Q. How much do you get paid for a book?
Mind your own bloody business!
Q. Where do you get your ideas from?
Mind your own bloody business!
Q. What`s your writing day like?
I pretty much work office hours – plus. A lot of writers take years to write a book, and that`s fine, but I`m far too impatient, so I go in every day, and if I don`t write a chapter a day I consider I`m slacking. Doesn`t mean it`s all brilliant, but it`s what works for me. A lot of it has to do with having been a journalist. When you write an article as a journalist nobody says, God, you must be exhausted, have a day off, you`re expected to write a lot, and every day too. When I`m not writing, or at least thinking about what I`m writing, I get pretty annoyed. In a sense, you never really switch off, always thinking about possibilities. A bit annoying for my wife, but as they say, tough.
Q. You were an award winning journalist. Discuss.
If you count third place in some dodgy regional competition, then yes I was. What I really was was a reporter on a small weekly paper, who wrote a column every week which was considered popular and funny. It has been described as `satirical`, but it was really just taking the piss out of local events, characters, and my sad personal life. You can try looking it up, but it`s really not worth the effort, it hasn`t really stood the test of time. A lot of the best lines from it cropped up in `Divorcing Jack`. But for a shy kid who wouldn`t say boo to a goose, being a journalist on a local paper is great, because you get thrown in at the deep end and if you don`t learn to swim very quickly you sink and get nibbled by very small gold fish.
Q. So how did you come to write Divorcing Jack?
Frustration, ambition, boredom. I was nearly thirty, I was in a dead end job, in a crap house, and with no girlfriend. I could see myself going mad. I was in a very small newspaper by day with no ambition to move on, and watching football and Coronation Street by night, and I`d watched every video in the movie store. I was drinking a lot, although not in a whiskey for breakfast way, more in the traditional Irish the weekend starts on Wednesday and ends on Tuesday kind of a way. I had to do something about it. I`d been putting off writing a novel for years – seemed like too much work, and I wasn`t smart enough – but tinkering with short stories and newspaper competitions. I entered the Observer`s Young Travel Writer of the Year competition and won a place in the final, which was a trip to South Korea for a week. I didn`t win, of course, but I ended up going out with the winner! She turned me on to a writer of detective fiction called Robert B Parker, whose books were so simply written, but great and funny, that I thought at last here was a style I might be able to have a crack at. So I started in on that novel, and I think – I hope – that after copying Parker at first I quickly developed my own style, but without that trip to South Korea I might never have gotten started. I ought to thank that girl one day really. But she dropped me, so bugger that.
Q. How long did it take you to write?
I suppose about eight months. The thing about short stories and poetry is that you can write them in a couple of days. But you can`t write a novel that quickly, unless you`re fucking mental. So really a lot of it is about discipline, either a nice lady in leathers with a big whip, or actually switching off the TV for a few hours and doing the physical work. Getting started is the easy part, keeping going is tough – but I think there`s a point you get to where you really become immersed in what you`re doing and can`t wait to get writing. That`s how it was with Divorcing Jack. I never made a plan of how the story was doing to develop, just wrote it a chapter at a time, with the idea that if I didn`t know what was going to happen, then the eventual reader wouldn`t either. I used to go into work and ask my reporter colleagues what they thought should happen in a given situation – but they had no idea, or thought I was bonkers. It was a great feeling, printing it out when I`d finished. But I thought that was it. No great hopes for it.
Q. So how did it get published?
Well it went to several small publishers in Ireland, who turned it down. One, Poolbeg in Dublin, liked it, but decided there was no market for a `Unionist thriller`, which was a bit of a strange one. Then I sent it to nearly every agent in England; they all turned it down; one loved it but didn`t think he could get it published, so didn`t try! Eventually my girlfriend (my new girlfriend, now my wife!) got to read it, and she told me to forget about agents and just send it to the biggest publisher I could think of, and that was HarperCollins. They had a huge slush pile of unpublished manuscripts they rarely bothered to look at (in fact they, and most other publishers, don`t accept them any more, unless they come through an agent) but on one particular day someone happened to pick my book up – and the rest is mystery.
Q. It won a big prize, didn`t it? Was it The Booker?
The hooker, maybe. It won the Betty Trask. At the very least they could have called it the Elizabeth Trask, which sound a bit more upmarket. Betty Trask was a Mills`n`Boon writer of trashy romantic novels, who popped her clogs and left her considerable fortune for the setting up of an award for the best first novel of a `romantic or traditional nature`. Well, there was lots of sex in Divorcing Jack, and that can be romantic, once in a blue moon. HarperCollins entered my original manuscript, and Divorcing Jack won, despite my dreadful spelling – but there was a £12,000 cheque for the winner, which was exactly six times my advance for the novel, so it was a fantastic start.
Q. You seem to churn the books out very quickly, how long does it take you to write them?
All writers are different, I just like to work quickly. As I mentioned above somewhere, I have a rule of thumb which says I should write a chapter a day, so check the number of chapters there are in any of my books and you`ll have a rough idea. Remember though, that I don`t always have, say, thirty days in a row in which I can write – I also have several screenplays on the go at once, there are the children`s books, readings, publicity tours, my work as a male escort and playing for Liverpool reserves.
Q. Do you prefer writing screenplays or novels?
Both. As I never expected to be doing any of this in the first place, and am constantly surprised to be offered these opportunities, I love them all. Didn`t I direct a short film a few years ago? No sane individual should let me loose with a camera crew, but one did. All sort of doors open once you become `an author`. You haven`t changed as a person, you aren`t any more talented than you were before, but you get respect and that makes the difference.
Q. Television or movies?
Well, I`m a real movie buff, so I love the fact that I`ve had a few movies made. But none of them set the world on fire, and it`s a lot of work for sometimes very little return. With TV they`re written quickly, made quickly, and seen by millions of people, which as a story-teller, is what you want. Besides Murphy`s Law I`ve also written an adaptation of a Marian Keyes book, Water Melon, which starred Anna Friel and was shown on ITV a couple of years ago. Barely a word of the original novel survives, and I`m not sure if Marian is speaking to me.
Q. I want to be a writer, will you look at my ideas, sample chapters, twenty volume memoir?
No – for the simple reasons that (a) I`m no judge of anything, what the hell do I know?, and (b) if it`s any good I will steal it and exploit it shamelessly. And even if I promise not to steal it, I probably will anyway, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not. What I sometimes do is re-direct people in the direction of my agent, who gets really pissed off by this. But I remember how hard it was to get published in the first place, and how lucky I was.
Q. Do you suffer from writer`s block?
Luckily no, but I understand you can now get a prescription to treat it if you do. Just go in to the pharmacy and say, `Excuse me, sir, I`m suffering from sheer bloody laziness.` Then he`ll give you a kick up the arse, and charge you a fiver for his time. I`ve no real idea of what writer`s block is? Is it running out of ideas? Is it having the ideas, but not being able to get them down on paper? I think because I was a journalist, and journalists, even on small weekly newspapers, don`t have the luxury of lying about doing nothing for days on end, and I`ve kind of brought that attitude to my work. So I go in every day and do something. If the novel isn`t working, I think about a screenplay, if that isn`t going well, I do something like this…..anything to get the juices flowing. Occasionally, if I`m really, really stuck, I`ll go to a movie. If the movie`s bad, I`ll think, I can do better than this; if it`s good it will inspire me to get back to work. I have to be careful though, because my dark and dangerous Belfast novel can suddenly turn into a mystical kung fu effort if I choose the wrong type of movie. It`s very easy to be influenced (again, this is why I won`t read other people`s work).
Q. Do you pal about with other writers, getting drunk and talking about high fallutin` things?
No, of course not. I live in Bangor, Northern Ireland, not exactly the cultural capital of the universe. Thank God. The only other writers I actually know on more than a nodding acquaintance basis are John Connolly, whom I tour with quite a lot, and Glen Patterson. Then again, I`m also in the movie business, so I hang about with my lookalike Brad Pitt when I`m in LA and many`s a weekend I`m to be found riding horses on Robert Redford`s ranch in Wyoming, where that kind of thing is still legal.