Irish crime writer Eoin McNamee on style, voice, and the imperative to be renegade
There is perhaps no greater, more perplexing, and ultimately rewarding journey for the writer than the long enterprise to discover one’s voice – or at least the voice we’re most comfortable using in public. We are influenced by our teachers and mentors, by what we like and what we read, and most of us necessarily stumble through early years of unconscious imitation. And then one day, like hearing our voice played back to us on a tape recorder, we say “is that me, is that what I really sound like?”
Irish author Eoin McNamee has greatly influenced my writing not so much in terms of attempted imitation – for to borrow a Leonard Cohen phrase, I can hear him typing several floors above me – but by seeing a new set of blueprints set down for storytelling.
With his first novel, Resurrection Man (1994), I came to see that you could tell a riveting, dark, often violent story, by leaving out details, by allowing words to breathe, and creating unexpected imagery. The writing was so different from anything I had ever read – lucid, poetic, stark, halting.
The Booker Award-nominated McNamee took some time to discuss writing and voice and style and the job of the writer from his home in Ireland.
CB: Who were your strongest influencers in terms of style and approach to storytelling?
EM: Contemporary influences were writers like DeLillo, Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, but there is a line back through Capote, Flannery O’Connor, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson. I learned a lot in terms of style from those writers-how to counterpoint the lurid with the deadpan, things like that, but the main jolt at the time was in finding a psychic landscape which was a fit with the world I wanted to write about. They are all Americans and there is a riff on the idea of noir being Calvinist and exported to America from the north of ireland, but looking back I can see the shadow of poets – William Blake, for instance, for the hallucinatory lyric and the imperative to be renegade.
CB: The words “literary” and “crime” are rarely used in the same sentence. Your work has both won and been shortlisted for major awards. What is your opinion on labels in writing, the need or want to fit books into a category or genre? How does it hinder or help the writer / the reader?
EM: Distinctions that other people make don’t really have any relevance. As a writer you make your own weather. That’s your job. To be called a literary writer implies that you want to deepen the mystery to use Frances Bacon’s phrase, and there are plenty of writers out there who don’t have the credentials. Whereas good genre crime writers, in their focus on the well-made thing, frequently brush against the transcendant.
CB: The Ultras (Faber, Faber 2004) is a novel that somehow manages to weave together historical fact with the liberties a fiction writer must take in fabricating a story. This is a risky venture at the best of times, but when the subject matter is the most politically turbulent and divisive time in Ireland’s modern history, the risk seems exceptional. Did you feel you were venturing into potentially perilous territory?
EM: As I started to look at what had happened in the thirty years of war in the north, the material began to shapeshift in front of my eyes. The harder you looked, the less you saw. People and events remade themselves according to rules you didn’t know existed. The ground continuously gave way. There were no real facts to speak of, but there were events and characters around which I could form a novel. I’m not sure what peril is in the context of the Ultras. Books don’t normally attract death threats, as the film of Resurrection Man did. I talked to the late Gordon Burns about attending the trial of serial sex killers. Fred and Rosemary West which he later turned into Happy Like Murderers, and he described feeling the presence of evil in the courtroom. I apprehended evil in its abstract form in writing about what had happened in those years and that is a peril. So is making redemption the most hardwon thing of all, as happens to the corrupted policeman Agnew in the Ultras. It attracted some of the most aggressive reviews I’ve ever read and for me comes closest to beauty of the books I’ve written.
CB: J.K. Rowling’s employment of a male pseudonym for the publication of a mystery novel created a buzz in the publishing world. This is not new. Booker Prize-winner John Banville writes a crime series penned under the name Benjamin Black, and you have published a series under the name of John Creed. What does this afford the writer? And does it have anything to do with separating yourself from your “more serious” work?
EM: In most cases it is a convention to enable the writer to moonlight for money. Hemingway argued that a writer’s integrity can be squandered and I agree. But I’m not sure that knocking a little high-mindedness out of yourself isn’t a good idea. Imagining that you’re beyond compromise is bad for the person and bad for the writer.
CB: Your novels often explore the lives of people who were involved in real crimes. For example, The Blue Tango (Faber, Faber 2001) deals with the murder of Lancelot Curran’s daughter. What is your approach to research? Does it involve reading, interviews, site visits? Do you spend equal time researching and writing?
EM: I’m not sure if you’d call what I do at the beginning research. I work off fragments, glimpses, half-remembered and forgotten places and people. You have to leave yourself open to connections and digressions. The starting point for The Blue Tango is the wrongly accused man whistling the Blue Tango to keep his spirits up,or the eerie photograph of Patricia which was used for the cover. For Blue Is the Night it was stumbling across the fact that Patricia’s mother was brought up in Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane where her father was superintendant, and was there at the same time as Ripper suspect Thomas Cutbush was incarcerated. When I finish a book I go back and fact check in detail. Most of the time I’m close enough to the facts.
CB: American novelist Richard Ford said in a very recent interview, that at the age of 68: “ … I feel at peace with myself for the first time, in particular with my decision to be a writer. Writing never came naturally and I still have to force my hand to do it. And when I finished this book I had this thought I had never had before: maybe this wasn’t the worst thing you could have done, the worst life you could have chosen.” It’s both encouraging and somehow despairing for a junior writer like myself to hear a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer admit his life has been filled with self-doubt and angst. Can you relate to this? If so, why do you think so many writers grapple with the definition of what constitutes “success”?
EM: I wrestled with the idea of writing when I didn’t have the skill and perception to do what I wanted to do. I leaned skills from other writers and am still teaching myself to see. I don’t regret a single word that I’ve written. The work has to satisfy me and then anyone else that wants to get on board with that is welcome. If an audience doesn’t like the places I’m bringing them, that’s fine, but I hope they’ll see the craft. Writing is hard work but other people have hard lives which is a different thing. Uncertainty here seems like self-indulgence.
CB: What is something that surprised you about yourself over the course of your writing career?
CB: The publishing world is changing, and so is the way we hear about and ultimately access books. What advice would you give a young writer about where things are headed?
EM: What you do as a writer doesn’t change. Your job is to allow the world to reveal itself. I’m not sure how changes in the physical and commercial sphere of books really touch the core. It’s more important to be alert to how perception itself is altered by electronica.
CB: Lastly, what are you working on right now?
EM: I’ve learned that its important not to see yourself as working on one thing to the exclusion of others. I’m continually picking up short story ideas and trying them out-theres something occult about that form at this stage of writing-it seems to subvert what went before, set its own agenda. Some screenplay work, which has a technical affinity with the short story. I’m lining up a novel based on the mercurial snooker player Alex Higgins and keep coming up against a wall of silence. A novel which moves from one surveillance camera perspective to another. I’m coming around to the idea of having two or three novels on the go at the same time.