Over the last couple of weeks, more like three now, I sat down and fired e-mail questions off in the direction of Gerard Brennan. Not only was he gracious enough to answer them in a candid fashion, he was eager to do so. You can check out out Gerard's blog, Crime Scene NI.
Christopher Grant: The first question is about your process of writing. What's your's like?
Gerard Brennan: I have a wife and two kids (who thankfully still chose to live with me), a full-time job, and a desire to socialise when I get the chance. And I used to run a Wing Tsun kung fu club, but had to give it up due to time constraints. I'm not complaining one bit about any of this. I'm blessed to have a happy family, a steady job and a wee bit of a social life. But, God! All that stuff really gets in the way of writing. So my writing process consists of me stealing time anywhere I can find it and stuffing as many words as I can into that small window. Sometimes I'll decide to get out of bed an hour earlier than the kids, or I'll stay awake an hour or three after my wife goes to bed. It's impossible to find a pattern that's unmovable and that keeps everybody happy. Life happens, so I try to work around it.
I tend to edit as I go along, which makes me a slow writer, but a fast editor. In November, I tried to do it the other way and signed up to National Novel Writing Month. But I just couldn't sustain it. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in one month, without allowing self-editing to slow you down. I'm not that kind of writer. Some are, I'm not. I did manage 25,000 words though. And they were pretty good ones. But now I'm back to my usual process. Write a bit, read a bit, edit a bit, write a bit... you get the picture.
I generally don't outline. Instead, I might have an image of where I want a character to be, and I do my best to get there. Sometimes another character gets in the way and the original character's final destination changes, but that's where most of the joy I get out of writing comes from. Not quite knowing how it's all going to end.
CG: You sound a bit like me (minus the kids and wife on my end). When I can find the time to write, I do it as quickly as possible, having one thing or another pop up. I can't think of the last time I had the time to actually devote more than a couple hours in the morning to writing.
Editing, you're right, is far easier, a lot less time consuming, even when it's someone else's stories (reading and enjoying other people's stories is what makes editing A Twist Of Noir so much fun).
Taking off from the process question, is writer's block even a possibility in Gerard Brennan's world and, if so, how do you deal with it?
GB: I don't believe I've ever had writer's block. But at times, I suffer from writer's laziness. It seems to come in cycles. The ideas are all there, the computer is waiting patiently and the distraction level is as low as it gets. Then I close the laptop and have a cup of tea, or a beer, depending on what night of the week it is. How do I cope? I try not to get too stressed about it. There are so many great books out there, so I take that downtime to increase my input.
Eventually, it becomes output again -- not plagiarism, you understand... inspiration. But writer's laziness on not, I still try to write in some shape or form every day. The CSNI blog is a part of that.
CG: Again, I'm just like you where it concerns the writer's laziness, rather than writer's block. Distractions are the bane of every writer's existence and writing in the morning or late at night are really the only times that I can squeeze some writing in.
The really strange/funny thing is that I don't have any problem writing while outside of the house and at the mall or somewhere similar. I guess because the noise/distractions in the background isn't/aren't directed at me.
GB: It's weird, the distraction thing, isn't it? I've written in cafe's and in the canteen at work without a problem. Put me at home during the day and I'm running to the door to snatch my bills out of the postman's hands or anything else that takes me away from the laptop.
CG: Last question about process. (Editor's note: It, of course, isn't actually isn't the last question on process, as you'll see.)
Some writers swear that they absolutely must have a title before they can even come close to writing a story. Others have no such problems. Do you have to have a title before you start a story or does the story come before you title it?
GB: Titles. Hmmmm, come to think of it, it's happened both ways. The novel I'm shopping around right now is titled Piranhas, and I've had that title in my head for about five years, but never really tackled the story that went with it. Who knew it'd turn out to be a novel? Not me, until I got about 15,000 words in.
But my first novel attempt, Fireproof, started with a scene that played funny in my head. Didn't get the title until I was almost finished the first draft.
And the current WIP is titled Shot, which took me about 20,000 words to decide on, and I'm not sure I like it.
Maybe it alternates novel-wise. With my short stories, I don't really know what the pattern is, but usually if I don't come up with one before I finish writing, I'm not happy with the one I eventually settle on. Is that weird? Probably.
So, I guess titles are important to me, but they occur when they're meant to. And, you know,I like the title Piranhas, but I've a feeling publishers won't. Is it important enough that I'd refuse to change it? Not at all. It's just part of the packaging.
CG: For me, titles used to be paramount. It was very much the oxygen that the story needed to survive or it wouldn't go any further than the first sentence or paragraph (if I was lucky).
At some point, it stopped being of any importance.
In fact, one of the stories on Powder Burn Flash, Heroes Get Dead Quick, comes from what the narrator of the story says to one of the security guards. I didn't have the title until that line came out of his mouth and onto the computer screen and after that, it just made sense for that to be the title.
Sometimes I go through a story and just go looking for something that sounds like it will grab a reader and that's the title. Other times, I have the title before the story and I start shaping the story around that title. That seems to only happen in flash fiction, though.
Let's talk about what got you into writing and what kind of influences have bearing on your writing (and that can be anything or anyone).
GB: From an early age, I was influenced by the likes of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons... a whole host of horror writers really. This would probably explain why most of my early stories are closer to that genre than the crime or noir flavour that my more recent work has developed. And that change in direction came quite naturally. As I found my voice, I realised I had more interest in gritty reality than the scary supernatural. This isn't to say I'll never write another supernatural story again. In fact, I wrote two of them in the last few months, and both of them were quite good (in my opinion, anyway). They should be available to read in the near future through Morrigan Books. One in their Three Crow Press Ezine and another in a future title from their Gilgamesh imprint. I say 'should' because in publishing, I try not to count my chickens before they hatch. Things can change in even the most professionally run houses (and Morrigan Books continues to display thorough professionalism), so I'll count those as publishing credits as soon as I read 'em!
I published a chapbook last year through Baysgarth Publications title Possession, Obsession and a Diesel Compression Engine. It's a collection of six short stories that are probably best described as horror-comedy. Not sure what this was influenced by, but if you fancy a chuckle, hopefully for the right reasons, you can check it out at a discounted price for the near future.
Usually a writer's biggest influences can be drawn from reading, and if you visit CSNI you can see exactly what I'm reading right now. Writers like Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty, Ken Bruen, Colin Bateman, Garbhan Downey... the list goes on. Just go to the site for the rest. All these top notch Irish crime writers inspire me greatly, and it's a joy to read their work. But influence can be drawn from anywhere. A conversation, something I spot on the road, a lingering scene in a movie, a night on the beer, a smile from my wife...it all contributes.
CG: What's crime/noir fiction's appeal for you?
I can say for me that it's an unlimited canvas on which to paint. I mean, you can have bank robberies or you can have some guy that kills his wife by accident (both of which I've written, for the record). The broad base is what just makes me love this stuff.
GB: Like you said, Christopher, crime fiction is incredibly flexible. A dream come true for a writer and a reader. How could you ever get bored of a genre that offers such diversity? Also, I subscribe to Declan Burke's school of thought. In one of his many excellent posts on Crime Always Pays he described crime fiction as history's second draft (newspapers being the first). When done well, the writer can reflect the social climate of a setting, or catch the mood of an entire generation. Powerful stuff, right? I've encountered too many examples this year for me to even attempt listing without fear of missing some great ones, but Irish crime writers seem to be particularly good at reflecting society through powerful prose.
CG: Let's talk about King Edward for a bit and probably this question will also go into process, so this could be a question about any of your fiction, really.
Which came first in King Edward, the plot or the characters or was it one of those times when you just sit down and write and it all comes pouring out through your fingers?
GB: King Edward was definitely one of those stories that came easy. Some do, some don't and I'm not sure why. I used to think that if I had enough sleep the night before my brain worked more efficiently and the words came easier. However, the day I decided to write King Edward I was sleep-deprived, distracted and a little hungover. It could nearly be an argument to increase my drinking, but I know that's not a healthy way to look at it. I've done more writing with a clear head than otherwise. And writing when I'm a bit tipsy? A waste of time.
Anyway, back to the question, I guess the concept, or the situation, came first. The missing cigar was Marty's distraction and the hangover... well, his was more extreme than mine, but I was trying to put some of what I was feeling into him. And from that situation, which really only accounts for the opening paragraphs, the two characters came into their own. Neither Marty nor Vinto were particularly nice guys, but then I'm not a particularly nice person when I'm stressed and hungover. My main objective wasn't to make them likeable, but to make them convincing humans in a messed up situation.
The short stories that I have the easiest time writing tend to be my favourites, and King Edward is one of those. But I'm kind of glad they don't all come easy. Some of them are real struggles to write, but if I don't lose patience, ask a friend for advice (mostly Mike Stone -- Hi Mike) and keep on trying, I can usually produce a labour of love. I might not want to look at it again for a few months, but it's another story wrote.
CG: Finally, I'll give you the opportunity to pimp your work.
GB: What's out there - My Favourites
Chapbook Collection - Possession Obsession and a Diesel Compression Engine
Various Author Anthology - Badass Horror
Piranhas - First Chapter
(Editor's Note: After the interview had been conducted, Gerard Brennan announced that he will be featured in the February issue of Thuglit with a story titled Hard Rock. Check it out when it hits.)
CG: Thank you for the interview, Gerard.
GB: You're welcome.