Undercover : an Interview with Gerard Brennan

GB

What is Fireproof about?

Fireproof, on the surface, is about a man who ended up in Hell due to a bureaucratic bungle and is sent back to Earth with a mission to establish a satanic church in Northern Ireland. It’s not based on a true story.

GBWD

Is it crime fiction?

The book straddles a few genres. There are certainly crime fiction elements (or tropes if you want to be unkind), such as a femme fatale, murder, mystery, revenge… But it also features supernatural creatures such as Lucifer, an imp, and Cerberus, a three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hell/Hades in Greek mythology. Oh, and I like to think it’s a wee bit funny as well.

When did you write it, and why?

As can often be the case in the publishing world, although this was the second of my novels published by Blasted Heath, it was actually the first one I wrote. Not the first novel I tried to write, I should add, but the first to make it to a publishable form. I started it in 2006, just before my second of three children came along. Writing has always interested me, but I only really got serious about it when I figured out that you actually had to write to be an actual writer. And rewrite to be a good one.

I finished the book in early 2007 and rewrote it a few years later. Then edited it. It was published by Blasted Heath in August 2012, after it was edited and re-edited again with help from Allan Guthrie (once my literary agent, now my publisher) and Kyle MacRae (Guthrie’s co-founder at Blasted Heath). Somewhere in between I also wrote Wee Rockets, the first novel I published through Blasted Heath by six months (January 2012).

What are the political issues at stake?

Fireproof takes a look at some of the social issues at play in Northern Ireland. Mainly, the power of religion in the North. This wasn’t a conscious decision at the time I wrote the first draft. It just came out, like a drunken rant. But the more I wrote, the more I realised it was actually about the many other ways we live a divisive life in Northern Ireland, even if we look beyond the more obvious divides between Catholic and Protestant people.

GBU

You’ve talked about Fireproof and mentioned Wee Rockets. Blasted Heath also published your novel, Undercover. What’s that one about?

Undercover is the first in a series of books I plan to write for Blasted Heath. It features Cormac Kelly, who is an undercover cop (hence the title) with the PSNI. This one is a straight thriller. Action in spades. Colin Bateman once wrote that I’m a ‘master of gritty violence’. I wanted to embrace that aspect of my writing with this one, but through a character that I would enjoy writing. So, Cormac Kelly might not be the stoic action hero that you’ll find in most thriller series. He’s tough and violent, certainly. He’s also a bit of a smart-arse and prone to making some of the high-pressure situations he finds himself in worse rather than better. He means well, though.

Blasted Heath have also published a number of my novellas; one of them a spin-off from Wee Rockets. I’ve enjoyed writing those and hope to make time to write some more.

GBW

 Do you read news, or do you research archives, thinking : I want to write about this or that ?

 I tend to get a little obsessed with writing subjects, so yes, I’ll read about certain topics as widely as I can, in any form that’s available. I’ll also listen to podcasts or watch documentaries to supplement this research.

If possible, I’ll try to physically experience things on some level that will contribute to my writing too. For instance, I know it’s not a good idea to get into a street fight, but it’s easy to forget how scary and random fisticuffs can be.

In my twenties (I’m 35 now) I was a martial arts student for five years and an instructor for about a year, so I constantly thought about violence from a self defence perspective, and that informed my writing. But when writing became more time and thought-consuming, and as my family grew in number, I had to let that interest go.

Unfortunately, I got unfit and physically complacent after I quit Wing Tsun (the form of kung fu that I studied). So a couple of years ago I joined a boxing club in order to do a little sparring. I got hit. A lot. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” I can confirm that he was right about that. Violence is scary.

Sound or vision ? Your dialogues are very real sounding. You are certainly an “auditive” writer. At the same time the action is very visual.  How important are visual elements when you write ?

Thank you. I love to listen to people. And I listen carefully. That makes it easier to write dialogue. Sometimes I’ll read my work out loud to see if it sounds like something a person would actually say. That’s an underrated technique, I think.

With regards to visual writing… I work hard to convey action through the reactions of the characters concerned. But when it comes to description, I tend to leave the reader a lot of room to see things in their own way. That’s not a decision made out of laziness (ahem). It’s just a way of trusting the reader to build their own version of my universe in their head so that it becomes their version. I think that makes it more memorable. So… I suppose the visual aspect of my writing can be quite minimalist.

 Looking back at your career up to now, how would you describe your project as a writer? What are the patterns, the recurring themes, the obsessions?

It’s been a slow burn, and still there have been no major fireworks, but I think that’s probably a good thing. My life can be quite hectic, as my wife and I have three young children and we take parenting very seriously. At times I can be more productive than others just depending on school holidays or scratched knees and runny noses. I feel like I’ve missed a few opportunities through lack of energy or time, but I don’t think that’s been bad for me as a writer. It’s given me a chance to explore many writing avenues. For instance, I’ve worked on screenplays and stage plays, though to date I’ve only seen one stage play become a (modest) success. The Sweety Bottle, which I co-wrote with my father, made a decent splash in Northern Irish theatre in 2013. But writing all the things that haven’t been produced has also been a major learning experience.

With regards to recurring themes and obsessions: Frustration, anxiety, sleepless nights. These are the things that invade my life when I’m not writing. Actually getting some words on a page (or computer screen) keeps me even. Which is why I’ve written so much in the last few years.

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Are there things which you would do differently now? How?

That’s something I think about quite often. The short answer is no. That doesn’t mean that I’ve made no mistakes along the way. I’ve made a boatload. But I think I’ve learned from at least a few of them. Some things haven’t gone my way, but these perceived failures have then become fuel for motivation. If I got it too easy at the start, I really believe I would have fallen into a lazy state of mind and been more tempted to take the easy way out of most challenges — or rewrite the same book every year. Writing is my dream job. I’d hate to feel like I didn’t appreciate it or that it landed in my lap without being earned.

What are you working on at the moment?

 Too many things! I’ve very recently finished the first draft of a novel that will make up part of the creative writing PhD I’m currently working on at Queen’s University Belfast. The PhD has been a godsend. Because it’s funded, I was able to take a career break from my not-so-dream job and still have just enough money to cover the bills for three years. And since it pays the bills, it’s currently my main focus. However, creative writing needs room to breathe. So while I let the first draft percolate, I’m trying to finish a draft of a police procedural (a subgenre of crime fiction I haven’t tackled before). And I’ll work hard to make sure my metaphors hang together much better than that mixed breathing/percolation mess in both of those manuscripts.

Other plans this year include a play, a novella or two, and to get even more involved in the International Crime Fiction group at QUB, which has been a breeding ground for motivation and inspiration over the last year and a half (and yet another huge reward that comes from my time as a PhD student). I also need to secure representation for my writing, preferably with an agency that deals in multiple forms, but I’ll happily deal with more than one agent if that’s asking too much!

NBT
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