Brian McGilloway and John Connolly
Two of Ireland's most accomplished crime authors trade literary lessons to mark the double launch of their latest books
Having been advised to come early for tonight’s double book launch at No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast, the shop floor is already heaving by the time I step across the threshold. It seems everyone else has had the same idea, for this is a rather special evening for crime writing fans and those who like a spine-tingling tale or two.
Tonight is the launch of Derry writer Brian McGilloway’s latest novel, Preserve the Dead, the third in his DS Black series. It’s also the launch of fellow thriller and supernatural writer, John Connolly’s book of short stories, Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2. Oh, and there’s also free beer all round from event sponsors, the Boundary Brewing Company, so really – what’s not to like?
Introducing our authors is No Alibis’ very own David Torrans, who joins the pair centre-stage to talk about books, writing and more books. Dublin-born Connolly later confesses that he’s a true bibliophile and hoarder of books, so he’s certainly in good company on Botanic Avenue tonight. And so we begin.
Anyone who’s familiar with McGilloway will know he’s also a school teacher by trade who used to write in and around his lessons before taking a break to write full-time. He’s now doing both again.
'I had a very strict writing routine when I was working as a teacher,' he says. 'But it actually became quite difficult to write full-time – it began to feel like a job. I’d been teaching for 18 years and it was such a social job. To go from that to complete silence, I found quite strange.'
Connolly meanwhile, has written for younger audiences as well as for adults, and while McGilloway focuses on crime, Connolly has dabbled in different genres. Indeed, his repertoire includes the Charlie Parker mysteries, the Samuel Johnson novels for young adult readers, the Chronicles of the Invaders (co-authored), as well as The Book of Lost Things, to name but a few.
'There’s a very short period in a writer’s career where you’ll have ideas, an agent, readers and a sympathetic publisher,' he says. Ergo, he’s making hay while the sun shines.
'I just have that energy. There are lots of things I want to try. I knew I had a window to write another Nocturnes, so I did. I don’t write many short stories but I spent last year planning the next Parker book and writing these.
'At one point, I was writing three books at once and editing other books. I realised three books was probably too much though…'
Directing the conversation onto short stories, Torrans asks McGilloway if he too is a fan of the shorter form. It seems he is not quite so enthusiastic about brevity in writing, if only because he prefers to explore his ideas rather than confine them to a few thousand words.
He has, however, previously written short fiction for BBC Radio 4, so is no stranger to the genre. 'I’m quite in awe that you’ve put together two collections of what is a series of ideas,' he says to Connolly. 'My difficulty with it is that you’re ‘using up’ an idea. What I like about the longer form is that you can have the plot and three or four sub-plots crossing over with it.
'There’s none of that in a short story. Every time I finish a short story, I’m kind of sad I used the idea in that instead of a novel.'
Connolly, meanwhile, likes writing short fiction, which he describes as 'quite addictive,' but only for his supernatural stories. Crime writing he adds, is better for him in the long form.
He also enjoys the more finite element and the deadlines attached to writing shorter tales – a throwback perhaps, to his experiences as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times.
'I think the shorter a piece of supernatural fiction is, the more successful it is,' he says. 'Under the Dome by Stephen King is very long and it’s a fantastic piece of fiction, but you have to give people an ending and an explanation if you’re doing something that long and no ending is ever going to be as satisfactory as the dome coming down.
'It’s not King’s fault – it’s an inherent problem with the genre. The worst thing you can do is to explain the monster!'
Having both grown up reading books at home, both McGilloway and Connolly agree that while digital reading is better than no reading, nothing beats a physical book in your hand.
'Children will read in a home where they see books,' says McGilloway. He adds that during a six-month stint as a writer in residence in a local prison, he discovered a real hunger for books from those who attended his classes. Some had never seen a book in their home growing up, but now realised what they’d been missing out on.
Connolly adds: 'If you can get your kids reading, they’ll never be bored, and they’ll become more empathetic. It alters the way you approach the world. From a very early age I can recall my parents reading to me - you become attuned to the idea of books becoming part of your life from early on.
'I love being surrounded by books. I’m a collector – it’s my vice. Books and music. A lot of the stories in Night Music are about books.'
For those in the audience who also can’t resist the lure of books, the talk ends with the unveiling of a very special limited edition of Connolly’s aforementioned Night Music. Beautifully hand-bound and slip-cased, there are just 125 copies available, says Torrans, with exclusive artwork from Anne M Anderson also included.
It’s a book collector’s delight and the perfect way to end a great evening filled with bookish chat and writerly anecdotes.