Monday, September 26, 2011

Landing Glynn: A Chat and a Contest

I very much enjoyed reading Alan Glynn’s 2001 debut novel, the Dagger Award-nominated techno-thriller, The Dark Fields, which was recently adapted by Hollywood as Limitless. So I was pleased when, shortly after returning from this last summer’s Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival, I received a copy in my mail of Glynn’s third novel, Bloodland (recently released in the UK, and due for publication in the States in January 2012). This political conspiracy thriller is a neat follow-up to his last tale of power and corruption, Winterland (2009).

I was so energized after reading Bloodland, that it took me some time to get the story out of my head and pen a review that would do it justice. Here’s an extract from my piece in the e-zine Shots:
Glynn’s narrative has what seem disparate strands, such as a U.S. political dynasty involved in a mining venture in war-torn Congo; an Irish property tycoon, Dave Conway, about to face financial Armageddon; the former Irish Taoiseach [aka prime minister/president], Larry Bolger, mentally “lost and adrift,” following his removal from power vis-à-vis [a] post-economic meltdown; a UN official caught between his sexual needs and … the responsibilities of office; a U.S. security contractor and their (non-accountable) activities; a shallow grave in the Wicklow mountains---and right in the epicenter, and hidden from view, is the involvement of a PR company using “perception management” to misdirect a secret that would have a ripple effect that could destroy the careers and lives of some very powerful figures.

Due to the diverse angles that open Bloodland, there is a general sense of unease in the reader, as the global economic crisis forms the realistic landscape--making this novel read more like non-fiction, akin to Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. Not a difficult feat for former journalist Glynn; but … the remarkable aspect to the task is Glynn’s ability to inject empathy into even the darkest of men (and women) that lurk like chess pieces on this blooded board.

Jimmy Gilroy is torn in his loyalties to his late (and respected) journalist father’s heritage, his growing fondness for Susie Monaghan’s sister, Maria, the allure of ghost-writing … Larry Bolger’s autobiography (a job sent Gilroy’s way by the mysterious PR guru, Phil Sweeney), and a feeling that something is not quite “right” about the accidental helicopter crash that claimed drug-addicted media-diva Susie Monaghan’s life and that of the others that took that [same] fatal flight.

Glynn interweaves the (seemingly) surface banality of today’s media with the high-powered corruption, collusion, and conspiracy that lurk beneath those very headlines manufactured for the masses as a “perceptual construct,” one devised and manipulated by those who have the power to misdirect purposefully.
After submitting that review to Shots, I contacted Angus Cargill, the publishing director at Faber & Faber, who in turn put me in touch with author Glynn. The author and I subsequently talked on the phone about his impressions of Limitless, his life in Dublin, the woes of being a journalist nowadays, the present economic crisis and its affects on Dublin bookstores, and one of my favorite subjects, conspiracy theories.

And stay tuned, because at the end of this interview you’ll be given the chance to win free, signed copies of Glynn novels.

Ali Karim: Did you come from a family of readers?

Alan Glynn: I was the first one in my family to go to university. There were books in the house, books my father bought when he was young and fully intended to read, but unfortunately work and kids got in the way and he never had the time. I cracked the spines on a lot of them in my teens.

AK: Tell us a little about your early years. I read that you attended Trinity College and majored in Literature?

AG: I was a Beano and Dandy [British comic books] man for the longest time and didn’t graduate to proper books until I was 10 or 11. The earliest novels I remember really pile-driving into my consciousness were Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Nothing was the same after reading those. I was never a good student, though--undiagnosed ADD, probably--and have always been a slow reader. I did Eng Lit at Trinity, but as I was the product of an all-boys Catholic school, the first couple of years at university for me were a distracted haze of trying to talk to these amazing creatures called “girls.” I also discovered Thomas Pynchon, who wasn’t on any of the courses on offer, so that was more distraction from the syllabus.

AK: Did you spend time in your youth around the second-hand book shops in Dublin--now, sadly, all gone and replaced by cell phone shops?

AG: Yes, in the ’70s and early ’80s I spent a lot of time haunting Dublin’s second-hand bookshops--Greene’s on Clare Street, Webb’s on the quays, Hannah’s on Nassau Street. It’s a shame they’re gone, but in Dublin things are so bad now that even the Waterstone’s is gone, and sadly Murder Ink in Dawson Street has closed.

AK: I read once that you were a journalist. But I’ve learned since that that’s not fully correct. So what’s the real story?

AG: No, I’ve never been a journalist. The nearest I ever got was proof-reading the monthly schedules for a cable-TV guide in New York. Glamorous, huh? I was also the production editor on another small trade magazine. This has translated into “he worked in magazine publishing in New York,” which has morphed into “he was a journalist.” I’d love to have been an investigative journalist, but I just don’t have the right kind of personality for it.

AK: When did you decide to try your hand at writing fiction? And what do you put down to as the inspiration?

AG: I’ve been a writer in my head since I was a kid. I never trained for anything else and never made any contingency plans. This was always the plan. I actually think it was the feel of a pen in my hand that kicked it off. I remember it as being something that felt right, physically, sitting at a desk with a pen and paper, and then crouching forward and forming words and sentences. I think that any significant book or teacher that came along later provided confirmation for me rather than inspiration.

AK: Had you written much fiction before penning The Dark Fields?

AG: Two novels, at least, plus several attempted plays and about 20 short stories. All unpublished. Just this year one of those stories was finally published in The Strand Magazine, which I was delighted about, but it’s a pretty low strike rate.

AK: Can you tell us how you got your first novel into print?

AG: My agent sent it out, and after half a dozen passes Little, Brown UK picked it up. This was 1999, and I was 39 years old, so having someone buy The Dark Fields--publishing something I’d written and actually paying me for it--was certainly one of the most significant events of my life.

AK: And what was it like to see that same book nominated for a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger Award in 2002?

AG: That was a big thrill, too, a real validation. But almost as soon as I heard it had been nominated I found out that it hadn’t won. I knew very little about the CWA at the time and may not have fully appreciated how cool it was to have been shortlisted.

AK: What did you think of Limitless, the 2011 film based on The Dark Fields?

AG: I loved the movie, and even though the whole process was painfully long it was an entirely positive experience for me. I was shielded from the horrors of Hollywood by Leslie Dixon, who wrote the script and co-produced. The movie is very faithful to the book for about 40 minutes--incredibly so--and then it takes off in its own direction, which is fine. It’s a different riff on the same premise. But believe me, seeing accurate, meticulous re-creations of scenes that you thought up in your head on a big cinema screen is an absolute blast.

AK: Did you have any involvement in the film process? And did you have a chance to meet Robert De Niro, one of the movie’s stars?

AG: I had no direct involvement in the making of Limitless, but I was kept up to speed on every development by Leslie. I didn’t meet De Niro, which is a pity. I was in the room with him, at the premiere, but he proved quite elusive and didn’t go to the party afterwards. I met Bradley Cooper a couple of times, and he was great, very friendly and available. He had also clearly read the book, not just the script, which was gratifying.

AK: Your second novel, Winterland, which puts the Irish boom-bust in clear focus, also shows that you have an eye for a tale from the Grassy Knoll. Do you enjoy investigating conspiracy theories?

AG: Reading about them, or even making them up, rather than investigating them, I’d say. I’m fascinated by conspiracy theories, but also quite ambivalent about them. Did you notice in Winterland that one of the characters, the weed-smoking nephew, was known as “Grassy” Noel. Shameless, I know.

AK: I’ve seen Ireland in the early 1980s when things were economically grim, and then the Celtic Tiger years. So tell me, what is the general mood of the camp in Dublin in these days of austerity?

AG: The mood is angry, but we’re not great at expressing it. I think part of the problem is that we don’t know where to begin. When I was a kid, priests, bank managers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, and politicians were both respected and feared. Now they are held, almost universally, in contempt. The mental and moral landscape has changed so much from my parents’ time that I think we are sort of paralyzed by it. We need to go into collective therapy, but we can’t afford it.

AK: You use the background of the Irish economic meltdown as a theme in your disturbing novel Bloodland, which in some way is a coda to Winterland. Tell us about the context in which you penned this novel.

AG: I wanted to expand on the main theme in Winterland, to sort of globalize it--this idea that most business and politics are just highly evolved forms of criminality. I also had a keen and longstanding interest in the Congo from books such as Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. And while this ended up being only one strand in the story, it was a very important one, because it provided the perfect paradigm.

What’s being perpetrated in the extractive industries in Africa today, by various corporations and governments, is plunder on a global scale. There’s nothing new in this, it’s been going on in one form or another for well over a century, but it has accelerated rapidly in the last 10 or 15 years, and is mind-boggling in its disastrous human consequences. Bloodland is not meant to be polemical, however. What really interests me is the psychology of the people involved in this--people at the highest levels of this new super-evolved form of criminality.

AK: Bloodland boasts a complex plot that unravels like a ball of string. Did you plan heavily before writing, or did you let the muse take you by the hand?

AG: I don’t plan heavily at all, but I do spend months sort of dreaming a book into existence. Then, once I get started, I plan a little bit ahead, until things get fuzzy, work towards that, and then plan a little bit further. It’s like that great E.L. Doctorow quote where he compares writing a novel to driving a car at night--you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Plus, with a novel you get to go back afterwards and re-jig and rearrange and recalibrate.

AK: And of course Bloodland is a gold-mine for those of us who enjoy a good old campfire conspiracy tale. So, do you believe that there are some conspiracy theories out there, that are perhaps not theories?

AG: Sure. But look at the greatest hits of the conspiracy-theory back catalogue--Pearl Harbor, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the moon landings, Princess Diana, 9/11, the New World Order--and you quickly see the problem. Each one on its own is a tantalizing mystery that can easily pull you in and seduce you with unexplained facts and plausible retrofits, but put them all together and you soon feel gorged and slightly ashamed of yourself for having succumbed in the first place. Having said that, I think JFK is a slam dunk and that the collapse of World Trade Center 7 has not been convincingly explained. I also believe that the world banking system is a total racket and that Europe is being shock-doctrined into becoming a centralized superstate.

AK: Are you a fan of the 1970s conspiracy films and novels by James Grady, Richard Condon, etc.? Which such works did you most enjoy?

AG: I have to admit I haven’t actually read Grady and Condon, but the movies were key. Chinatown is the ur-text. Then it’s Klute, The Parallax View, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man. With the scores of Michael Small and David Shire. Pure bliss. More recently, I’ve loved Syriana, Michael Clayton, and Rubicon.

AK: What do you think is the appeal of conspiracy theories?

AG: I think it’s that at some level people believe conspiracies do exist and that every once in a while it is satisfying to see someone pull at the ball of string and unravel one. It’s a form of myth-making that has a basis in a very real collective sense of anxiety. It’s just that with a lot of them, because they remain theories, they depend on a leap of faith, and the danger then is that they become absolutist and fundamentalist--it becomes a worldview that won’t brook contradiction or debate. You’d be amazed--or maybe you wouldn’t--how easy it is to offend a conspiracy theorist. I do believe that consent is manufactured, and that we are manipulated and lied to all the time, but I also believe that stupidity and inefficiency and randomness play a big part in how our world works as well. An awful lot of conspiracy is not so much forward-looking master plan as over-the-shoulder covering-up of careless mistakes.

AK: What have you read recently that excited you?

AG: Peter Temple’s Truth is the best crime thriller I’ve read in years. I also adored Megan Abbott’s Queenpin. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction these days. Partly because of the anxiety of influence and partly because I find myself reading so much research material.

AK: What’s next for Alan Glynn?

AG: I’ve started Graveland, the final part of my loose trilogy. It opens with the CEO of a Wall Street bank getting shot dead while jogging in Central Park. What’s not to like?

* * *

Now that you know a few things about author Alan Glynn, it’s time to sample his fiction. The Rap Sheet is delighted to give away two of his books: a free, signed copy of Bloodland, as well as a free, signed copy of Limitless (aka The Dark Fields). If you’d like to win one of these novels, all you need do is e-mail your name and postal address to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And please write “Alan Glynn Contest” in the subject line. Contest entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, October 3. Winners will be selected at random and their names announced on this page the next day.

There are no geographical restrictions to this contest.

(Photo of Alan Glynn © 2011 John Ryan, with thanks from Faber & Faber UK and Mulholland Books.)

READ MORE:A Conversation with Limitless author Alan Glynn and screenwriter Leslie Dixon” (Mulholland Books).

1 comment:

ABSOLUTELY*KATE said...

It's not a perpetuated conspiracy theory at all ~ ~ This was a damn swell interview. Why, it's pulled me into reading the more of the author from Dublin who could dub a character "Grassy Noel". Even without the arc of Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon would be proud.

I think it's the dreaming and the driving those distances in the dark that enlighten your readers, and always shall.

Thanks Gents!

~ Absolutely*Kate
AT THE BIJOU and ramblin' 'round the shadows of WebTowne

http://at-the-bijou.blogspot.com/