Back from the Brinks

Brendan Deeds talks to best-selling novelist Sam Millar

Click to listen to Sam Millar speak on how he always wanted to become a writer

This interview is part of the CultureNorthernIreland Podcast

Sam Millar clenches my hand firmly while his steely blue eyes hold me in their gaze. I wonder if he can feel the sweat in my palms or see the apprehension in my eyes.

The moment seems to go on forever but I'm relieved when he breaks the tension with a well delivered joke. Millar is an award-winning author with an amiable personality, but quite an intimidating past.

Born in 1955, the Belfast novelist was arrested twice for IRA activity. The second sentence was served under the infamous rigours of the Blanket Protest. Freed in 1984, he was smuggled into the US to work alongside the Irish Mafia, earning $150,000 a year helping run the illegal casinos of New York.

Within a few years he had masterminded a robbery of the armoured car cash depository of Brinks Inc. in New York. $8.5million was taken making this the largest heist in American history. Pardoned by the President in light of the Good Friday Agreement, but exiled from America, the Belfast man found himself back in NI in 1996.

In the ten years since, he has garnered commercial and critical success for his novels and short stories, including the Brian Moore Award for Short Stories and the Martin Healy Short Story Award, not to mention winning the Cork Literary Review Competition.

Millar’s compelling thrillers are driven by a muscular prose and deal with complex and often unsavoury themes, earning Millar the reputation of being a shocking and original voice in a genre crowded by clichés.

He is best known for his memoir, On the Brinks (2003) which was a bestseller here and in the US. The first half of the memoir details the author’s early life in Northern Ireland but when the action moves to the US it becomes the stuff of Soprano shenanigans and Hollywood heist movies. In fact, Sean Penn is touted to be playing Millar in a film adaptation of his memoir.

‘If anyone had ever told me that I’d become a writer and have all these bestsellers and would be recognised from here to New York I would’ve laughed at them. When you hear that Warner Brothers are going to make your life story, it’s like Christmas Day!’

Millar’s reputation as a talented author is founded on much more than his popular memoir. Rain, (1998) which won him the Brian Moore Award for Short Stories, is a sensitive exploration of a woman’s suicide attempt. This was based on his mother who suffered terribly from depression when Millar was still a child. Perhaps this is why wounded childhood is a recurring theme in his work. This theme is seen particularly in his debut thriller, Dark Souls (2003).

Dark Souls is a complex tale set in NI, exploring the cycle of abuse. The story is seen through the eyes of Dominic, a crime reporter from Belfast, sent to his home town to report on a series of murders. Larkin Baxter and a girl called Dakota are damaged individuals implicated in the killings.

The novel’s power lies in Millar’s subtle portrayal of the complex interaction between these three individuals. In the end it leaves us with the uneasy realisation that victim of one abuse may become the perpetrator of another, and that our past is never really finished with us.

The success of Dark Souls was eclipsed by that of On the Brinks, released the same year. However, since so few copies were printed of Dark Souls, Millar insists each now fetches over $100 in post-Brinks frenzy. Ebay sellers take note.

Millar’s novels are unremittingly bleak. Steeped in blood, mud and madness, the lost souls and antiheroes of his novels, whether in search of affection, redemption or revenge, are alone in an indifferent universe. Is the writing process emotionally draining or do such intense tales serve as cathartic release?

‘There was a lot of hatred and bitterness in me but writing has changed that … it’s like pus sitting under my skin and the way of getting it out is through writing’.

If talk of pus has put you off your cornflakes then Sam Millar’s novels aren’t for you. They often have scenes which can make the most hardened gore seeker feel squeamish.

His second thriller, The Redemption Factory (2005) is set in a fictional Belfast abattoir which is gruesome in the extreme. Here, a young man desperate for work soon finds himself metaphorically and literally up to his neck in blood.

This novel suffers from a slightly stodgy plot, characters which are dangerously close to being grotesques and gratuitously shocking scenes. However when the tension finally kicks in the twist at the end is delivered like a knockout punch.

Millar’s latest novel, The Darkness of Bones (2006) is his best work yet. It’s a cold sweat thriller with more than a little social commentary. A chilling series of events is set in motion when a boy finds a human bone in the woods outside his home.

Like Dark Souls, this book dissects human nature down to the bone finding that innocence and evil may coexist within us all. Like the best of noir fiction, Millar’s universe is devoid of moral certainties. The villains are victims of another’s crime and each would-be hero harbours a guilty secret. ‘I love to have my characters with warts, whether it’s the so called hero or the villain. We’re all human. We all have skeletons in our closets. Every one of us’

To Millar motivation is all.

‘There are three different genres of detective story: How was it done, the whodunnit, but I’m a great believer in 'why'. I want to know why was it done? Why did they do it? These are the questions I always ask myself when I‘m writing my novels. I find the darker side of human nature much more interesting than the normal one.’