And, in breaking news:Mrs. Patricia Starkey is a touch angry. She has found her husband,
Dan "Impulse Control Poster Child" Starkey, locking lips with a 22-year-old party guest. This drove Mrs. Starkey to put Dan’s mint condition copy of ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ under the broiler. Mr. Starkey was heard to relate, "I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn’t have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear, "You have twenty-four hours to move out." Mrs. Starkey later appeared at the girl’s door with a bag of potatoes. Neighbors overheard her say, "If you're going to sleep with him you might as well cook for him too."
It is alleged that after throwing potatoes through every window of the house, she finished up by uttering, "He likes turnips as well. I'll be back tomorrow."
If this story is truly a newsflash for you, then I’d better fill you in on a few things. The real breaking news is that some hapless readers have not had the pleasure of reading Colin Bateman. He was born in Northern Ireland and is a former manager of punk bands and a writer of a snarky column for the Co, Down Spectator. For his efforts, he is also known as the only journalist ever to be sued by the Boys' Brigade (UK Boy Scouts). It is best he left this life behind him.
The legend behind Divorcing Jack almost going unpublished is another classic in the madcap adventures of Colin Bateman. The book languished in a drawer after being rejected by every agent in London. Spurred on by repeated poking from his future wife, he submitted it to the biggest publishing house he could think of--Harper Collins. There, the book landed in the aptly named slush pile. An equally slushed intern was inspired to hold the manuscript to his breast and cry, "Languish no more, oh wondrous text!" It was published within the year and before it even saw the light of a booksellers shop, it earned Bateman the Betty Trask Prize.
And that, dear children, is why Divorcing Jack and all of Bateman’s other marvelous tales, are with us today. They include Chapter & Verse, Murphy’s Law, Wild About Harry, Mohammed Maguire, Shooting Sean, Turbulent Priests, Maid of the Mist, Empire State, Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, Cycle of Violence, and, of course, ‘Divorcing Jack. His writing repertoire now includes screenplays for movies and television series. I was amused and suitably impressed when he took the time to answer a few questions in between an amount of projects that would awe the busiest multi tasker.
When I heard you were a Clash fan I put ‘London Calling’ on and paged through an interview in a 1977 copy of ‘Search and Destroy’ with Joe Strummer. I can really see it in your writing. I was thinking of Dan Starkey when I saw the following:
Interview Chick: So what do you do when they try to pick fights with you?
Joe S: I Run! I fuckin’ move it on down the high street!
"That’s not a question that’s a statement. However, I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a proper fight in my life, and although I’m as quiet as a mouse most of the time, I can explode given the right circumstances. Last case in point was calling my wife’s expensive hairdresser a `baldy fucking barber`, which he didn’t appreciate very much."
What is it with Irishmen and the need for grammatical correction?
You know, if you do actually do connive, beg, barter or charm your way to the Bouchercon in Toronto, don't be at all surprised to get a swift kick in the ass (trans: arse). I'll wear my pointiest shoes. And if you see me approach, don't bother running and for God's sake, don't bend over. That, too, is a statement.
So, does being Irish equate with anal-retentive grammar correction from afar?
"Now I’m definitely staying at home. I can get assaulted here for free without paying to go and have it done (and I mean the flights, I’m sure you’d kick me for nothing)."
Well, now that we've gotten threats of violence and semantics out of the way, let's move on to proper questions. There is something I just don’t get after reading almost all of your books. What is it about Dan Starkey that makes him so lucky with women?
"Charm, cheekiness, vulnerability, helplessness and a huge, great...capacity to listen. Although that’s just me, but some of it must rub off on Dan. Oh, and modesty."
This reminds me that besides still really being a child yourself that you have a child. How has being a father changed you?
"Me? Completely. Greatest thing that ever happened, although that doesn’t stop me giving him a clip round the ear hole when he’s cheeky, or tries to give me editorial notes on my children’s book."
I take it the children's books have household approval then?
"Oh yes absolutely, I get to show my son what I can do and why my photograph is always in the paper (those bank robbery charges were never proved)."
I’ve noticed that Reservoir Pups is in pre-order status on Amazon UK. I love the cover. What is it about?
It’s about teenage gangs in Belfast – but it’s really like a Dan Starkey book in that a complete eejit has a scary adventure, but keeps the laughs coming as well. I had huge fun writing it, and have just finished the second in the series, ‘Bring Me the Head of Oliver Plunkett.’
How did fatherhood change Dan Starkey?
"Well that’s a more difficult one, because he wasn’t the father of Patricia’s baby, and was only really starting to appreciate him when they lost him, and that has changed him even more, led to the break up of his marriage and his own descent into poverty and alcohol. Christ, it’s like Angela’s Ashes. I should point out that in the upcoming `Driving Big Davie. ` Dan and Patricia are back together and very happy...until..."
It’s sad that poor Dan has no one to pass on the marvelous gift of talking ones self into trouble. I was eager to see how he would handle a teenage son. He took very good care of the hedgehog in 'Turbulent Priests'.
Now, if you follow your usual title pattern, then I imagine we can expect someone to be driving a large David around. You are a literal creature, aren't you?
"You have me sussed. Turbulent Priests was about....... turbulent priests, Shooting Sean was about......shooting sean......and my next book, Ooops Upside Your Head, I Said Oops Upside Your Head is about carpentry."
OK, it’s official now. I completely adore you. Hey, maybe that’s how Dan got women into bed. Clever…
And it seems others adore you as well.
Arts Minister John McFall, prior to the screening of Divorcing Jack in Belfast said: "Divorcing Jack has made a significant contribution to the local economy as well as putting Northern Ireland on the map through its favorable reception at the Cannes Film Festival."
Are you the local boy done good? A heroic celebrity? A bastion of fame and generosity? The guy always stuck with the beer tab at the end of the night?
"Oh I’m a superstar, particularly around my own house. People don’t always realize that Northern Ireland is a very small place (although it makes a lot of noise), so that when someone does well (and they have to be seen to be doing well abroad, i.e. in London or New York before they’re fully appreciated) they tend to become very well known indeed. So, compared to most writers I’m extremely well known. Although `Divorcing Jack` was my first book, and I’ve written about a dozen others since, I was very much known as the `author of Divorcing Jack`, which after ten years nearly was beginning to become a bit of a burden, but since the recent TV series of `Murphy`s Law` that’s finally shifting to `writer of Murphy`s Law`, because it went down very well (and was particularly huge here in Northern Ireland). I know its recently been sold to BBC America, so it’ll be cropping up there quite soon."
Thank God for small miracles and thank God for BBC America. Maybe this can erase the Rebus debacle from my mind.
So, Jimmy Nesbitt lived up to everyone's expectations?
"Jimmy`s great! Have just watched him on TV in a modernized version of the Canterbury Tales, where he plays the Devil. Very smooth. Murphy`s Law was written for him, and it’s easy to write in his voice as we’re both roughly the same age and from the same part of the world."
In your novels, your depiction of violence causes actual bodily harm and very painful, messy death but is not used as a way to move the plot along. Protagonists actually limp, bleed and succumb to unconsciousness when beaten. The non-psychotic characters react with horror and anger when others are killed. How do you feel about the use of violence in fiction?
"I think it should be compulsory. Particularly in the novels of Saul Bellow. Hasn’t he heard of kidnappings? OR bombs? What world is he living in? Or isn’t he living at all? I don’t know, I’m so out of touch."
Still alive and still Saul "The Pacifist" Bellow.
There are many approaches to writing.
Some authors spend a great deal of time and money on research. When you’re writing about a place or an occupation you’re for the most part unfamiliar with, how do you approach the unknown?
"Make it up! It’s fiction! I don’t do a lot of research - Empire State was a 500-page novel based on a small leaflet they give you when you do the Empire State tour. The world is so familiar to us all now that you don’t really have to do in depth research for certain types of book - i.e. if I say New York, everyone has an instant familiarity with it, so I don’t need to spend like six months living there to get a feel for it. And my characters are usually `fish out of water` characters, i.e. everything is strange and new to them, so they don’t have to be expert in it, you get their first hand reaction to it. For `The Horse With My Name` I happened to be living next door to Ireland’s biggest racecourse, but I only visited once, and didn’t speak to anyone. I bought the local racing paper and familiarized myself with the terminology, but again it was essentially Dan Starkey stumbling around in the dark not knowing what anything meant. Like most journalists."
Surely you have nothing but the highest regard for your former fellows. Don't you think journalism led you to be the great man you are today?
"Absolutely, but I was still an awful journalist, and nearly every journalist is expected to be an expert in every possible subject and they can’t be so they have to wing it. I was never at the cutting edge of journalism. My town only had three bombs in thirty years, but for the last one, which destroyed our Main Street, I was in charge of our newspaper and made an absolute hash of covering it."
As an American, I don’t have a sense of what it’s like to have bombs going off where I live. This happens to so many people all over the globe but it’s new to America (well, unless you live in the inner city). Kind of an asinine question when I think of it but what was it like growing up with that kind of conflict going on around you?
"Well, You see I live in Bangor, which is ten miles from Belfast, but might as well be ten thousand. Up there people were getting killed every day, while down in Bangor, life went on as normal. That’s why I say ‘only’ three bombs in thirty years. It was nothing, but you were always aware of it. I would have been a very different writer if I’d grown up in Belfast, I think, perhaps living in Bangor makes me more of a balanced writer. A chip on each shoulder."
Considering George W. Bush’s "War on Terrorism", should troops be deployed to Northern Ireland?
"NO! We all love each other now."
How would he and Gerry Adams get along?
"Well, one’s the leader of the political wing of an organization responsible for thousands of deaths, and the other is Gerry Adams. They’d get on famously."
Once again, I bow to one of the great ones to crank up a question. In 1977 Mick Jones said, "I thought rock audiences in England were apathetic when we started, but I've never seen as unhealthy a place for rock 'n' roll as America. We might be too late. It may be impossible to wake them up at this point." What do you think about America?
"I absolutely love America, always have, and I’m more aware of American influences in my work than Irish. SO it was a real pain in the arse (trans: ass) when my first big entirely American set book Empire State became the first of my books not to be published there! I was dreaming of dinner with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, instead I got sacked. But my day will come!"
Has writing and directing films and television changed your writing?
"It’s made me appreciate the novels more, because they’re published as written and usually without any interference (apart from the spelling getting fixed). TV scripts can go through a dozen drafts and only the first is really your own, after that it’s everyone else’s smart ideas. I’m sick to death of writing them at the moment and desperate to get back to books. But they pay the mortgage."
What event in your life has most strongly influenced your writing?
"Probably the absolute freedom I was given as a journalist to write whatever I wanted; I basically taught myself to write by having to produce a column every week. It was supposed to be a gossip column, but not knowing anyone interesting or ever getting invited to parties I ended up making it all up, just nonsense about my imaginary life and it really gave me confidence in what I could do."
What did eight-year old Colin want to be when he grew up besides a snarky writing superstar?
"Nine years old. Or Captain America. Or Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner."
Such innocent and heroic beginnings for a man that grew to be so… noir.
Now that’s a question. What is noir?
"Noir is the shorthand term for `Northern Ireland’, which has been applied to a particular style of fiction that blossomed here before the Second World War in our church magazines. Because these had previously featured church sermons they were commonly known as `pulpit` magazines, later shortened to pulp. Leading exponents of this pulp fiction included Jimmy Joyce, whose seminal murder mystery `Finnegan’s Wake` was written entirely in Gaelic, and then translated so badly back into English by the famous `Blind Drunk` Willie McShoe that it made no sense whatsoever; and also W.B. `Warner Brothers` Yeats whose comic verses and limericks had them rolling in the aisles before he was snapped up by a visiting American film producer. Although neither Joyce or Yeats made it in Hollywood, they exerted a major influence over a struggling author and part-time Shakespeare impersonator Dashiell Hamlet and studio lighting chief Raymond Chandelier who went on to produce their own somewhat inferior versions of `noir` fiction."
Speaking of noir, most people I’ve spoken with cite ‘Cycle of Violence’ as their favorite Bateman book. I think it’s your darkest and your funniest. You weave the two elements together so beautifully without the storyline breaking stride. What is the magic behind this feat?
"Like I’m going to say, yeah, it was magic.
It was okay.
The early chapters are hugely autobiographical, especially the scenes in the undertakers, which are word for word what happened when my father died. I wrote Divorcing Jack and nobody wanted to publish it, so I presumed it wasn’t any good and put it away; but I enjoyed the writing process, so I started Cycle of Violence and it was just about finished when `Divorcing Jack` got accepted. So these two books are the purest - i.e. written without any expectation of being published, or any worries about sales or reviews etc."
Your latest book, Chapter & Verse, was delightful. Ivan Connor seemed to embody most of the annoying characteristics I've witnessed in literary icons that have gotten too big for their proverbial britches. And, I never knew ducks could bring out such a nurturing side of men. Is Ivan a happily ever after kind of guy?
"Well, and one day I’ll let you see this, part of the book was cut shortly before publication because it felt superfluous - an epilogue where we joined Ivan about five years later when he was a coke addled mess having done Hollywood but lost out at the Oscars to a film about a deaf Mountie called No Ears, Big Horse. The only reason I agreed to the cut was because I thought it wouldn’t be missed, and also because it would make a good place to start a second Ivan Connor book. But whether that happens or not is another thing."
That reminds me! What was your Cannes Film Festival experience like?
"Fantastic! Being hangover sick over a palm tree while the beautiful people cruised past! Poster for Divorcing Jack next to Bruce Willis’ "Armageddon" poster, and everyone talking about mine! Buyers having fist fights trying to get into a showing! Meeting the ninth re-write man on Steven Segal pictures!
Parties! Drink! Sun! Making a documentary about my time there. Terrible place to be if you haven’t got a decent movie with you, and not designed for writers at all – Deal! Deal! Deal! – but as long as you’re not trying to sell yourself and you get to go to all the parties, it’s fantastic. Sorry, I meant to be laid back and dismiss it as a lot of industry back slapping - so what, as long as my back is the one being slapped and the drink’s free, the more the merrier."
The more the merrier certainly seems to be your approach to work. How many projects do you usually have going at one time?
"Many dozens, literally. I just get bored easily, so I divide things up into single weeks – one week to write a 60 minute TV script, one week to do a re-write, one week to do five chapters of a book…. A flit about….and only because I say yes to too many things because I’m in this totally unexpected position of being a proper WRITER and people keep asking me to do things and I can’t quite bring myself to say no in case they don’t ask again. Sad but true."
You wrote and directed your first movie recently. How did "The Devil You Know" come together?
"Because even though I’m useless with people, actors, and technical things, like light bulbs and cameras, I’m a huge movie buff and when somebody asked if I fancied directing a short film I just said yes without thinking about it. Five years ago I would rather have stuck needles in my eyes, but I’ve become a lot more confident in my abilities over the years – and there’s also a kind of Northern Irish realism as well, as in, I may not be the greatest director, but I can be just as bad as the others.
‘The Devil You Know’ was a short story I wrote for an anthology a few years ago – ‘Crime Time’ something like that – which I re-wrote with a supernatural twist for this short film. It isn’t an awful film – too ambitious for the special effects I could afford, so it looks pretty crap, but I had great fun and had planned to direct another this month (September 2003) but have had to postpone because of other commitments. I will return."
You’ve been compared to so many people and now someone is finally being compared to you.
Is Zane Radcliffe (award winning author of London Irish and Big Jessie) a literary clone; if so, why isn’t he more prolific?
"I (indirectly) got Zane his publishing deal, and now he’s sells more books than me!
He’s not so prolific because he has a proper job still. I’m doing a reading with him in my hometown next week. Clearly he will be the support act, and in true support act tradition I will interfere with his sound system so that he sounds really crap, while I soar with the eagles. (One of these nights…)"
Why should some inexperienced and seriously deprived reader stop reading this interview (besides the fact that it’s over) and begin purchasing your entire book backlog?
"I don’t think they should, actually. When I wanted to be a writer, I liked to read about how author writers wrote rather than what they actually did write. So, I’m extremely well informed about quite a number of America’s best writers, without actually having read any of their fiction. It’s like when you form a band as a teenager; you get a name for your group, miss out on the learning the guitar and writing songs stage, and go straight to having your sexy photo taken.
Also I’m extremely shallow and I have the attention span of a gnat. (So if I had become a songwriter I could have been Gnat King Cole.) However, I’m also cool and trendy and the next big thing, so if you absolutely insist on buying my books for your lonely, elderly relatives at Christmas, you should say that you heard about me first, and explain to them that these books are so special they are only available as high priced imports and thus will not only give hours of fun but are also are also an investment for the future. Like Enron.
Now a question my brother Paul feels the answer to really defines a man. What one thing do you wish you hadn’t wasted money on?
"The electric guitar and amp. Even the three chords of punk were two too many. And also that synthesizer I bought in the early eighties. The only sound I ever got out of it made people run from buildings because they thought the smoke alarm had gone off."
Who wrote the book of love?
"Insert witty response here. Interview subject off to cut wrists at memory of doomed love affair."
The irony of having Colin Bateman say ‘Insert witty response here,’ is not lost on me. This is the author I turn to when none of the books I’ve picked up read right and he is the author I invariably read in one sitting. All he’s got is a small laptop, one chord and the truth. And I say to him, "Write on…"