|Sandra: How hard was it for you to get published initially?|
Ken: Very. I could have papered me flat in rejection slips, at least 20 right
off the bat.
Sandra: What was the first manuscript you tried to sell?
Ken: The first manuscript I tried to sell was titled DEVIL and I burned it.
Sandra: Who from your life have you transplanted into a book and killed off
fictionally? Why did you do it?
Ken: Great question and I killed off a character in HER LAST CALL TO LOUIS
MCNEICE that was based on a guy who beat up on his wife... She is one of me
He deserved a hurly to the head.
Sandra: I agree. Do you find it easier to confront issues or problems, such
as your friend’s situation, in your writing?
Ken: Writing is my safety valve, where and how I get to vent. Someone cuts
me off when I'm driving, I get home, the road rage goes in the book and I
kill someone. Writing on the whole has been cheaper than a shrink and I suspect,
Sadness too, I get to offload all that in the books. My characters, unlike
me, don’t take much crap from people. And there isn't a whole load of
happiness in me books or niceness. I don’t do either.
Sandra: Now Ken, I think you’re very nice, and talking to you always
makes me happy. So you must mean you don’t do nice and happy in the
writing... But you’ve raised the topic of ‘writing as therapy’.
In your latest book, AMERICAN SKIN, the character Tommy was based on your
brother, who died, correct? Why did your brother inspire the character?
Ken: My brother was my best friend and just the nicest guy you could meet,
but he couldn't hack the world. Reality was too much for him and he retreated
into alcoholism, they found him in the Australian outback a derelict wasted
body, only identifiable by the reviews of my books and a photo of grace.
I'd always said I'd write him warts and all.
So Tommy came to be
Jack Taylor's alcoholism in the Taylor series is a deliberate attempt to show
the havoc this disease creates. I've lost so many, of family, friends to it.
Sandra: How is the relationship Tommy had with Stephen in the book like the
relationship you had with your brother?
Ken: It is almost an exact mirror of how we were and it was so painful to
write.... Tommy is the spit of novel
Sandra: Did writing Tommy help you deal with your brother’s death?
Ken: No, not really, there is nothing on earth to ease the loss of him… But
I think he'd laugh that I wrote him so true
He always jibed me with.... Why do you have to tell the truth and why do you
worry so much.
He believed life was a joke.... I guess I just never got the punch line.
Sandra: Let’s go back to Jack Taylor for a moment. How much of you is
Ken: Two things, the rage and the love of books.
Sandra: Jack’s relationship with his mother seems to have had an enormous
impact on him. Was the relationship influenced by your relationship with your
Ken: No, I deliberately wanted to set the genre on its head... In Ireland,
sons adore their mothers, no matter what they're like and you never, never
criticize her so I thought…. like fook.
The flak from Irish mothers has been Biblical.
Sandra: In THE GUARDS, virtually all of the characters that were good friends
of Jack’s ended up checking out permanently, while two people he loathed,
Linda and his mother, were still alive. Was this deliberate, a way of continuing
to punish him?
Ken: You're so astute.... I wanted to see how much pain, torment one human
being can endure before they go postal.
Sandra: It occurred to me because I wondered if the death of his mother would
bring him a sense of relief, or an unexpected guilt.
There's a fair bit with Jack Taylor and who he is that goes to his upbringing
and his relationship with his parents. How much of that dysfunction factors
into why he isn't married with kids of his own?
Ken: You screw the child, you screw the adult and his hatred of his mother
runs so deep, he can’t connect to another woman. The irony being that
the only constant woman in his life, Ridge, the female guard, is gay.
Sandra: Now, can we talk about the younger Ken? What were you like as a child?
And, I committed the worst crime for an Irish child, I never spoke, not till
I was seven, Jessica Lange didn't speak till she was 3!
And I grew up with a family who never shut it... they used to say, if we had
money, we'd get him looked at and it was generally held that I was backward
No books were allowed in our house ‘cept the Bible and I used to read
under the blankets with a torch.
At boarding school, they told my parents I was retarded and might, just might,
be able to wash dishes some day.
Sandra: When you were a teenager what did you want to be when you grew up?
Ken: An actor.
Sandra: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
Sandra: What books did you smuggle in to read?
Ken: Always the Americans. Mark Twain, Steinbeck, Salinger and then Chandler,
Thompson, James M Cain.
Sandra: Now, because of having to sneak read under the covers, you‚re
a voracious reader. How many books do you read per year?
Ken: Truly a book a day, it's just part of my daily discipline.
Sandra: What was your relationship with your parents like?
Ken: They couldn't get a fix on me, as they knew I was studious and they never
had education so regarded it with suspicion but they were very loving, alas,
they couldn't demonstrate it. They were truly wonderful people, in my dad's
Bible, after his death, I found every review of me ever written, I think it
was his way of saying ‘you done good kid, I just couldn't tell you”.
Sandra: I saw from another interview that your dad had been very critical
of your decision to be a writer. Given that you seem to be one of those people
who rises to challenges instead of caving to pressure, do you think he's partly
responsible for your success?
Ken: Definitely, he instilled a work ethic to such an extent that I even wrote
on the day of his funeral, he'd have killed me if I didn't.
Sandra: How did those relationships influence your approach to your relationship
with your daughters?
Ken: I swore I would let me daughters know I loved them every single day and
yesterday, I had Grace with me and we ordered pizza........very Irish ........right?.........
And we were going to watch Little Miss Sunshine.......... And on the phone..........I
heard Grace say for my dad, hold the Bon Jovi's. That they had no fear in
their lives is the best thing I’ve ever done............ Ever.
Sandra: Which relationship do you think has defined you most?
Ken: Grace, as she has Downs Syndrome and let me add a mouth like a fishwife....
She taught me more about so-called nature of handicap than all me so-called
The first time, at school, when they called her a retard, I was going to burn
the friggin’ place to the ground and she went... Jeez, Dad, no biggie,
they just don’t know I'm special.... She doesn't care what the world
thinks of her, she cares about what she thinks of them.
And she writes a diary in the morning and then shapes her day to fit the wondrous
things she wrote.
Sandra: You went to university and completed your PhD, correct? What inspired
you to do that?
Ken: Rage.............to prove ‘em wrong.............and Metaphysics ‘cos
I knew that would like seriously piss ‘em off, it did...............
Philosophy............ How the hell would that pay a mortgage?............and
also, I had/have this burning desire to know, the very meaning of Metaphysics.
Sandra: Did you learn the meaning of Metaphysics?
Ken: Sure, from Woody Allen, he said in his metaphysics exam, he looked into
the soul of the guy beside him.
Sandra: You embarked on a career teaching English overseas. I’ve heard
it said that everyone who travels is searching for something, so what inspired
you to leave Ireland?
Ken: To get the hell away from them all and be me own self............Paul
Theroux said, on being asked what you need to be a writer, leave home… And
I'd been madly in love with a girl when I was at Trinity and wanted to marry
her, settle down, never travel.... She dumped me ‘cos I was too boring… and
she wanted to travel and here is one of those odd Irish ironies, she never
went anywhere and I think there wasn't a country in the world I didn't visit
I still love to travel, ‘tis the tinker in me and I discovered I had
a flair for languages and that really made travel so much more exciting.
Sandra: What are your favourite five cities or countries to travel to and
Ken: New York... For the sheer buzz and me best friends are there. Sydney ‘cos
of it's sheer beauty.... Venice, ‘cos I’m a lapsed romantic. Toyko ‘cos
it's sheer efficiency and San Francisco ‘cos Eddie Muller lives there.
Sandra: You’ve had a lot of adversity in your life over the past few
years. How has that influenced your books or characters?
Ken: PRIEST was directly written as a result and CROSS even more so.
Sandra: CROSS is scheduled for release in the UK in April. I understood PRIEST
was to be the last Jack Taylor book, but that he refused to go until you'd
written CROSS. What can you tell us about the new book?
Ken: A boy is found crucified in Galway then his sister is burned to death............a
family of psycho's are loose... the logo, the family who prey together..........it's
different in that it is more of a thriller then the others, and sadder.
Then the very first page of the 7th, BENEDICTION came unbidden to me so Jack
has one last outing after CROSS.
Sandra: What can you tell us about BENEDICTION?
Ken: Even I think it's beyond dark. I’m attaching the very first page.
Sandra: Wow. How long do I have to wait to read this book?
Ken: A year.
Sandra: Are you certain it will be your last Jack Taylor book?
Sandra: Not to retread familiar questions authors get asked, but you said
this book came to you unbidden, so how do you usually get ideas for books?
It sounds like you don’t pre-plot them...
Ken: Like Elmore Leonard, I let the characters tell me the story, like in
Jack Taylor, it wasn't till book 2 that I know Ridge, the ban garda, (female
cop) was gay, sometimes a line will come to me and the whole plot unfolds
Sandra: This reminds me of what Mark Billingham said when I interviewed him
for the last issue – that he knows no more about Thorne than the reader
does. Is the ongoing process of discovery part of the enjoyment of writing
Ken: What I love best, I’ve no idea of where it's going.
Sandra: Is this the book you’re currently writing?
Ken: Yes, and the standalone, ONCE WERE COPS
Sandra: You gave yourself a tremendous challenge, writing about an Irish PI.
And you’ve taken on the challenge or writing about English cops. Do
you deliberately like to create challenges for yourself in your writing?
Ken: Absolutely, else, what's the point? First I think, I can’t do this
and then go for it.
Sandra: Now, let’s talk a bit about your writing day. You write for
two hours every morning, and you write two books at a time?
Ken: Every day and I review, discard, dump at night.
Sandra: You wrote BUST with Jason Starr, and the two of you collaborated on
SLIDE, due out later this year. What was it like working with someone?
Ken: Wonderful, just total fun and a real blast, we never had one argument.
Sandra: And you had Jason write the Irish parts while you wrote the American?
Ken: Exactly, we were trying to find a new voice for the series and that's
how we got it, Jason's wife said he now has an Irish accent and me, I call
Sandra: Was Jason’s wife able to find a cure for the Irish accent, or
did he start drinking Guinness as well?
Ken: Naw, I think he's back on that COORS LIGHT.
Sandra: What can you tell us about SLIDE?
Ken: On Hard Case’s site, there is a sample chapter and what I think
is the most stunning cover... The publisher warns it's the most shocking book
you'll ever read. I think he's right. It has 2 characters from bust in it.
Sandra: Do you and Jason have another project in the works?
Ken: Just sequel to BUST, titled.. SLIDE.
Sandra: What else do you have planned in the next year?
Ken: A book of short stories titled THUG.
Sandra: So, it isn't a secret anymore that we're collaborating on a book,
and you've worked with Jason Starr. You're one of the few authors who has
chosen to collaborate with others. For you, what is the appeal of working
with another author?
Ken: Half the work and the sheer fun of it. I get to be with the best and
Sandra: Now, if I'm to believe the gossip, we’re having an affair. So
tell me about it, because I don't want to miss out. Has it been good for you?
Ken: Rocked my world.
Sandra: What would you say to people who express surprise that you're writing
with a woman?
Ken: Get a life.
Sandra: It must seem sometimes that, no matter how good your intentions are,
how genuinely you want to help support writers or encourage talent, that you
can't do anything right in the eyes of some people. You know what I'm dancing
around here, but I don't want to give anyone else any more airplay than they've
had. All I wonder is, how do you feel about this recent trend in the writing
community, authors bashing other authors publicly? It smacks to me of desperation
to draw attention to ourselves, not through the writing, but through controversy.
What do you think?
Ken: I think it's a crying shame, God bless ‘em cos they do know what
Sandra: Are there plans to make the Brant series into a movie or put it on
Ken: It's nearly a done deal, we're that close.
Sandra: Can you tell us anything about it?
Ken: I’d love to but ‘tis a major player but then, we've been
this route so many times, take the option money and forget about it I think.
Sandra: You seem to have broken through worldwide in stages. Were there different
books in different countries that "made" your career?
Ken: Yes. France for the Brant books. Japan for the short stories. Russia
for London Boulevard, the UK.............not a dicky bird with any book..........
Australia with Brant.
Ireland with Jack Taylor which proves, you just never know.
Sandra: For you, what do you like about writing the Brant series versus the
Jack Taylor series?
Ken: Brant is pure fun, I love to have the multi view gig and with Brant,
I get to pay off all the arseholes who loathe me.
Sandra: From what I've read Brant seems a bit less introspective than Taylor
and someone who just does whatever suits him for the moment and doesn't think
very long-term. He's a bit of a scuzzy playboy, I think. Would you agree?
Did he become a cop just for the power trip?
Ken: Scuzzy playboy, I like that, wish I was one. He became a cop from reading
the Ed McBain series and the power.......oh yeah.
Sandra: Since we're talking about Brant let's talk about sex. Have you had
to do any research for his experiences?
Ken: Alas, ‘tis all wishful thinking. Wish I had his energy and success.............women
tell me.....you have nice eyes…. translate as............you are so
not going to score.
Sandra: Which of the books you've written is your favourite, and why?
Ken: GARBAGE AND ROBERT LOWELL which they wouldn't publish, I think it's the
book where I most got to express all the stuff in one coherent glide.
Sandra: You were in a car crash in India and in a coma afterwards. What do
you remember of what happened?
Ken: Two things, screaming at the driver, slow down............and then the
awful sound of metal wrenching..........can still hear it and then nothing.
Sandra: Ultimately, you went to Brazil. What led to your imprisonment?
Ken: A bar fight. I wasn't involved but they rounded up the foreigners...
payback and who can blame ‘em?
Sandra: You were brutalized in prison, and basically put into a catatonic
state. How much of that influences your writing?
Ken: More than I care to admit but pure rage, I guess.
Sandra: In your books you write about a lot of violent people who do terrible
things to others. What's the appeal of writing about those types of characters,
instead of writing more from the perspective of victims, or from the perspective
of cops who try to seek justice and right wrongs?
Ken: They fascinate me, pure violence is a mystery to me and the more I write
about it, the less I do.
I don’t write much about justice as I've seen precious little of it.
I tend to believe that the law is for the courts, justice is for the alleys.
Sandra: So, your idea of justice would be what Jack Taylor did at the end
of THE GUARDS, for example?
Ken: Yes. And rapists, child molesters... fook ‘em.
Sandra: What happened to the other men you were imprisoned with?
Ken: Only one is still around, he's doing heroin...........we tried a re-union
some years back and we were so... ashamed.... of the rape etc, we couldn't
communicate. I deeply regret I wasn't better able but I wasn't in great shape
me own self.
Sandra: You’ve been quoted as saying, “There’s not enough
alcohol or Valium in the world to wipe out those memories, and there’s
the odd night when I’m back in the cell.” You’ve also been
referenced as saying you considered suicide, but you weren’t going to
let the fuckers win. You have certainly endured more than what would seem
any person’s fair share of tragedy. Why do you think you had the strength
to persevere, to survive, while others lose themselves and give up?
Ken: The honest answer… I dont know..... Some fierce stubbornness that
I won’t let assholes... no pun intended, well, a little... to put me
down. When you've been given a
shit sandwich yer whole life, there comes a point where you say...... just...
fook off, which is why, as you know Sandra, I value so highly the friends
Sandra: But I know, as someone who's walked down a few dark paths, that there
are people who will avoid you. Some have the attitude that bad things happen
to people who deserve them. Did you ever wonder if you were cursed?
Ken: No, in fact I believe I’m blessed, to have Grace, the wondrous
friends I have, to be able to write full time, and travel to America five
times a year.
Sandra: People have said a lot of things about you that aren’t true.
You don’t drink spirits, for one. Just Budweiser, not even Guinness...
And you don’t say a word. Now, you know me - I just want to punch someone
on the nose when they slander my friends. What is it that enables you to ignore
all of it?
Ken: Because I'd spend me life defending meself and I’m just not that
concerned with me image, me friends know me and that's the vital thing, if
I'd another lifetime to waste, I’d probably spend hours clarifying the
misinformation but that's valuable writing time, I'd rather write a short
story that explain to some ejit I never met who I am.
Sandra: I know you feel you‚re blessed, but there are some in your family
who don’t feel the same way. Have you ever asked yourself why you’ve
had to face all these trials?
Ken: Like God said to Job...............when he asked why me lord......the
Lord said.......’cos you piss me off.
Sandra: Ha! That’s neck and neck with “Again I saw something meaningless
under the sun” as my favourite Bible verse. You said justice is for
the back alleys... So you don’t believe in divine justice?
Ken: I believe in karma, you put shite out there, it will come right back,
same as the good stuff, least I hope so.
Sandra: You were at a launch recently for a friend and were assaulted. Can
you tell us what happened?
Ken: A guy kept hassling me, asking me if I thought I was tough, I've never
wanted to be tough me whole life, I’m real interested in finding some
strength..... Anyway, he hit me with something, broke me jaw.........that
sucker hurt............a lot.
Sandra: What do you think drives people like that, and do you think we’ll
see this guy in a future book?
Ken: Fear and badness.... And he's in the standalone, gets his.
Sandra: You took a lot of grief over AMERICAN SKIN. Why do you think so many
people were reluctant to see that book published?
Ken: Too dark and opening chapter, what Duane calls toddler roadkill really
Sandra: Now, going back a ways, there was a discussion about banning one of
your earlier books, THE HACKMAN BLUES. How did you feel about that?
Ken: I was delighted, I'm Irish. To be banned is our national birthright and
you want to sell books, get banned.
Sandra: Ian Rankin has stated that his son, Kit, made him a better writer.
How have the dark parts of your life have made you a better writer?
Ken: I dunno about better but certainly darker and definitely more focused.
Sandra: Now, let’s talk music. You love music, in particular country
music. Why is music so important to you?
Ken: Makes me yearn, for what, I'm not sure but it uplifts me and too, the
melancholy of say, country music, wondrous.
Sandra: Do you think that it’s your love of music that makes your writing
Ken: Oh lord, thank you, but no, I think any lyricism comes from a poet manque
Sandra: My own opinion is that most traditional country music reads like classic
hardboiled and noir fiction. The guy loses everything, life sucks, he’s
in jail or whatever. Have you ever thought of writing a collection of short
stories inspired by country songs? I think that would make a great collection:
Guitar Pickin’ Noir.
Ken: Oh, I love that, count me in........Hank Williams would be a fine noir
Sandra: Well, whether you credit the music or the poetry, your books are lyrical,
but each has their own rhythm. If you were to name soundtracks for the Jack
Taylor series, the Brandt series and a stand-alone like, say, American Skin,
what would the albums be?
Ken: Johnny Duhan, Irish Meastro is the soundtrack of Jack Taylor. The Clash
are the music of Brant and Tammy Wynette, Springsteen and The Pogues for American
Sandra: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what are you listening
to these days?
Ken: I finally finished the standalone and for that, I didn't listen to any
music, the starkness of the book required silence, fits with the whole iciness
of the book.
Sandra: What can you tell us about this standalone? When will it be out?
Ken: I honestly don’t know, this year I hope.
Sandra: And if you were stuck on a deserted island and could only have five
albums (with the appropriate electronic devices to allow you to listen to
them) which would you take?
Ken: The Corb Lund Band (thanks to a certain fine Canadian writer)........
Iris de Ment, The Clash, Tom Waits and Tom Russell.
Sandra: How do you think your acting background contributes to your writing?
Ken: I get to act out the accents.........badly I might add and if they don’t
sound right, if the music isn't there, bin ‘em.
Sandra: We’ve talked a bit about this ourselves, the “damned if
do, damned if don’t” thing about being Irish and writing about
Ireland, or not writing about Ireland. First, what do you like about setting
books outside Ireland?
Ken: The challenge, see if you can pull off a UK voice or an American one....
Sandra: Have you mastered a Canadian accent?
Ken: Yes, from listening to Gordon Lightfoot and Ann Murray, if anyone remembers
Sandra: On 4MA recently, Gumshoe Carl posted: (He gave me permission to use
I think it is sometimes more of a challenge for an author to create a character
who comes with minimal or no baggage. I certainly admire an author who can
pull that off....as is the case, IMHO, of Louise Penny and her Chief Inspector
Armand Gamache. Further it is more difficult to write an effective mystery
when the author doesn't have the wounded protagonist to take up half the pages
of the book. Imagine a Ken Bruen book where Jack Taylor is a saint.....in
that case Bruen would simply write a Novella. :)
I disagree slightly. I think it would be a short story, maybe flash fiction.
But do you agree with the idea that it’s more challenging to create
compelling characters that come with minimal or no baggage?
Ken: But it's so boring, I've no interest in people with no baggage, God bless’ em
and long may they be so lucky. All me friends, they come wounded... I've no
interest in what makes saints, for example but I'd like to know what makes
saints human. When I want no baggage stuff, I watch the OC or Family Guy.
Sandra: I think you told me in one of our chats you had 14 short stories published
last year? Which do you find easier to write, short stories or novels? Why?
Ken: Short stories, they're like a holiday, a real joy.
Sandra: What about script writing? With your background why go for novels
Ken: I can’t write scripts to save me life, whole other discipline,
and I love novels.
Sandra: Who is the best writer? Ray Banks, Duane Swierczynski or Allan Guthrie?
Ken: All three have amazing styles and a vision uniquely dark, yet utterly
different, no wonder those guys are such good mates............. They sure
understand baggage, can’t seem them writing happy.
Sandra: What are the names of five books you’ve read that you wish you’d
Ken: THE PAPERBOY by Pete Dexter, THE HARROWING by Alex Sokaloff, COLD CALLER
by Jason Starr, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy and BIG CITY, BAD
BLOOD by Sean Chercover.
Sandra: If your fate in the afterlife was to be a fictional character from
one of your own books, which would you want to be and why?
Ken: Brant ‘cos he doesn't give a toss and yet, is incredibly loyal
to his crew.
Sandra: And if it had to be being a character from another book for all eternity,
who would you pick, and why?
Ken: The cop in Pete Dexter's TRAIN... He is so enigmatic and yet, has a wondrous
streak of compassion
Sandra: So tell me, what’s the one thing you never get asked about that
you’d love to talk about?
Ken: What I think about the Irish cops. I think they're great. Unarmed, they
go out on these very mean streets with mainly courtesy.
Sandra: How would you describe yourself?
Ken: My best quality is me loyalty to friends, I'm a good father, and here's
the rough bit, I have a terrible temper, but of the slow burn variety, I find
it hard to say no, I bottle me feelings too much, I wish I didn't despise
meself so much and phew.... I do...
and.... I respond real bad to criticism and turn it inwards.
Sandra: What is the one bit of advice you'd give to new writers now?
Ken: Write the book, talk about it after, and keep your head down till it's
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sandra Ruttan's debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances, was released
in January 2007. Her short fiction has appeared in Out of the Gutter,
Demolition, Mouth Full of Bullets, Crimespree Magazine, The Cynic
and Spinetingler. For more information visit her website.
Return to Spring 2007 Table of Contents ©
2007 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved