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'The awards and the acclaim is always a boost... but I think all writers struggle with self-doubt '

Stuart Neville was about to abandon his childhood dream of becoming an author when an email turned his life around, he tells Stephanie Bell

Published 02/08/2016

Dark material: Armagh crime writer Stuart Neville
Dark material: Armagh crime writer Stuart Neville
Stuart Neville and his wife Johanne
Family man: Stuart Neville and his wife Johanne with their children Issy (left) and Ezra
Stuart Neville’s debut novel, The Twelve
Stuart Neville’s latest book, So Say The Fallen

Celebrated Northern Ireland crime writer Stuart Neville was about to turn his back on his dream of becoming an author - a dream he had cherished from childhood - when the unexpected happened. Just as he was convinced he was wasting his time, one of New York's biggest literary agents came knocking and Stuart was launched on a career that has won him international recognition.

His breakthrough came with The Twelve, which became the most critically acclaimed crime debut of recent years, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best thriller and earning a place on the Best of 2009 lists of both the LA Times and New York Times.

Accolades also poured in from some of the world's biggest crime writers, his own personal favourite James Ellroy describing it as: "The best first novel I've read in years...It's a flat out terror trip."

The Guardian review called it "a brilliant thriller, unbearably tense, stomach-churningly frightening" and "the best fictional representation of the Troubles".

Collusion, Stolen Souls, Ratlines (shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger) and The Final Silence quickly followed, confirming the Armagh man's position as one of the most exciting crime authors writing today.

His work is now in demand internationally and has been translated into German, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, Greek, Chinese and Russian.

His newest offering - released this month - So Say The Fallen is the second in a series featuring new character DCI Serena Flanagan.

His success has seen him become part of the elite crime writers' circuit, travelling to book festivals around the world in the company of international best-selling authors like Lee Child and his idol Ellroy.

But while the life of an international best-selling author appears very glamorous, Stuart begs to differ, describing it as "an uphill slog".

He does enjoy a quiet family life in his native Co Armagh with wife Johanne (40, below), and their children Issy (5) and Ezra (3) and says he misses them when his writing takes him on tours overseas.

Despite the many accolades which have poured in, he says he struggles with self-doubt, although he is grateful to be finally fulfilling his childhood dream of making his living as a writer.

Stuart, now 44, grew up in Armagh, one of three children (he has two sisters). His late father Noel worked in Irwins Bakery in Portadown and his mother Emerald worked in the local library.

He believes it was his mother who instilled a love of reading in him as a small child.

His success as an author sadly coincided with his mum being diagnosed with cancer. It was a bittersweet time for him as he saw his career take off while his mum battled a serious illness.

He says: "Mum has had a hard time. She has had two struggles with breast cancer and is doing well at the minute, but it has been a difficult 10 years for her. I like to think that my writing has given her a bit of a lift and that she is proud of me."

Ironically, his wife also works in the library and it is where you will often find Stuart with his head down working on his latest novel.

He says: "The library has played a big role in my life. I was always a reader and I would give mum a list of books every day before she went to work and she would bring them home for me.

"My best friend's dad growing up also worked for the SELB.

"Writing was something I wanted to do since a very young age and I kept trying to do it even as a child and always seemed to come back to it.

"I would write a few pages or chapters and realise it was quite hard work. Writing fiction to me is something you tend to do when you are older. Most authors don't get anything published until their 30s.

"I think it takes a bit of life experience to be a writer."

To prove his point, Stuart had a varied career before making a serious attempt to become an author in his 30s.

He worked as a baker, teacher, musician, salesman, film extra and as a partner in a successful multimedia design business.

He has a great love for the guitar and studied music at college, working for nine years in a music shop in Armagh.

He says: "I taught guitar for a number of years and my ambition when I left school was to write musical film and I did a little bit here and there and then realised it was too tough a business.

"I stumbled into web design and had just set up a business with a friend when I decided to try writing again.

"It was about 10 years ago and I just thought, if I'm going to do this then I need to do it now, as I wasn't getting any younger. I wrote three novels quite quickly.

"I knew the first two weren't great and I sent the third one to about half a dozen agents and got nowhere.

"I was on the verge of giving up and thought I was wasting my time and on a bit of a fool's errand when I got the email from Nat Sobel in New York."

Sobel, a legendary New York literary agent, had read one of Neville's short stories online. He asked if he could see the novel which Stuart had mentioned in his biography on his website. Things happened very quickly after that.

Says Stuart: "He mentioned in his email he represented James EIIroy, who is my favourite author and asked to see my work, and it was a bit of a shock. A few days later he took me on as a client, which was another shock to the system, especially as I was on the verge of giving up.

"It was one of those pinch-yourself moments. Things have been reasonably steady from there. It is an uphill slog trying to build sales. The recession really hit the book market with shops closing and it was difficult to get your books onto the shelves.

"Getting into the Richard and Judy book club over the summer last year was a big thing and probably my biggest step forward since my first book, as it puts your work into train stations, airports and book shops and that is a lot of exposure.

"Things are moving in the right direction and for me that is really the best I can hope for."

His new book So Say The Fallen was released in the UK last month to rave reviews and has been chosen as a Star Pick of The Times Crime Club. Its review says: "Neville weaves a gripping tale of evil, despair and redemption from a slow-burn start."

It is the second book in a series featuring DCI Serena Flanagan, which sees her called to the scene of an apparent suicide where she begins to suspect something doesn't add up, particularly when she sees how close the new widow is to her local rector.

The Times adds: "It's a clever plot, and Flanagan is a superb creation, one of the most convincing women detectives around."

He says finding plots is not a problem: "Ideas can come from anywhere, at any time. For most writers, getting ideas isn't the problem. I have a surplus of ideas. It's figuring out which ideas have legs, that's the difficult part, knowing which ideas will sustain a story for 80,000 words or more."

The book is due for release in the US in September, when Stuart will embark on a tour to promote it.

He says: "The upside and the downside of writing is that it involves quite a lot of travel. It means I get to places that I wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to visit, but it also means being away from the kids.

"I love to get out with the kids and last weekend we went to W5. They will soon be starting school and nursery which will probably help make my working days a bit easier to regulate."

He says he does try to discipline himself to write full time and that it can take up to two years from writing a book until it is published and even now he says he is nervous when he sends a new book to the publisher.

He says: "I would be on tenterhooks until I hear back from them and my agent doesn't mince his words and is not a bit shy about telling me what he thinks.

"I do have some sleepless nights until I hear back. I think any creative who puts their work out there into the world struggles a bit with their confidence.

"Awards and getting a book shortlisted or a new translation deal are always a boost but you still have moments of self-doubt.

"I don't know if any writer worth his or her salt doesn't struggle with it."

And he should know, as he is pals with most of the great thriller writers, who all travel together to literary festivals.

He says: "I have gotten to know them over the years and they always give you support and are always encouraging. I've had a pint with Lee Child at the bar and he is a really nice bloke.

"I don't think I have met anyone who would be a prima donna, there is a real community feel among the crime writers and everyone pitches in together and supports one another and there is never a sense of rivalry."

While Stuart may confess to feeling nerves about each new book, the critics have been lavish in their praise.

The LA Times said of Stolen Souls: "Irish crime fiction rises to new heights" while the Independent on Sunday described Ratlines as "a seriously impressive piece of crime fiction that lingers long in the memory" and Final Silence was praised by Euro Crimes as "a story that builds suspense and pace, without sacrificing depth of character".

Away from writing, as well as spending time with his children, he and his wife enjoy cooking together.

He also still loves playing the guitar as well as "taking it apart and putting it back together again".

He says he feels blessed to be doing something he loves and being recognised for it, adding: "It has its ups and downs, its triumphs and disappointments, like any career. At the end of the day, I'm not shovelling coal for a living."

Belfast Telegraph

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