Thursday, February 20, 2014

Twenty Questions With Gerard Brennan

Gerard Brennan came to my attention through his essay, “The Truth Commissioners” in Declan Burke’s comprehensive examination of Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets. His contribution to the Fight Card series (Welcome to the Octagon) hooked me on his fiction, and The Point reeled me him. His sequel to The Point—Breaking Pointhas recently been released, and Gerard was kind enough to take a break from his PhD studies to play Twenty Questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Breaking Point.

Gerard Brennan: I like to think of it as belonging to the same sub-genre as the movie Pineapple Express and other slacker-type flicks and TV shows. Notice I didn't mention books? Yeah, me too. Because I can't think of a novel or novella that attempts the same. Could well be down to a deficit in my reading, though.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

GB: I wanted to revisit the characters from The Point. I'd spent a hell of a lot of time with them as I honed my craft. The original version of The Point was the first big project I completed, years and years ago. It was a novel attempt, then, rather than a novella. But I wasn't happy with it and left it alone until I'd written two actual novels. Then I was able to go back and spot the problems. About 25K words worth of problems.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Breaking Point, start to finish?

GB: I've learned to love outlining and I wrote an outline for this novella two years ago. Then I put it to one side as other writing projects came along. When I finally got around to writing it again I liked the new characters but hated the plot I'd laid out for them. So I reworked about 80% of the story and started again. The outline took a day to fix (mostly on the bus journey to and from my then full-time job), the writing took a month.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

GB: I could tell you that, or I could encourage you to download the Kindle version of The Point for free. Go on... (Editor’s Note: Really, go ahead. We’ll wait. We’re here today because of how much I liked The Point, and it’s a quick read.)

OBAAT: In what time and place is Breaking Point set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

GB: It's set today, in and around the small village I've lived in for the last nine years. Until now I've kept my writing off my own doorstep by about 30 miles (I'd mostly been writing about Belfast and/or Warrenpoint after I'd moving away). I don't know how important the exact setting will be to most readers, but for me it certainly informed some character motivations. And it made me feel a little uncomfortable in parts. That's probably a good thing for a writer.

OBAAT: How did Breaking Point come to be published?

GB: The Point originally saw a small paperback release in 2011. Unfortunately, that publisher folded. Fortunately, I'd hooked up with Blasted Heath who published my novels, Wee Rockets and Fireproof as ebooks after The Point came out. They'd done such a great job finding me an audience that I was delighted when they agreed to reissue The Point last year. When I pitched The Point to them, I also pitched Breaking Point and a third part to the series.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

GB: I read everything. Books, magazines, food labels. But to narrow it down, I dip into each genre to lesser and greater extents. Right now, crime fiction is the top of the greater extent table. And Northern Irish crime fiction is a particular passion as my blog, Crime Scene NI, would suggest. I tend to gravitate towards books that build believable (and sometimes likeable) bad guys. Something like a certain Dana King manages in Grind Joint. (Editor blushes, draws circle in dirt with toe.)

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?

GB: Ken Bruen, Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee. Three very different writers, and each taught me something different but equally profound. There are many other influences, but those are the first three I think of every time.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

GB: I used to fly by the seat of my pants until I figured out that it took me a lot longer to take off that way. Like a trip to the airport, if I don't prepare and convince myself I've covered all angles I end up acting too antsy to even gain permission to board the plane. I think this analogy has gone far enough. Pulling out of the tailspin now. I mean now.

I tried writing in my pyjamas the other day (can honestly say I've never attempted to write pantless). I was feeling sorry for myself after my sons decided to keep me awake for a few extra hours the night before. But then I felt like I hadn't started my day, and as a result, my brain refused to cooperate.

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?

GB: Editing is highly important, but my writing style allows for it to be a shorter process than most, I suspect. I don't really subscribe to the “shitty first draft” theory. That doesn't mean my drafts don't stink from time to time. I just don't assume it will until I can smell it. So I guess somewhere in between. I edit as I go, but can be ruthless with the delete key when I need to be.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

GB: Read.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

GB: Being the best family guy I can be. That might include blowing off steam at the gym quite regularly, or in a pub much less regularly. When I'm with my wife and kids I want to be there. That means taking a little time for myself as well, outside of writing or studying.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

GB: Money and reviews are still a little low on the ground. I'm not complaining. I realise I'm lucky to have what I have already, but if either were the ultimate reward, I'd be very frustrated. I'm happier to go to bed knowing that I did everything I could to either improve my writing or move the story forward in whatever project I'm currently obsessed with.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

GB: That's a tough one to answer. If I only had myself to look after, I'd tell the devil to feck off (who else would offer such a shitty deal?). But with a family... I'd have to give it some thought. My soul is less important to me than theirs are. That's kind of an easy claim for an agnostic to make, though, isn't it?

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 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.

GB: Number 3, of course. That's the only option where you only have to worry about the writing. Everything else is taken care of for you. With less distractions, I imagine my productivity would increase (the pyjama incident reminded me that I don't like to sit on my ass all day unless it's to do something that I think is useful). But I'll take what I can get, which is why I'm happy to work at a level somewhere between number 1 and number 2. At least, I must be happy, because I'm still doing it.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

GB: Hard liquor. In moderation, it's better for my health.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?

GB: Football if I'm limited to those two choices (Premiership or NFL). MMA if I want to spend less time looking at my phone.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

GB: Would you like me to introduce you to my agent? They can get you “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.”

OBAAT: What’s the answer?

GB: Yes, please.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

GB: A PhD in creative writing that includes working on a novel and a lot of reading for a related critical piece. I'm also working on a police procedural when I catch myself procrastinating on the PhD, or when I need a holiday from it (that one's a marathon, not a sprint). And I'm thinking about outlines for future novellas. Possibly a play. Or two.

I'm freaking out a bit now.

Check out Gerard’s excellent blog, Crime Scene NI, as well as his other novel, Wee Rockets.

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