Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Quinn’s Border Blues



I’d never so much as heard of Anthony Quinn when, in 2012, his American publisher sent me an advance copy of his debut novel, Disappeared. But it didn’t take me long to realize that this Northern Irish journalist turned author had something distinctive to offer crime fiction readers. Disappeared--which recounted Inspector Celcius Daly’s search for a vanished Alzheimer’s patient, while it deftly explored that patient’s ties to the long-ago slaying of an alleged political informer and the more recent torture murder of an ex-intelligence agent--earned a place on my list of 2012’s best crime-fiction works, and I later nominated it for a Strand Magazine Critics Award. Brimming with psychologically nuanced characters and the richly textured backdrop of rural Northern Ireland, it was one of those rare books I hadn’t known to request, but was overjoyed to have received.

Fears that Quinn might not have a strong sequel in him are being dashed this month with the release of Border Angels (Mysterious Press/Open Road). In it, we find Daly investigating a fiery roadside accident and a string of footprints--those of a bare-footed woman--that lead through the snow, away from the crash. This sets Quinn’s lonely, dogged, and congenitally honest cop off on the trail of a prostitution ring, and soon leads him deeper into a case involving misused public funds, the illicit trafficking of Eastern European women, and a surprisingly resourceful young Croatian, Lena Novak, who captivates our hero as she strikes back at the criminals who exploited her. Reviewing this book for his blog, At the Scene of the Crime, Patrick Ohl calls the quality of Quinn’s prose “simply superb,” and says that he brings the story’s setting--the “dark, unsettling, hostile world” of the Irish border--“vividly to life.”

Now just over a month shy of his 42nd birthday, Quinn tells me that he lives with his wife of 13 years, Clare, and their four children “on the farm I grew up on, next door to my parents,” in Dungannon, County Tyrone. A graduate of Queen’s University in the Northern Irish capital of Belfast, he once thought to become a Catholic priest, but abandoned that vocation in favor of journalism. He now splits his weeks between working as a reporter-editor for the Tyrone Times newspaper, and taking care of his children (“quite the handful,” he avers).

Last month, I arranged with Quinn’s publisher to interview him via e-mail. I rather deluged him with questions, and he responded both quickly and at length. A portion of our exchange was featured earlier today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. But the larger part of it--covering his childhood, his developing interest in fiction writing, his impressions of the fragile peace on the Emerald Isle, and his interest in his homeland’s sometimes eerie environment--is posted below.

J. Kingston Pierce: You’ve said you learned to read and write early, at age 4. What were you like as a boy? And would anyone have expected then that you’d grow up to be a successful novelist?

Anthony Quinn: I was born an only child, until my twin-sister, Eileen, usurped me about seven minutes later. By the time I was 2, I had four younger siblings (including a further set of twins). In total, I have six brothers and sisters. It was a happy, adventurous childhood. If I wasn’t reading, I was playing and helping on the farm, or building tree-huts in a wild glen nearby.

Socially, however, I was painfully shy, mute almost. My twin sister and I invented our own language as toddlers, and stubbornly refused to abandon it as we grew older. Our younger sister, Rhoda, had to translate for our parents, who found our lingua franca incomprehensible. I remember a speech therapist telling my mother that it was such a lovely thing that my twin sister and I had between us, but she was going to have to put a stop to it. I was annoyed with her because she insisted her word for “tree” was correct and ours wrong. Even then, I knew that language belongs to the user. The way we speak, our vernacular, is something we absorb from our environment, and is an important part of our identity. Growing up isolated on a farm and surrounded by babies, it was only natural that we blended so many baby-words into our vocabulary. Their loss left me with a slightly rebellious attitude towards the English language. After all, it had usurped my first tongue, a language that belonged to my sister and me. It has also influenced my writing style to the extent that when I’m sculpting descriptive passages, I sometimes like to disregard the essential meanings of words for those fortuitous links that occur when a writer knocks phrases and sentences together. A friend of mine pointed out the following passage in Border Angels:
Even though his voice was quiet, he felt his words punch the cold air. He looked away. Branches of sloe berries hung their frozen heads along the hedgerows. The call of a pigeon wobbled from somewhere deep within the thorns.
Surely, you meant “the call of a pigeon warbled,” he suggested. I smiled and disagreed. To my ear, “wobbled” was much more lively and rebellious than plain old correct “warbled.”

JKP: When did you first develop an interest in writing?

AQ: I could read and write before going to school, and have written most days since. I spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood writing poetry, and I shiver at the thought of it ever seeing the light of day. The poems were much too personal and dark, and I never tried to get them published. I was afraid readers would sue me for emotional harassment. My family and friends always knew I would one day become a novelist.

JKP: You engaged in a number of jobs--social work, counseling, organic farming, and more--before you moved into journalism. That surprises me a bit, since you graduated with an English degree from Queen’s University. Unless you’d intended to teach English, journalism would have seemed like a natural option for someone with your education. How many years after college was it that you finally took up the business of news reporting?

AQ: After graduating with an English degree, I dedicated myself to social work, principally in the mental health field. For years, I fought to keep the inner anxieties at bay by immersing myself in the problems of others. I also took up yoga and meditation, practiced them twice a day, and for a while it worked. The birth of our eldest child in 2004 coincided with our return to Northern Ireland and the start of my journalism career at the Tyrone Times. Unfortunately, our first-born was a poor sleeper, which meant that I could no longer rise at the crack of dawn and practice my yoga routine. An important prop was kicked away. Meanwhile, the journalism was helping my writing, the pressure of daily deadlines, the patient arrangement of facts into an acceptable form. It wasn’t long before I took to writing the book that would become Disappeared. In terms of answering my childhood callings, it felt like the final throw of the dice.

JKP: You still work for the weekly Tyrone Times (aka Tyrone Times and Dungannon Gazette) all these years later. What are your responsibilities for that periodical? And has your newspaper faced the same sorts of financial and mission challenges that have plagued so many others in the 21st century?

AQ: The Tyrone Times has faced similar challenges to other newspapers, although our circulation figures are one of the few to have stayed the same over the past seven years. The financial problems stem from rampant capitalism during the boom years, when larger newspaper groups bought up smaller ones at inflated prices, saddling them with a lot of debt. I still work as a reporter and acting editor, three days of the week; the other two, I look after our children. More and more of my work takes place online and through social media. As a journalist, the chance to connect with readers through new platforms can only be a good thing.

JKP: What do you think will be the future for newspapers?

AQ: There’ll always be newspapers, especially community-based newspapers such as the Tyrone Times, just as there will always be a demand for print books.

JKP: At what point in your career did you decide to take up fiction-writing? And what finally pushed you in that direction?

AQ: I could not have started writing Disappeared, a novel that is so deeply immersed in the Troubles, until I was 37, for the personal reasons I’ve outlined, and also for broader political and social reasons.

When I returned to my hometown to work at the Tyrone Times, I expected to be covering stories about agricultural shows, flower arranging, and parish events, with the odd burglary or car accident thrown in, a good starting place for a career in journalism, but one which might not sustain my interest for too long. However, I soon found myself drawn back into the darkest corners of the Troubles. My first big story was an interview with a father still searching for justice over the death of his 9-year old son, who had been killed by a loyalist car bomb more than 30 years before. The murderers had never been found, and to compound the tragedy, clear evidence had emerged that the killers had been protected by British security forces. It made the front page of the newspaper and seemed to open the floodgates to a host of similar stories.

Over the next few years, I found myself interviewing elderly men and women from both sides of the conflict in living rooms that felt like shrines to their lost sons and daughters, murdered by republicans or by loyalists and the shadowy security forces. Their grievances had not diminished in spite of the peace process. Their lips still quivered as they lit candles next to pictures of their loved ones.

What struck me from the outset was the fact that few of these emotive stories were making the headlines in the national or even the local press. They were widely ignored, a taboo subject, censored by a society that did not want to be reminded of its past. Lurking somewhere at the back of people’s minds was the superstitious fear that talking about the Troubles might somehow increase the chances of a return to violence.

Denial and silence might have been good coping strategies during the Troubles, but in peacetime, they struck me as dangerous and destructive. In the newsroom of the local paper, the phone kept ringing with people keen to break their silence, and I kept taking notes and writing up their stories.

One night a man came to my home and handed me a legal file containing British Intelligence information, the core of which were the transcripts of a British Army surveillance operation on a house in the days leading up to the murder of its elderly female occupant by loyalist paramilitaries. As well as a dug-in unit of SAS [Special Air Service] men observing the house, there was a secret camera camouflaged in the hedgerows relaying footage to a nearby police base. The [transcript] passages that had not been redacted made grim reading, right down to the description of the gunfire on the night of the murder and the instruction to soldiers to remain hidden in their positions. The murdered woman’s family claimed that loyalist paramilitaries had colluded with the police and the British Army, and from the evidence in the file, it was hard not to see the justification in their claims. However, in spite of repeated legal hearings, the family had yet to receive any form of justice or be told the truth about what really happened that night.

I could see the anger and hurt that lived on in these families, many of whom felt abandoned by Northern Ireland’s political parties. Their lives had been irredeemably rocked by tragedy. For many victims it is not their own silence that is hardest to bear, but the silence of the entire community.

These were the stories which jolted me into writing Disappeared.

JKP: I understand that you initially tried your hand at short stories, at least two of which were good enough to be short-listed for the New Irish Writing and Hennessy Award. How prolific were you as a short-story author? And did those briefer yarns also involve crime?

AQ: Now that I think of them, they were all about individuals snared by crime, although I didn’t set out to write them as traditional crime stories. I was very prolific in terms of the number I wrote, and then discarded. Only a small number survived the creative destruction that is the editing process.

JKP: Before Disappeared, had you tried producing other novels?

AQ: Apart from a false start a few months earlier, Disappeared was my first attempt at writing a novel. I think the discipline I developed practicing yoga helped carry me through to the end. I was fortunate that [Mysterious Press editor] Otto Penzler happened to read it and selected it for publication. I wrote Border Angels next, completing it in November 2010. At the moment, I’m finishing my fourth novel, an historical thriller, but I’m still very much an apprentice.

JKP: Why did you choose to write fiction in the crime and mystery genre? Had you long been an enthusiastic reader of such books?

AQ: My main obstacle to writing long fiction was the problem of form and structure. I find that the detective novel provides a lovely frame, like an old, much-loved piece of furniture, which one can strip back and upholster with whatever one likes. I’ve always loved reading crime and mystery fiction, right from childhood with Enid Blyton, Frank W. Dixon, Alfred Hitchcock, and Agatha Christie. Then I graduated onto Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.

JKP: What sort of contribution were you hoping to make to the crime-fiction field with Disappeared?

AQ: I wanted to emulate what I admired so much in writers like Conrad and Greene, the intelligent prose, the powerful sense of atmosphere, and the strong narrative drive. Most importantly, I wanted to engage the reader with the politics and change that are going on in Northern Ireland. For me the best crime fiction gives an insight into a particular time or society in a way that history books can’t.

JKP: A principal theme in Disappeared is that Northern Ireland may have officially gotten past its decades of political and religious violence--its “Troubles”--but that doesn’t mean it’s a wholly peaceful place yet. And there are plenty of troublemakers trying, sometimes without success, to make new lives for themselves in a post-Troubles world. In what ways do you see this reality playing out?

AQ: Northern Ireland has changed beyond measure since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but not in the essentials. We have the same political parties, same people, same history. For many ordinary civilians, the new political system has delivered a phony peace in the sense that it is based on ignoring the cruelties and injustices of the last 40 years.

I fervently hope that the current politicians won’t betray the population’s overwhelming desire for peace. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently in as much a state of shutdown as the U.S. Congress, unable to decide on contentious issues such as the flying of Union flags on public buildings and the marching of loyalist bands through Catholic areas. Peace is still holding but in many pockets of Ireland, north and south, it’s a disputed peace, with tensions roiling the calm. Nowadays, riots and protests are organized at lightning speed on the streets of Belfast and Derry through social media and texting. It’s a different form of terror, relying on crowds of disaffected youths, rather than guns and bombs, but just as destructive of civil life with its impromptu roadblocks and stone-throwing mobs.

JKP: These tensions are evident along the border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland?

AQ: The challenge facing Northern Ireland is how do you accommodate former terrorists, political activists, freedom-fighters, and sectarian troublemakers into a settled and easy civilian life? They just don’t disappear into suburbia. The border lands in Border Angels represents the fault line that runs through Northern Irish society, the cracks in the peaceful harmonious new society dreamed up in the Good Friday Agreement. The price we all have to pay is this wasteland where normal values are inverted, where criminals and murderers appear to get away scot-free. Swift political changes have driven former terrorists into power, and to have this as a backdrop adds great dramatic tension and resonance to your writing, especially when you set individuals on a personal struggle between good and bad.

JKP: This new novel has much to do with women being lured from Eastern Europe to Northern Ireland with phony promises, and then enslaved in brothels. How much of that really goes on in your homeland?

AQ: Northern Ireland has more than its share of trafficked women, and the subject has been extensively covered in the news media.

JKP: People-trafficking isn’t exactly a new topic in crime fiction. What do you think Border Angels brings to readers’ understanding of the subject that previous books, such as Stuart Neville’s Stolen Souls, didn’t? What was your goal with this plot?

AQ: Border Angels predates Stolen Souls in the sense that it was finished and submitted to publishers in 2010, a year before Stuart’s book was published. His decision to write about trafficked women was probably the same as mine--a desire to avoid writing about the Troubles by taking on a more international theme, one to which readers in other parts of the world could relate.

My goal was to demonstrate a society in flux, with not only the settling in of the peace process, but also a society adjusting to the arrival of large numbers of migrant workers and new forms of crime such as people-trafficking. As the borders in Europe dissolve, Northern Ireland has seen one brand of social unrest exchanged for another. Families from Eastern Europe have arrived to experience a new wave of discrimination and alienation.

JKP: Inspector Celcius Daly may be the protagonist in Border Angels, but its Lena Novak--a young Croatian spitfire who, after being forced into prostitution, manages to escape her brothel (under highly suspicious circumstances)--who’s the most memorable character in the book. I certainly understand Daly’s attraction to Lena in these pages. He’s a recently divorced man, feeling alone, not all that sociable; and here’s the sexy, surprisingly courageous Lena who seems capable of making him ignore every rule in the book as he endeavors to track her down. For the good of the case, of course. But did you worry at all that Lena might outshine Daly in Border Angels?

AQ: I agree that Lena’s story does take over the book. Her fugitive existence gives the plot its intensity and impetus, leaving Daly stumbling in her wake, as well as her enemies. But if Lena outshines Daly, it’s his own fault, and perhaps the reader’s, too. For parts of the book, she’s little more than a figment of his imagination.

JKP: I must ask whether you’ve given thought to resurrecting Lena in another novel somewhere down the road.

AQ: I’m always writing about the mysterious and unattainable Lena. She appears in all my books in her multiple forms. I am tempted, though, to reprise the specific incarnation that is Lena Novak in another Daly adventure.

JKP: And I won’t give away the ending of this new book, but I will say that elements of it reminded me of the 1942 Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film Casablanca. Was that deliberate?

AQ: I’m flattered by the comparison, but ashamedly I have to confess to never having watched Casablanca, apart from a few odd clips of the movie. Perhaps it’s indelibly written into our collective subconscious and I tapped into it that way, or maybe the film itself springs from a deeper set of tropes, a universal narrative that also influenced Border Angels.

JKP: Your stories benefit tremendously from the environmental details you stitch into them. Daly’s cottage always seems damp, for instance. Other houses are broken down. Dark, gurgling bogs proliferate, while encroaching mists and great phalanxes of horseflies seem to plague the people of Northern Ireland. How deliberately do you shape the reader’s response to your yarns with these evocative, often claustrophobic details?

AQ: I take a guilty pleasure in drawing the reader’s attention to the strangeness of the border landscape, making them shudder at a gruesome-looking blackthorn tree, a rotting cottage, or a treacherous bog. One line of description can condense a host of different feelings. The Irish landscape I know and love has its own geography of moods, an interweave of darkness and light, which I find constantly mesmerizing. I’m not sure if my descriptions bear any resemblance to what is actually out there, or if anyone else notices what I see. Perhaps they are more a reflection of a region of my mind. The settings always come first for me, shaping the characters and plots. At heart, I’m a thwarted poet and my muse is Tyrone, its gurgling bogs, its frozen thickets of thorn trees, its mists swirling in from Lough Neagh.

Lough Neagh is the largest lake in Northern Ireland, and also the biggest in the whole United Kingdom.

JKP: I’m impressed that the people in your tales are not cast in black-and-white. They all seem to have good and bad aspects, and they may lean either way at any given juncture. How conscious are you of making your characters full and credible in this respect?

AQ: It’s an author’s imperative to have interesting characters. After all, I have to spend a lot of time confined with their company. Writing is less a strain, less like a one-man-business when you create lively characters that are capable of doing something unexpected in a crisis.

JKP: Last year, in response to a set of questions posed to you by Irish author-blogger Declan Burke, you said that you were trying to find a publisher for a historical thriller called Blood-Dimmed Tide. This is the way you described its story line: “[Irish poet] W.B. Yeats and his assistant ghost-catcher are summonsed to Sligo by the restless spirit of a girl whose body is mysteriously washed ashore in a coffin from the previous century. They are led on a gripping journey through the ruins of Sligo’s abandoned estates and into its darkest, most haunted corners as the country descends into a bloody war of independence.” Are you still working to sell that novel?

AQ: Yes, it’s still up for grabs, although I’d like to give it a final polish before resubmitting it.

JKP: There seems to have been a great upsurge of crime and mystery fiction from Ireland and Northern Ireland over the last few years. Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Brian McGilloway, Arlene Hunt, Stuart Neville, John Connolly, Jane Casey--all of those authors and more have come to worldwide attention. As have you. What is it about these two countries that have suddenly made them wellsprings of fine criminal yarns?

AQ: I think Irish writers and readers are becoming more comfortable with representations of the violence and moral ambiguities of our past. Writing and reading crime fiction is a form of escape, but it also gives us a deeper insight into the Troubles. Our politicians might lie and dissemble, while historical documents can be subjective and flawed, but at least fiction never pretends to be anything else.

JKP: What books in this genre have you most enjoyed lately?

AQ: Sadly, reading crime fiction is no longer the escape it used to be. In fact, it feels more like work. Consequently, my reading habits have changed, and I now read very little of that genre. To unwind I’m currently reading the Psalms in German. They’re a great antidote to all the darkness conjured up in my crime writing. However, I am looking forward to reading Ken Bruen’s White Trilogy, which I recently downloaded on my Kindle.

JKP: Finally, whenever I tell people I’m reading a new Anthony Quinn novel, they look at me in surprise and say, “Gee, I didn’t even know the actor was still alive.” Maybe this is something that only happens in the United States, though. Are you often confused with Anthony Quinn, the Mexican-American star of such motion pictures as Lawrence of Arabia, Zorba the Greek, and The Guns of Navarone? And have you, as a consequence, watched his movies?

AQ: My parents always told me that I was named after the saint and not the actor. Living in the shadow of either was always going to be difficult. I always enjoy watching Anthony Quinn’s films. My father is a big fan of The Guns of Navarone, my favorite is Zorba the Greek.

(Author photos © 2013 by John Paul Quinn)

1 comment:

Kathy D. said...

What a great interview, fascinating.

As someone who has family roots in Ireland, in fact, in Sligo, this author fascinates me.

I will add his name to the TBR list and look for his books.