Gerard Brennan's latest novel is Undercover, a Belfast cop thriller. His short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies; including three volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime and Belfast Noir. He co-edited Requiems for the Departed, a collection of crime fiction based on Irish myths which won the 2011 Spinetingler Award for best anthology. His novella, The Point, was published by Pulp Press in October 2011 and won the 2012 Spinetingler Award for best novella. His novels, Wee Rockets and Fireproof, were published as ebooks by Blasted Heath in 2012. He graduated from the MA in creative writing at Queen's University Belfast in 2012 and is currently working on a PhD.
What was the first short story you ever published (and when)? Were you paid for it?
I wrote a story called ‘Pool Sharks’ after I spent a weekend in Wexford. We were lucky enough to score a lock-in at the local pub and things got a bit messy. I became obsessed by the fact that we could have gotten away with murder that night. Then the hamster wheel started spinning and the story was born. This was back in 2007, when I’d started to get serious about writing. The story got accepted into a horror/crime anthology titled ‘Badass Horror’. And yes, I got paid! I still get paid for it from time to time, in fact. The publisher, Tim Lieder, is passionate about compensating his writers. Fair play to him.
Did you find it hard to transition from short stories to longer works?
Not really. I just needed to catch an idea that wanted to be a novel. Then I sat down and put the hours in.
Requiemsfor the Departed was a great idea for an anthology. How did you gather the stories—was it by invitation? Did you know the writers (either them personally or their work)?
Thank you! I went with invitation only, I’m afraid. I would have liked to have done an opensubmission thing so that I could support budding writers and whatnot, but it simply boiled down to a lack of time. It’s so much quicker to invite writers that you know, whose work you enjoy, than it is to go through a slush pile. So my co-editor and I relied on a list of contacts that oozed talent. They took our idea and made it great. I knew most of them personally from attending their book launches at No Alibis. It was such a trip when a good number of them turned up to read at the Requiems launch at No Alibis. One of my writing highlights.
You write both novellas and full-length novels. Do you find readers prefer one length or another?
Unfortunatley, most readers seem to prefer novels. I say unfortunately because I love to write novellas. They’re a perfect length for a fast-paced crime or noir story. But even though we live in a more fast-paced world, people still like a good long novel to wile away the leisure hours.
You write horror as well as crime fiction. Which came first?
Horror came first. Both in terms of reading and writing. I think that’s an age thing. It took me a while to realise that there are monsters in the real world too.
Both horror and crime are “dark fiction.” Do you ever have someone near and dear tell you they HATED what you were writing?
Nah. I’ve got a bit of a grumpy face. People tend to err on the side of caution and their criticisms are usually anonymous and/or from the safety of a keyboard. I’m a wee teddybear with a thick skin, though. I wouldn’t really care if they told me to write something happier to my face. I’d tell them to fuck off, like. But I wouldn’t be upset.
You have a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and are working on your doctorate. What have you learned most from that education?
I think the most important lesson I learned was that people can actually learn to become better writers through these courses. A lot of people believe that you’re either born with a talent to write or you’re not. Bullshit. It’s a craft that can be taught. Like anything else, some people will take to it better than others, but if you’re determined enough, and willing to learn, you can improve through a workshop, a mentoring programme or a degree-type course.
Do you have beta readers?
Yeah, most of my books have gone through at least one beta reader. Mike Stone, my co-editor on Requiems, was my orignal beta reader and read quite a few of my earlier books. I’ve relied on others in more recent times and I truly appreciate their help. Feedback is incredibly important.
Do you write fast?
When I get into the zone, I write like a demon on a deadline. Unfortunately, I can’t hit that flow state every time I sit down. Sometimes it takes me all day to write 1,000 words. When I’m on fire, I can write 6,000 in a day. The 1,000 word days are a lot more common, though.
Seems like you’re juggling a lot in life. Do you have a set routine/ritual for writing? Do you write every day?
I try to write every weekday. Having such a hectic lifestyle, I need to keep in mind that my kids would actually like a little bit of my attention, so I tend to down tools on the weekend and make it all about family. It’s a balance that works most of the time. When I’m strapped for time, my wife is an absolute angel, though. Provided I don’t rip the arse out of it, I can depend on her to pick up my slack if I’m trying to get a little extra done on a Saturday.
Do you listen to music as you write? Was there a playlist for Fireproof?
I had to train myself to listen to music while I write. It used to be dead silence or no writing. However, as my family began to grow, that silence became less available. So I listen to music now. Fireproof was written when my firstborn was very little. She slept and ate well, so I got plenty of quiet time. So, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a soundtrack. I think White Zombie and Tool would have featured heavily if it had, though.
Fireproof is not your ordinary urban fantasy. (Thank you for that!) Do you remember the genesis of that idea?
Honestly, I wrote that book when I was a little angry at the world. I didn’t like my job much and I needed an escape. Since I worked in Belfast, it got scorched by my anger too. I took in my surroundings on my lunchtime walks around the wee big city – the people of the city, mostly – and Fireproof is what came out when I processed that input.
Have any of your books been optioned for film? Wee Rockets, in particular (Brennan’s novel about gang culture in West Belfast), seems like it would make a great movie.
Not yet. I had a Hollywood producer contact me shortly after the release of my novella, The Point, but he lost interest really quickly and stopped replying to my emails. I talk to a lot of writers who have had similar experiences. It’s just part of the territory. Even among my more sucessful contemporaries. I’d love to do a script based on Wee Rockets. Noel Clarke would do a great job directing it, I think. But it just hasn’t happened. Not yet.
Your work is often labeled “Irish Noir.” What is YOUR definition of noir fiction? And for that matter—how do you perceive yourself as Irish? What about your writing is distinctly “Irish?”
In my mind noir is the genre for life’s losers. The down and outs that think they can claw their way out of their shitty lives by doing shitty things. And their stories don’t end well.
With regards to being Irish, I’m with George Carlin. He didn’t understand how you could have pride in being born in a certain place. You can’t control whether you’re Irish, English, American or whatever. You just land where you land. So while I’m aware of my Irishness (which probably presents itself through more negative behaviour than positive), I don’t really bother with national pride. Irish is just something that I happen to be.
My writing is most definitely affected by it, however. All of my stories have an Irish accent. That’s unavoidable. And I do often smile when I think about the acknowedgement in Malachy McCourt’s ‘A Monk Swimming’: “To the English for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors.” Irish pride or not, that’s bloody lovely, so it is.
Do you remember the first time you were aware that someone actually WROTE a book you read and you wanted to read MORE books by that writer? If so, do remember the book?
Yep indeedy. Roald Dahl’s Twits. Loved that book, and pretty much everything else by Dahl I devoured after it.
Were you an avid reader growing up and what did you read? Did you dream of being a writer as a boy? Write stories?
Yes, I read a lot. My parents were always happy to buy me books, and I had an adult library card by the time I was 12. That meant I could take out more books, and I could pick from the grownup’s section of the library. I read a lot of high fantasy stuff after my Dahl education. Dragonlance and whatnot. But when I grew out of that phase, I got hooked on horror. Stephen King and Dean Koontz, mostly. Then I graduated to crime.
Yeah, I wanted to write from a very young age. I just couldn’t figure out how to become a writer. When I went to school I was given the impression that you could be a professional such as a solicitor or accountant, or you could be a tradesman such as a bricklayer or a plumber. The careers teacher didn’t really think outside the box. I scored quite highly when we were set creative writing assignments at school, though. My other assignments and homeworks were pretty average, if I’m honest.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I’d like to work with my hands. A carpenter, maybe.
Is there any one of your books that is your favorite?
I think it’s probably my novella, Wee Danny. That’s a spin-off from Wee Rockets that features my favourite character from the novel. He really brought his A game to that story.
What’s the last good book you read?
It took me a while to figure out the honest answer to this question. I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump since January... I’m going to go with The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom. I actually didn’t expect to like it because I don’t usually dig on historical crime fiction. And I didn’t like it. I loved it.
What are you writing now?
A bunch of things. I just finished a novella based in the Fireproof universe, I’m working on a secret collaborative project with another terrific writer, and I’m working on some critical academic writing for my PhD. My attention span is weird. I can sort of multi-task when it comes to writing projects.
And some random silly questions:
Dog or cat or both or neither?
Dog. Al day long. I’m the son of a fish monger and was taught to chase cats away from our fishy door.
Did you ever play a sport? Are you a sports fan?
I’m interested in combat sports. So I’ve boxed and studied martial arts most of my life. At the moment I’m learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai at a local(ish) gym in Newry called The Compound. They create absolute monsters who do great things on the Irish MMA circuit. It’s an honour to train alongside these warriors.
I’m a total UFC geek. Love that stuff. I used to watch a lot of boxing too, and had an interest in football (the one some people call soccer). But I don’t have time for more than one sport. UFC (the mixed martial arts organisation) won in the end.
Do you have siblings?
Yep. I have two sisters and a brother. I’m the eldest, so obviously I’m the boss. I also have a gang of brothers and sisters-in-law that I love like biological siblings. I’m a very lucky man.
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