My eyes scan the luxurious Westin Hotel’s, Atrium Lounge in Dublin and land on the bearded guy in the corner, dressed in black. If it wasn’t for the fact that we’d already met, Stuart Neville would have appeared more rock star than author and my eyes would have moved on. I find later, that if he hadn’t caught the writing bug, that’s who he may have become. Although then he may have swapped his pot of tea for something a little stronger – in keeping with that rock image.
When we get talking about his life before writing he agrees that “it seems to be quite a common thread among writers that they’ll have done a lot of odd jobs over the years before they finally end up as writers. I worked in a music shop and I worked for a long time trying to break into writing music for film. I studied music in college,” he tells me, “and then I did score one low budget feature.” He grins, “sort of a musical director – for want of a better word – on a short film with Ardhal O’Hanlon.” And it appears that Stuart Neville’s hands have a claim to fame all of their own. In a scene where O’Hanlon has to play the guitar, it’s actually Neville’s hands that appear on screen!
Many readers have authors they admire and would relish an opportunity to chat to them about their craft. And every writer has a number of writers they feel the same way about. I was delighted to find that we were both fans of Stephen King who Neville actually met up with last year. “It was a bit of a thrill to meet him actually,” he says. “We were up in the same category for the Edgar Awards and there’d been lots of speculation as to whether he was going to show up or not. We already had our photographs taken as the finalists and we thought he wasn’t going to come, and then,” he pauses, lowering his voice, “I looked back ten minutes later and there he was. So I shouldered my way through and I went up and introduced myself.” He finishes by telling me, “I get the impression he’s not very comfortable with the adulation he gets. He’s very gracious, but he’d tell you he doesn’t relish the attention.”
When the conversation turns to a writer’s life, I get the feeling that Neville might share King’s views. “As writers, we tend to be quite solitary, we’re used to living in our own heads and every now and again,” he shrugs, “you have to go to a function or something.” Apparently the first writing festival, Neville attended was in Dun Laoghaire where John Connolly made a big impression on him. Connolly told the audience that it wasn’t until after he’d written five or six books that he realised he might actually make a go of writing. Neville was astonished because “you could see he was already a massive bestseller at that point.” Having caught up with him now, I wonder if Neville can relate. He readily agrees, “I think that bit of insecurity doesn’t leave you.”
So it must surely have been gratifying to have John Connolly comment on Neville’s debut novel: “The Twelve is not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but is also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times. It grips from the first page to the last, and heralds the arrival of a major new voice in Irish writing.”
While, according to Val McDermid: “What makes Stuart Neville so special is that he never forgets the human heart that beats inside the bleakest darkness.”
When I ask Neville where the idea for Those We Left Behind came from, he tells me that it started from a news story he read a few years back about two brothers and the horrific crime they committed. In particular, he was struck by how much control one person can actually have over another and how they can use that to get others to bend to their will. “It’s the nature of control and the very close relationship you can get between brothers,” he says, explaining how his characters developed. “There’s that unnaturally close bond between the brothers. But that does exist in the world, particularly when you’ve got siblings who’ve been removed from their environment and placed elsewhere. It can be positive and negative. Whatever takes them from their usual environment can tend to have them cling together: them against the world. I wanted to show that relationship between Ciaran and his brother but I wanted to go one step further into something much more dangerous.”
Neville admits it was a struggle to find a suitable title. “I had to sit back and think, well what’s this book actually about – the underlying theme or idea? This was very much about what happens to families of the victim of a crime – what’s left behind.” It’s an unfortunate fact, living in Northern Ireland, he explains, that “you would be surrounded by people who had lost family members to violence. And in any murder case, particularly where children have lost parents to violence, it defines them from that moment on. And there’s no getting over it – that is them, from then on.”
Although he started to write, Those We Left Behind, in 2012, “it ground to a halt and I couldn’t get it to move.” He instead went on to write The Final Silence and it was his publisher who suggested that maybe his minor character, DCI Selena Flanagan, might be a better fit rather than the original, DI Jack Lennon, “and the whole story just opened out from there.”
The novel he is currently working on will be the follow up to Those We Left Behind and “is actually based on a short story I wrote for Radio 4 and I had this idea for a character situation in my mind for a while. Several books have started that way. For me, short stories are kind of side-ways glances at a bigger story – you get snippets or a glimpse into their world. If I find them interesting enough then, quite often, it turns into a novel. I liked the set-up of this story and thought there’s more to explore in the characters. It’s further into character-driven territory: a smaller story centring around these three characters and much more about inner conflict than outer conflict.”
Further down the road, Neville intimates that he’d “like to set something in the desert around Phoenix, Arizona – it’s a very, very different place, especially for someone coming from Ireland.” He’s become very fond of the area and tells me, “when you walk into this bar you see a big sign saying No Guns Allowed. I remember the first time walking in thinking the owner was joking, but he actually said, ‘don’t bring your gun in.’ And it was my first exposure to gun culture in America, which I then take advantage of each time I go back.” He finds it “really amazing you can walk in, show your passport and hire a gun and go shooting.” But purely for research, he is quick to point out. Becoming quite animated, he tells me that one of the things that happens is that you “get hit in the face from the cartridges, when the shells are being discharged. And they ping off your head.”
Now that’s what I call real research …
(c) Susan Condon
Those We Left Behind is the new DCI Serena Flanagan novel from the King of Irish Noir:
When 12-year-old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation.
DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran’s confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn’t forgotten the kindness she showed him – in fact, she hasn’t left his thoughts in the seven years he’s been locked away.
Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran’s confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother.
When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, fresh back at work after treatment for breast cancer, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.
Those We Left Behind is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here.