse Crime Always Pays, which combines the best elements of Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. (I shit you not.)
Declan took time from his busy schedule and family to submit to the usual inordinate amount of questions from me.
One Bite at a Time: I read a draft copy of Crime Always Pays, had to be five years ago. What the hell took so long for it to be published?
Declan Burke: Well, as John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Basically, the very lovely editor who signed Crime Always Pays as the second of a two-book deal (the first being The Big O) was no longer at that particular desk when the time came around for it to be published, so it ended up being a very protracted process. In the end I bought back the rights to The Big O and Crime Always Pays, and I was delighted last year when the good people at Severn House decided they wanted to publish Crime Always Pays.
OBAAT: Crime Always Pays is a sequel to The Big O, and begins only a couple of hours after The Big O ends. Did you have a sequel in mind all the time, or were those characters so much fun you felt you had to keep the roll going?
DB: No, I didn’t have a sequel in mind at the time, I don’t really work that way. It’s partly what you suggest, that I had so much fun with those guys that I wanted to see what happened to them after The Big O ended, if they couldn’t manage to finagle themselves into an even bigger mess than before. It was also partly because, when I was writing The Big O, it was in my mind largely a story about Karen and Ray – and Karen, really. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that I’d given Rossi a bum deal throughout that whole story, and I wanted to give him the kind of second chance that life never gave him, or that life, in reality, never gives to guys like him.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Crime Always Pays, start to finish?
DB: Crikey – how long is a piece of string? If memory serves, the first draft took about four or five months, and that went pretty well – I’d say the finished book is probably about 70% of the first draft. But, with life and other books and various other issues getting in the way, it probably took about six years to get from writing the first line to seeing it on a shelf.
OBAAT: Crime Always Pays is a multi-POV story, to say the least. Seven characters share in telling the story, but my favorite, by far, is Sleeps, the narcoleptic getaway driver. How did you come up with him?
DB: I honestly can’t remember. In the beginning Sleeps was just a guy who lends Rossi a hand getting back on his feet after Rossi gets out of prison, but given that Rossi is plagued by bad luck – a lot of it due to bad planning, it has to say – Sleeps quickly became more of a hindrance than a help to Rossi, not least because he comes to serve as Rossi’s conscience, and I just loved the idea of a getaway driver who is prone to nodding off at the wheel. Actually, Sleeps is probably my favourite character in Crime Always Pays too – at one point the book was operating under the working title ‘Sleeps The Hero’.
OBAAT: The Big O takes place all within a few miles. Crime Always Pays spans Europe, from Ireland to the Greek Islands. Did you plan a broader scope from the get-go, is that how things just worked out, or did you want to take a vacation and thought it would be nice to write it off as research?
DB: I’d always wanted to write a “road movie” book, but that’s not really a runner in Ireland, because three or four hours would take you coast-to-coast, which would make for a pretty short book. So I thought it would be fun to take Karen, Ray, Rossi et al on the road. Once I decided that, they were only ever heading for the Greek islands – I fell in love with the landscape of the Greek islands about 25 years ago, and I’ve always wanted to set a story there. Finally, the year I wrote Crime Always Pays, I knew I wouldn’t be getting a vacation. So the next best thing was to write a story set in my favourite place – I got to spend a couple of hours a day, for four or five months, in the Greek islands.
OBAAT: Anna is a three-quarters wolf, one-quarter Husky mix that serves as a focal point for much of what happens, as Karen’s devotion to her influences what everyone else has to do in some way. It’s a brilliant way to create an organic and ongoing complication. What made you think of such a device? (I apologize for referring to her as a “device,” as she’s a well-rounded character of her own.)
DB: I came up with Anna for The Big O because I wanted Karen to have a serious responsibility and / or an unusual reason for pulling hold-ups. The first thing that came to mind was that Karen had a child to take care of, but that’s been done more than a few times before, so I gave her a child-like and slightly unusual character in Anna. Someone pointed out to me that there’s always some kind of wild (or semi-wild) character in all of my books – there’s another dog in Slaughter’s Hound, for example – and I guess it’s because, as you suggest, I like the idea of a ‘organic and ongoing complication’, but one that is unpredictable and potentially savage, which represents the more unevolved aspects of human behaviour.
OBAAT: I don’t know of another writer who can successfully pull off such a broad range of
DB: Well, I thank you kindly for the good word, sir. I guess the ‘broad range’ comes about because I get bored very easily, and – as a reader – I like all kinds of crime and mystery novels (all kinds of fiction, really), so I like to mix it up. I mean, people don’t tend to read only hardboiled crime, or locked-room mysteries, or cozy mysteries, or spy thrillers – for the most part, and even if we only read in the crime / mystery / thriller genre, we tend to read across the board. How do I decide what to do next? Well, I just get the idea for a story, and then the form that will suit that story best will present itself, and I’ll do my best to do justice to that particular form.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DB: I’m happy to read any kind of story that’s written well, although I skew very heavily in favour of the crime / mystery novel, not least because it offers – potentially – the best aspects of any kind of novel. I mean, there’s very few elements in literature that can’t be incorporated into the crime form, if you’re prepared to stretch yourself. My favourite authors? That would be a very, very long list. On the basis of those writers I tend to read or reread at least once a year, I’d list Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Mary Renault, John le Carré, James Ellroy, John Connolly, Megan Abbott and Agatha Christie.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
DB: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s read him that Raymond Chandler was a huge influence on my Harry Rigby books, in that I was aiming to write a Chandleresque story set in contemporary Ireland; and the same goes for Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Barry Gifford in terms of The Big O and Crime Always Pays. I should say, though, that I’m much more influenced by individual books than I am by a writer’s canon of work. Alistair Maclean’s When Eight Bells Toll was a massive influence on me, as was William Goldman’s Marathon Man, and while I’ve read other books of theirs – I love The Princess Bride – I’ve never been moved to emulate the style or storytelling of any of their other books. And it would be remiss, while we’re on the subject of ‘influence’, not to mention Enid Blyton and her Famous Five / Secret Seven books, which introduced me to the idea that a good book always had a mystery investigation at its heart; and Agatha Christie, to whom I graduated after I left Enid Blyton behind, for much the same reason.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DB: I do wear pants when I write. In fact, I insist on being fully clothed, although this has less to do with propriety than it has the Irish weather. I never outline, even though I promise myself that I will with every book I begin. But then I start to write a plan and I get hooked on one idea or another and off I go, writing – much to my dismay roughly four months later. I think that’s because, for me, writing is far more interesting on the micro level of fiddling around with words than it is on the macro level of narrative progression and so forth – although, obviously, storytelling becomes much more important in the process from the second draft onwards.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
DB: I do edit as I go. I’m a very slow writer, unfortunately, the three-words-forward, two-words-back type. Plus, I tend to keep writing forward until I’ve completely painted myself into the proverbial corner, and then I start shooting people, starting with the minor characters and working up to the main players. By the time there’s only one man or woman standing, that’s generally the end of the story.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DB: I suppose it’s a variation on the old saw of ‘read, read, read’ – I’m not sure that’s particularly great advice, because any writer who is going to make it will be the ‘read, read, read’ type. My version would be, ‘listen, listen, listen’ – to strangers, to hear the way they talk (not necessarily for what they say, but the way they say it); to editors and agents and publishers and PR people, wherever you can find them; to readers, to find out what it is they like to read about; and, most importantly, to your inner voice, that unique quality of yours that will make you stand out from all the rest.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DB: I play a little football (soccer), a pick-up game once a week – I really enjoy that. And of course I listen to music, and watch TV and so forth – the usual stuff. Probably the best fun is spending time with my daughter, who is 6 years old at this stage, and brilliant company, not least because she’s reintroducing me to all the joys of play at that age – the latest phase is Lego, which I’d forgotten all about.
OBAAT: If you had to pick one author people really should read (apart from yourself and me), who would it be?
DB: This changes with the seasons, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, but right now I’ll say John le Carré. Sometimes the cynicism can be hard to stomach, but he always seems to give value in every single line.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out again, would you rather: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
DB: If I had the choice, I’d go with a Big Six (Big Five?) publisher – the traditional route, because when it comes to writing, I’m a traditional kind of guy. Also, I still retain that romantic and hopelessly outdated notion of writing, which is that the writer writes and other people do whatever needs to be done to get the book on the shelves. The big problem with any kind of indie publishing, in my experience, is that the business side of things takes up far more time than the actual writing, and sucks up the creative energy.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
DB: Mainly beer, because I prefer a good buzz to being poleaxed drunk. That said, I’ve become uncommonly fond of gin-and-tonic recently, even if the Irish climate doesn’t really lend itself to the sundowner-on-the-patio moment.
OBAAT: Gaelic football or hurling?
DB: Hurling, always, as I suspect you already know. For me it’s the ultimate team sport: skill, speed, strength, style, courage. At its best it’s the very definition of grace under pressure.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
DB: “Do you have a tattoo?”
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
DB: “Yes, of Wile E. Coyote.”
OBAAT: What are you up to now?
DB: Right this second I’m about to sign off and go brush my daughter’s hair and check her schoolbag, and set out for the schoolyard. Dana, it’s been terrific fun to answer these questions, and thanks a million for having me.
Dec, you’ve had no more answering them than I have in reading your replies. Thanks again for taking the time.