Q&A: Colin Bateman

One of Ireland's favourite crime writers admits he 'wouldn't say boo to a goose'

Colin Bateman is the author of 18 novels, including Divorcing Jack, Empire State and Belfast Confidential, as well as the film scripts for Divorcing Jack, Cycle of Violence and Wild about Harry. For television he created and wrote the BBC 1 crime drama Murphy’s Law and adapted Marian Keyes novel Watermelon for Granada. He has written three novels for children. In his spare time he still deludes himself that he’s up to a punishing game of 5-a-side football...

Where were you born and brought up? 
I was born in Newtownards, for my sins, but luckily made a rapid escape to Bangor.

What sort of childhood did you have? 
I don’t think you ever say to yourself at the time, ‘this is an idyllic childhood’, but I suppose it was – Bangor was light years from the centre of the Troubles, although that didn’t stop us 10 year olds forming our own branch of the UDA and stopping cars outside our houses and asking if we could look in the boot. No idea what we were looking for, but a surprising amount of people stopped. We also formed our own Orange band, which we called the Cardboard Memorial, and living in Wellington Park, we formed our own gang called the Wellington Boot Boys. We were quite nice, really.

What is your earliest memory of childhood? 
Playing cricket in my back garden with my brother, using a tennis ball. I scored about ten thousand runs, then when it was my turn to bowl I did it for about two minutes then said I wasn’t playing any more.

How did you get interested in writing? 
It all goes back to reading, my trajectory was: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Marvel Comics, Catch-22, crime fiction…

What were the first things you ever wrote? 
Always writing comics, but as I couldn’t draw, they were all prose, so really self produced versions of the old pulp magazines. Nearly all science fiction.

What was your first professionally produced work? 
I was a journalist from the age of 17 on the County Down Spectator, and I was given great freedom to write whatever I wanted, so besides the normal news stories I was doing a lot on entertainment and films and music. I wrote a column which has been described as ‘satire’ but which was really only taking the piss out of local events, but that was when I first realised I could ‘write’ humour as I was extremely shy and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

What is the worst part of being a full-time writer? 
When your hobby becomes your job, sometimes it’s difficult to switch off, and reading a novel is all but impossible because you get influenced and end up changing the way you write. Same is true with movies, you’re always thinking about the screenplay or the direction or the budget or the effects instead of just enjoying the movie.

What is the best part? 
The sex and the drugs. Just doing your dream job, really. It has its frustrations but it’s great, you get to write novels and someone pays you, you get to make movies or TV and travel and meet interesting people. It completely changed my life and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do it. Also it opens doors into other things. Someone asked me to write an opera recently, and I’ve directed a short film. No reason why I should have any talent in these directions, but if people ask, it’s bad manners to refuse.

What sort of jobs have you done in the past? 
Only ever had one job, which was a journalist, and I was really very poor at that – far too shy, and with a horror of phoning people. The fact that I could write fairly well probably saved me. Since I’ve become an author I’ve really come out of my shell and think nothing of standing before a crowd of 500 strutting my stuff (although I’ve done 500, about 20 is more likely!)

Do you have a daily or regular routine for writing? 
I am very prolific and I like to grab everything that comes along, so it means that although I’m basically lazy I do have a routine of going into my office every day and working 9-5 as much as I can. Not that I’m writing all of that time, but it’s usually something to do with work.

Do you work straight onto a computer? 
Absolutely. I’d be lost without it. I have never been able to write fiction or scripts by longhand. However, I’m very bad at backing up and keeping copies on disks, etc. Had my laptop stolen recently and lost a lot of work because I hadn’t copied it. Tough lesson to learn.

Who were you influenced by when you started? 
Biggest single influence was Robert B Parker, the crime fiction writer. He writes in a very basic, bare style, but is funny too. I found a style I was comfortable writing in, and although I think I quickly developed my own variation of it, he was important to get me started.

What motivates you to write? 
Then it was just an impossible dream, now there’s just this endless stream of ideas I have and I just feel incredibly guilty when I’m not writing, that’s why I’m so prolific. They’re not all good ideas, but every once in a while... 

Have you ever studied any ‘How To’ books on writing? 
I’m not sure if you can be taught how to write, I pretty much think you either have it or you haven’t. But you can be shown how to make your writing better – Cut! Cut! Cut! – and how to go about getting published. I still like reading biographies of writers and am quite fascinated by how they actually work – their routines, etc. 

Who is your favourite author?
Really, really don’t have one, but I always buy the new Robert B Parker, and I think Robert Harris is good (Pompei, Fatherland etc.)

Who is your favourite actor? 
Oh the usual suspects – Pacino, Crowe… 

What is the last movie you went to see?
All of them. I’m a real movie buff. I’m also a member of BAFTA and get sent all the new movies around Christmas time in order to vote, and that is the best Christmas present I could possibly have, to see all these new movies first! Sad but true.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given? 
It hasn’t been given, but there was a sudden realisation when I was starting out that while I might not ever be a ‘great’ writer, I could be just as bad as the other ones out there who were getting published, and who knows, maybe slightly better. Maybe it’s a Northern Irish thing, but we tend not to think we’re good enough. 

When it comes to movies, I’ve met a lot of film directors and been overwhelmed by them, their talk, their sophistication, their intellectual pronouncements and insight into my work. Then I’ve seen their movies and realised that they were talking crap. There’s a lot of bullshit in the movie business.

What is your favourite holiday destination? 
We go to Florida quite a lot. My wife loves the beach, and there’s dark movie houses for my son and I.

What is your favourite music to relax to? 
I’m an old punk rocker. So a lot of that. Springsteen, too.

Favourite pub/restaurant?
Don’t get out enough any more. A nice Chinese at home, with Liverpool on the box and a DVD waiting, that’s just about perfect for me.

Favourite part of Ireland? 
I spend a lot of time in Dublin working, but I’m still very happy in Bangor. It can be exceptionally annoying, but it will always be home and I miss it when I’m away. Awww...

This article originally appeared in CWN, the magazine of The Creative Writer's Network.