Monthly Archives: October 2012

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