Declan Burke is all smiles. A new daughter, new book deal and whole new batch of admirers. As Houghton Mifflin Harcourt prepare to publish his Elmore Leonard-esque triumph, THE BIG O, it seems the sky is the limit for the talented Irishman. Shots sent TONY BLACK to ask Burke about the spending his mortgage deposit to get into print, conquering America and if Crime Always Pays.
TONY BLACK: Dec, you've been on quite a ride since the launch of THE BIG O, have you not?
DECLAN BURKE: It’s been some go alright, Tony. A real firecracker. When Marsha and I published THE BIG O, we had fairly modest hopes – the main one being to recoup the costs of publishing it. At the time that was mortgage money I was spending, after losing my job … Basically, once THE BIG O was written, I decided to by-pass Irish publishing houses and go straight to the UK, because I’d had EIGHTBALL BOOGIE published in Ireland and quickly realized no one was getting fat getting published in Ireland … Anyway, the rejection letters that came back from the UK houses were broadly positive, albeit with the caveat that the story wasn’t commercial enough. Which I can understand, because big houses have economies of scale they have to justify … but my idea of ‘commercial enough’ was radically different to theirs. So I decided to self-publish, just for the hell of it, and to see if I could learn the industry from the ground up … Shortly after that, Marsha at the tiny Irish house of Hag’s Head Press offered to co-publish, which meant I’d have to pay half the costs and reap half the rewards. We did it on a busted elastic band and two bent paperclips …So for THE BIG O to get this far is a minor miracle. It’s got some good reviews, been nominated for a couple of awards (a Spinetingler and the Last Laugh at CrimeFest), it’s been published in hardback in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as the first of a two-book deal, and they’ve made a beautiful job of it … and at this stage we’re well into the black on our original investment. And not only that, but I’ve made a ton of new friends as a result of [the blog] Crime Always Pays, which I set up to promote the book and Irish crime fiction because we literally didn’t have a penny to spend on publicity. So all told, it’s been a terrific time.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, how about a quick run-through...
Karen’s a part-time stick-up artist who meets Ray while she’s on a job. Ray’s a ‘babysitter’, he holds people who’ve been kidnapped until the ransom is paid. They click and all is cool, except then Ray gets commissioned to snatch Madge, who is Karen’s best friend. She’s also the soon-to-be ex-wife of Karen’s boss, Frank, a disgraced plastic surgeon who needs to cash in on the insurance policy he has on Madge … Meanwhile, Doyle’s a cop with the hots for Ray, and Rossi is Karen’s ex-boyfriend, recently out of prison and looking for the money he left with Karen when he went inside …
You took a trip to Crime Fest in Bristol to promote THE BIG O...how did you find the conference set-up?
Well, I turned left at the quays and up the hill, and lo, there it was, etc. No, I loved it. It was my first crime writing convention, and it was a smashing time. Lovely to be able to wander around and kid yourself that you’re a writer for a few days, and everyone else plays along with your self-delusion. I already had a fair idea that the crime writing / reading community was friendly and generous, but that weekend kind of nailed it. Plus I got to meet some terrific writers … You ran away as soon as I introduced myself, which is fair enough … No, I got to meet Allan Guthrie, who’s a brilliant writer, and Ruth Dudley Edwards was lovely – it was great to be in the room when she won the Last Laugh award. And Donna Moore was brilliant … and it was great to meet a lot of my fellow bloggers, like Maxine and Rhian and Karen and Ann and Norm. All in all, a great weekend. I’m looking forward to next year already …
Me, too...promise I'll hang around longer next time. So, moving swiftly along, I hear you recently became a father for the first time...
Well, that’s a joy on a whole other level, a whole new dimension. Lily is by a mile the best thing I’ve ever had happen to me, she’s just a wonder every day. I’ll be honest with you, it feels a bit like I only really started living my life fully on the day she was born. That’s no exaggeration. As brilliant as it is to have THE BIG O hitting the shelves in the States, that’s all a pale shadow by comparison with Lilyput.
I'm welling up...can I see a Declan Burke children's book on the horizon?
I’d love to write one, to be honest … Some of my favourite books are kids’ books. PETER PAN is one of my all-time reads, and I love things like TREASURE ISLAND, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS … But I don’t know if I’m good enough to write a good kids’ book. I’m happy enough planning to read them to Lily for the time being … I’ve got a whole mini-library of books just ready to go.
Treasure Island was a children's book? I need to grow up...Anyway, I've seen the jacket for the American version of THE BIG O and it's one hell of a good looking book...
Cheers, squire. I’m hugely pleased with it. It’s actually an old Elmore Leonard cover jazzed up, so that’s a nice touch from the designer, given that the book opens with a quote from GET SHORTY. You know what they say, if it’s good it’s homage, but if it’s crap it’s pastiche … well, it’s a great homage. Funnily enough, the smoking gun with the ‘O’ as the gun’s muzzle was my initial idea for the cover of the Irish edition, but we didn’t follow through on it … so I’m really happy with it.
To be published Stateside, you must be rapt...does it feel like just reward for flogging yourself so hard?
Tony, I’m not kidding you – being published in the States is a dream come through for me. Really, a childhood dream … America is the spiritual home of the kind of crime writing I love, people like Elmore Leonard and Barry Gifford and Ray Chandler, et al … so yeah, it’s very satisfying. As for flogging myself … I doubt very much if I work any harder than any other writer. I guess I maximise the amount of time I have available, because the writing time I have is fairly minimal – I’m working away at a real job and like everyone else I have a family and a life away from the desk. Besides, it’s not really work when it’s so enjoyable. And like I said earlier, the blogging is terrific fun because I’ve met so many great people … I just had Peter Rozovsky from Detectives Beyond Borders staying with me for the weekend, and that was great, he’s marvelous company.
I'm thinking about the partnership route you took to publishing THE BIG O -- originally you said that took some serious hustle...
Hustle, absolutely … but I’ve never been afraid of hard graft, and it’s not exactly working on a building site or down a mine … and it’s been a fascinating experience. In the early stages, I was our official distributor (!), walking into shops with books in my bag and asking for the manager to see if they’d stock a few copies. Most of the booksellers in Dublin, I have say, were terrific, and my hometown of Sligo did me proud too. But I do remember thinking, hey, Cecilia Ahern – the chick-lit author who just so happened to be the daughter of the Irish prime minister when she first got published – never had to do this, all churning guts and sweaty palms … and she’s missed out on something. I’d have hated, 40 years from now, to look back and say ‘I coulda been a contender’ except I wasn’t prepared to sweat and hustle and look ridiculous … Well, if this writing gig never takes off for me, it won’t be for the want of trying. Plus, it was always fun, a real buzz. I take as much satisfaction from all the work that’s gone into the project as I do anything else, to be honest.
I'm also thinking about the blog you run, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, it seems to grow from strength to strength, but there must have been times in the last year you felt like packing it in...
I never have, to be honest with you. I do scale back at times when work is busier than usual, or I want to take a holiday, or spend more time with the family, but the blogging has taken on a separate life to the book … I hugely enjoy it, and for its own sake. I’ve met loads of great people … And I like the idea that it’s my own personal magazine … I’ve worked as the editor of magazines in the past, and you never get the kind of freedom you’dlike … This way, I can put in whatever I want. If I want to write about quantum physics, I will. Lawrence Durrell? Brilliant. So that’s a nice buzz …
Were there any changes to the US version of THE BIG O, any editorial tinkering undertaken?
No, no changes … the editor who signed me up, Stacia Decker, was happy to run with it the way it was. I’ve had a few comments about how some references don’t translate, but they’re fairly minor.
I always find a few cryptic references add to the texture of a work...I don't get a lot of Derek Raymond's patois, but it doesn't matter a jot to my enjoyment of his work.
Yeah, it never bothers me when I come across something I don’t get straight away … I just presume the context will explain it for me at some point, or else I just brush by it. If it’s important to the story, the writer will make sure you don’t miss out on it … And I agree with you, having references you don’t get can give a story something of an exotic flavour. An example – the early, really hardboiled crime writing … I hadn’t a clue what those guys were talking about half the time, the slang / argot was impenetrable at times … But that was half the buzz. That you were listening in on these conversations you didn’t really understand, but which had their own language, almost … It made for a very dynamic sense of energy.
So far as I can tell, the early reviews for THE BIG O in the States have been very kind. Did you always expect the Americans to get you?
The reviews have been terrific. I’m stunned, to be honest with you. Kirkus even gave me a star, and I haven’t had one of those since primary school … No, it’s great. And I didn’t ‘expect’ anything, that’s being straight. The way THE BIG O came about, being co-published and all, everything since has been a bonus, just enjoying the ride. So to get good reviews Stateside … I guess it does make sense in one way, because the influences on THE BIG O are all American. The models for the kind of story it is were Elmore Leonard and the movies of the Coen Brothers … that kind of off-beat comedy crime caper they do so brilliantly. So I suppose it’s hardly surprising that American readers might ‘get’ the story, or the way it’s presented. Mind you, I should probably say that the reviews, they’ve been very kind in that some of them have mentioned Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake and Carl Hiassen … but I think that that has more to do with how few reference points reviewers have in the context of comedy crime capers than the quality of the book.
Some huge names to be compared to, do you feel a weight of expectation?
This is going to sound stupid, but no – I don’t feel any weight of expectation. Partly that’s because the book is already written, and there’s nothing I can do to change it at this stage, and people will either like it or they won’t for what it is. But mostly it’s because I know better than anyone that I’m nowhere near as good as the likes of Leonard, Westlake and Hiassen … Funnily enough, Publishers Weekly gave me a negative review on the basis that other people were comparing me to him, and I wasn’t up to scratch …Like, who is? No, I think those names get bandied around for the simple reason that the ‘comedy crime caper’ paradigm is fairly small – there just isn’t that many people writing that kind of screwball crime story. And those writers I’ve mentioned are handy reference points for reviewers. In one sense it’s great to have the book compared to theirs, because it can only benefit the book, but in another I don’t really take them too seriously … I feel a certain detachment from those reviews, because I don’t really believe they’re intended for me … Does that sound weird? But look, I’d love to be sitting here with you in twenty years time, ten more books under my belt, and to believe that I’m half as good as Elmore Leonard … Even if I never made a penny out of writing, that would be its own reward.
How many of your influences are American?
In terms of writing crime fiction, I’d say virtually all. And even the Irish writers who inspired me to get writing – Colin Bateman, Vincent Banville – and the ones that I admire now – Ken Bruen, John Connolly, Adrian McKinty – they’re all heavily influenced by American culture. I mentioned Chandler and Gifford already, and Elmore Leonard, but there’s a lot of other American writers I love … Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, Pelecanos, David Goodis … And then there are writers who don’t write crime, like Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Bukowski … there are loads. And that’s without getting into the movies and the music …
So, are we likely to lose you to the States any time soon?
Won’t be happening, squire. I like the States a lot, and I think the people are terrific, but I have a little girl to look out for now, and what’s best for her will be making our decisions for the foreseeable future. And as much as I like to bitch and moan about Ireland, it’s a pretty decent place to bring up kids. Plus all of Lily’s extended family are here, and as you get a bit older, that kind of thing starts to matter more. On top of that, I like my job here in Ireland … even if the chance to go writing full-time did come along, I’m not so sure I’d want to give up my job. In saying that, Aileen and I have chatted before about the possibility of heading to the States to live for a fixed period, maybe a year or two, if the opportunity arose … I’d love to live in the States, even if it was just for a while.
Would you set a novel there?
If I spent enough time there, and got a good feel for the setting, then sure … I’d love that. But it’d be like bringing coal to Newcastle in one sense … I don’t know, I’d certainly love to try it. America is a fabulous place, I love it there … Sometimes you get the sense that the whole place is one vast crime fiction setting. And plenty of Irish writers set their novels in the States … John Connolly for one, and I’m currently reading Alan Glynn’s excellent THE DARK FIELDS. So yeah, sure … I mean, even if I only go somewhere on holiday, I’m always sniffing around for settings and scenes, sizing places up … The sequel to THE BIG O is actually set in the Greek islands, because I love the Greek islands, and I always thought they’d make a great setting for a crime caper … Here’s hoping they do.
And what's this I hear about some Kerouac-esque road-trip you're planning?
Yep, that should be a laugh … John McFetridge is published by HHM as well, and I think he’s a terrific writer – actually, he’s being compared to Elmore Leonard AND James Ellroy, and he deserves it, he’s well worth checking out … Anyway, we’re both going to Bouchercon in Baltimore and we thought it’d be good fun to take a road-trip through New England in the Fall … We’re kicking off in Toronto and meandering down through Vermont, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, doing some signings and events along the way, hitting B’con on the Thursday. Man, a week of talking books with John McFetridge … If we don’t hate one another’s guts by the time we hit Baltimore, we’ll probably just go ahead and get married.
What are you working on now, Dec?
I’m not. I was up until Friday night, when I had a chat with Paul Johnston. He’s got way more experience in the area I was writing in, and it was a bit of a head-check for me. I think I need to either dump the story or radically rethink it … Either way, I don’t see myself doing much writing for the foreseeable future. I just finished the sequel to THE BIG O, though, and that’s gone off to HMH, with its publication due for next year, so maybe I should take a bit of a break … Or I might start tinkering with A GONZO NOIR again. Or redrafting a Harry Rigby story. And I have an idea for a third in THE BIG O series buzzing around in the back of my head. We’ll see …
I hear you're putting together a book on the whys and wherefores of contemporary Irish crime writing, with some big names involved...
The Irish crime fiction project … Yeah, it's in the mix right now, and there's some really strong interest out there from the Irish writers. John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Declan Hughes, Adrian McKinty, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway, Gerard Donovan, Gerard Brennan … some really great writers. Basically, the idea is to create a 'narrative of Irish crime writing', a series of chapters written by the writers on their own speciality or a particular aspect of crime fic they're interested in exploring. I'm still waiting back to hear from a few people, so the final running order is a long way off … The vibes are good, though, and there's an Irish publisher already interested, and I've had quite a bit of support come through from other blogs and websites … so we'll see how it goes.
And the Burke TBR pile, what's on there? Skip the Barney books, though...
No Barney yet, no … The TBR pile, crikey, where do you start? I’m reading SONGS OF BLUE AND GOLD right now, by Deborah Lawrenson, which is fascinating for me because it’s a fictionalised take on the love-life of Lawrence Durrell, and I’m a bit of a Durrell nut. I’m also re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN and THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien … wonderful stuff, both. After that I have literally three shelves’ worth of material I could read … and new books come in every day. A few random examples … THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY by Frank J. Tipler; THE BOOK OF MURDER by Guillermo Martinez; TRAUMA by Patrick McGrath; HEARTBREAK AND VINE by Woody Haut; THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson; I REMEMBER by Noelle Harrison … It’s a mixed-up bunch of books, some for pure pleasure, others for review, others for curiosity … And by this time next week, I’ll probably have a different five or six books queuing up to be read. Hey, it’s a dirty job …
THE BIG O is published in the US by Harcourt (Sep 2008)Hbk
and July 2007 in the UK by Hag’s Head Press
Tony Black's first novel PAYING FOR IT was published by Random House in 2008. Ken Bruen kindly praised the book, saying it "blasts off the page like a triple malt . . . one adrenaline-pumped novel that is as moving and compassionate as it is so stylishly written". More of his writing can be found online at: Scotsman.com, Books from Scotland, Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher and is forthcoming in Demolition and Out of the Gutter. Black lives and works in Edinburgh. Reach him at: email@example.com