Garbhan Downey - The American Envoy

'Ireland is full of greasy little bagmen, posing as consultants, who’ll get you a face-to-face with a minister for twenty grand... Politics here is crooked and criminal, and it’s why I write fiction'


Click play video to watch Garbhan Downey reading from The American Envoy.

There's quite a bit of political and sexual chicanery in your novel, as in real life... What bits of advice would the various characters your new novel The American Envoy give to Iris Robinson if they knew of her indiscretions?

Mrs Robinson ultimately came undone because of the paper trail – cheques, text messages and her dopey schoolgirl love-letter.

Selwyn and Kirk would never have had enough muscle on their own to topple the First Minister’s wife. Sure, they’d have rattled her, but she’d still be on the plinth. Lucky for them, they had it in writing.

Tommy Bowtie, the only character who’s appeared in all my books, abhors the written word. As a lawyer and political mentor, it’s his running mantra.

In the prologue to Yours Confidentially (2008), he advises a would-be MP: 'If you want to get ahead in life public or private, never put anything down on paper. The spoken word may occasionally catch up with you, but the written word will hang you ten times out of ten.'

Tommy also completely distrusts modern technology – PCs, cell-phones etc. And in The American Envoy he warns the new consul to ditch his iPhone as 'they are both tracking and recording devices'.

The envoy later explains: 'With anybody else you’d suspect paranoia, but Tommy holds the Irish record for having most clients murdered over the past 25 years...'

Another tip for Iris: my villains, even the most honest of them, deal only in cash. If you want planning permission in Montrose [Anytown, Ireland], Mayor Monty Boyce will sort you out for a stuffed brown envelope. Offer him a cheque though, and he’ll bust his well-fed ass from laughing so hard.

As a journalist do you think it's true that 'truth is stranger than fiction?'

It certainly seems to be imitating it at the minute. I still find it hard to believe that I invented a politician in Running Mates, whose sidekick was a psychiatrist who ‘cured’ homosexuals – and then Iris went and tried to make the idea DUP policy.

With a few notable exceptions though, the news agenda in Ireland has become a lot duller. The libel laws here, which are far too strict, play a big role in that.

But it means there is a real role for fiction in both entertaining the public and exposing some of the crookery – albeit in a somewhat veiled way - that we’re not hearing about in other media.

How do you feel about Iris stealing Dave Schumann's thunder?

Dave Schumann [the hero of The American Envoy] will, I’m sure, outlast Iris, as ultimately he’s a more credible and likeable character.

On a more serious note, I’m very happy that, at long last, institutional corruption here is being exposed. The North owes a big debt of thanks to the Spotlight team. They’ve got balls of steel.

Had they got a single word or nuance wrong, they’d have been closed down – but they handled it perfectly. It’s the best example of investigative journalism I’ve seen in ten years.

There is so much going on across the island that journalists can’t write about or they’ll get closed down in the courts.

For every story I published as an editor, there were ten more I couldn’t – even though I knew them to be true.

Ireland is full of greasy little bagmen, posing as consultants, who’ll get you a face-to-face with a minister for twenty grand. Nod-and-wink politics is everywhere – I’ll zone your land, if you get my brother that contract. Insider dealing is rampant. Politics here is crooked and criminal, and it’s why I write fiction.

You've written a series of six books in your version of Derry. Of them all, which character is your favourite?

I quite like Dave Schumann, the envoy, in the new one, as he’s an outsider looking at Ireland dispassionately – and yet he still comes to love the place.

It doesn’t surprise me, though. I often think that if you give me an hour with a tourist walking around Derry, I can convince them that the city is not just the magnetic centre of Ireland but of the earth and universe as well.

I’ve also always had a soft-spot for the judge turned MP, Louise Johnston, aka. ‘Letemout Lou’. She’s smart, feisty and couldn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about her.

Bit of a psychotic temper too, which gets her into serious trouble in The War of the Blue Roses, when someone close to her gets killed. But she always tries hard to be honest, and I like that both in people and in my characters.

You're launching The American Envoy at the Dublin Book Festival. Do you think it'll get a good reception down there?

I hope so. My last novel was Irish Book of the Month in the Hughes & Hughes book-chain – and was very well received by those critics in the south who read it.

I lived in both Dublin and Galway, and write extensively about the political and criminal milieu there as well. So the books aren’t by any means just northern-based.

Likewise, the Irish-American press have been very kind to me – particularly with regard to the recent novels which are part-based in Boston, where Una and myself lived just after we got married.

I also think there’ll be interest in Dublin in the fact that The American Envoy is, as far as we’re aware, the first book ever to be issued simultaneously as an e-book, by an Irish publishing house [Guildhall Press].

If Tommy 'Bowtie' McGinley could get out of the book long enough to give you one piece of advice – what would it be?

Get out of this business, son, there’s no money in it.

The American Envoy (Guildhall Press) will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival, March 6-8, 2010. Available in bookshops from  March 1. For further details go to www.ghpress.com.