'I want to write about Derry as it is now, moving forward with real confidence'
As he prepares to be Library NI's Writer in Residence next month, crime novelist Brian McGilloway tells Claire Savage his books may soon become TV dramas
When it comes to writing crime fiction, there's a special talent required in portraying the real and the imaginary without stepping on anyone's toes – something Londonderry author Brian McGilloway is only too aware of. Recently announced as this year's Libraries NI Writer in Residence for Creativity Month – which takes place in March – McGilloway is author of the popular Inspector Devlin crime series, which has seen him achieve critical acclaim as an original voice within the crime writing genre.
Indeed, the first installment of the series, Borderlands, was shortlisted for a Crime Writers' Association Dagger award for a debut novel.
Meanwhile, the first book in McGilloway's latest series (Little Girl Lost), featuring Detective Sergeant Lucy Black, won the University of Ulster's McCrea Literary Award in 2011.
It can safely be said, then, that writing seems to come rather naturally to McGilloway, who previously studied English at Queen's University.
Having originally been enrolled on a science degree, however, the popular author could have gone down a very different career path ...
"I actually started doing biochemistry and biological science, but switched to English," he laughs. "At A-Level I did biology, chemistry and English and I just realised I missed English an awful lot."
Driven by an innate desire to tell stories, it is this urge to be creative that McGilloway is keen to encourage in others in his writer in residence role.
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"What I like about Creativity Month is that it encourages those people who want to write, to take those steps," he says. "The focus is on encouraging others to be creative, so there'll be a couple of workshops and a few 'writing clinics'."
As head of English at St Columb's College in Londonderry, McGilloway is no stranger to dishing out feedback, and his teacher instincts have subsequently inspired a twist to some of this year's events.
Cue the Next Chapter workshops, which will see five writing groups each produce a chapter, which McGilloway will then edit together.
"What I hope will happen is that each chapter will be set in the town where the writing group is. Whatever is the final town – which I think is Derry – I will start and end the story there."
Derry is also the backdrop for McGilloway's most recent novel, Hurt, released in November and steadily climbing the Kindle bestseller list. It is, he says, the first time one of his books has been based entirely in Northern Ireland, and is the second story in the DS Lucy Black series.
The tales continue McGilloway's temporary departure from Inspector Devlin and his change of direction with a female lead.
"Tanya, my wife, who is a science teacher, reads my books," he says of this. "She's been very good with reading the earlier drafts and saying, 'that wouldn't work because that isn't authentic'."
The youngest of four children, McGilloway – born and bred in Derry – is the son of a vice-principal and an industrial therapist, so it is evident where his teaching and scientific influences came from. His foray into writing, however, came as something of a surprise to his parents.
"My mum, Katrina, was a VP in a primary school in Derry and my dad, Laurence, was an industrial therapist in Gransha Hospital for years, although he was a French polisher by trade," he says. "I think they're bemused by the writing – and proud, too. My family – including my older sister, Carmel, and brothers, Joe and Dermot – are hugely supportive."
Having just celebrated his 40th birthday, McGilloway is also happy to report that his own children – Ben (10), Tom (8), David (5) and Lucy (3) – are also enthusiastic bookworms. Reflecting on his own early writing experience, McGilloway is keen to point out that, "anyone who writes, has always been a writer".
"I remember when I was a kid and even as a teen, I was writing stories," he says. "I strongly feel writing is a compulsion." He adds: "Maybe with crime being a very crowded field, arguably, there's no point in doing it unless you can bring something different to the table."
Part of a crop of top crime writers to hail from Northern Ireland, McGilloway admits that while the likes of himself, Stuart Neville, Colin Bateman and Claire McGowan are all writing "very different things", they are all influenced by the country's history.
He shies away, however, from focusing on real-life events in his fiction, as he is acutely aware of the impact this could have.
"You need to be aware that you're not using crime for entertainment," he says. "The 'entertainment', for me, is how the detective brings about some sense of justice at the end."
And, although McGilloway set his latest book in Derry, it is the new, forward-thinking Derry he chose to portray. "I'm more interested in writing about the Derry now – that has found its feet and identity and its voice and is moving forward with confidence," he says.
Writing is not his only love, however, as the former English student was also once involved in the Queen's drama society and continues to be a "huge cinema and TV fan".
Interestingly, McGilloway's own books could have a chance of appearing on the small screen ...
"Devlin and Lucy are both at different stages of development for TV," he says. "It would be lovely if it happened, but my focus is on writing."
In the meantime, he has enough to contend with at home – writing, keeping an eye on the children during his current sabbatical from school, and watching over the family's Miniature Schnauzers.
"Yes, we have two dogs," he says. "We had Basset Hounds, but they were too big for the children, so we rehomed them.
"Because we didn't want the kids to be afraid of dogs, we got the Miniature Schnauzers. That's why Devlin has a Basset Hound in the books. I got to keep one through him. It's also why he smokes – I gave up when the kids came along!"