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Crime writer Brian McGilloway: I got a text from my publisher to say I had just hit the New York Times best seller list... it was just surreal

By Donna Deeney

Crime writer Brian McGilloway, a leading author and the man behind the critically acclaimed Inspector Benedict Devlin and DS Lucy Black series, tells us about his inspirations, family, teaching, success and a famous fan.

Q. You clearly have a gift for stories about murder, crime and suspense. Where did that come from?

A. I'm not sure. I watched a lot of Inspector Morse with my dad when I was younger so maybe that's where the police procedural stuff came from. I read a lot of crime.

I suppose crime is about the movement of disorder to order and it is the modern version of tragedy. It kind of suited writing about Northern Ireland - writing about the movement of disorder to order and crime is kind of backward and forward looking simultaneously.

The narrative is moving forward because the detective is trying to solve something, but a crime novel starts with someone's death or a crime happening and then the entire forward narrative is about someone looking backwards trying to find out how everything led to that point.

That made perfect sense to me with Northern Ireland in that we reached a point that we were trying to move forward but we were simultaneously drawn back trying to work out.

It doesn't surprise me that almost all the new generations of writers in Northern Ireland are crime writers.

Q. You are also a full-time teacher at Holy Cross in Strabane. What do your students think of you being such a successful crime writer?

A. I took a break of about two years from teaching and I enjoyed it but I also missed it.

I missed the kids and I missed talking about books and the enthusiasm that brings.

Because writers are magpies and pick up stuff all the time and it all merges together, I worried if I was in the house all the time I would end up repeating the same stories all the time.

The Holy Cross in Strabane is a fantastic school and the kids are great and it is lovely to be talking about literature with kids who are interested in it. I am sure it means nothing to them that I am an author, I don't think it causes them a second thought.

Q. Where is your passion - in teaching or writing?

A. It's literature and I am really lucky I have a job that allows me to do both simultaneously.

I love writing, I love books and I love literature as a form. I love writing about it. I love talking about it, so teaching and writing allow me to explore it from all sides.

Q. Between writing and teaching you mustn't have a lot of free time, but you are also a husband and father of four. How do you fit everything in?

A. I manage all of them in a mediocre way, I don't think I manage any of them particularly well. I think it is the same for anyone who is working and has a family and tries to balance all those things.

I suppose teaching lends itself in a way to writing because you do have that breathing space in the summer and that tends to be when I write.

I like being busy and having things to do but it is safe to say there are certain elements around our house that have suffered and we will leave it at that.

Q. Many writers talk about how they close themselves off from everything so they can write. Do you have somewhere specific you go to write?

A. I find myself writing increasingly in cafes because although I have a study at home, as the kids get older it is more and more difficult to get that hour in the house because they are constantly coming in looking for stuff.

I have trained myself into writing for an hour and a half a day. So long as I get at least an hour and get over 1,000 words - a chapter done - then I would be happy.

Now I write at home but if things are chaotic at home, which they sometimes are with four kids aged 14, 11, eight and seven, I take myself off to a cafe.

I find the noise and bustle in a cafe allows me to focus on what I am doing. I think the idea of a log cabin up a mountain would drive me mad. I like having people around me.

Q. Your new book Bad Blood is out next week with launches in Belfast on May 17, Londonderry on May 18 and Strabane on May 19. You must be excited, or is this a nervous time for you?

A. It's a mixture of both. It is exciting because I have been working on it for ages and up until it comes out on the book shelves, it has been all inside my head.

I suppose there is an element that a book doesn't really come alive until people start reading it, but the terrifying thing is people are going to start reading it.

Once the book comes out and I get a sense of how people are reacting, it will be a bit better but at this stage I am more nervous than excited and that has got worse with each book.

Q. This also marks 10 years since your first book featuring the Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin Borderlands was published in 2007. It received wide acclaim. Did that put you under pressure doing the sequel?

A. It did and it didn't because by the time Borderlands came out the second one, Gallows Lane, was already written.

Borderlands was written in 2003 and it took about three years to find a publisher, which isn't that unusual for a first book, but in the interim I had already written the second.

By the time the first got accepted, I was actually doing the final rewrite on the second. The second was actually signed up before the first came out.

It was actually the third book, Bleed a Deep River, that was the difficult 'second album' in a weird way. It was the first one I had written after Borderlands had been published.

Q. You went on to write five more Inspector Devlin books. Why did you decide against a sixth?

A. It's not that I decided against it. A story didn't present itself. I had done four Inspector Devlins then I had an idea for a story, but it just didn't suit Devlin's world so it wasn't that I specifically thought I am going to write a non-Devlin book.

The story was Little Girl Lost and because it involved a child in the hospital and somebody sitting with the child at night, and because it was a girl, it needed to be a female detective.

I didn't want it to be CID, I wanted it to be Public Protection and I wanted it set in the north so it didn't suit Devlin's world.

After that I wrote another Devlin and even this latest book, Bad Blood, started as a Devlin book but around 20 pages in I hit a brick wall. I realised it wasn't his story so I went back and started it as a Lucy Black story and it flowed straight away.

In fact I have started another Inspector Devlin story - whether it lasts as a Devlin is another matter.

Q. Little Girl Lost is a New York Times best seller as well as a Number One best seller in the UK. Did that catch you by surprise?

A. It was a shock. I was driving home from Omagh around 11pm and got an alert on my phone. I pulled into the lay-by and it was a text from the publisher to say I had just hit the New York Times best seller list. It was just a surreal experience.

It was a shock because Little Girl Lost came out in 2011 and my editor had just left my publisher that same month so the book almost vanished without trace with very little review coverage.

It vanished for two years and then for whatever reason - luck or opportunity - it took off here under its own steam.

Q. Lucy Black is a very different character to Benedict Devlin. Did you find it difficult writing a female lead?

A. With Devlin I tried to not make him the archetypal detective so he is not alcoholic, he's not divorced, he's not this kind of maverick who is going off and doing his own thing at crime scenes because I wanted to make him quite realistic.

My concern was around family, I wanted to see how he would deal with all the bad stuff that was happening and then go home and be a dad and a husband.

When it came to writing the Lucy Black books, I was very aware of her not morphing into a female Benedict Devlin so it was a deliberate thing that I made her as different as possible.

Q. Bad Blood is the fourth in the Lucy Black series. Do you have plans for others or will she be shelved in the same way Inspector Devlin was?

A. I would love to say I had a grand scheme, but I am quite literally making this up as I go along.

I kind of know where her story is going to end, but I don't know how many books it will take to get there.

I will go back to Lucy, but whether it will be the next book or not I don't know. All I do know is that her story isn't finished.

Q. Did you base either of these characters on anyone or are they a figment of your imagination?

A. I wonder if any character is completely a figment of your imagination, I think every character is a wee bit of you and a combination of various other people.

If you are writing a character whose motivations you don't understand, then they are not a real character. You haven't brought them to life.

In order to understand their motivation you need to empathise with them on some level.

Every character - good and bad -will have some tiny aspect of yourself. Devlin is probably a lot closer to me than Lucy is because he was the first character I wrote.

With first books you tend to draw a lot on what you know. I was just married, my wife was expecting our first child so aspects about the book - fatherhood and balancing work and life -were things that resonated with me anyway.

His voice is probably my voice although his behaviour isn't necessarily mine.

Q. Lee Child, one of the best known and successful crime writers in the world, is very supportive of you and has written about how much he enjoys your work. That must be quite the compliment?

A. He is a very nice man. All crime writers tend to be very supportive of one another and Lee has been fantastic, considering how massive he is in terms of his sales and his reputation. He is hugely approachable.

We met at a couple of crime festivals and most crime writers go to them and end up standing in the pub talking shop as everybody does and that was really where it came from.

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