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Thursday 5 December 2019

'I didn't know for sure that I'd ever write again' - How Declan Burke wrote The Lammisters after a period of personal crisis

Declan Burke's hilarious new novel The Lammisters came about after a period of personal crisis. He tells Hilary A White about his journey back to the writing desk and the life that he loves

Declan Burke decided to 'write a book that breaks every rule that I’ve ever taught'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Declan Burke decided to 'write a book that breaks every rule that I’ve ever taught'. Photo: Tony Gavin

Hilary A White

There's not much we can thank the Trump-Brexit Axis of Idiocy for, but it did play a role in Declan Burke getting his mojo back.

We begin in 2015. Reluctant to start another novel after 2014's The Lost and The Blind ("which I didn't enjoy writing"), the crime writer and journalist finds himself falling a little out of love with the form and loath to repeat what he'd done before.

A year and a half ambles past with nothing in the way of fiction being committed to the page. No early-morning stints at the writing desk between wife Aileen going to work and daughter Lily waking for school. No more plotting and conniving to bring more noirish hi-jinks to his publisher's doorstep. Inertia set in.

"I didn't know for sure that I'd ever write again," Burke shrugs matter-of-factly. "During that period when I wasn't writing, I would console myself by saying, 'well you achieved a lot, there are books on the shelf with your name on them, you did that much at least'.

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"On and off throughout my life I've been prone to mild depression, which is something that men didn't necessarily talk about 25 years ago, and there was no doubt during that year and a half, as a consequence of not having that outlet, I would've suffered from it. And then the two become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You're not writing so you get a bit depressed. Then, you're a bit depressed because you're not writing. It's a vicious circle."

This went beyond the type of inspiration-shy doldrums that give many writers sleepless nights. This was a proper crisis for someone who grew up equating wanting to be an author with being an astronaut, and then had his dream come true.

Salvation came in a streak of orange make-up, bad hair and a Union Jack grin. That barmy year, 2016, that saw reason give way to populist mayhem.

"My political capital with my 11-year-old daughter Lily is zero," the 50-year-old laughs, "because I'd said at the time, 'no way would the British people vote in favour of Brexit'. And when that occurred, I said, 'well there's no chance in hell that America will elect Donald Trump'. So I'm no oracle!"

The Cold War, the Troubles, recession after recession. Burke knew what it was like growing up in dark times, while also the upswing that something like the breaking of the Berlin Wall or a ceasefire could bring about. But the news feed in late 2016 was "a handbrake turn" to any ideas of good guys finally winning.

Language and semantics were being manipulated and cheapened. For lots of people, it was enough to pull the duvet over the head and despair, but three days after Trump was elected, something rumbled in Burke. It was time to get writing again.

"I realised that hour and a half, two hours, whatever you get, that period every day is always a bubble of happiness, regardless of what it is I'm writing," he says. "It was self-medication from the bleakness in the world."

Other cosmic signals appeared. A crime writing course he was teaching in Dungannon that November in 2016, one of those one-day things where ordinarily he would fly through the dos and don'ts, laying down rules to govern his students' most precious resource - their imaginations.

"Halfway through, I went, 'sod this, I'm going to write a book that breaks every rule that I've ever taught'. And it will be fun."

Burke had also been wading into the canon of the more mannered literary classics, those ones he'd previously turned his nose up at. There, among Mr Wodehouse and Ms Austen, he happened upon that very bit of magic that had been missing.

"Once I had put in that two hours at the desk, I was bulletproof for the rest of the day," he says. "Because you're putting something out on the page, it's almost like taking drugs in reverse, and has the same sense of euphoria.

"I had recently discovered PG Wodehouse on a holiday in Spain when I was incredibly ill for a couple of days and had no strength to read anything. There were Wodehouses everywhere, and I thought, 'OK, maybe I can stomach this, it's frothy and light'. And afterwards, it was, 'oh my god, why haven't I discovered this before?'.

"These 'sunlit uplands' of literature, where there's lots of misunderstandings and potential for things to go wrong, but nothing really ever goes too seriously wrong! I liked that idea for myself as a writer as well as a reader. It was a safe space."

The result is Burke's seventh novel, The Lammisters, a whipsmart mincing of flowery linguistic flamboyance through a hard-boiled world of jazz-age hedonism, Hollywood moguls, and gangsters and molls.

While Burke has always had a knack for tickling ribs, this farcical, ebullient concoction is the funniest book of the year and unlike anything being written on this island today. Lining the dust jacket is a desire to reclaim the wonder of language from the sewer of politics, as well as to reflect the general "absurdity, lunacy and surreality of the world we live in," he explains. And just like Cameron and Brexit, or Trump and his election, it features an author-narrator who is "in way over their head".

We last spoke in 2011 a few weeks before Burke's novel Absolute Zero Cool won the Goldsboro Prize at the 2012 Crimefest. At the time, he'd described fatherhood as "by far the best thing that has ever happened to me", and eight years on nothing appears to have changed.

He grew up one of six in a council house in Sligo where the mantra was 'why not?', and between scriptwriters, toy-makers and photographers, his siblings are a talent-ridden bunch to this day.

His carpenter father would paint watercolours and sing, and his mother would devour books. Burke occasionally notices things trickling down from their ethos into his own parenting, such as the tradition of family walks in nearby woods or recycling the 'why not?' mantra for things 11-year-old Lily shows interest in, such as football (he coaches her local team), playing piano and her membership of the school Green Council.

Aileen, whom he met while studying journalism as a mature student at Coleraine University, is "a wee bit too sharp-eyed" to run potential plotlines past ("For someone to say half-way through, 'I don't think that works', that can be an absolute disaster to your ego!"). But Lily became something of a shoulder to cry on when he began to worry the novel was starting to "go off the reservation".

"I'd come down in a state of funk and Lily would pat me on the shoulder and ask what was happening now, and I'd say, 'well, X character has found his way into this or that', and she'd say 'ah, it'll all work out, Dad, it'll be fine in the end'. And there you go. From the mouths of babes, as they say."

Indeed. And if nothing else, The Lammisters will always ring through Burke's heart as the book that got him back in the saddle, a McGuffin in the story of his own road to repair.

"I still get a bit of a shiver down my spine when I think about it. It didn't just get me back into writing - it kind of catapulted me back into the life that I'd had, the one that I was loving for so long."

The Lammisters is published by No Alibis Press, priced €17.99

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