Investigating Brian McGilloway
Creativity Month writer-in-residence on writing crime fiction, reading habits and being inspired by knock backs
Is 'crime writer' an appropriate description of you, or do you view the label as constrictive?
I think it’s accurate. I do write novels involving crime and issues of justice. Genre definitions are, primarily, so that bookstores know where to place your books. Of course, it also brings with it certain expectations. If you’re a crime writer, then certain readers are more likely or less likely to read your books and those who do will have certain expectations or requirements which, as an author, you’re obliged to meet, to some degree.
The interesting thing for me, though, is looking at how authors can play with and stretch those expectations. Ultimately, a well-written novel is a well-written novel, regardless of the genre into which it might fit. That doesn’t mean I think that some novels ‘transcend the genre’, which is a patronizing term. It means that genre is really a marketing and branding issue.
I write what I want to write and what I hope readers will want to read. If I wished to write in a different genre, that could cause some confusion for my existing readership, but it's not impossible by any stretch. JK Rowling seems to have managed switching genres without too much difficulty.
For those unaware of your work, tell us about your canon to date.
I have two different series. The first features Garda Inspector Ben Devlin. The five Devlin novels thus far – Borderlands, Gallows Lane, Bleed a River Deep, The Rising and The Nameless Dead – are all set on the border between Strabane and Lifford and deal with crimes more often associated with the border regions.
My other series, featuring Lucy Black, is set in Derry. Lucy is in the Public Protection Unit, which means her remit covers vulnerable people: children, the homeless, victims of domestic or sexual abuse. There have been two Lucy novels so far, Little Girl Lost and Hurt.
What draws you to write about the seedy underbelly of society, and should we ever expect a departure – a Jane Austin-type period piece, perhaps?
I think that is unlikely. Certainly I have ideas for novels which might not be traditional crime novels, but we’ll see. At the moment I’m still enjoying writing about Devlin and Lucy Black. It’s not so much the underbelly of society that attracts me, as looking at the marginalized and the exploited.
The Lucy books especially tend to be about those who are being exploited by others and are voiceless because of it. I believe one of the crime novelist’s roles is giving voice to those who have none and examining elements of society and members of society who are often overlooked.
Who or what was the greatest influence on your formative reading habits?
My mum was a teacher and both she and my dad were keen readers, so our house was always full of books. I think it’s vital that children see books in the home as they grow up and see their parents reading and valuing reading. It’s a concern I have with e-readers, if I’m honest.
I remember looking at the covers of all the paperbacks on the shelves in our living room – especially the Agatha Christies, which had great artwork – and wanting to know what was inside. I do wonder if children will be as quick to browse the bookshelves of the Kindle or iPad stores, and if it will inspire that same desire to enter an imaginative world.
Did growing up in Derry~Londonderry shape you as a writer, or does the craft have more to do with imagination rather than environment?
It’s a little of both, I think. Writing is an imaginative response to our experiences and that includes our environment. It’s no surprise that I set books on the border between two areas when I grew up, in a city split by a river, with two names and two seemingly distinct areas of population based on religious and political affiliation.
It’s also no surprise that I have an interest in exploring issues of justice and fairness, having grown up during the Troubles, when lawmakers and law breakers were not always easy to tell apart and where issues of justice are still massively relevant.
Is teaching English at St Columb's College in Derry more or less of a challenge than writing the next book?
They’re two very different jobs. Teaching involves a lot of energy and is, in many ways, a continual performance. It is a very social job where you’re talking a lot and dealing with people all the time. Writing is the complete opposite, silent and alone. Certainly when I was doing both, I found the writing a form of respite from teaching.
I’m on a career break at the moment, and I do miss my classes and colleagues – the social aspect of teaching – though I’m very happy to have a break from the constant administration and the plethora of new initiatives that are foisted on teachers on an annual basis. I do think we undervalue our teachers a lot and underestimate the various different roles they are expected to fulfill in any given day.
You've been chosen as writer-in-residence for Creativity Month 2014. Have you completed any residencies in the past?
No, this is the first time I’m doing this type of extended residency. I’m very much looking forward to it.
What will you be doing during Creativity Month?
The programme covers a range of creative activities rather than my simply doing readings and talking about my own books at each library. We’ve included one-on-one clinics, workshops on use of location, collaborative writing groups and interviews with other crime authors talking about how their own work was influenced by their home towns.
I’m really looking forward to the last of those, Stuart Neville in Armagh on March 25. The focus is to support and encourage people who want to write to take that first step.
Is being a social animal nowadays essential in order to carve out a career as a successful author?
Publishers certainly hope that authors will be prepared to meet readers and to ‘raise their profile’. It’s a horrible thought in some ways because writing is actually about the book, not the writer. That said, it is lovely to meet people who have read the books.
If someone is prepared to invest time and money in a world and character which you have created, I think it’s only right that authors should acknowledge that and be grateful for the privilege of being allowed inside someone else’s head for the duration of the book. Writing the book is only one part of being published.
What do you hope to get out of your tenure as Creativity Month writer-in-residence?
I love the fact that the focus of the month is on encouraging others to write. There can be a reluctance in Ireland, North and South, to read books set here. I think, especially in the North, people still worry that every Northern Irish novel is going to be about the Troubles, which is very much not the case.
The more people who write and publish stories from here, and the more we normalize the idea of Northern Irish literature, the better for everyone. A rising tide floats all boats and a vibrant literary scene in Northern Ireland can only be to the good.
And beyond that, can you give us any clues as to your next literary move?
I’ve finished the new Lucy novel, Sticks and Stones, which will be published in the autumn, all being well. Having now written two Lucy novels in a row, I’m planning on returning to Devlin for my next book. I hope to get started on it once Creativity Month is finished.
For those keen on becoming more involved in creative writing, is there a particular quote that you relay for inspiration?
Not so much a quote as an idea. James Lee Burke, who is my favorite author, holds a record of sorts for the most rejections for a published novel. The Lost Get Back Boogie was rejected 113 times over nine years before being published. When it finally was, it was nominated for the Pulitzer.
Burke talks of the 72 hour rule, which is that each time he received a rejection letter, he made sure he had sent the novel back out to a different publisher within 72 hours. That brought me a lot of comfort when I was trying to get published myself.
Creativity Month takes place in venues across Northern Ireland throughout March 2014. Visit the Creativity NI website for more information.