Friday 24 January 2020

Crime, kids and creativity

Brian McGilloway

Despite Cyril Connolly's claim that the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art, this year, publication of my fourth book and the birth of my fourth child occurred within a week of each other.

It seems strangely appropriate that these events should coincide. I wrote my first novel, Borderlands, when my wife, Tanya, was expecting our first child and, far from being an enemy to creativity, the birth of our son encouraged me to write and, in particular, to write crime fiction.

In the weeks before the birth, as a hyper-sensitive first-time father, I became increasingly aware of all the things in the immediate environment which I could not control, all the imaginary threats to my future son. In real life, I have no more control over these than anyone else.

But in a fictional world, not only could I face those fears safely and experience the catharsis that this brings, but I could also enforce a sense of justice in the world through the protagonist.

The appeal of crime fiction to me is that it allows for a degree of certainty in the fictional world. Our fictional detectives have clearance rates far in excess of any real-life counterparts. More importantly, fictional detectives carry with them a strong moral code by which they stand at all costs. Justice, above all else, must be done, regardless of the personal cost. It would be heartening to think that such men and women patrolled our streets and borders.

It seemed a natural progression then, that my hero, Benedict Devlin, should take the Christian name of my first son. Likewise, it was natural that each subsequent book allowed me to continue controlling the imaginary borderlands for the births of our other sons, Tom and David. (My next book will feature a heroine called Lucy, after my new daughter.)

Having three young boys at home means a further degree of creativity is needed to fit in writing time. I work full-time as Head of English in St Columb's College in Derry. It is a job I love, both because of the support of my colleagues and friends on staff, but also the enjoyment of teaching the pupils.

The enjoyment in teaching is seeing how the personalities of each class impact on the way you approach a text.

Teaching English still focuses on the canon of literature, but it also allows me to teach books which inspired me; Dracula, The Moonstone and The Outsiders are all texts I continue to enjoy .

Spending the day analysing and discussing literature with my classes does impact on my writing each night. Certainly, close analysis of texts in school means that, in my own writing, I'm constantly looking to develop patterns, looking at the various motifs and how they contribute to the overall theme. But crime writing carries with it too the need for intricate plotting.

As I progress through a book, I find myself obsessing over plot details, compulsively going over details and connecting strands until all the pieces fit. It is one of the parts of writing I enjoy most and generally is done away from the desk.

I tend to work out plots while doing something else; driving, washing up or lying in bed trying to sleep. Generally I start writing each evening after 10pm, once the children are settled in their beds and I've managed to spend some time with my wife. I aim to write around 1,000 words per day; some days I manage half that, other days I manage three or four times it, depending on my mood and whereabouts I am in the book. I enjoy writing at night; after spending all day surrounded by people, there is something calming about the solitude of writing. I tend to listen to music when I write, too. I write until around 1am usually, then go to bed, before getting up at 7am and starting all over again.

Of course, one of the big benefits of being a teacher is the summer holidays. I tend to edit during the holidays as well as starting on the next year's book. I write in thirds. I will plan and write the first third, while having a vague awareness of where I want to go next with the book. I hit a natural pause for a few weeks while I let all the strands work through. I re-read and craft the first third, while the second third develops. I normally manage this before the autumn term starts.

Then I write that middle section between September and Christmas. It is always the hardest part because the middle of the book is about keeping the plates spinning, keeping the various plots running alongside each other but not overlapping too early.

This is the part of the process most like the 'wall' marathon runners hit when they feel they can't go on and yet have come too far to give up. It is also the section of the book when I find myself most critical of my own writing. That said, I have yet to meet a writer I admire who doesn't have that same period of self-doubt over the value of their writing. In fact, I think it is a necessary force which drives you to constantly hone the craft of writing.

The final section of each book tends to develop quickly. By that stage, the ending is clear, and the manner in which the plots overlap should be obvious. It is at this stage that I might write several thousands words in one sitting. I can see the finish line here and know that a few more weeks will have the first draft done.

Inevitably, this happens during the spring term. I then take a few months off and start over again in the summer holidays. In all this, I am blessed with a very understanding and supportive wife. And, of course, the kids. I try not to write when they're in the house, both because of the distractions and because I want to spend time with them when I'm off work.

But I firmly believe that without them, my writing career would be very different and, I suspect, nowhere near as enjoyable as it is at the moment.

As for the pram in the hallway? Well, there is another one there now, just as I finish my next book. In this book, all the main characters, including the protagonist, are female. As for Inspector Devlin? He continues to be an ordinary man struggling to balance work and home; struggling to be a good husband and father, struggling to make the world safe for his children. We have all of those things in common, each in our own way.


The Rising

by Brian McGilloway

is published by Macmillan

Irish Independent

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