Lather. Rinse. Repeat

So my nice little plan of writing up an end-of-year post fell apart. I shouldn’t have expected anything else. I don’t know about you but December for me can be very busy, mostly brought upon myself to be honest, but busy all the same. Apart from the normal end of year meetings and reports to be compiled in my day job I usually volunteer to help some friends of mine who run a bookshop over the weekends in December and the build up to Christmas. This does mean I can end up working most of the month straight through but at least this year I had some days off sprinkled in between to allow me to catch up on little things like sleep and the like. On top of this there’s the usual social activities of December and catching up with friends, and, the cherry on the top, is that I was working my way through a draft of a new novel at the time.

I have managed to survive all this, but as you can imagine there was little time for me to write up any sort of end of year blog. As it is I’m struggling to get it finished by the end of January.

To mop up the events of last year I attended the launch of Issue 2 of gorse where I read an extract of my story Extrapolations, it went well, I think, and people seemed to like it, which, as they say, is nice. Below is a link to some film taken on the night including an extract from my piece.

It was a great event and was a fantastic opportunity to hear some great work, and meet some great people. It’s something I definitely want to be part of again in the future. As anyone whose read my story can attest it doesn’t really lend itself to a public reading. I had a vague idea that I could read the whole piece in the allotted ten minutes only to fail miserably when I tried it at home. As it was I managed to get through about half the story. It nearly killed me in the process. The sort of frantic, inner monologue voice I used in the story doesn’t easily translate to a public reading and I was definitely falling apart at the end. Some in the audience may have felt I was getting overcome with the emotion of the piece; oxygen deprivation is closer to the truth! Still, as I said I’d love to do it again. There is a video of my full reading somewhere amidst the gorse. If I get my hands on it I may put it up online in the future, just to serve as a lesson to others how writing a story is all well and good, but if you want to actually read it out loud you’d better be prepared to put in breaks here and there so the reader has a chance to breathe every now and then.

The people at gorse were also kind enough to ask me to suggest my reading highlights of 2014, which I did along with other contributors through the year. It’s not exactly a Christmas list, but it does include those books I most enjoyed reading during the year, both new and old. A list I’d certainly recommend dipping into if you’re interested.

So on we come to 2015. I’ve no great resolutions to report, nor do I have any great expectations that in the broad sense the year will be radically different from last. I’ll continue to write. I’ll continue to submit. And I’ll continue doing this in the hope that I’ll find some success.

The title of this piece Lather. Rinse. Repeat comes from an old sit-com Friends I think, where one of the characters arrives late because she got caught washing her hair in a lather-rinse-repeat loop (not exactly Godot, but not a million miles away either). The writing game is like that. You go through the same steps, you write, you revise, you submit and you wait, and when all that’s done you go back and do it all again. As I said I’m under no illusions that this year will follow any different pattern to last. I’m also aware that this sounds perilously close to that old definition of insanity, repeating the same actions expecting a different response, but I suppose it is really.

The thing is, it’s not just that you have to learn to accept rejections of something you’ve worked very hard on; it’s that despite all your work you may never have any success. I don’t go in for positive thinking, prayers, lighting candles; votive offerings and the sacrificing of small animals aren’t my thing. It’s like those nature documentaries, the turtle lays her eggs on the beach and swims back out to sea, how the hatchlings survive is entirely out of her hands. It’s the same with submissions. I work hard to get my submission in as good condition as I can, but the minute I hit the send button, or put the envelope in the post box, that’s it, I’m done. There’s nothing I can do, except wait.

I think you have to accept the idea that you may never succeed with anything you do.

This isn’t me being defeatist. This isn’t me giving up. This is me accepting the fact that despite everything I do there is no guarantee that I will ever reach that stage where I can walk into a bookshop, browse along the shelves, and see my name as author on the spine of a book. I think I have to face that. I think I have to accept that. But I also have to accept that it isn’t going to make a difference.

I am a writer. I’ll say it again. I am a writer. That statement isn’t qualified by the books on the shelves, the publishing deals or the agent’s contracts in my back pocket. It’s defined by the fact that I spend what time I can sitting in a quiet room in front of a keyboard translating ideas in my head into words on a page, and I continue to do this again, and again. That, God help me, is what makes me a writer. It means that if I am successful I will hopefully make the most of it, but also if I’m not successful I’ll continue writing.

It sounds fucking stupid, it sounds futile, it sounds like a potentially huge waste of time, and it is. But that’s what I choose to do. I know what I do, the types of story I write, written in the style I write, them makes my work a difficult sell. And I know there’s never been a more difficult time to be a writer, though I doubt there’s ever been a good time. But in my own way I don’t care, I really don’t.

I’ve looked myself in the proverbial mirror and accepted that this time next year, or the year after, or in five years, or ten, or twenty, I may find myself going through the same motions, my own lather, rinse, repeat loop, and I accept it. I’ll accept that because I know I’m writing the stories I want to write in the way I want to write them.

It may be stupid, but it’s my stupid.

(and before we go any further this whole post isn’t my attempt to grab the unappreciated genius high ground. I think I have some ability, I think, to some degree, I can write. I know what I do will, even with the best will in the world, always place me in a niche, but I’m fine with that)

So even though everything I do may be a colossal waste of time I intend to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve never felt futility to be a good reason for not doing something 😉

So to end on a slightly more upbeat tone here’s a similar sentiment, in a pop music vein from the Ben Folds Five (basically the same misery, but with added Fraggles!)


Heroes, do we still have heroes anymore? Are we too grown up, too cynical, too knowing to call anyone a hero, does the idea even exist outside the worlds of movies or fiction or comics?

What about literary heroes. As a writer, and I’m sure something I hold in common with other writers, I have writers I admire, and yes I would call them my literary heroes. Writers I look up to because of their skill, their dedication and the fearlessness with which they engage with their subject matter. All the while as I try to write they sit on my shelves looking down on me, whispering in the silence that if I want to call myself a real writer I have to be willing to go as far as they went, put as much on the line as they did, be willing to be as brave and as courageous as they were with what they put on paper.

But what about literary characters, are any of those heroes?

I’m always reluctant to call the main characters in anything I write the ‘hero’, it sounds like they should be running around with a fedora and a wisecrack, besides, none of them ever do anything particularly ‘heroic’, I always like the idea that someone does something wrong and their life unravels as a result, much more interesting than the indestructible hero with the chiselled jaw, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and the dame simpering at his feet.

A friend of mine prompted this. She happened to be telling me one day that her favourite book is Jane Eyre, she was rereading it for the first time in years, and that the character of Jane Eyre is still a hero if her’s. Now while I don’t know the book that well and rely on film adaptations to be honest for my knowledge of it I can see why this character is so admirable, her intelligence and strength of character are certainly attributes to admire, and knowing my friend I can see aspects of Jane in her, see why this particular character would appeal to her.

So what about me, do I have a literary character hero, is there some character out there that I admire more than others? Can I pretend that I’m too cool for such an idea, that as a writer these things are beyond me? Thankfully not.

Most of the books I read tend to be one-offs and while certain characters stick in my mind, the unnamed narrator of Beckett’s The Unnameable, the lost souls of the Philadelphia dive bars from the world of David Goodis or the equally lost denizens of Georges Simenon’s romans dur struggling in their world in which one mistake has caused their lives to descend into misery, or where they try to escape from lives that have closed around them like traps, and of course not forgetting the eternal losers in the smoke filled bars of Patrick Hamilton’s world. Don’t get me started on the protagonists of Richard Yates’ brilliant books, all starting off well and going downhill faster than an Olympic luge. And yes, I do see a pattern but at this moment in time I’m sitting in a chair not lying on a couch so we’ll let that one float on by for the moment if you don’t mind.

Admirable as all of these characters are in their own way I couldn’t really count them as heroes, much as I would sympathise with them and wish them well as they try to snatch one small victory from life’s defeats I still wouldn’t call them my heroes.

Thinking over the idea of a literary character as a hero I eventually realised mine was a literary type, specifically in two series of books, with the honourable mention of a third. Each of these characters inhabit the same basic characteristics and are all essentially variations on the same theme, and while many have imitated them over the years I don’t think this character has been better defined than in these examples.

The versions of the same character I’m talking about are Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant in the Factory series of books and the mention goes to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series set in Nazi Germany.

For most Philip Marlowe is the embodiment of the Private Eye, fedora, mac, cigarettes, bourbon and wise-cracks, Humphrey Bogart eyeing up the dames as they saunter into his office, yadda, yadda, yadda. Even if you’ve never seen Bogart as Marlowe (and why the fuck haven’t you!) you know the type, and Bernie Gunther is very much a carbon copy of same. Indeed if your crime novel includes a private detective and isn’t set in a country house or cruise liner a la Christie, then chances are your main character is a version of what I’ve described. But it isn’t the wise-cracking street-smart Shamus that interests me, it’s another aspect of their character, and one the three examples I’ve picked share in spades.

These characters exhibit something beyond a world weariness, to me it’s an inherent sadness, sadness at the world around them, the sadness of knowing that the more they learn about the world the worse it gets. These are characters that live in worlds without pity, without justice, without love, everyone they meet is lying, corrupt, or just pure evil in their own way. But it’s the relentlessness that I admire, knowing just how shit the world is they choose to go on, they know that the world will not be a better place when they finish, they know they will not put things to right but they go on, hoping that in their own small way they can let a little chink of light penetrate the darkness, even for a moment.

Chandler’s Marlowe is the oldest of the three, and serves as the template for this kind of hero. It’s no coincidence that in an earlier version I believe the character was called Malory after the creator of Le Morte D’Arthur, the classic tale of chivalric knights in search of the holy grail, because in his own way Marlowe, and the Detective Sergeant, and Bernie Gunther are knights, they are men out of time on their own quests, eternally seeking for something they will never find. I see these figures as romantic heroes, not in the sense of chocolates and flowers and jumping in a lake fully clothed (if you’re a fan of BBC mini-series), no I mean romantic in my own reading of the original sense of the word.

The romantic knights in their quest to find the grail weren’t necessarily looking for a cup (or a bloodline or any of that shite); I even believe some of the early tales refer to grails, not just one. The quest for the grail was a quest for the divine, for perfection, for an ideal, an ideal that they can never find because it doesn’t exist in this world. I’ve always felt that a cynic has to begin life as a romantic, someone with the concept of the ideal but who realises that this ideal cannot exist and now sees the world around them as something tawdry and lacking because of the absence of this perfection that they may once have had a glimpse of but now forever remember. Marlowe to me is such a knight, transplanted from medieval Europe to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, like the cosmic balance to Mark Twain’s story. Marlowe tries to live by his code, to live with what are now alien concepts such as truth, justice and decency but everywhere he looks he sees these ideas corrupted, everywhere is a corruption of the ideals he tries to cling on to.

I recently reread Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, not one of his best and one I haven’t read in years. This book does display the flaws that others have pointed out in Chandler’s work, namely that the plotting can get a bit confusing and convoluted, though as always it is the character of Marlowe that keeps you interested. What I noticed this time is the all-pervading sadness in the book. Marlowe is hired to find a man’s missing wife, in doing so he discovers the body of another woman, the titular lady in the lake and the plot continues weaving both strands together until the finale. The sadness infects almost every line; it’s as if Marlowe knows that this will not end well, not for him the satisfaction of solving a crime or uncovering a murderer. As I said it’s the gradual revelation of the venality of the people he meets, the slow revelation that almost no one he encounters can even pass as a decent human being. This is also something I find in Simenon’s Maigret books, the cases are never solved triumphantly; he finishes every investigation almost regretting that he has found out what he has.

Chandler famously described the character of Marlowe in The Simple Art of Murder (1950):

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

That pretty much sums him up. But as I said it’s the almost unworldly aspect, the idea that he is a man out of time, the idea that he will hold on to his principles no matter what, knowing that what he is doing is essentially futile and meaningless. That to me is what makes him heroic.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a more recent version of this hero but his stories take place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Even more so that the Los Angeles of the 40s this is a great example of the hero trying to hold to his code in a world of horror. How more futile can it be to hold to such ideals in the horrific world of the Nazis, what’s the point in scraping out one iota of justice in this particular circle of hell? And yet he does it, he tries. Again it’s the self-knowledge of the character, realising that it is all completely futile, and being aware of it, that perversely in his own way makes him heroic.

The nameless Detective Sergeant of Derek Raymond’s Factory series adds a more modern slant to these two errant knights. For him it is the mean streets of Thatcher’s Britain, where famously there is ‘No such thing as Society’. The Detective Sergeant is assigned to investigate crimes that no one cares about. People die, unwanted and uncared for so it is to the unwanted of the Metropolitan Police Force that they turn for answers, though nobody really cares whether the cases are solved or not. Raymond’s hero perfectly encapsulates the world of noir fiction in one beautiful, perfect sentence

‘For the span of my own lifetime I would always arrive too late’

(I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond, 1990)

In his two masterpieces, He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez the Detective Sergeant investigates the murder of two unwanted people, one a failed writer confining his thoughts to a series of taped confessions (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Raymond himself) and the other an unwanted immigrant working as a prostitute. In both cases it is the compassion of the Detective Sergeant for the two victims that shines through, even though he knows that the resolution of the investigation will bring no justice and that no one bar him will even care. As the Detective Sergeant prepares to confront Dora’s murderer he says a silent prayer to her, acknowledging that he, like everyone else, has failed her in life and hoping that in some way his actions now will bring her some peace.

Despite his prayer and in common with Marlowe the Detective Sergeant is well aware of the futility of his actions, what he does will not change the world, no one cares and they are often blunt in telling him that, yet he tries in a vain attempt to atone for the worlds failings. It always reminds me of a line I remember from a television show years ago, I can’t remember what it was, but the line stuck with me, it may even have been borrowed from something else, I don’t know (ok a quick Google has now revealed the line comes from Joss Whedon’s Angel, ok not the great classic work I was hoping for but I’ll stick by it, I always liked that line and the guy can sure write):

‘When nothing we do matters all that matters is what we do’

So that’s it really, my literary hero is not one but two characters, but basically two sides of the same coin. Philip Marlowe and the nameless Detective Sergeant, both prowling their own mean streets, both trying to shine even a little light in a world that’s long since gone dark, both failing, but trying again. Both knowing that there is no reward, in this world or the next but they do what they do because there is no reward, because it is the right thing to do, and for no other reason than that.

(I don’t know, maybe I should just invent a superhero, indestructible, infallible, omniscient, leaping tall buildings, saving the day, walking off into the sunset with his best gal as the credits start to roll, but where’s the fun in that?)

Incidentally, speaking of walking off into the sunset. I’ll leave you with an image, possibly one of the greatest images in cinematic history, from John Ford’s The Searchers. While John Wayne doesn’t exactly fit into the mould of my literary heroes as described above (neither of them would have made a pro-Vietnam War movie like The Green Berets which famously ends with Wayne standing on a beach in Vietnam looking out to a glorious sunset, even though Vietnam doesn’t have any westerly facing beaches) the last scene of this movie does demonstrate how the hero does exist outside of the rest of the world, my own heroes exist outside a rotten and corrupt society while Wayne’s character feels his violence is more attuned to the wilderness, not the domestic world of the settlers. Either way, it’s easy to see my two heroes walking away, alone, as they know the rest of the world is one in which they do not belong.

Here I go again

So here I go again, once again, trying to roll that rock back up that hill and write a new book.


For someone who’s in that no man’s land where you don’t have an agent, publisher or books on the shelf, you’re left with a few options when you’ve finished a book, or in my case two.

The first is to go back and rewrite, to see if you can get your completed book into some better condition than it was when you finished it. This isn’t without merit. Every time I look over something I’ve written I see places where it could be better or things I don’t like anymore so rewriting has a value. However rewriting can become an endless cycle. Without some outside direction it’s possible to keep rewriting forever, endlessly telling yourself that the book isn’t finished yet because you keep going back and tinkering with it. Like a literary version of the Forth Bridge you get to the end and it’s time to go back and start again (though I believe, fact fans, that they’ve now started using a new paint on the Forth Bridge that doesn’t require constant repainting but for the sake of argument we’ll stick with the older version, or insert the name of a constantly repainted bridge at your leisure). Constantly rewriting is also a way of putting off that day when you send your book out into the world and look for approval, you can’t submit a book and say in the email that this may be draft 36 but if they email back you can now send them draft 48. Essentially you need to shit or get off the pot, to put it bluntly. There is only so much you can do on your own. I truly don’t believe that an agent will reject your book because they feel it could do with another draft. As has happened to people I know the agents have come back to the writers, offered encouragement and advice and requested the rewrites and moved on from there. Everything they get will be rough in one form or another. You give it the best shot you can and send it out, the alternative is you keep rewriting and rewriting and fill your life with unfinished manuscripts.

The second alternative is to move on to another book, this is what I prefer to do. This probably comes from the way I write. I’m a planner, a plotter, a thinker, a note-taker. When I get an idea for a story I generally think through things like the characters, the plot, even the general feel of the story before I start writing. I normally know the beginning and the end and most of what happens in between and why. This makes the process of writing much easier for me as I’m effectively typing something I already know instead of sitting staring blankly at the screen wondering what comes next. For this reason I like to move on to another story, a short story maybe or in this case another novel.

Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it sounds. I prefer to write in the first person, to get inside the main character’s head and tell the story from there. I heard the term ‘voice-book’ used by someone else and I think I’ll borrow it. I write voice-books, but it can mean writing them can be uncomfortable places to be, even if you know exactly what’s going to happen and can type away as fast as you can without having to pause to worry about what happens next.

Take my new story for example. It’s about a man whose girlfriend has been murdered. I’m roughly 10,000 words in but basically the work so far encompasses the initial shock, grief and despair, not a pleasant place to be. As the story unfolds a secret will come to light that will change how both the protagonist and his girlfriend are seen and sets the story down a particular path, but that’s another days work, I need to get through these parts first before I can move on. I prefer the linear approach, start, middle, end, as there are often little things that creep in that colour the text as it goes on. That, as they say, is the plan anyway. If I keep on track I should have a finished draft of this new book by the end of the year. My target is the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair competition which is useful not only for the chance it offers but because I work much better with a target, a deadline, or to get all Chandlerish for a moment I don’t know what to do until that man walks through the door with a gun and points it at my head.

There is, of course, a third option, that is to throw my hands in the air, admit I’m a failure, wipe my hard-drive and never write another word. Maybe I could take up a more socially acceptable hobby, like alcoholism, or cow tipping? Despite the occasional pangs I’m not ready to be a failed writer just yet. The word ‘failed’ implies finality, a full stop. Perhaps in my case the term ‘failing-writer’ is more appropriate, though of course that leaves me in the ‘fail again, fail better’ category and I’m always happy in such company.

Working to a plan and a schedule as I do is, of course, just a pale imitation of the master of working in this manner, Georges Simenon, the great European crime writer and one of the greatest writers of them all. Reading his books is a great pleasure for me but also a humbling experience, especially when you see the pace at which the man churned out such fantastic work. If you haven’t read any of his books I urge you to immediately turn off this drivel and get your hands on them, especially the non-Inspector Maigret stories. Someday, if I feel I have the chops to do it, I intend to write a blog post about Simenon’s work, maybe a series dedicated to each of my favourite crime writers? But not today (quickly scribbles ideas for future blog posts).

Simenon is a legendary writer, as Luc Sante put it in the introduction to The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, nyrb, 2005;

The legend of Georges Simenon expresses itself in statistics: four hundred books, ten thousand women, half a million pencils, some exalted quantity of pipes.

And of course if I could go to that hole in the ground having written a percentage of the books he has I would be a very happy corpse, a percentage of the number of women would also be very much appreciated as you’re offering (where are the dudes with the horns, cloven feet and contracts when you need them?), though I’m pretty ambivalent about the pencils to be honest and the pipes you can keep.

The speed at which he wrote was astonishing, I always remember a picture taken from a biography I read showing a page from one of his calendars. Carefully marked off were nine days for writing, a pause, and then three days for revision. AND THAT WAS IT. Many writers have struggled for much longer time and completed something not even a fraction as good as the books Simenon could just knock out. So every time I start to plan out a book I have that page from his calendar in my head. Even if I had the time to do so and didn’t have to worry about little things like a full time job I know I’d never be able to finish a book in that short a time.

calendar (1)

But it’s like someone who plays five-a-side football with his mates looking at YouTube videos of the Brazilian team of 1982, sometimes it’s important to sit back and admire those who raised the bar, even though you might never get within a million miles of it you know you have something to aim for.

You can read shite, aim low and try to copy it but can you look yourself in the eye while doing it?

So I start pushing that rock back up that hill again. And though the top of the hill is the standard set by those I regard as great and though I know I’ll never reach the top of that hill I’ll keep pushing.

. . . It sure beats the shite out of sitting at home every evening watching reality TV now doesn’t it?


Research, that seems to be a big thing doesn’t it, research? Is it just homework for adults, something we have to do but won’t make any actual difference to what we achieve or is it important?

Especially in genre fiction, crime and historical fiction more than most, research seems to be a big thing. I can understand why it matters in historical fiction. If the protagonist of my novel is on his way to swop bon-mots with Oscar Wilde over a glass or two of absinthe then he or she really shouldn’t be checking their mobile for text messages. I’ve always loved history and read non-fiction books on various historical events and people on a regular basis but couldn’t class myself as an expert on any of them. I know these experts exist and I know the online comment world is full of ‘helpful’ suggestions of historical inaccuracies in books, plays, films and television shows, oh how the creators must love them! I’m sure we’ve all spotted such errors ourselves, you’re reading a book and something just doesn’t feel right, the characters wouldn’t have done that or said that, you feel. You might be right, you might be wrong but in either case the spell of the book is broken, temporarily at least.

Though what I really hate is the other extreme, someone who has obviously spent months if not years researching a particular historical period and will stop at nothing unless they can squeeze the maximum amount of said research into their book. I remember reading a particular book set in the 19th Century and commented to a friend at the time that I felt that hacking off at least two hundred pages would have greatly improved the story. TWO HUNDRED PAGES, and that was just a rough guess. The book was so full of detail that I forgot what the story was meant to be about and by the time I finished it I was beyond caring.

In the world of crime fiction there are those who go to great lengths to get specifics right, especially when it comes to forensic science. Now I can understand this to a degree, after all there’s so many stories involving the world of forensics than an error would shine out and be quickly picked up on. Likewise in the world of guns, an almost pornographic level of detail can be entered into when describing guns, different calibres, makes, sizes, colours even. Again the writer runs the risk of being ridiculed if they get the details wrong. After all, if the hero is an international hit-man for hire and doesn’t know their Glocks from their Smith and Wesson’s it won’t work. I can understand that.

But apart from the technical or historical detail there seems to be an interest in researching all aspects of a story, getting as much real life detail about a subject as possible before putting a word on the page. My initial reaction to this is usually:


If you want to write non-fiction then go and do it. If you want to be a journalist then, again, go and do it. If you’re writing crime fiction then sit down and write FICTION. Now I’m not saying ignore any and all research, I’m just saying that there is enough information out there, readily available, so you don’t need to be asking the Gardaí or local police force how they do what they do and while you’re at it can you lock me up in a cell overnight for the craic.

There are newspapers, news shows on television and radio, shelves and shelves of true crime books, and have you heard about this new thing called the internet? Now I’m not really trying to be sarcastic, I just think there is enough information readily available, to hand, for free in a lot of cases, to provide the fuel to kick-start your story. I also think it’s a bit of a waste of time to ask the Gardaí, or your local police force, to provide information to you as research when they should be out doing other things.

It’s like this. Take for example the novel I’m working on now. I’ve just started but it’s basically about a man whose girlfriend has been murdered, how he reacts, how he deals with it and how he tries to live with it, all the while the investigation into her murder is on-going. I won’t go into any more detail but you get the basic idea. Now if I wanted to get a direct line of research on this how would I go about it? Would I ask the Gardaí the specific details of what happens in a murder investigation? Possibly. They might be very helpful detailing the procedures and duties of the investigation team, or they might tell me to fuck off and stop wasting their time as they have real investigations to carry out. So without the specific detail what am I to do?

Likewise, if I want to get the inside view of a murder, how does it feel to have a loved one taken from you in such a sudden and brutal way, what do I do? Do I read the newspapers, find out the latest such victim and go up and knock on their door, explain that I’m writing a crime novel and ask them to share the worst moment in their life with me? Bollocks I do.

Now I’ve intentionally chosen to write stories that aren’t police procedurals, in this case the investigation will be shown from the outside, so I’ll avoid the need to have detailed knowledge of a murder investigation. A cheat, well a little cheat perhaps, but my interest in the story is seeing how things happen through the eyes of the living victim, I don’t care how these operations are run, other books have been much better at detailing this work, I don’t feel the need to try to copy them.

Likewise with the victim, I couldn’t excuse asking someone to share their real life trauma for me to try to turn it into entertainment, to try to make money off it.

That’s why I prefer the secondary sources, news stories, occasionally true crime books. I just want to get the general feeling in my head, a general idea of what the experiences were like, I can write from there.

This brings up another problem I have with research. Like I said it’s called fiction, if I wanted to write fact I’d have become a journalist (stop laughing at the back). I like to just have some general facts about an event if I’m to write about it, too much and it becomes fixed in my head, I can’t do anything with it unless I copy it verbatim. The same thing applies to stories people tell me. It’s a fairly common thing, someone tells a writer a story and they go off and turn it into something else, a short story or a full blown novel. Fair play to them. I’ve tried things like that before, taken little stories I’ve heard or taken people I know and try to turn them into fiction. It doesn’t work, not with me anyway. The more detail I put in about a real person or event, the more it becomes fixed in space and time, any attempt by me to mould it into something new just collapses in a heap, it doesn’t work. Of course I’ve included real things I’ve heard, real people, real stories, in things I’ve written, but I can only use them sparingly, as colour to the broader story, nothing more, I can’t make them work as anything more than a little aside.

I’m sure other writers can take such things and do wonders with them, like a chef with a handful of random ingredients, some can make delicious dishes, I just end up with muck that needs to be thrown out.

The upside of this is, I suppose, for anyone I know, that I’m unlikely to take anything you tell me and turn it into a story. If you tell me that A met B and they did something to C then unless I report it as exactly as I can it’s useless to me, I can’t make it work any other way, it’s fixed. So I actually have to sit down and try to make stuff up on my own. The people in my life, for good or ill, are not here to provide background information for me. Basically if you don’t want to run the risk of me writing about something that happened to you tell me about it.

Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t get ideas from what I see around me, but that seems to be from secondary sources. Generally the best thing anyone with aspirations to write can do is keep their eyes open, there’s enough shit going down in the real world to keep us in material for generations.

There are fantastic writers out there who do the exact opposite to what I’ve been saying, been very successful with the types of stories that require great detail and intimate knowledge of the world’s they’re describing. I’ve been lucky, to an extent, so far, the stories I’ve wanted to write have never required these levels of research, I’ve tried to keep my stories small, intimate, I try to go inside the skull instead of outside into the big bad world.

What I want from research is to give me a framework. Once I get the general idea about what I’m going to write about I’m fine, as long as I don’t deviate too far from the real documented truth of a subject that’s more than enough for me.

I like to think of research as like scaffolding around the building. You need scaffolding of one kind of another when constructing a building but the whole point is that once the building is finished you take the scaffolding away and forget about it. Irrespective of how much scaffolding was required or how complicated it was once the building is finished you have to take it away. If I’m looking at a building and all I’m thinking about is the amount of scaffolding then the building fails

And here’s the thing, take two writers, both ending their story on death row in a prison in, say, Texas. One writer has travelled to Texas, spoken to the guards, managed to get a look inside the prison, seen the prisoners and how they live. The other has a vague idea of what death row would look like, based on movies, some documentaries, and a couple of books. Now unless you’re one of the relatively few people who have seen this death row you’re not going to be able to tell the difference in their work. You’ll make your judgement based on who you feel described a place you’ve never been better, essentially who is the better writer. And maybe that’s enough.

Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

(Though, of course, if I even got my researching shit together I’ve a KILLER idea for a historical crime novel, . . ., ah well)

My Story – My Eurydice

I was very fortunate recently to have a short story of mine published in the Irish Independent (27th July 2013) as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards.

You can read the story by following the link below. Unfortunately the structure of the Irish Independent website means you can’t actually tell the story is by me. Well it is, honest. Those who saw the newspaper on the day can attest to the photograph grimacing from the lower corner of the page (a hastily taken selfie)

To the suggestion that I should have smiled in the picture I can only comment that it would have put more readers off, imagine looking at that over your morning coffee!!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.

Do I Wanna Grow Up?

So when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you get everything you wanted? Was it better or worse?

I was recently speaking to a friend of mine whose career as a teacher is now unfolding. Talking to her it is clear that this is something she’s wanted for a very, very long time. I dearly wish it works out exactly as she wants, that she doesn’t regret the choice she’s made and that her calling never becomes merely a job. As with any similar conversation with a smart, interesting friend it got me thinking, how far off what I wanted to be as a child am I now, and is being a writer just another way of putting off being a proper grown up?

As a child I probably wanted to be Indiana Jones, Ronnie Whelan or Biggles, but I became a Civil Engineer, even that kind of happened by accident. In school I wanted to be a pilot, but that didn’t work out, then I thought I wanted to do something with computers. I went for various college courses and ended up studying Engineering, which had the option to specialise into Computer Engineering after the first two years, so everything was still on course. But after two years I decided that computers weren’t for me, so Civil Engineering seemed like the most interesting option, no, honest, so that’s the direction I went. It all seems a little vague now looking back, not exactly pursuing a dream career, just choosing the best of a particular set of options at the time.

I’ve spoken in an earlier blog about how it was while at college that the first ideas of becoming a writer started to creep in. Should I have abandoned Engineering and transferred to something like English Lit, would I have been happier, would I now be a successful, published writer? I honestly don’t know. I do know that one of the reasons I stayed put was because of the friends I’d made. I realise now that they would have remained my friends in either case but at the time I was probably too insecure to risk losing them. I’m not sure what the reaction of my parents would have been to me leaving a course with at least a reasonable set of career options ahead of me for one with only a vague notion of how I would make my way?

So I stayed where I was, muddled through my exams and graduated, all the while keeping my guilty little secret, reading the works of writers I love and thinking someday, someday. I then ended up in what in many ways was my perfect job, working in a bookshop. I love books and I love book people, and even now I spend a lot of time there, generally just helping out and making the place look busy, like a seat filler at the Oscars, but I have the perfect situation, I can leave any time I want.

But I continue with my fulltime job, as time goes on becoming more and more of a job, nothing less. I don’t think there’s anything in the job itself I can change to make it more enjoyable, now that the writing monkey is firmly ensconced on my back, I need the job for little things like keeping a roof over my head, food occasionally and, oh yes, buying books. Like a slogan I saw written on a carrier bag, ‘When I have money I buy books, if I have any left over I buy food’.

So I go to work every day, try to do as good a job as I can, to maintain my sanity as much as anything else, and also because I don’t believe in just pissing these things about, I had to work hard to get where I want and many more would be delighted to take my place, and I wait to go home to write. I don’t try to write in work for two obvious reasons, one, I don’t really want to get fired, and two, I work in an open plan office, I think my colleagues would start to suspect something if my technical reports started to appear on the screen with far too many ‘fucks’ in them. So the best I can do is scribble any ideas that come to mind on pieces of paper, stick them in my arse pocket, and wait to get home.

Anyway, am I where I wanted to be as a child? Definitely not, is it a better place? Fucked if I know?

So anyway, is being, or wanting to be, a writer anything a proper grown up would want to be?

Unless we can be assured of making a liveable wage shouldn’t we all just give up the ghost and go and do something more financially stable instead? Shouldn’t we all find another means of supporting our loved ones?

Speaking from a purely financial point of view I do have, as I said, a job, so I’m not starving in a garret, but the time and effort even I’ve put into writing will never be properly recompensed, unless I get into the Brown or Rowling strata, and a quick look at anything I’ve ever written will clearly show that isn’t going to happen. Instead I should really concentrate on my day job, be the best I can be at that and enjoy the increased rewards, sounds simple.

One of the advantages of not having a wife / partner, or children, is that I don’t feel that time spent writing is time that should be spent looking after someone else, for better or worse, but that’s another set of problems, for another day methinks.

So putting aside any financial or time issues, isn’t being a writer just another way of putting off being a grown up? I know I could never claim to be the most mature forty-one year old, and on good days I do feel that I am understanding things about myself and that my life is coming together in ways probably more applicable to being in my early thirties, there’s obviously a ten-year period or so floating around there where I should really have become a proper grown up, fucked if I know what I did with it? It might be around here somewhere?

Anyone with an anthropological bent could tell me about the role of the story tellers in society, and maybe that’s something we, as writers, still try to fill, but I’m sure the storytellers were always the weird guys sitting by the fire, everyone else was off, you know, actually doing shit.

So do we all, as writers, retain a childlike, immature side, even those, unlike me, with real world responsibilities? Do we all retain that sliver of childhood where we still like to imagine things, make up stories and worlds around us while everyone else has actually grown up?

I always thought that if books were saints the patron saint of writers would be The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, as it identifies our dual nature, inner and outer world. If that is the case then isn’t there the case to be made for secondary patron saint status for Peter Pan?

Of course, as with most things I’m more than willing to be wrong. Maybe I’m the only one; maybe every other writer is a mature, well-adjusted adult, fully cognisant of their duties and responsibilities and able to indulge their writing hobby as a simple pastime, like Bridge, or Golf? But I don’t think so. I regularly meet some writing friends of mine for drinks, and usually at some time in the evening that same look will creep across all of our faces, that shared look in our eyes, that ‘what the fuck are we doing this for?’ look, where we know we could all spend our time much more wisely instead of slowly driving ourselves insane, taking time away from the rest of our lives to slowly go mad trying to get vague ideas onto a page and then to try to get someone else to like them. And these are writers that are much more successful than I am, with agents, publishers and actual, real, books on shelves, yet we all reach the point where we ask, why?

Maybe it is that inner child, the one that most grownups manage to lock away, to be put aside like those childish things? But when you’re a writer you may try to lock that inner child away in the attic, but he or she will be up there, charging around, making noise, breaking things up, waiting to be let loose again, whether you like it or not.

So is there an answer? No. Is there an alternative? No. Is there a way to be an actual, real-life, mature adult, all grown up and stuff, and still be a writer? Now you’re asking the wrong man there pal.

So in the best tradition of leave ‘em with a song,

there could be only one . . .


After the publication of my short story in the Bohemyth Journal I was contacted by Mel Ulm who runs the Reading Life blog and asked if I’d like to be interviewed.

For what it’s worth my Q&A session is up here:

Despite my own witterings it looks like an interesting site and a lot of work seems to have gone into it

Stand up for Bastards

Now Gods stand up for Bastards.

To be honest I can’t say I’ve any particular reason to open up with that. Presumably something to do with the fact I’ve booked myself a ticket to see King Lear in the Abbey Theatre on my birthday (probably not a good idea to think about that too deeply come to think of it). It’s a play I haven’t seen in any form since I studied it for my Leaving Certificate so definitely not today or yesterday. I’m looking forward to what’s being regarded as an excellent production, and also to see if I can spot the resonances with Beckett’s Endgame as were recently pointed out to me by a friend of mine who’s studied both.

What’s really brought Edmund’s soliloquy to mind isn’t specifically to do with me being a bastard, I will leave that to the judgement of others, my own true self opinion is probably unprintable, even here. No, what brought it to mind was Edmund’s embracing his ‘baseness’, and in my own writing I have to embrace aspects that I might have preferred not to.

All of this has come about as I’ve recently finished a fairly intensive period of writing and re-writing. Re-writing can be a pretty harsh exercise in navel-gazing for any writer, which usually doesn’t go well for most, and is never a good time for me. As you’re writing you can always kid yourself that what you’ve just put on the page is excellent, or at least pretty decent. Going back to re-read something usually throws up the realisation that everything you’ve tried is utter shite. The only way past this is to understand that you will always regard everything you’ve written as utter shite no matter what it is, you just hope that your first opinion of the work is at least partially true. You just hope that someone else reading it will find something they like, convince yourself you’re getting away with it and keep going from there.

Anyway, where was I? Everyone who tries to be a writer dreams, at least some of the time, that they’ll be able to take quill to hand, or pencil, or pen, or keyboard, and bring forth words, sentences, paragraphs of utter beauty. Somewhere in all of us is the wish to bring out something that will cause the reader to shed a tear of joy, or at least pause and smile; reflecting on the glorious music the writer has wrought upon the page. Like many writers, or attempting writers, before I have found that it’s something I just cannot do.

I’ve tried over the years to write beautiful sentences, tried to structure narratives, stories, even just paragraphs, that capture something of a sheer and simple beauty. But I can’t write like that. Every time I’ve tried the words always come out wrong. I may know all the right notes but I can’t necessarily put them on the page in the right order (with thanks to Messrs’ Morecombe & Wise).

Many times I’d love nothing more than to be able to engage the reader over page upon page of beautiful prose describing a smile that would knock a man sideways or early morning mists rising to reveal a rich and verdant valley or simply lying on a bed tracing a finger over the soft Latte-coloured birthmark on the alabaster skin of a beautiful woman. But I can’t, not without making each seem stilted, bland, clunking and utterly, utterly false. I’ve found that the only way I can write, to any effect at all, is by reaching for the ugliness of the world.

In essence I am an ugly writer, that is I write about ugly people doing ugly things to each other. If I have any ability at all, if I have anything going for me, it is that amidst the ugliness I can manage to find something that the reader will feel is real, something they will be able to identify with and more importantly something for which they can feel some compassion.

There are times when writing that I feel an urge to try to save the characters from the world I’ve constructed for them and there are times I just want to reach down into the shit, scoop it up, handful after handful, fling it at the wall, grab hold of the reader’s head, press it close and shout in their ear SEE, SEE, THAT’S THE STORY, LOOK AT IT, LOOK AT IT.

All of my favourite writers in one way or another look down. Oscar Wilde said we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, many of us prefer to stay looking down into the gutter, that way we can see the shit floating towards us. Those writers I admire most are those who look down, look towards the unwanted, look towards things going wrong, look towards things falling apart, look towards what happens when the inevitable failure happens and look towards what people do next. They don’t do this to deride, they don’t do this to gloat at how much better their lives are, they do so out of compassion, out of love. Doing this doesn’t necessarily mean concentrating on a flop-house drunk from a pulp novel, or one of Beckett’s tramps. It can mean looking at the comfortable middle-class lives of those in the work of writers like Richard Yates, though exposing the tensions and self-destructive urges that inevitably destroy everything the characters once loved and held dear.

I really do feel that is the only direction my own attempts can go, not in an attempt to copy, more as a realisation that their stories resonate with what I want to tell as well. You can’t pretend that influences don’t matter, you find something that echoes what’s bouncing around in your own head and you go with it. If you have any guts and if you have any talent you try to make a little of it your own. That’s the challenge.

So anyway, that’s more than enough of my trawling through my own shit for a while. I’ll leave you with this one thought

. . . . . I am available for children’s parties . . . . . .

The Gods will not save you

‘The Gods will not save you.’

My favourite line from the Wire, and one that floats in and around my head on a more than regular basis. It’s grown to mean something applicable to more than just the characters in the show, I find it applies to most of the crime fiction that I love, and serves as a useful barometer for the crime fiction I don’t.

It refers to the powers in the universe outside the control of any one individual, or individuals. What we’re really talking about here is fate. Not the kind of fate ordained by the gods, or by karma, nor do I mean something allotted to a mere mortal by a capricious God. In fact it’s something that exists in a world where God, or Gods do not. What I mean here by fate is the struggle by a character, or characters, against forces that are far too strong for them, and always will be. In the world of the Wire this included poverty, drugs, crime, politics, big business and corruption in all its guises. In each of the seasons of the Wire the various characters come up against these forces, some were beaten, some cow-towed and surrendered, and occasionally one or two might prevail. But we were never left in any doubt that these victories were only temporary, the game remains. The names may change but the game is still the game.

I always find it useful to be mindful of what has been with us from the world of the ancient Greeks, that the gods interfere in the lives of men at a whim and will destroy them, or raise them up, if and when they see fit. The modern forces have replaced the cast of celestial beings sounding like Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson and sitting on clouded mountain tops, but their impact on our lives remain.

A lot of crime fiction seems to take a different approach, whether consciously or not. To me it seems like they adopt the superhero approach, namely their hero is imbued with some special faculty that lifts them above the world of mere mortals. This can be the supreme intellect of a Sherlock Holmes or the more physical abilities to out-drink, out-fight and out-shoot as seems to be the lot of many heroes. Instead of dressing them in a mask and a cape the writer dresses them like one of us but the super powers are always close to being unleashed, usually bringing death and destruction in their wake, saving the damsel and returning the world to one of law and order. Whether the hero actually wears a badge is usually immaterial, their code has been imposed and the evil vanquished. Until that is they reappear in the next episode, the world has reset and the eternal fight against evil resumes. If I was anything more than a dilettante when it comes to philosophy I might be able to describe this in post-Nietzschean language, in a world where God is dead the Superman reigns, but I think you get my drift.

I’ve never been interested in a superman as a hero, even as a kid I was never that interested in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, it was obvious from early on that as Superman was invulnerable and couldn’t be beaten he was never in anything more than temporary peril, nothing bad would ever happen to him. And if nothing bad could ever happen to him then why was I watching, there was never anything at stake. This basic premise applies to crime fiction. If I pick up a book and the hero appears to be a version of the superman it will take something special for me to keep reading, why would I?

No, I want to read about somewhere where things really are at stake, not just a scratch here and there, where their lives are at stake, and the lives of others, and some part of the characters are aware of this from the beginning, and also aware that people will probably die no matter what they do. In fact failure is always part of the story, but it’s when the characters essentially embrace that failure and continue that I am interested. Chandler created his Marlowe, his knight errant roaming the streets of LA, a sucker for a damsel in distress but always aware that he had probably been dealt a losing hand, yet he continued, the quest more important than the outcome, only in that could he live according to his code, like the knights of the grail quests on which he’d been based. From Chandler, and Hammett, arose the hard-boiled hero, but my main problem with many of the later derivations is that they, whether by accident or design, evolve into the superhero, at which point I don’t care. (Incidentally, anyone bothering to read this with a knowledge of graphic novels can probably shoot down my superhero analogy based on work being produced now, I don’t know enough of the medium to argue but even they would agree that the basic superhero idea gets pretty stale, no doubt why many modern graphic novel authors seek to subvert the clichés).

The twin pillars of my own love of crime fiction are David Goodis and Derek Raymond. In each of their work I can see the presence of the Gods, and their complete indifference to man, and the struggles of the characters become infinitely more interesting as a result.

Goodis peopled his stories from amongst the drunks and the losers of the slums of Philadelphia, all trapped in their world, occasionally getting a glimpse of the riches of the world outside but returning home, as poor as it may be. The idea of getting out, getting away may flicker into his or her consciousness but that flame is quickly extinguished by the ‘Gods’ and they fall back to where they began, or worse. I would have loved to see Goodis attempt a serial character in his books, I have only read a couple of attempts at a detective from his days writing from pulp magazines, to no great effect to be honest, but I would have loved to see what he could have tried to do with a recurring character in the world of his novels.

Derek Raymond’s great achievement is the series of Factory novels, based around the investigations of a nameless Detective Sergeant in a division outside the interest of the rest of the force. Here the fight against the ‘Gods’ is carried out to full effect. Raymond’s hero knows he is unwanted, knows he asks awkward questions and knows that in the end he can achieve no real justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates, that idea that the hero would achieve justice for the victim I’ve always found flawed, so what, the culprit is arrested, big deal, the victim is still dead. Raymond’s Detective Sergeant knows his efforts will be paltry but believes that his own efforts will at least serve as recognition that someone cared. In his masterpiece I was Dora Suarez he says a prayer to the dead Dora hoping that by confronting her killer she can go to her rest, though realising how futile his efforts are.

Stories set in a world where the Gods, in whatever form, do not care are not automatically ‘gloomy’ or ‘depressing’, and how I fucking hate when these words are used to describe a story, I’ve never felt a story has to have a happy ending, why should it? Futility is no reason not to do anything, a lot of what we all do every day is futile, yet we do it, and do it again the next day. In many cases it is the struggle of the characters that is interesting, how they confront the forces pitted against them knowing that the Gods are deaf to their pleas. It’s not really strange that the works of writers like Goodis and Raymond survived in French translations as their English-speaking readership largely dried up, those that lived with the cultural legacy of existentialism were more attuned to the struggles of the protagonists in an uncaring world. Who else could define the world of Noir for us?

The Gods will not save you, so fucking what, don’t go looking for help from them when you know that help will never arrive. Accept that all you will attempt will be futile; the best that can be achieved is some sort of small victory, temporarily delaying the inevitable. But a small victory achieved in circumstances where immense forces are weighed against you, where the Gods will not, nor will they ever, help you is worth more than some generic piece of shite where the hero stands staring off into the sunset with a cartoon woman by his side, ready to save the world again in his next adventure.