Interview with Gary Donnelly(DI Owen Sheen Series) Conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am delighted to welcome Gary Donnelly author of the DI Owen Sheen Series to my blog. Thanks for joining me Gary.

GD: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: What made you decide to write crime fiction?

GD: In many ways it chose me rather than the other way round! I certainly did not set out with an express intention of writing crime or noir, but looking back it made a lot of sense for me to hang my hat there. I love reading crime fiction, and when Sheen was first forming as a character and the series was slowly taking shape, I was reading a lot of Michael Connelly (especially the Harry Bosch series), Peter Robinson’s understated and musical DCI Banks novels, Mo Hayder’s creepy tales, Ian Rankin and of course Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville’s Northern Irish crime work. So, having explained this, it probably made a lot of sense for my own novel to be (largely) a crime story.

In saying that, Blood Will Be Born set a tone for the Sheen series by also smudging those clean genre lines a bit, adding dabs of Stephen King’s supernatural eeriness, playing with romantic themes and exploring the tensions of personal issues and relationships on a wider canvas of historical, political and conspiratorial big backgrounds (my youthful love of Frederick Forsyth, Robert Lundlum and of course King and Dean Koontz).

DS: How long did it take you to write the first DI Owen Sheen book Blood Will Be Born? What was the hardest obstacle when trying to complete that dreaded first draft?

GD: I started writing in a serious way after attending an online novel writing class with the City Lit, London in, I think, mid-2014, but it was only in 2015 when I made an active decision to change my job (all-consuming and never satiated up until this point) that I found the mental space to engage and really begin. At that point I also had the impetus of knowing I had downsized my professional prospects and therefore knew that I wanted a novel to show for it! Mind you, I was still working pretty much full time so it took the guts of a year (it’s feast or famine when it comes to writing for me) before I had knocked out a first draft by August 2016 (in time for my BIG 40 which was no doubt also in the mix on some level).

So Blood Will Be Born took about a year but the learning curve was steep, and that was far from the end of it. The first draft had the bones and structure of the story as it stands but it was a hefty, overweight beast of a thing that had been written with no plan or plot until about half-way (amazing to think that as I look back at the process, but that’s the truth) and then herded into shape from that point until the end. Amazingly this process worked and worked pretty well, but not, at that point, as a crime thriller. At some level I think I was aiming for something closer to Stephen King’s The Stand meets Ulysses (pass me my smoking jacket and cravat)! To use a phrase which the journalist David Roy coined while speaking to me this week, I’d created a Sheeniverse, but fun as that was, it needed to be edited, sculpted to allow the real story to emerge.

So that process, following feedback from first readers and prospective agents, took me into early 2017. It’s something they rarely teach you about in writing classes, but it is the equally essential counterpart to hacking out the first draft. By the time I was done, I knew the book was so much the better for it, and I could say with confidence where it ought to sit on a crime thriller shelf. So the hardest part? For the first draft it had to be (and probably still is) starting with a commitment that the book is on and then writing consistently, doubts and fears be damned, until that draft is finished.

DS: What I love about the series is that Belfast becomes a character in its own right. What made you decide to set the series there? And how on earth do you make it so vivid?

GD: Thank you, I am so pleased it is brought to life for you. I am always minded of that phrase that we do not live in the past but the past lives in us, when I think about this question. The Belfast of my childhood and youth is long gone and I live in London, so I rely on the sensory memories of the past and from my visits. The freshness of the air, the ever present guarantee of rain, the crispness of the light and the beauty of the encroaching countryside as well as the sometimes dreary and sinister bleakness of parts of the urban landscape. I close my office blinds and ignore the London sunshine (so abundant when I was drafting the third book, Never Ask The Dead, it was torture), and I try to see through Owen Sheen’s eyes. I also employ little tricks when needed. An online search will give me an instant image of a place, and sometimes having it dated is even better as it summons the atmosphere I want. Sheen’s Belfast also has the feel of risk and edginess and this is something I think I turn inward to find.

I left Belfast when I turned nineteen and when I arrived in Cambridge I felt like I’d been dropped into a toy town. I could walk home after a few drinks at night and my furtive glances over my shoulder were wasted, strangers asked me questions about politics and religion with genuine interest, and with no agenda attached. Which was an eyeopener. But I suppose to quote another well-used adage, you can take the boy out of Belfast, but at some level, you will never take Belfast out of the boy.

DS: In the series Northern Ireland’s dark past is ever present. I am wondering was this a conscious decision as you can truly imagine the reality of the troubles as you read?

GD: Yes, I think of it as a ghost in the works, perhaps represented most tangably by The Moley, John Fryer’s tormenting demon that he must feed with fresh blood in book one. As mentioned above, I remember many things first hand, though unlike Sheen, who was subject by the worst kind of personal trauma, my experience like so many, was more cumulative. A stone added to a sack that was carried daily and to which we had become so accustomed, the weight was not consciously felt, perhaps, until it was finally lifted. Indeed, there is also a kind of trauma from watching others become victims, the sense of the near miss, attending the funeral of a friend’s father, eating my school packed lunch in a park where soldiers were stripped, beaten and murdered. These things must have an effect. And the proof of that is there in the books.

In the same way I did not set out to write crime fiction to begin with I also did not consciously begin with a view to engaging with legacy issues, but there they are! I am proud of the Sheen series for the way in which (I hope) this has been managed and cautiously navigated. Ian McEwan wrote about the importance of empathy and imagination as the essence of our humanity after 9/11. I am sure politicians, historians and others have their part to play in coming to terms with the dark past which we all shared. As a writer I have a wonderful licence to create, challenge and explore as well as entertain.

DS: In the series Owen seems to be feeling his way back into his own forgotten past, almost as if he is an outsider looking into the shadows waiting to see what will jump out. How much of Owen’s backstory did you know before you began writing, and how much grew organically as you wrote? As I love his voice throughout.

GD: Thank you again. Sheen arrived pretty much fully formed. I knew I wanted an outsider of sorts to arrive in Belfast to start up the SHOT (Serious Historical Offences Team) and Sheen was a perfect vehicle for this. In doing so, Sheen had some built in neutrality and gave me the licence I needed to engage my home town afresh. Plus, I now know North London as well as I ever knew Belfast so I was sure I could find his voice quite easily. Then, as I introduced him, and I searched for his layers, I thought about how sweetly weighted and apt it would be that he had once lived in Belfast, but has no concrete memories of that time. It was then that I had the eureka moment.

What if Sheen is back in Belfast for more than police work? What if he wants the truth about a personal issue, something that caused his family to break and leave their home in the first place? And so it went. But this did not take long. He really did come to me when I called, wearing that God awful leather jacket and simmering with anger and secrets and questions.

DS: How much of your personality do you put into your characters? Which character would you say is most like you?

GD: This is a tough question. They are all my dark progeny! Of course the obvious answer is that Sheen is closest to me. A me reinvented and turned inside out perhaps, but I never really saw it that way. To do so risks self consciousness, having my ego conflict with his journey and that would be bad. I think by definition I bring parts of myself to every character, but it is more accurate to say that they become the expression of going beyond the parameters of myself and playing like we used to when we were children. ‘Just pretend,’ we used to say before telling our siblings and friends how we wanted to imagine the game. For me, it is very much the same and when it works it really is child’s play, the characters give me the freedom to go elsewhere. When they’re good, they are better than I could hope to be. When they are horrid, it has nothing to do with me! I just tell their story. 🙂

DS: Which 3 books do you believe everyone must read in their lifetime and why?

GD: Sheen 1, 2 and 3. Haha, not really. I don’t really count myself as well read, it has always been a bit of an insecurity for me, so great question! I’ll dodge this a bit by saying read Dickens, for the love of language and his love of everyday people. Read House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski because it is reality warping, mind blowingly original. Read Dubliners By James Joyce, as a reminder of how so much quality can be distilled into a small volume.

DS: What is your comfort read and why?

GD: I will return to my favourite Stephen King time and again. ‘Salem’s Lot and It especially. There is something about King’s ranging, landscape spanning style that is so accessible, and also so intimate that it feels like a literary warm bath, like telepathy without effort. He also writes about what matters to him and what he loves in a context that is local and parochial. Favourites from my youth and the former has at least one little homage in Sheen book 2, Killing In Your Name. I wonder if you can spot it?

DS: Is there anything in your series that you would change if so why?

GD: I always want it to be better. Better written, better paced and making better use of the past as a context and character. But, I have also learned the importance of being thankful. That I wrote the series at all, that it has been published and that so many readers actually ‘get’ it and want more.

DS: Finally, what is next for Gary Donnelly?

GD: Well, I knocked out a little stand alone during Lockdown 1 which I have just edited and I will be interested to see what may come of it. Very different from Sheen is all I can say. But Sheen is not done yet, I am working on the fourth in the series and I need to crack on and do what’s needed (refer to question 2!). I always have the nets cast though, even as I work on deck. Patience is a virtue, but from experience I know I will see the lines twitch soon. And when they do, I’ll strap into the chair once more, scary as it is, and see what I can land from the deep.

You can buy Never Ask The Dead now. Check out this link https://www.amazon.co.uk/Never-Ask-Dead-Owen-Sheen/dp/0749025476 or from all good bookstores.

Cover for the third book in the series doesn’t it look glorious.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Gary enough for taking the time to answer my questions. I adore the DI Owen Sheen series. Why not buy it now and find out why.