[Dominique Jeannerod] How did you come to write The Lammisters?
[Declan Burke] “The very first inkling came to me in Dungannon, as it happens, when I was teaching a one-day course on crime fiction writing. I was going through a list of what aspiring writers should and shouldn’t do when it occurred to me that I was interfering with the attendees’ most precious resource, their imaginations. There and then I decided I was going to write a book that broke every rule I was ever taught. That’s not strictly possible, of course, but it did give me a huge amount of freedom to write whatever I wanted to, and especially when I quickly realised that no one would ever want to publish the book I was writing.”
What was your original idea?
“I usually start with a setting, and then begin to people it with characters, and then give them a story to work with. I’d always wanted to set a book in Glenveagh Castle, in Donegal – it’s a beautiful setting, and I was fascinated by the idea that, in the 1930s, artists of all kinds would come from all over the world to stay at Glenveagh (Greta Garbo was probably the most famous). And I’d recently fallen head-over-heels for the work of PG Wodehouse, who I’d only very belatedly discovered. So the original and very vague idea was for a Jeeves and Wooster-style story set in Glenveagh; but when I sent my Bertie Wooster, aka Sir Archibald l’Estrange-B’stard, to Hollywood to bring a few movie stars back to Donegal, Archie refused to come back. And so The Lammisters is set in Hollywood, in 1923, amid the bootleggers, film stars and movie moguls of the Prohibition Era …”
John Connolly, with whom you co-edited a few years ago what I consider the best anthology of world crime fiction (Books to Die For, Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) has recently devoted a book to Stan Laurel. Now you are exploring Hollywood in 1923 and portraying characters, real or invented, representing that mystique, like Cecil B. DeMille and “Vanessa Hopgood”. What is it that fascinates you both with early Hollywood Cinema?
“I can’t speak for John, of course – I loved his Stan Laurel book He, by the way; a quiet masterpiece, I think – but I’ve always loved the classic movies. I’ve earned a living as a film critic for 25 years now, and I’ve always been fascinated not just by the films of Hollywood, but Hollywood itself. And especially early Hollywood, which was a true melting-pot. Anyone who has read Gore Vidal’s Hollywood or Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, say, knows that Hollywood was never just about making movies – it was about myth-making, and the unholy alliance of money, politics and culture. A heady brew. Also, I love the idea that silent cinema was not only obliged to communicate increasingly complex stories without dialogue, but that that very absence of dialogue allowed the movies to appeal to a global audience.”
Who is the inspiration for the mysterious Vanessa Hopgood ? Is it Clara Bow?
She isn’t really based on any one person. More a hazy ideal of what the platonic ideal of a Flapper movie star might be. In the back of my mind she’s very similar to the young Norma Desmond, before she got old and the screens got too small …
Is it fair to say that in that book you have sought to bring together both your experience as a literary critic and as novelist?
“It certainly is fair to say that, although it’s probably fair to say that that’s true of most of my books (and probably everyone’s books) – it’s impossible, I think, when you’re writing, not to respond, consciously or otherwise, to whatever it is that constitutes your reading. That said, The Lammisters is far more influenced by what I might call my extra-curricular reading, or the reading that isn’t commissioned for review. Over the last four or five years I’ve been reading back into the past, and discovering, or in some cases rediscovering, writers like Dickens and Austen, and Cervantes, and Henry Fielding, and totally falling in love with literary styles that might be considered outmoded today. The Lammisters is a comic novel, and I loved the incongruity of hardboiled gangsters and movie stars talking to one another as if they’d just stepped out of Pride and Prejudice, or Tristram Shandy. The Lammisters’ style is also, I guess, a commentary of sorts on the way the language of public discourse, and certainly at the political level, has been debased and upended and turned inside-out over the last decade or so. But that’s a story for another day, perhaps.”
What interested you more in the process? Telling a great story or almost forensically dismantling the art of storytelling?
“This question made me laugh out loud. It’s always terrific fun to write a new story, and to try to make it as original as you can – I’m still a little bit awestruck by the idea of creating something from nothing. With The Lammisters, I didn’t set out to tell a story about telling a story; that was just the way it evolved. The story is told by a narrator who has been abandoned by his author and left to his own devices, and so the narrator is keen to prove his credentials by reminding the reader about the various aspects of the storytelling craft. Sadly, the narrator has yet to learn that less is more …”
I remember meeting with you in the IFI in Dublin, after the publication of The Lost and the Blind (2015): you were saying how much this book had taken from you and even considering it might be your last novel. How did the writing of The Lammisters happen in that context?
“You’re right, Dominique – I did feel very drained after writing The Lost and the Blind: it was a pretty traumatic year, personally and professionally, and that book was the one that gave me the least pleasure when I was writing it. And as far as I was concerned, at the time, if I wasn’t having fun, then there was no point to writing. The Lammisters was the complete antithesis to that – I wanted to write a book purely for myself, that wasn’t written according to any genre conventions, or any deadlines, or anyone’s expectations. And I wanted it to be fun, because it seemed to me – as a result of Brexit, for example, and Donald Trump’s election, and what seems like the inexorable rise of far-right extremism, with its racism and antisemitism – that the world was becoming a darker place. I wanted to be able to cheer myself up on a daily basis. The book certainly delivered on that front.”
How much does this new book still owe to Crime Fiction?
“Well, it’s a comic novel, and I’d hate for any crime fiction reader to pick up and feel cheated by the fact that the story plays very fast and loose with the expected conventions. That said, I love the crime novel, in virtually all its variations, so there’s certainly elements of crime fiction involved – the characters go on the lam, as the title suggests, and one of the main characters is not only a bootlegger and a bank robber but the terror of all right-thinking Republicans everywhere. The Lammisters isn’t a crime novel; but I don’t think I’d have been able to write it if I hadn’t written my crime novels first.”
Are there shadows of Crime authors you felt looming in particular over the book?
“Definitely, yes. The first writer I fell madly, deeply and hopelessly for was Raymond Chandler, because of his language, his style. I’ve always said that if Chandler had written science fiction, or romantic fiction, I’d probably have ended up writing that. So Chandler’s hardboiled style is an important jumping-off point for The Lammisters. But I also love crime writers with a comic sensibility – Carl Hiaasen, Barry Gifford – and there’s no doubt that their approach is a factor too.”
You are a keen reader and commentator of European Crime Fiction: what are your main discoveries in that area over the past few years?
“It’s been mainly Scandinavian reading for the past while, I’m afraid. One of my recent discoveries – and apologies if this is old news to anyone – is Antti Tuomainen, who reads a lot like the Finnish Elmore Leonard. Again, it’s blackly comic crime fiction, which I adore. I read Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road earlier this year, and I thought it was a superb meditation on grief. I thought Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth was a flawed but very interesting contemporary take on Shakespeare, although my favourite of the Norwegian writers – of any of the Scandinavian crime novelists – is Karin Fossum. Her The Drowned Boy is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade, in any genre. Of the non-Scandinavian writers, David Torrans introduced me recently to Pascal Garnier, who is superb; and Hannah’s Dress, by Pascale Hugues, is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in years.”
To what European authors do you feel more related, and at what level?
“This is a bit of a loaded question, I think, because once I start naming writers it’s going to sound like I’m comparing myself to them, which is certainly not my intention. If I can put it like this: I love reading Umberto Eco, and especially his wilder flights of fancy (Baudolino, say), because it seems to me as if he cares very little for any rules or regulations of writing. The same applies to Italo Calvino – when I read If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller many years ago, it made a huge impression on me. I guess I’ve always loved writers who are prepared to take chances, to go beyond the accepted and the expected – as a young man, for example, I loved Milan Kundera’s books, because they seemed to challenge everything I had read up to that point.”