"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, September 24, 2012

Interview with Ken Bruen

Over the course of a couple of days (21-23 Sept. 2012), I had a delightful email exchange with the Irish noir novelist Ken Bruen about his work, his craft, and the ways that place moves on his page.   Some really cool moments here, for anyone interested in either side of the page, the writer's perspective and the reader's perspective, the place of crime literature in the world of Literature, love of cities, love of bookstores.  

Ken Bruen is a prolific novelist of crime and noir fiction, with nearly three dozen novels to his name.  I first became interested in his work not just because he was writing Irish thrillers, which was electrifying to myself as a reader and myself as a teacher, but also because his Jack Taylor novels are set in Galway.  I started researching Irish noir (I really hate the term "Emerald Noir"), got deep into some cool scholarship, and then the expected happened:  I pulled out a blank syllabus on my computer, started putting a class together.  Then a Call for Papers from Eire-Ireland on Irish crime comes across my inbox.  A paper on Irish crime lit?  Yes, please.  So the next logical thing to do was strike up a conversation with this writer that is occupying so much of my thoughts and bookshelf.  In some places I changed punctuation to clarify, but in other places, I left his words as he wrote them, because the voice evoked is just awesome.

Lots to talk about here--enjoy!


What is your process like as a writer?  Do you write everyday?  What is your drafting process like?  Do you write longhand, with a computer, a combination of both?  

I write everyday, same time and so it's built in like ritual.  For certain projects, I write longhand to really get the feel, the frisson, the direct flow.  The laptop for speed and ease. 

What is your revising process like?

I read in to a recorder every night and if the music isn’t there, the beat to count cadence, I bin it. 

I'd like to follow up on you reading your work aloud.  It's something that I do as a writer--nothing gets sent out without me having read it aloud--and it's something that I recommend to my students, no matter if they're first-year composition students or creative writing students.  Reading it into a recorder, however, is a step I've never taken myself.  So, for practical purposes, the work takes on a doubling:  you're not only hearing the work as you physically speak it aloud, but you're also listening to it when you play it back?  How did you develop that strategy?

It's the failed actor in me and also, I used it a lot in my days as a teacher. It really helps develop how to write in different accents and tones. Walter Mosley does it also.

Are you conscious of how you structure these novels?  I've noticed a trend for your Taylor books to end at a place that the reader wishes for another hundred pages--yet it ends right in the middle of the action, a very important action.  What are your thoughts on your narrative structure?  

There is a point in my read, like a piece of Irish traditional music when the next move is a vacuum so you are done, it can be jarring but if you read the narrative again, like real life, this is where it cuts off, rather, get's cut off. 

What you said about ending a narrative at what might seem like a jarring point--but it's like real life, where it gets cut off.  Do you consider this a function of the genre in which you've chosen to write, this emphasis towards realism that noir prides itself on?  What do you consider the functional craft-of-fiction difference between realism and what is realistic?

If this doesn't sound too lame, the characters dictate the timing, as in, say a Jack Taylor, he literally won't talk to me any more, he's told me and that's it, no frills. In my life, realism is confined to the books I read, realistic is what confronts me every day I venture out and let the world have a shot.

Declan Kiberd famously wondered where the literature of the Celtic Tiger was, something that Andrew Kincaid in his essay "Down These Mean Streets: The City and Critique in Contemporary Irish Noir" argues that was being written, but not in the capital-L Literature that Kiberd seemed to be looking for.  The literature filling that need was appearing in this particular sub genre.  What are your thoughts about how stories always seem to fill the void and the need of society?  Just in terms of the crime-literature world, from Poe to Conan Doyle to Christie to Chandler to du Maurier to Mosley to Lehane to Paretsky and on and on (I realize my list is very Brit-American-centric), each of those new modes of telling the crime tale was in response to a very specific societal fear--and the storytelling easily adapted itself to it.  How do you see your work fitting into this societal fear and need?

I don't. I rarely fit the requirements of the analysts and thank fook for that. Crime fiction is pouring out of Ireland now, be it literature or not, who cares, I think for young writers, crime fiction is like the Punk movement, a chance to say screw you to the Custodians of The precious Irish Lit heritage and the rarefied few who wish to keep the jackals, and guttersnipes ( as I've been called) from their ownership of Joyce et al.  I read religiously (pun intended) and almost fervently the lit posturings and lit mags and want to shout, 'for fooksake, who cares, the barbarians are indeed at he gates and don't give a toss about your supercilious posturing.' 

What have you read lately that’s set your world on fire?  One thing I’ve read about you is that you and Jack Taylor share your love of books—what are you reading right now?

A slew of biographies, the dark ones, what made they so dark and how did that fire their art , followed by the Anne Sexton's poems then a motley crew of philosophers, throw in some Crews, Tom Waits and my head is ready to jolt.

On a similar note, I’ve read interviews where you’ve mentioned you share your love of books with Jack (which is, for me as a reader, one of the only things that redeems that character and keeps me reading until the next book--well done)—but I’m curious about where and how your experiences of the city match or do not match Jack’s.

Jack spends much of his energy on the past, me, not so much.  Jack doesn't do progress, me I try, a bit. 

Interesting what you said about "Jack doesn't do progress"--considering the movement of progress (and the movement backward, as well) and "obliterating" the cultural tropes that seem to still linger.  I read quite a bit of memoir as I worked on my comprehensive exams for my program and I started to wonder if the Miserable Irish Childhood Memoir is the literary antidote to that romanticism (something noir also offers) because it offers the consequences to the romantic tropes:  if the romantic view of Ireland is one of drinking and dancing and singing and such, these miserable Irish childhood works show that drink costs money and how rampant the poverty was, that sexy accents do not make for a good marriage and bad matches (and the gender roles and expectations enforced by society and the Catholic Church) cannot be reversed.  (As an essayist, I have issues with the memoir genre, but that's a different conversation--I much prefer Tim Robinson and Chris Arthur…)  Thoughts?

The Misery memoir industry continues to thrive here and I'm constantly being attacked due to my belief in Nature over nurture. I know close wonderful people who've had the most horrendous childhoods and are the best in the world and others who ‘Had it all’; and are the scum of the earth. True evil which is my main preoccupation is in my opinion something that begins at birth and peaks.  I correspond a lot with Andrew Vachss and it's worth your time to google him.

Are you aware or conscious of Galway as being as much of a character as Jack Taylor?  How do you, as a writer, construct the city to be more than setting?

The city is the fourth main character, shapes, coddles, beguiles and seduces and to do this, it has to be  ever present, like a banshee, just slightly in the mist, keening.

How do you notice that Galway has changed over your lifetime?  Physical changes to the city and the landscape, mental/emotional changes?  What have you noticed that is the most dramatic or the most interesting?  What specific changes do you think are the most visible tracks of the Celtic Tiger, both for good and ill?

Prosperity brought drugs, greed, obesity and the developers brought ugliness, luxury apartment buildings on site of lovely old homes. The very air is now one of....... money............ the stench of it, once it were the aroma of home stew and hope.  Now, we're like a dead end suburb of bum fuck nowhere in Des Moines.

How much of Galway is your own inherent knowledge of the place and how much is research specific to the book?  I mean, when you put Jack on a specific street at a specific time of day, do you walk it yourself?

I walk it every day, feed the swans, let my dog run in the Claddagh, light a candle in the churchs that don't have electronic one's, so I can use a taper and match and not electronic like a celestial vegas.  I get me books in Charlie Byrnes, have a pint in Garavans, and side skip the road kill of the literary bullshite they pedal. 

I'd like to hear about your affection for Charlie Byrne's, as a place.  How did you first come to it?  Why do you return?  I always feel like the best bookstores--and I prefer used bookstores to ones that sell new ones--always seem to give you the book you never knew you couldn't live without.  My sister once sent me a postcard from San Francisco that closed with the line "I'd like to travel by bookstore."  It was at Charlie Byrne's that I first found Synge's The Aran Islands, back when I was in college, and reading that book out there still remains one of the incredible moments of my reading life, that chemistry of reading a book in its setting.  Do you have other bookstores that hold a similar place in your imagination?

Vinny and Charly who own the shop began with a market stall over 20 years ago as my first novel had just come out, they thought I was a shady character, with a pea jacket and always travelling. Each year, I'd have a new book and they'd move to a premises then a bigger one so we kind of grew together which is a brilliant opportunity for a writer to literally grow with bookstore, like Larry Mc Murty in reverse.

My fav bookstore was The Black Orchid in NY
I did readings there with Ed McBain. 
The romance of Sylvia Beach and her Parisian store, and stores like the famous one in Charing Cross Road make me yearn.

What is it like to write Galway?  Is there a difference between writing a city and writing about a city?  I’ve read interviews where your purpose with Jack’s character—and, for that matter, Galway’s character—is to obliterate the tropes and assumptions about Irish men and their mothers, for instance.  The dark rendering of Galway (and Ireland in general) certainly seems to serve that purpose as well.

I want to obliterate the Ireland of The Quiet Man and merry priest and lovable Mum's and all that horseshite we lay under for generations, to have a cool unique city that young people can feel is theirs and not some relic from the years of grinding poverty.

As for the "cool unique city," can you point to any specifics that you see are leading to this?  I laughed a little at your comment about "a dead end suburb of bumfuck nowhere in des moines," simply because one of my favorite opening lines of all time belongs to the travel writer Bill Bryson, who wrote an essay titled "Fat Girls in Des Moines," which begins with "I come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to."  Because I'm interested in place, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that suburbia is The Great Unplaced, because suburbs are basically indistinguishable from another.  What do you see as the unique aspects that Galway has to offer, that makes it different from any other place?

Nice serendipity. I was a huge fan of Bryson and John Cheever. I quite madly think Mad Men owes a lot to Cheever!  My favourite cities have a vibe, it's in the very air like a charge, a jolt, an electrical frisson that is almost impossible to articulate and my cities are
Assisi ( a village in truth)
New York
Hong Kong
Kyoto.............purely because I had my first young brush with fame there when I walked right into David Bowie who said

The test of a great city is if you wake in the wee hours and think, Thank fook I'm in this place.  “A Movable Feast” seems to me to convey that extraodinary sense of place that is unique to some cities. Too, Galway has a sense of irony and that is rare to rarest found and even better, the city would deny any such high falutin claim.

To apply the sublime test, on leaving a city, does it, like a great love affair, break your heart in smithereens and the dread you will never return. I'm haunted always by Macavafy's poem on Alexandria and Thompson's Hound of Heaven, they are part of my constant hand luggage.

I've read a 100 tomes on writing and the best advice to writers for me was from Paul Theroux who said
'Leave home'

Love that.


  1. How I miss Galway... Terrific interview.

  2. Thank you! He was certainly fun to talk with and I hope I get the opportunity again sometime soon!