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Galway’s Giant of the Book World: Joe McCoubrey Talks To Ken Bruen

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 25 March 2014.

By any measurement Galway author Ken Bruen is right up there with the best of them. With 35 novels neatly stacked on his bookshelf, six TV movies in the can, a 12-part series just agreed with Swedish TV, and the completion of two big screen offerings starring A-listers such as Jason Statham, Colin Farrell and Keira Knighly, there can be few more prolific, successful worldwide authors around.

And certainly not many can boast about their works being translated into French, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Danish, Albanian and Czech.

He rightly has invitations to countless book events in Europe and the United States; is envied by just about every Irish writer who ever drew a seat up to a keyboard; has his own Wikipedia page (make that several pages); and even has a PhD in Metaphysics to his list of credits.

Yet, here’s the thing. Despite all his achievements, Ken Bruen has never been asked to do so much as a book-reading session in his native Galway. Even allowing for some of the strange trait quirks that we Irish are blessed with, that seems to be taking the no-man-is-a-prophet-in-his-own-land adage a bit too far!

Okay, so Bruen has had more than his fair share of poking both church and state with many a barbed stick. And maybe his dark crime thrillers don’t exactly paint rosy pictures of Galway as a place you’d want to put on top of your bucket list. However, consider two rather important points for the defence.

Listen to what Bruen says on one subject: “The local people are delighted to be in the movies and although the tourist board have put a bounty on me head, they like the biz from tourists.”

On the subject of his relationship with the church it should be noted that the Bishop of Galway once relented and invited him to tea. Sadly, the incumbent of the office at that time died before the appointed date. Perhaps not such an apt point for the defence after all!

On a serious note, you get the sense that for all his teasing, the apparent shunning of his status by his fellow Galwayans (is there such a thing?) does rankle a bit with Bruen. It’s well disguised behind his typical humour. “With each new book I descend to new levels of obscurity. I think I’ll do a JK Rowling in reverse and introduce a pen name to protect my obscurity.”

Can he put his finger on this strange phenomenon? “I think it’s because I don’t do the literary circuit. Perhaps the absence of glad-handing and not sharing drinks at parties has worked against me in a peculiar way. Maybe my face just doesn’t fit in.”

Shortly after the launch of Priest in 2006 a book shop in Galway had its windows smashed because it had a central display of the book on sale, and Bruen still remembers at the time being spat on my a woman he passed in the street.

It probably seems strange to start an interview article about one of our literary giants on a negative note, but I think the record needs to be put straight. Okay, that’s my little rant over. Let’s take a look at the great man.

Iain Glen as Jack Taylor (left) with Ken Bruen

Iain Glen as Jack Taylor (left) with Ken Bruen

Bruen has just released his latest novel – Purgatory – his tenth featuring the enigmatic and utterly compelling Guard-turned-private-eye Jack Taylor, who has so far featured in six TV movies (BBC and RTE) and is returning for a new series on both channels in January 2014. Just like the legion of Jack Taylor fans I can’t wait – if you’ve missed the earlier episodes take it from me that you should move heaven and earth (or at least scan catch-up, look for the DVD box sets, or do whatever it takes to get you acquainted with the best viewing to come out of Ireland since…..come to think of it there’s nothing to adequately to compare him with!

The Jack Taylor stories are just a small part of the Ken Bruen writing story. He has created other fascinating series centred on characters such as Tom Brant, James Roberts, Max Fisher and Angela Petrakos. Thirty of those novels are now widely available. A further five of his earlier works are being brought back to life, probably within an anthology that will open new boundaries for his followers.

Here’s a quickie bio blurb. Born in Galway in 1951 (the same birth year as myself – maybe that’s why I have such an affinity with him!) Bruen has had a chequered career, to put it mildly. In his early days he travelled the world (at least a fair chunk of it when you include stints in South America, Africa, Japan, and SE Asia) working as an English teacher.

He recalls being commissioned by Kuwait to teach military English to a large group of well-shod cadets. The idea was to provide them with practical translations of military terminology, including the use and power of AK47’s. “One of my friends later recalled that when the Iraqis rolled down the highways of Kuwait in 1990, I mustn’t have taught my recruits well. They were totally unprepared and allowed their neighbours to score a decisive victory. With hindsight, maybe someone should have taught them about tactics rather than about English translation!”

As well as teaching English, Bruen was also a security guard at the World Trade Centre, and managed to get himself incarcerated for four months in a Brazilian jail (that’s a story for another day). Small wonder that the combination of those experiences provided stimulus for the next chapter of his life – writing.

It was back in 1993 that Bruen is credited with publishing his first novel – Shades of Grace, although his first was actually Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities. These were quickly followed off the presses by a production of titles that at one stage had his publishers cry “stop” They needed to catch up with his output! In one year alone Bruen delivered four new manuscripts.

I told Bruen that I had discovered several sellers on Amazon are offering out-of-publication copies of Shades of Grace for amounts ranging from £106 to £570! That piece of information elicited a typical reaction: “Holy fook! I remember Funeral being sold for 1st edition in the US for 2000 dollars. Wish I had a copy.”

Let’s get back to Bruen’s prolific output. What kind of time commitment is needed to produce such results? His answer will astound you. “I write every day. I commit to no more, or no less, than two pages. It may seem small, and it is a manageable goal to achieve, but it’s surprising how quickly you can build a story and complete a novel if you stick rigidly to this timetable. The American playwright Arthur Miller set out every day to do 2 pages. I didn’t know that at the time I had decided to follow a similar pattern, and it seemed like a suitable endorsement of what I was doing.”

Bruen also offers this insight: “I’m just like many other writers. As someone once said, there is terror in opening a blank screen to begin writing. I try to bite off what I know is manageable. It works for me, and I’m sure it could work for others.”

[Duly noted by this terror-stricken wannabee – I’ll be giving it a try].

The other big question to ask of Bruen is the age-old query of writers everywhere. Do you plan your novels well in advance, or do you go with the flow as you write?

“I have a broad concept in mind but I tend to just dive in. I’m more interested in characters than I am about plots. For me, it’s about having strong characters that can stand up to most things a writer will throw at them. That’s the way I like to go about it.”

Not hard therefore to see how the Jack Taylor character has endured through ten stories. I wondered, however, if the character’s image changed in Bruen’s mind when Scottish actor Iain Glen was cast in the TV role. “No, when I’m writing I can’t think of Iain Glen. The character of Jack Taylor is so strong in my head.”

That doesn’t mean that Bruen hasn’t got a strong affection for the actor. “When I first met him I was struck by the fact that here was a top actor who had just secured roles in Game of Thrones and Downtown Abbey but he was nervous about taking on Jack Taylor. He turned up dressed in a long coat and hadn’t shaved for about a week to get into character. This guy is Jack Taylor, he really gets it. He had read the books and was ready to go.”

Bruen also recalls with affection that when filming wrapped up on the first clutch of stories the actor made a point of seeking him out. “He told me,” said Bruen with more than a hint of pride, “no matter what I’m asked to do I will always be Jack Taylor. I will make myself available, no matter what, for future storylines.”

Apart from being on set for the first Jack Taylor series, Bruen is not a regular visitor. “I really don’t know the filming schedule. I remember once walking down a street in Galway when Iain Glen fell into stride alongside and told me to keep walking and act naturally. I had walked close to a scene being shot and Glen had spotted me.”

It should have been easy for Bruen to act naturally in front of the cameras. He had tried his hand at various acting parts over the years and, perversely perhaps, played the part of a priest in the film adaptation of his novel Blitz starring Jason Statham. “I learned quickly that I was rubbish at acting. That’s why I’ve stuck to writing, although even then I’m no judge of that.”

A recent article in the Independent fuelled rumours that the release of Purgatory signalled the end of the road for Jack Taylor. Not a bit of it. I can now give you a world exclusive, straight from the lips of the creator “I’m already about a quarter way through his next adventure which should be released in April 2014.”

Remember that you heard it first on Writing.ie!!

Before that Bruen fans can look forward to the release of the next TV films probably sometime in January 2014.

Busy, busy times for this modest Galway man. But, now we know how he does it.

Two pages at a time.

Personal footnote: I have interviewed hundreds of people through a lifetime in journalism, but can honestly say that Ken Bruen was the most open, giving individual I have ever spent time with. You don’t get airs or graces, or any smugness about his enormous successes. There’s just a down-to-earth, easy-to-talk to guy who makes time fly with his humour and charm. It was beyond a pleasure to do this article.

(c) Joe McCoubrey

Joe McCoubrey is a former journalist who reported first hand the height of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, firstly as a local newspaper Editor, and then as a partner in an agency supplying copy to national newspapers and broadcasters. He switched careers to help start a Local Enterprise Agency providing advice and support to budding entrepreneurs in his native town and became its full-time CEO. He retired to concentrate on a long-time ambition to be a full-time writer. His debut novel “Someone Has to Pay” was quickly followed by “Absence of Rules” – an international thriller. In between he has penned several short stories and is currently working on his next full-length project.

Catch up with him at: www.joemccoubrey.com