☼ Delighted to host today's blog tour stop on Publication Day
with an interview with Gary Donnelly ☼
|Allison & Busby|
20 August 2020
My thanks to the publishers for the invitation to be part of this blog tour
A boy’s body is found in bogland: a case as cold as the earth that has hidden it for so long and an echo of Northern Ireland’s darkest hours. DI Owen Sheen has sworn to get justice for the unnamed boy and digs up links to a covert British Army unit that was operating in the 1970s. But as fresh bodies start to litter the streets of Belfast, Sheen and DC Aoife McCusker, who is fighting to restore her professional reputation, must make the connection and stop a killer hellbent on revenge.
Hi Gary, welcome to Jaffareadstoo, thank you for inviting us to your blog tour and
for joining us today on Publication Day!
Where did you get the first flash of inspiration for Killing in Your Name?
There were a few sparks, but the big one came about five years ago when I was beginning Blood Will Be Born and a mate of mine was completing a postgraduate qualification in art. He created an interactive exhibition based on a piece of sociological research called Black Magic and Bogeymen by the academic Richard Jenkins. The book details black magic rumours along the Irish border in the 1970s, some of which were believed to have been instigated by a covert British Army team. As soon as I heard this I was hooked, and knew I had to build a novel around this dark pearl. The beauty and fun of novel writing is that imagination is in the driving seat, so after the initial spark, I was able to ask, well, ‘What if…?’ What if this group did more than stir up fear? What if the supposed evils of black magic were nothing compared to the real evils that haunted Northern Irish society during those dark days?
Your writing is very atmospheric – how do you ‘set the scene’ in your novels and how much research did you need to do in order to bring this second book in the D I Owen Sheen series to life?
I read history way back then, and lots of that attention to detail and instinct to research thoroughly has stayed with me. So, yes, I prefer to get it right where I possibly can and I really feel this is a respect which the reader is owed. The arc of a story and the characters are mine to imagine, but when it comes to things like physical surroundings, technical details, scientific facts, smells, procedures and protocols, I want to be accurate. There’s many ways. Sometimes I ask a professional for guidance (nurses, former police officers), I read and research historical details which can be used, I have attended courses and listened to pathologists and crime scene investigators. Honestly the Internet is invaluable. If I want to see the Belfast sky in December (I live and work in London), if I want to see how a crime scene is taped off, if I want to see a detail from a famous painting. First and foremost I want this for the reader. She has taken my hand and walked into a shadowy world with me, she trusts me to make the frights and the suspense and the excitement real and worth her time. If something snags, if a portion of the set falls apart, the spell can break, and I have reneged on the deal. But it’s also necessary for me as a writer. Not always at that rough first draft point, but definitely thereafter. Unless I know ‘the set’ is as accurate as I can manage, I will get distracted, I won’t submerge in a way that I need to. When details are correct, even if it is a small thing like the vegetation on a hillside, I can use it, and disappear into the story.
The second book in a series is sometimes considered more difficult to write – were there any challenges with this book, and if so can you tell us how you overcame them?
The biggest challenge is the one you have just stated! The expectation involved in doing it all again, and hopefully doing it better, or at least on par with the first. The fear that there may be nothing more left to say. For me, opening lines and first words are incredibly potent. They are like an incantation, a whispered prayer that almost generates a form of self-hypnosis, and allows the magic to happen. I knew that the kernel of Killing In Your Name was valid (I still get a little shiver when I think about stumbling over it), but when I went searching for Sheen in the first chapter, the opening line came to me complete and I knew he was there, brooding in shadows and waiting to get to work. “The dead are silent in their graves, but at night they speak to Owen Sheen.”
How does Killing in Your Name fit in with the previous book in the series?
Killing In Your Name follows on from Blood Will Be Born, but it also stands alone for the first time reader of the Sheen series. This was something I was really passionate about and which my publisher also bought into and helped with. In terms of challenges, this was certainly one! It’s work that takes place after initial drafts and with fresh-eyed editing, and it was incredibly satisfying to get a sense of having achieved this in some way. It was made even harder because, without a doubt, both novels have a great deal of fine stitching when it comes to plot and character relationships. On the other hand, I was aware that as the book’s first reader, Killing In Your Name owed all readers of Blood Will Be Born a few answers and necessary follow-ups which had to be addressed. Let’s just say a few loose ends needed to be dealt with in a way that real life rarely satisfactorily allows! Books in a series are like siblings. Put them together, the resemblance is usually undeniable, but each brings something unique to the world. As an author, just as a parent, you never really know what you’re going to get until it arrives!
Whilst you are writing you must live with your characters. How do you feel about them when the book is finished? Are they what you expected them to be?
Yes, I know I'm in the groove when, while out walking or jogging, I hear their voices snapping out dialogue for next scenes, or repeating things I have written. But the experience of writing is like being a pilot, so much of it is in point of view during creation that I see it very differently to the first time reader. I’m in the cockpit, matching their breathing, experiencing the beat of seconds passing in action, getting hit, hurting others. In this way, as in real life, my focus is less on the coherent whole (in much the same way as most of us do not ‘see’ ourselves walking down the road as others will, we are in it). In some ways, therefore, I get less! My mate spent a slow pint telling me exactly how Aoife McCusker looks and which actor could play her, and I was amazed at how much he saw. When the book is finished, and I have gained some distance, I find myself as intrigued as anyone else a lot of the time. It’s a bit like having had a dream and then returning to it, on paper. I remember snippets of what I was doing while writing some scenes and building the characters, but when that book arrives, they are no longer me, or mine. In this sense I am always reminded about what Seamus Heaney said about his poems. While he wrote and reworked them, they were all his, but as soon as they were published, they were his no longer, they belonged to the readers. Thankfully, I’ve always been fond of my characters when I finish writing, especially when they appear very real, remain believable and when they manage to make me laugh.
What characteristics make a good fictional detective and equally, what makes a good fictional villain?
As the Rolling Stones once sang, every cop is a criminal and all the sinners are saints. That pretty much hits the nail on the nail on the head for me. When Milgram did his 1963 experiment into destructive obedience he was searching for what made some people ‘evil’ enough to follow orders to murder complete strangers. What he discovered was that the main ingredient was being human, that was it. So, it is the humanity in both fictional detectives and villains that make them powerful and successful, for me. Sheen knows the difference between right and wrong but he struggles, the battle is within, no matter what he faces in the world I drop him into. Likewise, if the villain has nothing the reader can even partly empathise with then it’s game over. As a child I remember almost crying watching the old black and white King Kong, even though he did wreak havoc. In Killing In Your Name, I created two villains, and without giving too much away, I was able to have my fun this time! There was space for a spectrum which, at its lightest, was still very murky, and at its darkest, is bad to the bone.
Tell us about your writing day- are you disciplined, strictly 9 til 5, or are you more of a have a cup of tea and think about it sort of writer?
The best advice I was given is what I will repeat. Write every day. That said, I don’t always follow that mantra! It can be a somewhat feast or famine for me when it comes to writing. So, in that sense, discipline is my best friend throughout the process. I am at my best when I establish a routine and stick to it. Simple rules, tricks really, they help me. If I have an opportunity to write and material to work on then it comes first that day. There will always be distractions and excuses, but laying down new words must come first, and for me it’s best if that is earlier rather than later. I think I can access the raw unconscious much better first thing in the morning, less mental energy has been exerted on other things. It’s not always easy, so rather than demanding a hefty word count, my other trick is that I usually ask for ten minutes of concerted effort, head down. Frequently, that’s enough to prime the pump and when I look up, lots of time has passed. I actually have a day job, I teach more or less full time, but have one day off per week which I devote to writing. Outside holiday time and my writing day, I write when I can, sometimes before, and sometimes after work. There are fallow periods, and often these are spent chewing over ideas and beginning to map out potential stories, but consistency is key. By all means, drink that cup of tea, think a little, but if in doubt, write. Every day.
Can you tell us if you have another DI Sheen novel planned?
I can tell you that Sheen and Aoife will be back on the streets of Belfast after Killing in Your Name. Book three is in the pipeline, and will be titled Never Ask The Dead, due for publication in 2021. Beyond that, I can’t reveal too much just yet. But something tells me that Sheen’s track record for steering clear of bad luck and trouble is pretty questionable! I have a feeling that if I go looking for him, I might find him waiting for me. He will ask me where I’ve been, and tell me there’s a case that needs him, even though he knows he should leave it, because it spells bad news. But he won’t. He doesn’t listen to a word I say.
Gary Donnelly is a writer and teacher who was born and raised in west Belfast. After attending a state comprehensive school, he read History at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and has lived and worked in London since the late 1990s.