Interview with Declan Burke

Last week I reviewed Declan Burke’s book Absolute Zero Cool which I loved. I asked Declan if he’d be up for doing an interview on this blog and he agreed. A bit of background before we kick off:

About eighteen months ago I was asked to be part of a writing group which started with four members including Declan and ended up with just two, due to time constraints and prior commitments of Declan and one of the other participants. I only managed to meet Declan a couple of times before he left the group but kept up with him through his blog, Crime Always Pays. When I finished Absolute Zero Cool I knew that I’d love to get a real insight into Declan’s writing process and luckily for me he was up for answering my questions.

Below is the interview in full. I know it’s a very long post but I think it’s a particularly good one for any aspiring writers that read the Multiverse. Many thanks to Declan for taking part and hope you enjoy reading it.

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Declan Burke. Photo by Kathy Burke.

When we met eighteen months ago you seemed to be working on a different novel. Did Absolute Zero Cool have its genesis in that book? 

“I was working on a very different novel eighteen months ago; but no, AZC didn’t have its genesis there. I first got the idea of AZC not long after 9/11. I was living in Sligo at the time, after taking some time out to write full-time, and I suppose I wanted to write something in response to 9/11 – like most people, I saw it as one of those era-defining moments. By the same token, a lot of the conversation that took place in the wake of 9/11 was about the fact that the terrorists had used the technology of Western civilisation against itself, and that’s something that we here in Ireland were long accustomed to, and also the idea that terrorism is not something that comes from without, but from within. Anyway, I started wondering one day about what building a group of terrorists might attack if they wanted to terrorise a town like Sligo, and it seemed to me that the hospital was the perfect target – and by ‘perfect’, I mean the most perverse, the most likely to strike fear into the heart of the populace. So I wrote a story about Karlsson, a hospital porter who believes that too much compassion will eventually soften and undermine the human race’s instinct to survive at all costs, to the point where it will go extinct. And so he decides to blow up the hospital where he works, to alert humanity to the dangers of excessive compassion …!”

Absolute Zero Cool has a meta-fictional narrative, wherein the author enters into a dialogue with characters and becomes a character himself within the book. How did that come about? Did you sense the characters were taking on a life of their own and take inspiration from that? 

“Well, there was an element of the characters taking on a life of their own, but not necessarily in the sense that most writers mean that. When I wrote the original draft of the story, and showed it to my agent, he was more than a little taken aback – previously, I’d been showing him private eye crime novels. Anyway, it was a pretty dark story, and quite obviously uncommercial, and so it went into a drawer to gather dust. About six or seven years later, when my wife was about to have a baby, I made what I thought was a big sacrifice, and told her that I’d give up writing for a whole six months, so that I’d be available to lend a hand with the new arrival. That lasted about three weeks, because I get like a bear when I don’t write, so the compromise I offered was that I’d redraft something, rather than write something new. A couple of days later, I was standing at my office window, looking out into the back garden, when I got the idea that Karlsson appeared in the garden, saying, ‘What about me?’ In essence, he was complaining that my baby girl had been born, and was real, whereas he was stuck in this manuscript limbo. He was ‘real’ enough, but being unpublished, he wasn’t ‘alive’. And so I sat down to redraft the Karlsson story, and to a large extent, how the story of the rewrite evolves in the book was how it happened at my desk. Although I should point out that I never tried to poison my baby girl, and that no hospitals were hurt in the rewriting of that manuscript.”

I could see elements of Paul Auster and Flann O’Brien in the narrative. I also thought there was an interesting parallel to be drawn with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Were you conscious of any other influences when you were writing this?

“Well, I did specifically mention Fight Club, if memory serves, and I did love that film, and subsequently the book; and I’m a fan of Flann O’Brien’s meta-fiction, and especially At Swim-Two-Birds. Having said that, probably the strongest influence on the book was Kurt Vonnegut – Karlsson decides that he wants to be known as ‘Billy’ for the purpose of the redraft, on the basis that he’s a nicer guy now, and ‘Billy’ was a nod to Billy Pilgrim, from Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve been a fan of Vonnegut for many years, and in one sense the absurdity of the plot (hospital porter blows up hospital) was a bit of a homage to Vonnegut’s plots, and I also love the way that he tends to wander in and out of his stories, dropping bits of info here and there, and does so in a way that looks careless and half-thought out, a little shambolic. Anyway, AZC has a lot of that kind of thing going on, but the fact that the author of the book also gets involved with the characters, and co-writes a redraft with one of them – that was my way of doffing the cap to Vonnegut.”

Tell me about your writing day (a la a Paris Review style interview). What time do you get up? Do you write every day? Is your creativity disciplined by routine or is it spontaneous?

“I work full-time, and as a freelance journalist, which means that it’s pretty time-consuming. And I’m married, with a baby girl, so I have all the family-related demands and responsibilities that most blokes my age have. So, if I want to write, I really need to get up early to do it. I get up at 5am, and write for as long as the house stays quiet; if my wife is working early, I’ll knock off around 7am and start getting my daughter ready for school, etc. If she’s working late, I’ll write on until 8am, maybe a little later.

“One of the most wonderful quotes I’ve ever read about writing came from William Golding, who, when he was asked in an interview about his writing schedule, said, ‘Well, when I’m writing …’ At the time, I thought you had to write every day, without fail; I didn’t realise you were entitled to work for six or eight months at a stretch, say, and then spend four months researching, or at least not writing. Anyway, when I’m writing, I write every day, although I’ll allow myself a sleep-in until 6.30am on a Sunday morning. I tried to reach a certain word count every day, although I’m generally more worried about quality rather than quantity.

“But I do think it’s important to write every day – it is for me, anyway. Ultimately, and whether you like it or not, you’re competing against people who can devote eight or ten hours of the day to writing, every day, while you only get a couple of hours. Or, if you want to think of it another way – say you were an Olympic athlete, would you train whenever you felt like it? Or would you train every day, as hard as you can?”

“I’ll be honest, I’m not big on the idea of ‘being creative’. I write because I like messing around with words, and proving something to myself on paper, although I’m not sure yet what it is I’m trying to prove. But I’m not a natural writer, or an instinctive writer – I’m not a writer in the mould of Lawrence Durrell, say, who used to write in blocks of ten thousand words per day, and then bin the lot and start again if he didn’t like what he read. I’m very slow, very patient; I grind words out at a ‘three words forward, two words back’ rate. I’d say the backspace is the most used button on my keyboard. Creative? That’s fine in terms of generating the initial ideas. After that, it’s routine, routine, routine. I have a little motto sellotaped to the bottom of my PC monitor, a quote from Isak Dinesen (I use it in AZC, actually): ‘I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.’”

You’ve been blogging at Crime Always Pays for a number of years now. I note that in a recent post you say you have to scale back on blogging to have more time to write. Do you think this is a dilemma faced by many authors in the modern age, i.e. promoting themselves via social media and having the time to write too?

“Well, I can only speak for myself, and yeah, I’ll be scaling back on the blogging for the foreseeable future. Last year was a pretty busy one, I brought out a novel and a non-fiction title, and it was really time consuming. I’m putting my latest book to bed right now, and I do feel like I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Plus, I’m looking at bringing out another two books later this year. So something has to give, and the blogging is an easy target.”

What’s next for you? Are you writing a new book?

“As I said above, I’m just finishing off a last draft of my new book, which is a kind of private eye story, and should be published in June this year; and I’m also in the process of co-editing a non-fiction collection, which should be terrific fun when it hits the shelves. That’s the plan for this year. After that, I don’t know. I do have stories I’d like to write, and I have a couple of drafts of novels I could go working at; there’s one in particular, which is set on Crete, that I’d love to do, if I could do it properly. Right now, though, the idea of an extended break from writing is very, very appealing. I really do feel very drained.

“Mind you, I say that now … I’d probably take a break for about a month, and be chewing my arm off to get writing again. It’s a sickness.”

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One thought on “Interview with Declan Burke

  1. Pingback: My Writing Day | Alex Donald's Multiverse

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