Declan Burke – Absolute Zero Cool
“The best piece of advice I was ever given was, ‘Stop writing.’ It was given to me by a former editor of mine, John Ryan, when I handed in a feature for In Dublin magazine, when I was the staff writer there. What he actually said was, ‘We know you can write. Now stop writing.’ In other words: Less is more. Get to the point. Tell us only what we need to know”.
‘Stop writing’, the words that formed the foundation of Declan Burke’s literary career. Since he stopped writing, he has written three books, edited an anthology about Irish crime writers and started the always engaging ‘Crime Always Pays’ blog. He has been featured in the various Irish newspapers and magazines, most recently interviewing Denis Lehane for the Irish Independent. Declan Burke meet with writing.ie to talk about his latest book ‘Absolute Zero Cool’.
Declan Burke has one piece of guidance for the readers of Absolute Zero Cool, expect the unexpected. He describes it as ‘a blackly comic tale, a kind of a hard-edged spoof on both the crime and literary genres, about a writer who finds himself confronted by a character from a long-abandoned novel’. It is a story of a character, hospital porter and borderline sociopath Billy Karlsson, taking control of his own destiny to broadcast his tale to the masses or face an eternity in limbo. ‘Publish,’ says Billy, ‘or I’m damned’. It is a crime novel that uses the devices of crime fiction to comment on the genre. Along with crime, it incorporates elements of spoof, comedy and meta-fiction.
Declan is well placed to comment on the state of the crime fiction genre. His blog, ‘Crime Always Pays’, on all things relate to crime fiction has been up and running since 2007. It features a mix interviews, reviews and articles on all things related to Irish crime writing (and the occasional international feature). Declan is also a guest blogger on writing.ie with Crime Scene. Between writing fiction and writing about fiction, which does Declan prefer? “I prefer writing fiction, definitely. Writing about crime fiction is enjoyable in itself, and makes for a hugely satisfying job, but ultimately any job is about paying the bills’. Declan describes writing fiction as an expensive hobby but also the time when he is most himself, that fiction allows him to escape to another realm. ‘Not that there’s an awful lot wrong with my ‘real’ life. It’s nice to escape into another one, though’.
Despite his initial best intentions, Declan is not a fan of plotting and planning. ‘There’s something about overly plotting a book that makes it sound like work to me, and I hate the idea of writing being work’. Declan’s approach allows him to enjoy his work as reader as well as a writer. The process is about discovery and exploration of his idea and getting it in print.
Mystery and suspense hook in the reader in a crime novel but these are not easily achieved. Declan’s approach is to instil intrigue in his work is to keep himself guessing. Inspiration trumps organisation as a new idea, seized upon, takes the narrative in a new direction. Planning is completely abandoned as the concept takes over. As a result the revelations can be as much as a shock to Declan as to the reader. ‘If you’re writing crime and mystery stories, as I mostly do, part of the fun for the reader is trying to second-guess where the story is going. And if the writer doesn’t know that when he or she is writing it, then hopefully the reader will be as surprised as the writer by where it finishes up.”
Declan has had some significant success in the past. His first novel, ‘Eightball Boogie’ was shortlisted for crime section of the Irish book awards when it was released in 2003. Written in part as an homage to Raymond Chandler, the book sees freelance journalist Harry Rigby investigating the apparent suicide of a politicians wife and ‘quickly finds himself sucked into a nightmare dominated by ex-paramilitaries who are ‘diversifying’ away from politically-motivated crime and staking out their turf in post-Peace Process Ireland’. ‘Eightball Boogie’ is noted for its mix of noir and humour and manages to evoke Chandler’s LA in rural Sligo.
Declan’s second novel, ‘The Big O’ was released in 2007. ‘The Big O’ is more of a crime caper with elements of screwball comedy. It is a story of a kidnapping gone wrong and the mayhem that follows, with several nods to Elmore Leonard along the way. ‘It was a lot of fun to write. I set myself the challenge of writing a crime novel that has no murders and the absolute bare minimum of violence, and could still stand up as a crime novel’. Comedy and humour are favoured over conflict and violence resulting in a story that will tickle your funny bone and still keep you captivated.
Declan’s decision to minimise the bloodshed in ‘The Big O’ was about more than setting himself a challenge. In recent years Declan has noted a shift in crime fiction. There has been an increase in books featuring extreme and graphic violence, particularly towards women, and scenes of gore and brutality that over-shadow plot and character. Declan’s aim was to distinguish necessary violence, to advance the storyline and introduce tension, from gratuitous violence included with the sole aim of shocking the reader. He wanted to show that a good crime novel is more than just ‘with a corpse on every page, each one more horribly mutilated than the last’. As he has shown in ‘The Big O’, there is more than one way to build tension and keep the reader anxiously turning the page.
Declan grew up surround by books and readers and sees both as crucial to his development as a writer. His mother was a great influence in that she was an avid reader which led to a house full of books ‘where it was entirely natural to read books, and where books were always available – that’s something you take for granted when you’re young, because you don’t know anything else, but it’s only looking back that I realise that that kind of environment is less common than we’d like.’ Later, his secondary school English teacher John McLoughlin, encouraged him and offered advice and tips that he still uses today. Overall it was reading that was his biggest influence, which drove Declan to want to write his own material.
When it comes to the silver screen, Declan is open to his books being adapted into films but it is not something he seeks out. Having dabbled in writing screenplays he prefers to write novels, adhering to John Gardner’s idea that a novel should be ‘a vivid, continuous dream’. A film adaptation of a novel becomes the definitive visual version whereas Declan believes in writing a story that can be vividly and uniquely ‘seen’ by each reader. For this reason, he would find a film adaptation of his work difficult to watch, it will not be the version that he ‘saw’ when writing it. As he mentioned earlier, writing transports Declan to another realm and he aims to offer the reader the opportunity to create their own worlds for his novels.
What advice would Declan offer to any aspiring writers out there? ‘…read until your eyes bleed. Anyone who tries to tell you that crime writing is different to any other kind of fiction doesn’t know what they’re talking about. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, who was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde on art, there are only two kinds of books, good and bad’. Stop writing. Start reading. Keep reading. That is some advice we can all happily take on board.
(c) Kevin Massey, August 2011.
You can read an exclusive extract from Absolute Zero Cool here
Declan Burke is the author of ‘Eightball Boogie’ (2003) and ‘The Big O’ (2007). He is the editor of ‘Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century’ (Liberties Press) (2011), and hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays. His latest novel, ‘Absolute Zero Cool’ is published by Liberties Press.