Although originally from Ennis, County Clare Bob Burke is now living in Limerick, in one of those unique, almost mythical places in Ireland – a village without a pub. With jobs in IT for most of his working life Burke’s transition to author was brought about by his unavoidable love of a good story. His first novel – The Third Pig Detective Agency – won the 2010 Eilis Dillon Award for best first novel at the CBI Bisto Book of the Year Awards and its sequel – The Ho Ho Ho Mystery was published in October 2010.
When not writing or performing the role of unpaid chauffeur for his three sons Burke explains how he enjoys reading lots and lots of books and this is something that has been a big part of his life since he was very young. In an entertaining interview which reflects his story-telling style Bob Burke provides an honest insight into the evil that taunts most writers – the tendency for procrastination.
Bob Burke has been writing from an early age although he happily admits that most – if not all – of what he wrote when he was young was “pretty dodgy”. It is with this in mind that he offers his first Top Tip to would be writers:
“never EVER illustrate your stories unless you can actually draw!”
For a long time after these first self-illustrated attempts at writing, the self confessed “lazy chancer” was very much in love with the idea of being a writer without actually producing anything. The ball finally began rolling for him when he started writing articles for magazines and realised how much fun it was. As Burke explains: “if you don’t enjoy your hobby in some respect, it’s not much of a hobby to begin with. Getting published was the icing on the writing cake.”
Writers are forever being told to write what they know. Whether this is based on their own experience or the genre they choose to immerse themselves in as a reader it is a valuable piece of advice and it is a tool advocated by Bob Burke.
Burke’s genre of choice as a reader is crime fiction, something discovered at an early age as he graduated from The Famous Five and The Secret Seven through to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and eventually Raymond Chandler and modern crime writers. The Third Pig series emerged from a combination of his love of detective fiction and the bedtime stories he created for his children. Inspired by a love of telling stories to them, Burke explains how he wanted to produce something that his three boys would like to read and that was probably the biggest motivation he had. This revelation brings him to his second Top Tip: “never tell your kids you’re writing a story for them, they will pester you continuously for the next chapter.”
Curious about the protagonist of Burke’s first published novel, I ask him why he chose the third pig of The Three Little Pigs fame to lead his story. He explains that it was when one of his sons asked what happened to the third pig at the end of The Three Little Pigs, that the character of Harry Pigg “bludgeoned his way” into his head. Once Burke decided that Harry Pigg was a detective, the story grew around him. The importance of character and plot are intrinsically entwined and Burke advises that “if the story doesn’t work and hook the reader in, it doesn’t matter how strong your characters are you’ll lose your audience very quickly.”
When asked which childhood book he classes as a favourite Burke answers emphatically: Treasure Island. He describes the moment he first encountered it, the disappointment when he realised that there were no pictures and the feeling of his heart sinking when he saw that it was much longer than anything he had read up to that point. With great reluctance he attacked the first chapter but he was immediately hooked. Referring to the way in which he dominates the book right from his first appearance and drives the narrative along, Burke names Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as one of literature’s greatest creations. He tells how this classic opened up his mind to the possibilities of story and how great characters tied into a strong story can drive the narrative forward. But he confesses that this didn’t occur to him as a seven year old – he just liked the pirate story then.
Burke is a great believer in telling a story and he describes the influence Treasure Island has had on his writing technique. He explains how he tries to ensure that “the pace doesn’t flag and there is something at the end of each chapter to keep the reader hooked and hopefully continue reading.” Acknowledging that he is a hopeless planner Burke explains that he tries to let the plot flow where it will. There is always a notion of how the story will end but not quite knowing what will happen next until he has written it, “If I am being bored writing it, then almost certainly, the reader will be bored reading it.”
Burke claims that his love of story-telling inevitably found its outlet in novel form simply because he “can’t write short stories to save his life and reading his non-fiction attempts would induce catatonia after a few paragraphs.” His humorous self-deprecation is an indicator of his witty narrative style but thankfully his critics are a little easier on him than he is on himself. He gratefully concedes that he has been fortunate enough to receive no seriously negative influences as yet, but he explains that he is not precious enough to assume that everyone is going to like his work.
Burke’s initial attempts to pitch his work to agents and publishers resulted in a heavy flow of what he calls “Dear Bobs” but the few replies that contained constructive feedback urged him on. Top tip No. 3 appears at this point and is possibly not quite the advice you expect, but as Burke says “rejection slips make great kindling!”
Burke’s eventual breakthrough came with the help of www.youwriteon.com and he urges any writers who want to make their novel as good as it can be to find some form of critique group that can objectively analyse their work. His own experience with youwriteon.com was very positive. Not only did he get the right kind of feedback which allowed him to improve the Third Pig, but doors to agents and publishers were opened, doors that might otherwise have remained closed.
Burke’s biggest tip for all budding authors is to find a time that suits you best and write something every day , a point that brings us back to the torment of procrastination. Not being a morning person Burke describes how he encourages the creative process by surrounding himself with books for inspiration, enduring an immense infusion of coffee and always having music playing in the background. Top tip No. 4 offered by Bob Burke is that “Queens of the Stone Age complement actions sequences very well”.
Bob Burke blogs at Diary of a Nothingist. If you’d like him to visit your school, check out his blog and drop him a line!