Monthly Archives: October 2012

Four legs good, eight legs bloody terrifying

Autumn is my favourite season. Such a pity, then, that it’s so bloody short. Kind of seems like summer (our wet, cold version of it) ends, and then autumn begins, and then it’s winter. Uh, what? Autumn, why you no stick around?

Anyway, to mark what seems to be the passing of this briefest of all seasons, here’s a piece I wrote a while back for the Irish Independent’s Weekend magazine. On autumn, sort of. And the oversized creepie-crawlies that infest our houses for a few weeks each year. I’m talkin’ GIGANTIC spiders, y’all…

 

I never used to mind spiders. In fact, I quite liked them. I thought they were pretty cool, with their arched legs and 275 eyes and amazing ability to shoot webs from their wrists, like a non-man version of Spiderman. If you follow me.

I certainly never feared them. For me the term “arachnophobia” signified nothing more sinister than that fitfully entertaining Jeff Daniels comedy-thriller. I could never understand how someone would have a conniption fit upon spying a spider.

They can’t kill you – at least not in this part of the world. They don’t spread disease, and if anything curtail it by eating flies and other insects. And furthermore, I always believed the old wives’ tale that spiders bring you luck, and harming one will draw misfortune on your head.

Now: I still like spiders, and am still arachnophobia-free. But I am starting to get a teensy bit nervous about the little buggers.

Or rather, big buggers – and that’s the problem. My house has lately been colonised by spiders, and they are absolutely freaking enormous.

By Amazonian standards, perhaps, these aren’t so large. Down there, deep in the jungle primeval, arachnids possess the size, strength and long-term indestructibility of the average Volkswagen Beetle (no pun intended).

But in comparison to the normal Irish spider, they’re gigantic. We’re used to tiny little things that scuttle along your hand and are so light you don’t even feel them doing it. The odd time we might spot one the size of an unusually small Malteser and be so astounded we’d take a photo and email all our friends.

“Look at this monster!” we’d chuckle. “He’s MASSIVE! It’s like that film Arachnophobia! Only without Jeff Daniels hanging around!”

Oh, the laugh’s on the other side of my face now. Actually it’s been chased off my face in sheer desperate terror, whereabouts now unknown, and replaced by a hideous rictus of horrified disbelief.

The other evening I went to pull the curtains and couldn’t, because there was a spider up there about the size of a gerbil, only with twice the number of legs. Sitting up there he was, happy out, acting like he owned the place. Which, to be honest, he sort of does now.

I mean, I’m not going to get rid of these monsters, am I? For starters I’m an irredeemable coward. The traditional Irish midget spider I can handle; an extra from Eight Legged Freaks, not so simple.

Even the thought of these yokes crawling along my skin is enough to, well, make my skin crawl. So I can’t just grab one and toss it out the window. Besides, what if it bites me, or starts punching me with its horrible hairy legs, or enmeshes me in a huge web before injecting me with some chemical that makes my intestines slowly melt? Unlikely, I accept, but you can’t be too careful.

Telling them to clear off because they’re on private property won’t do any good. They’ll just laugh at me. Or maybe they’ll leap down my throat and choke me while I’m saying it, so it comes out all muffled: “Kkkhhrr rrrff, yyyrrronn pphrrvvvdd prrrpppuuhhrree.” Then they’ll laugh even more.

And I can’t just suck them up with the hoover and be done with it, because then my karma is screwed and I’ll be reincarnated as a spider myself. One that gets sucked up by someone’s hoover.

So my standard eradication attempt goes something like this: I lean forward gingerly with a cardboard box in one hand, the other ready to slam the lid shut. I edge it towards the spider. I kind of nudge the spider. I wail, “Oh come oooon, get in the box you bastard.” I nudge it again. I recoil in fright when it recoils in fright. I give up and vacate the room until January.

See, that’s the only silver lining on this cloud of invading beasties: apparently it’s an autumnal thing. By darkest winter they’ll all be gone somewhere else. Heaven? The Amazon? My sock drawer? Who knows – at least I’ll be able to draw the curtains without suffering an anxiety attack.

Until then I’ll be reworking that line from Animal Farm, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” For me it’s a case of, “Eight legs = terrifying!”

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Crime (fiction) hopefully pays…

Declan Burke is an old pal of mine, and more importantly a really good writer, who turns out crime novels with more style and flair than the average. And great dialogue – genuinely, you read his books thinking, “This would sound great booming out at me from a cinema screen.” 

Anyway, he also runs the iconic crime fiction blog Crime Always Pays, and was good enough to give a mention to Even Flow there t’other day. Dec writes, “An intriguing prospect, no? It certainly can’t be faulted for ambition, originality and lunacy, all of which, I think, are to be celebrated in a genre that has been known to err on the staid and conservative. Will it find a readership that is sufficiently energised by originality, ambition and lunacy? Only time, that notoriously rat-fink canary, will tell.”

I’ll also be writing a piece for CAP, on the origins of Even Flow, just as soon as I get around to it. Hey, this Diagnosis Murder box-set won’t watch itself, you know…

Meanwhile, a nice five-star review of Even Flow on Amazon: “…a startling reinvention of the genre of thriller writing. Evocatively cinematic…the characters are remarkably vivid…the book is intelligent, quirky & thought-provoking…one can only hope this novel becomes the movie it is destined to be, and that the author develops some of these characters into their own franchise. MORE PLEASE :)”

To read it in full, click here


Karma police

Interview with me for The Clare Champion on Even Flow – I LOVE the header…

 

DARRAGH McManus is talking about the origins of his new crime novel, Even Flow. The journalist and writer, who lives in Crusheen, traces part of the book’s beginnings to his university days in Cork in the early ’90s and, in particular, to a spate of violent attacks on college students suspected of being gay. Labelled ‘queer-bashing’ by the media at the time, Mr McManus – like his peers – was outraged by these incidents. In the middle of student debates on how best to react to these crimes, the author started to imagine how a fictional vigilante gang might respond.

“I thought it’d be really funny if there was a group of ‘queer-basher bashers’ – a gang who picked on ‘queer-bashers’,” he laughs. “It was a joke, but then the idea took hold: ‘What if I did write a story like that?’

“I wanted a gang of feminists and gay rights activists that were the antithesis of the stereotype: they’re sensitive, thoughtful and well-educated, but they’re also physically courageous, able to fight – and ruthless. They’re cool and daring and have a lot of flair.”

With this, Even Flow was born. Set in contemporary New York and adopting the tone of Elmore Leonard, the fast-paced action revolves around the 3W Gang. They’re a group of vigilantes with a difference: bright, dynamic young men determined to punish – using spectacular set-pieces – anyone who doesn’t share their vision of a tolerant society.

Mr McManus is engaging company. As he sips a coffee, he listens attentively to each question before delivering considered, articulate responses – usually sprinkled with his trademark, self-depreciating humour.

“It’s a moral fable wrapped up in a thriller,” he says of the novel, before worrying that such a description might sound pretentious.

“First and foremost,” Mr McManus insists, “the book is an entertainment. It’s not a beating-you-over-the-head polemic. But there is an argument being made – not by the author, at all. The book is making a contention, but both sides are being heard. The moral heart of the book is the gay cop chasing the gang. He understands why they’re doing this, but he still wants to stop them.”

The 3W Gang’s influences are central to their identity. The members take their names from three gay icons: playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Walt Whitman and film director John Waters. Drawing on the tradition of militant urban guerrillas like the Baad-Meinhof Group in 1970s West Germany, the 3W Gang consider their activities a form of performance art rather than illegal violence. They’re inspired by the way grunge music reconciled masculine and feminine impulses into a healthy whole.

“They’re the ‘new man’ in excelsis,” Mr McManus explains. “They’re very feminist, pro-gay rights and very anti-machismo, homophobia and misogyny. They’re the children of movements since the ’60s, like feminism, gay rights, irony and post-modernism. They’re like Germaine Greer crossed with Dirty Harry crossed with Kurt Cobain.”

For the 3W Gang, committing an act of terrorism is not the end result but, instead, just the beginning: they want their stunts to prompt discussion and shape public opinion.

“They’re starting a programme of ‘re-education’ of society by selectively punishing people and filming the crime as part of this spoof TV show that they call ‘Karma TV’. It’s like an accelerated karma. And they broadcast this to provoke debate.”

Mr McManus wrote a rough draft of the story about 10 years ago and explored various formats for it – including as a film script. He remembers writing the novel as an “easy” experience and submitted the manuscript to Roundfire Books in the UK last summer. The response was almost immediate.

“They got back to me within a week with an offer of a contract,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘I must be reading this email wrong’ because it’s usually 12 months or so before they reply.”

Even Flow is Mr McManus’ third book. GAA Confidential, his 2007 debut, was an eclectic exploration of the role and significance of the GAA in Irish life. He followed it in 2011 with a comic novel Cold! Steel!! Justice!!!, which gleefully played with the conventions of 1980s police films, and was released as an e-book under the pen-name Alexander O’Hara.

As a freelance journalist, Mr McManus writes features, reviews and opinion pieces for publications as diverse as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The RTE Guide and U Magazine. He contributes a weekly radio review to The Irish Independent.

“I can’t write and listen to the radio at the same time. I have to have silence – only, as I say, the soundtrack of my own screams,” he laughs. “But in your life, you’d have the radio on during breakfast, lunch or in the car. Generally, I’d pick two radio programmes a week. Hopefully, you’d find a common theme or you might be able to make a comment on some wider aspect of society reflected in the programmes.”

Mr McManus’ next book, The Polka Dot Girl, is already written and will appear in the spring of 2013. Channeling the spirit of Raymond Chandler, this detective novel incorporates the conventions of noir fiction – the hard-bitten cop, the femme fatale, the mastermind villain, the self-destructive victim – but also undermines these ingredients by making all the characters female.

“Noir novels usually start with a dead body being pulled out of the harbour in the middle of the night and that’s how this starts: “She was dead by the time I got there.” I had an idea in my head of Winona Ryder for how this character would physically look: early 30s, very small, short, cropped black hair.

“It was great fun to write, just finding the tone. I wanted the book to have its own voice and for the story to stand on its own; that if you changed half the characters to men, it would still be an entertaining, convoluted noir mystery with all the conventions of the genre. The all-women thing is not superfluous. I think it’s better that they’re all women – you get sucked into this murky, sexy, spooky, dreamy city.” 


A Novel Experience

This is an interview with me in this week’s Clare People newspaper

Crusheen man Darragh McManus has just had his latest novel published. Of course, there’s another one due out in January and he has the bones of many others well underway. It may all sound like hard work but creative writing is actually a very satisfying experience, the author tells Claire Gallagher.

DARRAGH McManus has to write. In fact, he maintains he is addicted. With as many as 10 fledgling pieces of fiction in various files on his laptop, a novel in the shops this week, another due out in January, and work ongoing on a book for young adults, it is unlikely he will be taking the necessary steps to give up his fix anytime soon.
The Crusheen author, journalist, father and husband lights up as he discusses idea after idea, each as varied and unique as his approach to the world of literature.
This man isn’t a tortured soul writing from the depth of despair. Rather, he is quite happy writing books, articles and columns, while spending quality time with his Lisdoonvarna-born wife Majella, their young son and soon-to-be baby number two.
Neither is he a conveyer-belt writer churning out whatever is the popular fiction of the day, with all the associated stereotypes.
No, Darragh McManus is not a stereotypical writer, or even a stereotypical man. He writes a column for a women’s magazine – U Magazine – and features for the RTÉ Guide, while all the time providing features, articles and opinion pieces for the Irish Independent and the Sunday Times.
Likewise, the heroes in his novels are not the usual clichés. In his new novel, Even Flow, now in shops, the main male characters do not follow convention.They are a group of vigilantes who inflict violence and fear, yet they are also modern men with a sense of social justice.
“I suppose our generation would be very inspired by feminism and gay rights and the ‘new man’ thing or whatever. I had things in my head that we tend to think people involved with feminism and gay rights are wimps, with no sense of humour and are uncool. I thought, I’m going to create a gang of bad-ass guys who are all of those things but are also feminist and pro-gay rights,” he says.
His second book, coming out at the end of January, he describes as “a noir detective book with all women”.
“I was reading that there aren’t any good female characters in crime writing or movies, so I thought I will create a book that has nothing but female characters in it,” he adds.
Even Flow is not Darragh’s first experience of the publishing world. About five years ago, he wrote a funny and ironic GAA book, GAA Confidential. He admits to having written “tons of things”, including a literary novel 10 years ago that received some nice comments from publishers, but nothing more.
“I never wrote anything at all until I was 28. I always had it in my head that I would write but I never actually bothered doing it. Most people start in their early 20s with short stories and things and then they try it, but I literally started writing a novel. It was okay, it was pretty decent,” he says.
“The best time for me to write fiction is in the morning, because you are more awake and you are fresher, and then journalism in the afternoon. Not that it is easier, but it is easier – you don’t need to be as awake.” Greeted with a raised eyebrow, he laughs.
“But the way life is, deadlines usually come in the morning, so a lot of times you have to do an article by one, so I do my writing then in the afternoons,” he adds.
As he settles into adulthood, he now has the discipline for writing, which may not always have been there and may also have left its own scars on the psyche.
“I’m quite disciplined and I think it’s because I have a deep-rooted fear of my own laziness, because I was pretty lazy in school. I was very good in primary school, I found things came very easily to me so I kind of got lazy in my life. So then in secondary school, my IQ level came back to the norm but I remained lazy. I got an okay Leaving Cert and an okay degree. I was on the dole then for a while so I think somewhere in my early 20s I had a realisation I had to stop messing around. So I became quite industrious but there is always this fear that, oh my God, if I don’t do this today, I might not do anything and I have wasted the day completely.
“I am not one of these people with a bolt of inspiration where I am going to write at 10 o’clock at night. I am tired and I want to sleep. I put notes in my phone if there is a good observation or if I hear a good line.
“I don’t mean to take the glamour or mystery away from creating fiction. It is a cool thing to do, and it is a really satisfying experience, especially when you are sitting down and staring to type. You are not just typing like that” – he hits the table randomly with his fingers – “you are actually thinking. It starts to write itself as you write yourself into it.
“It sounds mercenary but I want it to be financially viable for me to write books. I will always do it anyway, which is a curse and I always thought until about a year ago I am not one of those kind of people, I would be able to stop.
“Honestly, the more you write, the more ideas that come into your head, not just for that story but for other stories. I literally have maybe 10 files for different books with several thousand words of notes on each of them. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the time to write any of these books.”
And that is not to mention the tens of hundreds of ideas buzzing around in his head.


Why I’m taking a shot at crime fiction

“Crime doesn’t pay” – isn’t that how the old phrase goes? This is probably true, if you’re an actual criminal (lengthy jail terms or early, violent death aren’t great wages, in fairness). But if you write crime novels, well – that, to use an apt term, is another story.

Because crime fiction is absolutely massive. In an industry seemingly dying on its feet, these tales of cops ‘n robbers, murder and mayhem, are bucking the trend.

Consider these few factoids: in 2010, mysteries and thrillers accounted for almost a third of all fiction sales worldwide, making it the biggest-selling genre. Libraries have recorded a spike in lending of crime novels, with one-man fiction factory James Patterson the most-borrowed author in the UK.

The likes of Patterson, John Grisham, Dan Brown and David Baldacci have sold literally hundreds of millions of copies. Dozens of other authors, hundreds, each sell millions or in some cases (Stieg Larsson, say) multiples of that.

And here’s one last stat to really make the mind boggle: Patterson (yes, him again) last year signed a deal with Hachette worth at least $150 million. That’s million, the one with six zeroes after it.

There’s money in them thar violent hills, for sure; Irish crime writer (and Herald contributor) Declan Burke even gave his blog the tongue-in-cheek title, “Crime Always Pays”.

So why do we, men and women (women reportedly buy the majority of crime novels), love these bloody books so bloody much? Especially because we recoil from crime in real life, instinctively, with a feeling of horror.

None of us commit it – unless you’re currently enjoying this article in the Mountjoy reading room, in which case apologies for the presumption – and most of us wouldn’t know what to do if it happened to us. I’d probably wet my pants, shriek like a baby or both if I stumbled across a burglar. I get queasy even watching news reports about murders or rapes, and wouldn’t pick up one of those awful “true crime” books if you paid me.

Yet I’ve written a crime novel (Even Flow, published September 28 – make a note in your diaries!), have another on the way in January (The Polka Dot Girl – make another note!) and would read a fair amount of it for pleasure. James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton and Chad Taylor, among others, have written some of my all-time favourite novels.

How, then, to explain this seeming contradiction? There are a number of reasons, I think, the first being the most simple but most important: crime fiction is very entertaining. They’re good stories that rattle along, with inventive plots, imaginative twists, tense action scenes, and especially, the keen edge of life and death. You can’t help investing in these characters: they’re often fighting for their very survival.

Crime novels are also short, sharply written and full of verve and vim. This is a welcome alternative to the overlong, seemingly unedited and impossibly dreary meanderings inherent in much modern literary fiction.

Even Flow, for instance, is less than 60,000 words: you could (probably) read it in one setting. That was a deliberate choice: I wanted to book to approximate the feeling of watching an exciting action movie, or even the intoxicating sugar-rush of listening to a great album. Something like Nirvana’s Nevermind: bang, bang, bang, one thrilling tune (or chapter) after another, the final crash of drums and guitar, and you’re done.

Whoo! That rocked.

Crime fiction is escapism too, but with just enough of a foothold in reality to make the story impact on you emotionally. My book is about a gang of vigilantes in New York, who dress in tuxedos and balaclavas, and selectively punish misogynists and homophobes: think Dirty Harry crossed with Germaine Greer. Obviously, this kind of story isn’t gritty realism, but it’s all quite possible – nobody flies through the air or stops a bullet here.

I guess you could say Even Flow, like many crime novels, is shifted 2% to the side of reality: plausible but requiring a teensy suspension of disbelief. So you get the magic of a fable with the punch of an authentic setting.

But the main reason we love crime fiction, I think, harks back to that earlier point (about burglars and babies and wetting myself): it’s precisely because we’re such wimps in real life that we enjoy, vicariously, these narratives of courage, daring, toughness and coolness.

Who wouldn’t want to be the sexy detective, bringing down the whole rotten system? Who wouldn’t want to kick ass and take names for the great cause of justice? Who wouldn’t want to wreak bloody revenge on human traffickers, rapists, child molesters (we may not admit it, but the desire is there)? Who hasn’t, at least once, sat at their desk and day-dreamed about being the hero, gun-toting, cigarette-devouring, death-defying?

Crime novels give us all this, and more, and we can’t get enough of them. “Behind every great fortune,” Balzac wrote, “is a great crime.” Or in this case, a fictional one at least.

 

First published in the Evening Herald, September 29, 2012