Crime writer Brian McGilloway told David Hennessy about being commended at the recent Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Awards and why the proposed Northern Ireland amnesty is a slap in the face to the families of all victims.
“I’m delighted,” Northern Irish author Brian McGilloway told The Irish World of being ‘Highly Commended’ at the recent Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Awards, narrowly missing out to Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End for one of the most prestigious crime writing awards out there..
Honouring Brian was an unprecedented decision as there has never been a ‘highly commended’ in the history of the awards – and was implemented to recognise McGilloway’s exceptional political thriller The Last Crossing.
“I mean it was a really strong shortlist anyway and Chris’ book I loved.
“Certainly, there was no shame in coming second. Even just the fact that for the first time ever, they kind of felt they wanted to have a ‘Highly Commended’ prize as well, I’m just really honoured.”
The Last Crossing becoming so successful must have seemed almost unthinkable when he was having some trouble even getting it published.
“It’s kind of a strange little book and a fairly difficult journey to publication so I’m really chuffed that it has got any recognition at all and I’m very grateful to Theakstons and to the festival organisers.
“I was in it for the award before and didn’t win. This time it’s lovely to be coming away with anything.”
McGilloway will be happy to receive a handmade, engraved beer barrel provided by Theakston Old Peculier for his novel as it will make his daughter very happy.
“The only thing that my daughter wanted from the start, whenever she heard it was part of the prize, was a handmade barrel.
“For some reason, this was the one thing that she really was hoping that I was gonna get and the fact that I have one of those, she’s delighted.
“If she’s happy, I’m happy.”
Brian was one of five Irish writers longlisted for the award but the only one to be shortlisted.
Did he take delight in all the little victories that led up to his commendation? “Absolutely. Especially because this book was difficult to even find a publisher for initially.
“Because of the story, because it’s about Northern Ireland.
“And then when it did come out, it was published at the start of April last year about a fortnight after the lockdown started.
“Book shops were shut so it just vanished to an extent under the weight of all of the other things that were happening.
“So you take your victories where you can find them and you take the good news when you can get it.
“All of these are lovely recognitions for the book and hopefully it shines a light on it a bit more and hopefully helps it to find an audience and find a readership.
“I felt really strongly about the story.
“And I loved writing the book and felt very protective.
“Actually of any of my books, I think it’s the one that I feel most protective of.
“In a way, I’m really pleased as well that it’s rewarding the publishers who took a chance on it.
“I’m hoping that in some way that it repays them for the faith they showed in the book and in me as well.”
Partly inspired by the search for ‘the Disappeared’, The Last Crossing centres on three lives that were forever changed by one terrible incident during the Troubles. The story reunites three Irish characters involved in an execution-style murder in Scotland during the Troubles.
As he says, Brian found publishers to be reticent due to its subject.
“I think there certainly is a reluctance. There’s a reluctance to touch Troubles-based things.
“An awful lot of the other books that I write, although the past is there, the books aren’t set then and the books tend to be straight crime novels.
“This one was very much about Northern Ireland, it was about The Disappeared, it was about why people got involved and the consequences of that and the consequences of violence.
“So I kind of knew even when I was writing it that it would probably be a tricky sale.
“But at the same time, it was a story that was on my head, a story that needed to be told or that I needed to tell.
“So I wrote it and hoped that somebody would kind of take a punt on it.
“I was grateful that it got published at all and that it continued to get a bit of a fair wind, particularly now.
“I’m just so grateful for all of that.”
There has been a recent development in Northern Ireland affairs that is quite relevant to the historical killing subject matter of the book.
The recently proposed amnesty on Northern Ireland killings would absolve any former soldiers or terrorists of their crimes that took place before 1998.
It has been widely condemned by victims’ support groups and all political parties in Northern Ireland.
“When Boris Johnson stood on, ‘Get Brexit done’ and opening up the country last week like, ‘This is Covid over’, you almost get a sense that there’s an impatience about things.
“I was a wee bit shocked whenever I heard the line, ‘This draws a line under The Troubles’.
“I’m sure it was a slap in the face for the families of every victim to be told, ‘Right. This is it. We don’t want to hear anymore’.
“And it was a real shock.
“Obviously, I grew up in Derry. Bloody Sunday marked the city and marked a whole generation that grew up through that.
“I mean it’s kind of unusual for all of the political parties in Northern Ireland to be united about anything but strangely, this has actually united every single party going: ‘This isn’t gonna work. You can’t do this’.
“You can’t stick your fingers in your ears and go, ‘Right, it’s over now because I say so’.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding.
“It’s either a lack of understanding or a lack of care about the intricacies of Northern Ireland.
“The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrew’s Agreement worked so well because they were so acutely aware of the delicate need for compromise.
“While not everybody could have been happy with everything, there was hopefully enough there that everyone was prepared to compromise and experience some pain on the understanding that there would be an overall good for everybody coming out of it.
“You kind of regret the fact that there doesn’t seem to be that same understanding of nuance, or the delicacy maybe that there has been in previous times
“This relates to writing as well. The reason why so many people are writing crime novels from Northern Ireland is there is a need to tell those stories.
“Even the tradition of the Irish wake- The reason that Irish families have a wake is to tell stories, to hear stories, to talk about what happened and that’s part of the recovery.
“That needs to be done.
“Nobody would ever think to say, ‘No, no, we’re drawing a line under this now and this all stops’.
“That’s kind of what it feels like, it feels a bit tone deaf.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to make sure that whatever happens is for the benefit of the families of victims here who have already suffered so much.”
Brian feels it is another example of Westminster not listening to the people of Northern Ireland.
“As soon as the whole debate started, as soon as Brexit was first mentioned people here were the only people with recent experience of living with a land border.
“People here voted very strongly against Brexit and yet that voice was kind of ignored and there’s a real frustration.
“I remember there was a real sense of, ‘No one is listening to what the impact is going to be here’.
“You feel like the people who had the most recent experience of living on a border were totally ignored even in the debate of it. There was such a focus on blue passports, there was no awareness of the impact it was going to have.
“I know you see stories about threatening violence, it has nothing to do with violence at all.
“The Good Friday Agreement works because it gave people an opportunity to not have to take sides and it worked because it recognised if you feel Irish, that’s fine. If you feel British, that’s fine. If you feel neither, that’s fine. If you want to identify as Northern Irish, that’s fine.
“You have a choice over your own identity.
“One of the things that Brexit did instantly was it made people take sides again. You had to decide again: How do you identify? Which side of the border? Which side are you going to pick?
“Forcing people to pick sides never works in Northern Irish politics or in Irish politics. It’s just dangerous and I think a lot of the work that was done with the peace process and people being able to relax a little bit in terms of that idea about identity, a lot of that was undone.”
Brian was not the only Irish author longlisted for the award as five of the eighteen writers given the nod were Irish.
London-based Dublin writer Jane Casey, Belfast author of the Eddie Flynn novels Steve Cavanagh, best selling author Lucy Foley and winner of four Irish book awards Liz Nugent also made the list.
However, Brian was the only one to make the shortlist.
Brian believes this is indicative of an exciting time for Irish crime writing and Northern Irish crime writing in particular.
“We were kind of joking. Steve Cavanagh won the award two years ago and Adrian McKinty won it last year.
“And we were kind of going, ‘Could it be an Irish hat-trick?’
“It wasn’t quite but nearly.
“The amount of crime writing that is coming from here and even on the longlist to see writers who totally deserve the recognition.
“People like Jane Casey, Liz Nugent, just totally lovely people and superb writers.
“It’s a really encouraging time.
“And what’s lovely about the commendation is Steve and Adrian won for books set in America.
“It’s kind of nice that this is set in Northern Ireland. It got that recognition too and hopefully, that will encourage people to read books that are set here.
“And I don’t say that in any way to take away from Adrian and Steve.
“Adrian writes an awful lot of his books set here.
“Hopefully this will encourage people to take a chance on books from Northern Ireland and about Northern Ireland.”
The Last Crossing is out on Little, Brown Book Group, Constable.
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