Kevin McCarthy Interview

Kevin McCarthy's second novel published earlier this year is shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards, you can vote for him here and check out my review of Irregulars here.

1. Who are your favourite authors/biggest influences and why?

My favourite authors? Like favourite films, this list changes often, but I do keep going back to Joseph Conrad and one of his acolytes, American novelist Robert Stone. As far as influences go, both of them would be big influences in terms of outlook and the notion of average men, working men and women put in positions of moral (and actual) peril. I’ve huge, big love for Derek Robinson as well, and his novel, Goshawk Squadron—nominated for the first ever Booker prize, incidentally—was a real influence on Peeler. Robinson went to great lengths to debunk the mythologies of the air war in WWI and instead reveal the grim realities of the pilot’s lot. I took this as a template for my treatment of the policeman’s lot in Ireland during the War of Independence. Alan Furst, as well, is one of the masters, and qualifies as a favourite because I ration his books and only read them on holidays so as not to read them all too quickly. I did the same with Patrick O’Brien.

As my novels are crime fiction—historical crime, if you will—I recognise Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch novels as a real influence. So to Joseph Wambaugh, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjovall, writing brilliant Scandinavian detective fiction with a lefty bent before it went all dragons and tattoo trendy!

Recently, I’ve gone through a big Alice McDermott phase—one of THE great Irish American novelists, in my humble opinion.

2. What draws you to the period you write about; Ireland during the War of Independence and Civil War?

I think it’s mainly the turbulence of the period, and the fact that over time (and with research) I came to discover how simplistic has been the conventional historical narrative re the period. The one I was taught as a kid seemed so black and white, good v evil, Brit v Irish etc. that I just knew there had to be more to it and sure enough, there was. It was also a period of great conflict and terrible grief across Europe, in the wake of the Great War and I wanted to fit Ireland and her troubles into that pan-European experience, I suppose. But mostly I thought the ambiguity, the messy reality of Irish men shooting other Irish men—cops, mainly—in back alleys and ditches, was the perfect setting for crime novels that would examine the underbelly of the founding of a nation. That sounds a bit pretentious, I realise, and I wasn’t thinking as such when I started writing Peeler. Mainly I was interested in the idea of writing about something that hadn’t been much examined in fiction at the time, ie the experience of the Irish constable as both predator and prey, trying to solve a case of terrible murder, in the midst of violent revolution.

3. Were you a bookish child and what were your favourite books in childhood?

I was. I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, really. At one stage I read every Hardy Boys novel there was and then, secretly, every Nancy Drew as well. The first real ‘adult’ book I read was ‘Alive’ by Piers Paul Read, when I was 9 or 10, about the rugby team that crashed in the Andes and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. I went through an obsession with survival stories and my mother encouraged it, really, buying me any she could find. I loved crime novels as well, of any kind, discovering Joseph Wambaugh when I was about 13 and loving the illicitness of much of his writing. I still love his books.

4. Are you a planner or a pantser when it comes to writing?

I tend to be a pantser for about the first third of the book—though this is kind of disingenuous as I’ve spent months thinking about a book before I finally find myself sitting down to write it—and then usually write myself into a cul-de-sac and have to plan out the rest. This plan is flexible, however, and often I’m surprised by the turns the story takes as I’m writing it. Also, I occasionally come across something in researching that totally changes the course of the story, making the plan somewhat redundant. But then again, this is not a bad thing. Someone once said—can’t remember who—that “if I’m not surprised by what happens in my book, how can I expect the reader to be surprised?”

5. Best writing advice you ever received?

Don’t give up the day job! That sounds flip but it’s actually very good advice as there is simply no way to make a living as a novelist without hustling so much for work that it affects the quality of your fiction. (And I know several writers for whom this is the case.) A day job allows a writer to write what he wants to without much concern for the market or fear that his/her kids won’t be able to eat unless you publish something, anything!

Write drunk, edit sober…again, somewhat sarcastic, Papa’s advice, but I believe not to be taken literally. He means, I think, to write one’s drafts quickly, mindlessly, without inhibition or restraint and then to edit with the cold, sober critical eye you’ve suppressed thus far.

To this, I’ll add my own bit of advice: Get the damn draft done! Don’t edit as you go along, just get the thing done. Anything you write now, no matter how rubbish you think it is, can be fixed later. A stack of pages is a stack of pages, crap or not, while a fraught and polished ten pages is really nothing to work with and not enough to drive you on to finish. A writer’s greatest enemy is self-doubt—this is shit, I can’t write, I can’t think of a word that works, I have no right to be competing with the big boys and girls when I write this kind of garbage—and one way to vanquish self-doubt is to drown it under a weight of written—however badly—pages. Nothing inspires a writer to sit down at his desk like a stack of already-written pages to work with.

6. What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a stand-alone novel—separate from the O’Keefe series—set during the Indian Wars in post-Civil War America. I’m about a third way done with it and it might be time to write down some sort of plan, actually. I've been researching it for over a year and writing sporadically. Hoping to go away for a month in the summer and get some sort of draft done.

7. Your three desert island reads?

Depends on the day! I would probably take along an Alan Furst, not sure which one as they’re all brilliant. Ummm, SAS Survival Guide? Rick Stein’s Great Seafood Recipes?

8. Your favourite fictional character (your's and someone else's)

Let’s see… I really like Nora Flynn from Irregulars. She is a CID Detective Officer in what is essentially a Free State hit squad. She is the result of a great bit of story-shifting research I came across. I read that the Criminal Investigation Department in 1922 had 6 female agents/detective officers on their books that were ‘cloaked as typists.’ They were armed and played a vital part in the rather nasty work of the CID. Originally I’d written her character as a man and then realised what an opportunity I’d be missing. She is the first female protagonist I’ve written and I have to say, I’m really proud of her. I asked my wife if she read realistically as a female character—does she act, think, react like a real flesh and blood woman would--and she replied that, yes, she did, and “I really don’t like her!” I do like her though, compromised though she is.

Someone else’s? Hmm. I love the two knucklehead, surfer patrolmen in Wambaugh’s recent Hollywood Station trilogy. They are, at the same time, hilarious, frightening and very believable. The kind of cops you both would and wouldn’t like to be arrested by, depending on the surf conditions.

9. How much research do you do for your novels and where?

Loads and loads and wherever I have to go, I go. I spent a brilliant week in Wyoming last summer, researching the book I’m currently writing and hope to go back this summer again. It’s one of the fun things about writing historical fiction.

Yes, you do have to read some pretty dry stuff as well, but mostly, the research is fascinating. And it had better be because you shouldn’t be writing about something if you don’t love it, be it the period or the event or whatever. I’ve been to archives, here and in the UK, the Imperial War Museum, National Library and every pub in Irregulars. All in the name of research, of course!

10. What books (and writers) would you recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about Ireland in the early twentieth century.

Fiction wise, anything by O’Flaherty, but The Assassin is a particular favourite of mine. It’s pulpy but gives such a rich sense of the bitterness and latent violence in the period immediately following the Civil War in Ireland. The Informer is also wonderful. Peeler and Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy? ;)

Non-fiction, the memoirs by Ernie O’Malley, Tom Barry, Dan Breen, invaluable and thrilling in their own way.

Thanks so much Kevin


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