Tuesday 24 October 2017

Declan driven to make crime pay

Declan Burke tells Hilary A White what drives him to get up at 5am every day and of the infinite joys of fatherhood

'Chekhov said: 'All I need to write is a man, a woman and an ashtray'." Declan Burke nods as he lights up. "I'm planning to give up cigarettes for the new year and I don't know how I'm going to write without them. It's going to be tough."

The Sligo-born author, crime-fiction buff and journalist is musing on the writer's lifestyle, which in his case involves 5am starts followed by "plenty of coffee, cigarettes and staring at the screen". If that's what it takes, then so be it; Absolute Zero Cool, his darkly hilarious and unorthodox third novel, has just been released, and if the reviews, Irish Book Awards shortlisting and nod of approval from one John Banville are anything to go by then perhaps it's best not to tamper with the formula.

"Mind you," he says of Banville's patronage, "he said to me, 'I hope I'm not putting the John Banville jinx on you by attaching my name to this!' I think he's one of the finest living writers. When he agreed to read it, that was fantastic as it was, but when he came back and said what he said for the cover blurb it was probably more of a high point than the actual book being published. He was proactive in wanting to come to the launch; he knew that by coming along he was lending a certain amount of heft to it."

Burke is calmly gleeful in such moments. You see it again as he tells you about the wonderment he felt as a child towards authors' names on book spines, or the time he and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Lily discovered there was no minimum age to join their local library in Enniskerry.

He grew up, he explains, in a household where exuberant expressive inclinations were never tempered. A variety of talents among his siblings are then listed, from the oldest brother ("A fantastic footballer -- Jack Charlton tried to sign him for Sheffield Wednesday"), on to his three sisters (a clothes designer, a professional photographer and a wood artisan) and finally to the youngest brother, a scriptwriter.

The logical thing is to ask what his parents' secret was. "There was always, always, always an encouraging attitude in the house. Me da sings and paints, and was actually quite a good hurler as well. Mum, I always say, raised six kids in the Seventies and Eighties so that's pretty creative work! From my point of view, there were always books in the house, to the extent that it's only looking back when you're older that you realise this is not the norm." Writing school essays and "brutal" teenage poetry was praised, he continues, but it was a "terrific" teacher in Summerhill College in Sligo who really pushed the young Burke, teaching him some writing fundamentals that he admits to still using 25 years later.

Devouring anything from Enid Blyton to Sven Hassel, and spending his Irish classes writing Monty Python versions of Shakespeare plays, the teenage Burke still put the written word after chief concerns such as "football and women". These days it is king, however, his journalism day job vying with his role as the country's top crime-writing pundit (he hosts the Irish crime-fiction blog Crime Always Pays and edited the recent anthology on the same subject, Down These Green Streets) as well as his own scribbling.

"I call it 'the expensive hobby'," he says, matter-of-factly. "I don't even allow myself to refer to it as work. Work is an activity that earns money. I wouldn't get up at 5am to have sex! Seriously. I wouldn't get up at 5am to see Lionel Messi if he was standing in the back garden. But I will get up at five in the morning to go to the desk and persecute myself because I'm not good enough to say what exactly I want to say."

Why crime? "Good question," he frowns, licking a Rizla edge. "I've tried to write all sorts of books, and no matter what, there's always been a crime at the heart of it. And when I sat down to write the first novel that got published, Eight-Ball Boogie, I was serious about writing a full-length story that would be readable, and given that the crime narrative is a relatively straightforward one -- it's a three-act drama; order- disorder-order, that goes back to Greek tragedy -- it seemed a fairly strong architecture that could bolster any kind of story."

A drag and a knowing chuckle greet my disingenuous assertion that crime novels are really just a way to purge anti-social inclinations. "There is a theory that goes along those lines, yeah; because you're venting all the dark aspects of your psyche on to the page, when you walk away you've left your vices behind. Absolute Zero Cool toys with that idea, that the writer's psyche is split and the good person he wants to be is writing this bad character that he could easily be -- and may already be -- out of his system."

Declan Burke "the writer", he says, is a different person and not necessarily someone he wants in the presence of Lily or his wife Aileen, who he met while studying journalism as a mature student in Coleraine ("We were still writing letters, believe it or not. That's how long ago we were wooing each other"). Interestingly, Lily is also the only thing he would ever consider giving up writing for, a measure, he says of what fatherhood has come to mean to him at the age of 42.

"You're life is broken apart," he happily gasps. "But the rewards are just unquantifiable. I dedicate the book to Lily because of everything she's given back to us. Just her, her presence and everything about her. As enjoyable as life is before you have kids, there's a richness and a depth to it after that really makes you start to look at the world in a different way. It's as if the child is a prism through which you re-imagine the world. By far the best thing that ever happened to me, and I say that as someone who for 20 years obsessed about having a book published."

'Absolute Zero Cool', Liberties Press, €12.99

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