AUTHOR INTERVIEW:

IN CONVERSATION WITH KEN BRUEN

By Sandra Ruttan


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 best friends.

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, more beneficial.

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 in Jack?

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 mother?

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?

Ken: Terrified

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?

Ken: Always.

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 learning.

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 why?

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?

Ken: Yes

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 from there.

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 for you?

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 people muttahf---‘s

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 the brightest.

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 they do.

Sandra: Are there plans to make the Brant series into a movie or put it on TV?

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 I have.

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 repulsed people.

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 so lyrical?

Ken: Oh lord, thank you, but no, I think any lyricism comes from a poet manque gig.

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 writer.........Merle too.

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 Skin.

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 her.

Sandra: On 4MA recently, Gumshoe Carl posted: (He gave me permission to use this)

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 instead?

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 written?

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 done.


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.


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