Caimh McDonnell has the right sense of humour in the serious business of crime writing.
A comedy crime book almost seems a contradiction. Certainly done in the wrong way, whatever joke it might hinge around would soon wear thin. But not in the capable and life-observant hands of Caimh McDonnell who is pitch perfect when it comes to delivering the laugh out loud alongside the rather more serious and potentially terminal story of the flight of Paul Mulchrone running from the attentions of a very determined assassin in A Man With One of Those Faces.
If you’re a comedian you’re able to create a story (albeit a short one). This story has to entertain your audience or they walk. I want to explore what the differences are between doing stand-up comedy, writing a comedy script and writing a novel. Talk me through your writing history.
As a child I was always obsessed with comedy. At that time the only TV show they put on with stand-up in it was a show on the BBC late on a Saturday night, which was eventually cancelled due to lack of interest – incredible when you think how much stand-up is on TV now. I can remember videotaping it and not really knowing why. I watched it two or three times because I was fascinated by how it worked. I lived with my ambition to be a stand-up comedian for ages, but didn’t do anything with it. I’ve got a fascination with making people laugh. I’ve been watching Billy Connolly since I was a kid and it just seemed like a magical thing. So I became obsessed with it.
I did a radio-writing course in Ireland because I wanted to do something and that was the only thing available. I entered a radio drama competition and I got into the final and that inspired me to keep going. I then entered a Channel 4 competition which I didn’t win either but I was brought in for a chat with the head of comedy because they thought I had something, which was really encouraging.
It was a little while before your stand-up career got going.
I didn’t want to do stand-up in Dublin, I wanted to go somewhere no one knew me. Even now I don’t like people who know me coming to see me working. I got a six-month placement with my job to go to London, so I started there. On my first gig I got a lot of laughs from a bunch of American students. That’s when I thought “Oh great, I can do this.” In hindsight, they were probably laughing because I was speaking so incredibly fast in an Irish accent they found it amusing. They couldn’t understand what I was saying, because I speak far too fast anyway, and on my first gig when I was hyper nervous I must have been like a fax machine. But bizarrely that kept me going, despite the next four gigs getting gradually worse.
When anyone first starts as a comedian they have to be a bit deluded because when you’re new, you’re invariably pretty terrible. I know I was! Although I do know some people who’ve gone through the circuit faster than anyone else, Rhod Gilbert and Sarah Millican, for example, who were very talented from the get-go. Even then Sarah had done a lot of writing for plays beforehand and Rhod had done other stuff, so they both had a bit of a head start, coupled with an incredible work ethic.
Having good friends also helps. About the sixth gig in I was going to give up, when there was a stand-up gig in Richmond which I remember well, because I had a conversation with myself in the mirror (something I’ve never done before or since). You know the cliché in a TV show that no one does in real life. But I remember saying to myself in the mirror “Right. This gig here. You do this one and then you can give up. But you have to do this one”. So I did that one. Turned out it was a competition which I came second in. But a guy called Gary Delaney was on, who I’d never met before and the two of us bonded over the fact that the guy who’d won had used stolen gags. Gary’s now my closest friend in comedy. We lived together for years until we both got married. To be honest I wouldn’t be in stand-up comedy without him, because he always kept me going.
Why have you never done just stand-up?
I’ve never exclusively done stand-up because I’ve always written for TV. I was able to give up my job in IT when I got a couple of episodes of a kids’ TV sitcom to write and that was massive. I think it is better to have multiple strings to your bow than having all your eggs in one basket where the highs and lows of your career are amplified. If you’re doing several things, then if one thing isn’t going well, there’s always something else to focus on.
Your scriptwriting is based around comedy?
Yes. I wrote some sitcoms that got optioned by production companies but they were never fully commissioned. But I actually wrote a lot of children’s TV. The best writing experience I ever had was writing a cartoon series called ‘Pet Squad’. Each episode was about eleven minutes long. The great thing about doing that is you have so little time in which to tell the entire story so you have to really sharpen your writing. It’s like you’re in the gym for writing. The one thing that I think novelists don’t ever really experience is writing under that kind of pressure. Although it is tricky, it does improve your writing skills.
Novelists can take their time and write a scene as long as they like. If you go over time in TV, they’ll just take something out. You soon learn that when you try and sneak in extra lines by reformatting the page. You always get caught out. You’re told it’s too long and the editors end up cutting out bits you don’t want cut out, because you made it too long. So that type of writing gave me a lot of discipline.
How does the structure of a script work?
I was very lucky and worked with Darrell McQueen, the best children’s TV production company in Britain. They took me in when I was very raw and trained me up, teaching me what you are supposed to do if you write for any sitcom or for a children’s show.
First you pitch an idea and then you write a few paragraphs to explain what happens in that episode, the synopsis. If they like that you can flesh it out a bit more, then you do what’s called ‘beats’ when you say “This happens, then this happens and so on.” You can’t just say you’ll figure it out as you go, because you’ll just be told to go away and finish it before you present the idea again. They’ll say “Tell us now. We’re on a tight schedule.”
Certainly you can change it if you’ve had a better idea, especially when they know you. So once you’ve agreed the beats, then you go and write. When you get used to this way of working it’s great. I ended up being able to write a 24-minute-long children’s sitcom script in a day, once I had my beats. I used to do it so fast I didn’t send it in early just in case the producers thought I hadn’t done it properly. Then I got asked to fix someone else’s script and they needed it fast. I told them I could do it in a day, which is when I confessed I did most of the scripts in that way. After that, I didn’t have to pretend I was doing it slower than I was anymore because they trusted me.
You do learn amazing writing discipline from doing that sort of work. I’m currently doing a masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. The other writers there are great and I’ve learned a lot from them but with my scriptwriting background I have a very different approach to my writing.
I’ve often been asked about the problem of ‘writer’s block’ and to be honest, I do not believe in it. I think it’s something a writer creates in their own head if they aren’t careful. You can get stuck, but how you get through it is simply that you write, because it is a discipline. My scriptwriting taught me that.
So you’re on a masters degree in creative writing. You’re mixing with very literary writers, but you’ve just written a comedy crime novel, which is essentially commercial writing. So how does critiquing work with your different styles of writing?
Generally it works very well. There’s a wide range of people doing different types of writing on it, which is great. My book started as a short story. It strikes me as amazing that people who want to write novels don’t start by writing a load of short stories, because that just seems to me like how you would logically teach yourself the discipline of prose.
A Man With One of Those Faces started life that way. I liked the idea of a man whose life is plagued by constantly being confused with other people. It opened with the main character visiting someone in hospital, but there didn’t seem to be any inciting incident. Then I hit on the idea “What if someone tried to kill whoever he thought he was”. From there, idea after idea just flowed.
I did a few chapters and brought it in to the class and people were really positive about it and that convinced me to throw out my original plan of not writing a novel until sometime next year. I decided that if people enjoyed reading it and I enjoyed writing it, I should just go for it, even if it didn’t go anywhere. I loved doing it.
The greatest thing about writing your first novel is discovering you can. I think novels can be seen as big intimidating beasts. Every time I speak to people now they say “Well done”, because it’s such a big thing. It seems such a long way to go but you just keep working away and before you know it you’re at 40,000 words and nearly half way there.
Do you think a creative writing degree is helpful if people want to write?
I did courses in stand-up when I started. People are always criticising those things because they don’t think you can teach it and they have a point. You can’t teach natural talent, but you can direct people in certain ways. The best thing about these types of courses is that you’re surrounded by other people who have the same ambition as you do, which means you don’t feel like an idiot for having it. The same applies to a creative writing course, because you’re surrounded by people who want to write, so they allow you to think of yourself as a writer.
You’re used to scriptwriting, but you’re also a comedian, which means you take ordinary situations and make something of them. When people are first beginning to write they’re told to write about what they know. So you’re effectively doing this and stretching reality to make something very entertaining. This skill comes out in the situations the characters in A Man With One of Those Faces find themselves in, as well as in the easy flow of natural dialogue. The pace of the book is also frenetic.
Thanks. I guess I’m used to that type of pace with TV scripts, because you can’t hang around when you write for that medium. I suppose that type of pacing comes naturally now. I also like fast-paced things. Chris Brookmyre does it brilliantly in his books.
With regards to the stand-up. I can do short punchy gags for the TV, but I’m at my best when doing stories about little incidences. Stuff that’s enhanced truth where I have taken things that have happened to me and expanded them into a story. But that’s the way my mind has always worked.
Most novelists have that thing. If my wife doesn’t answer the phone when I’m on the way back home, I can spend an hour and a half imagining all the horrible things that could have happen to her. Imagination can be a blessing and a curse.
I think I’ve inherited this from my mother who’s a spectacular worst-case scenario generating machine. It’s like some sort of weird improv game. Give her three objects and a date and time and she’ll come up with all the horrible things that can happen, ending with “That poor person’s dead now”.
The characters start off a extensions of real life, with Paul Mulchrone as a main character, and nurse Bridget Conroy joining him on his adventures. I enjoyed writing Bridget so much the story ended up as a two-hander. Then detective sergeant Bunny McGarry, who was supposed to be a small character, literally turned up and wouldn’t leave. He was just too much fun to write.
I didn’t think of it as a series when I started writing A Man With One of Those Faces, but when I got to the end I realised I enjoyed those characters so much, I couldn’t leave them there. Ideas started spewing out. So I’ve just finished the second book in the series and am working with my editor on that, as well as planning out the third.
As I’ve spent so much time with those characters running round in my head, I have a whole backstory about Bunny that could fill several books on its own.
The third novel was giving me a bit of trouble because I’ve now realised it’s basically two novels. I thought at first it might be half in the past and half in the present. But I’ve realised there’s so much there that they need to be separated.
I think a series stops when you stop thinking about all the stories you need to tell with those people. But at the moment I’ve got plenty to keep me going.
How did you develop your characters?
There was initially another version of the book. As I mentioned, I had the idea of A Man With One of Those Faces, where the main character was constantly being mistaken for someone else. It was an interesting concept, but as I went through the book I realised it kept happening to such an extent you had to have a bit of a suspension of disbelief and it began to feel like a gimmick. Over later drafts, the original idea began to disappear into the background and that made it feel like a much better book.
Paul is partly based on people I know and a little on myself I guess. I knew several really great people who to some extent, have fallen through the cracks of life – for whatever reason. They haven’t found their passion, either in what they want to do or in the people in their lives. This is happening more in modern life I think because we’re socialising in different ways to before and isolation is more of an issue. Paul is really a representation of that.
Bridget’s based on quite a few women I know. She has a feisty side to her that I love and I see a lot of it in the women in my life.
Everyone says they think of the wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleason when they read Bunny. Several reviews have commented on this. He certainly would be fantastic if there was ever a film or a TV show of the book, but Bunny was honestly not based on him. Until the very last draft of the book, Bunny was a very different physical type. The reason I changed it, as well as his second name, was that he was too close to the person who was the true inspiration for the character. I thought the gentleman concerned might not be happy about it once he realised it was him.
I always use pieces of people I know in characters. If the characters are in some way alive to you, I think it is a lot easier to get that across to the reader.
There is an awful lot going on in the book. You’re used to writing TV scripts. How did you prevent this complex plot from becoming just a series of episodes loosely linked together in the form of a novel?
It’s one of those things that a good editor helps you with. My editor Scott Pack has been great, I was really lucky to find him. You do worry about making sure all the elements of a book are tied together. This situation got even trickier in the second book, because it’s far more complicated than the first. There was a point with the second book when I came home to my wife and said “I think I’ve overcomplicated this”.
This is when I had to go and lop bits off it until I got it back under control. Putting everything up on a pinboard and figuring out what you really need was a massive help.
Getting over-complicated can be a big problem in any medium I think. You’ll see that in TV series where the first series is great, then the second series gets horribly convoluted, particularly if they don’t let popular characters die or they keep finding ways to bring them back.
Every writer worries about whether they’re just doing the same tricks again or whether they need to find a fresh way of doing something. Then you worry about whether this works or not. A lot of it is instinct I guess and just hoping it all comes together. I think having compelling characters give you a lot more leeway, because if people like them, then they hang in there with you. If I’ve read books where the characters are a bit cardboard, I just don’t have that emotional connection with them. I think if you care about the characters as a writer that really comes across to your readers.
The interactions between the characters are important.
Yes as long as you have them clear in your head and you stick to what your characters should be doing. You can’t make them do something out of character because that suits your story. Your reader will know they wouldn’t do that. If they do step outside the boundaries of their normal behavior then you must have a very good reason for them doing that.
Even your ‘B’ characters worked well. Jimmy Stewart the senior detective and Norah Stokes, the heavily pregnant and not-to-be-crossed lawyer, were particular favourites of mine.
Thanks. Several people have said that which is lovely to hear. Nora was an interesting character, because she’s having a horrible time with her pregnancy and she’s brutally honest about it. I got feedback from my writing group about her. One guy in the group said that writing about Nora the way I did, making her irritated and fed up with the pregnancy, was misogynistic. The women in the feedback group got really angry with him about it. I guess a woman who is having a hard time with her pregnancy is a subject that is rarely written about. I did get my wife to read the parts of the story with Nora several times, because, as a bloke, I felt very wary about potentially getting it wrong.
I have been asked whether I would do a spin-off novel with Nora and I’d like to, possibly with Jimmy Stewart involved too. A new mother and a retired detective would make an interesting dynamic.
I loved the messages in the dark web chat room that were going backwards and forwards between the assassin and his client. There was so little of it and it was so concise which made it quite sinister. It also means you can see the other side of what’s going on in the storyline.
I nearly cut them at one point, because I wasn’t sure if it worked. Marcus Sakey a great American crime novelist did that in one of his books. Where he had bits from internet chat rooms. I thought it was a great way of showing the world outside of Paul experiences. It was also a little story in itself.
How did you manage to keep feeding the reader information, but not give the plot away?
Knowing when to give the audience information is one of those tricks with writing. There’s nothing worse than giving it too late or too soon, because although you might still enjoy the ride, they’ve figured out what’s going on too soon or else the ending seems to just come out of nowhere. I’m only a newbie really at this but I guess it’s a matter of misdirection, without directly lying to the reader. I had a very good idea of the ending in my head and knew the secret that was being hidden. When you know what the ending is then you find interesting ways of hiding it.
Getting to a good finale is the biggest challenge in any book. Denis Lahane’s Gone Baby Gone is my favourite book ever for its strong ending. Because you get to what you think is the end of the book, but it isn’t. This packs an enormous emotional punch that you don’t see coming and makes perfectly good sense. It was phenomenal and that’s really hard to do.
I know what the ending was going to be for my second book The Day That Never Comes pretty early on. It was just a matter of figuring out how to get there that makes for a satisfying journey without giving too much away.
You have to go with your instincts. I use Scrivener when I’m writing to organise my writing. But for the second book I got a load of cards and used the pinboard. I was worried because it was a complicated plot, but by putting it up on a board I was able to visualize it as a journey.
I found that despite the complicated plot, if I had to put the book down, when I came back to it I didn’t have to backtrack to remind myself what had happened.
Phew – I am so pleased to hear that! When I used to work in London, I had a journey of about 40 minutes, so I used to read on the Tube. If you get a seat you’re doing well, but you might be standing up with a book. In my head, I have my ideal reader as someone who is using the book to fill a commute like that, because we’re all busy people. If they’re giving me their time, I want to make sure I do the best job I can for them. If they find themselves going ‘who is this? What happened here again?’ then I feel like I’ve failed them.
I caused a bit of controversy in my writing class when I said “If you have to read a sentence twice, mark it, so I know. Then I’ll go through and redo that sentence”. This is because I believe that if someone has to read something for the second time they get pulled out of the story. Not everyone agreed with me, which cause quite a bit of friendly debate.
Checking everything flows is also a big thing for me. If you make sure that happens then no one’s getting confused by what’s happening.
How do you get the balance between the comedy and the serious parts of the novel?
Comedic crime has a bad rap when it’s not done well. I think if the joke is the only reason something happens then it looks as if you’re just trying to set up a series of jokes. This really doesn’t work, because fundamentally you really have to care about your characters. So you have to find the line between humour and keeping it real. This is a really tricky thing to do. There was a scene I re-wrote so many times I lost count, then nearly took out. It was a scene where I had to keep asking myself whether I was pushing the joke too far. Everyone has said they loved it, but it’s still the one scene that bothers me.
I try to think about the serious things of real significance that are going to happen in the plot. I’m so used to writing funny things that I don’t really worry about trying to make my writing funny because I kind of feel it will happen.
Scott Pack was brilliant in helping me get the balance right. There was a really good joke in one of the final scenes and Scott made me take it out, because the humour was undercutting the seriousness of the situation.
Because it was my first book and I know how to write comedy, my instinct was always to go with the comedy. Scott was so helpful here because he told me “This is great, but you need to have more confidence in yourself as a writer and not feel like you need to put a joke in.” This made me go in and take out a lot of the jokes. I’ll probably do the same thing in the second book. But I’m more confident now to let my writing be darker.
My hope is that if people like the book they’ll like the characters and they won’t be put off when the reading gets darker. There will be funny bits, but it’s primarily about what happens to the characters. With all the great detective novels, if you care about the main characters, you follow the series.
You have to see the comedy as secondary and you have to have confidence and follow the storyline. Chris Brookmyre is great because he always respects the story and is my favourite author in that genre. His writing may be humorous, but he’s not afraid of it being dark. The Sacred Art of Stealing is my favourite Chris Brookmyre novel.