Henry McDonald is Ireland Correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, has written for The Irish News, Evening Press, The Sunday Times, GQ, The Spectator and the Belfast Telegraph and is a journalism lecturer at Dublin Business School. He describes himself as a ‘frustrated novelist.’ He was born and bred and in Belfast.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
From a very early age actually. I remember winning a writing competition at primary school (St.Colman’s Belfast) in the early 1970s about endurance and courage in life. The prize for the winners (there were loads of us in fairness) was a trip to London’s Guildhall where the Belgian cyclist-Tour De France hero Eddie Mercyx was being honoured. There were other sporting celebs there too including boxer Joe Bugner and England’s 1966 World Cup captain Bobby Moore. I think the story was about a blind man who survived a plane crash over the Sahara and had to make his way alone across a relatively feature-less desert.
Did you dream about being a novelist or a journalist first?
Both in a way. My cousin Jack Holland was an inspiration who even when I was only starting Grammar School at the tender age of 11 was already a famous journalist both in Belfast and later New York. Having someone in the family orbit who was a reporter and later a novelist was an inspiration. As fate would have it we both ended up co-authoring a book about the INLA called Deadly Divisions in 1994.
Yet the desire to conjure up stories, fantastical sci-fi worlds, dashing sword-wielding characters from by-gone eras, unusual heroes and villains was there from the get-go. They first made an appearance as toy figures – Airfix soldiers, Action Men, Crusader Knights inside a plastic clipped together castle – on the steps of our staircase which in my imagination I transformed into mountains and fortresses.
What is your writing routine?
There is none regarding the novel. I get bursts of energy and go at it, normally during strange hours of the day. However, I do prefer to get up early and spend a couple of hours attacking the page. On breaks whether it be an Air BnB in Howth or a retreat for writers in the Loire Valley (the latter one of the highlights of 2015) I get a lot of work done. I don’t write in the creative fiction mode every day although I wish I could.
There are a few routines I do like such as Radio 3 or some classical music being on while I write. I find listening to Bach, Schubert and of course Beethoven very stimulating. Ditto for Chopin whom I should have mentioned. I love all kinds of music from early punk to electro-funk but I am not going to get any work done listening to The Ramones or Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Having said that I found listening to music from 1978, 79 and 80, especially David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy was a major help. In fact the “summer of love” back story of my novel in 1978 is structured by tracks from Bowie’s ‘Low’ album. Each song title has a link to key moments in this short, sweet but doomed love affair.
Away on a break I will go out alone walking on a beach or around the countryside before I sit down to write. Water and Earl Grey tea helps too. Booze is the end game. I don’t drink alcohol while I write…it is my reward when I’ve finished for the day!
How difficult is it to balance the life of a journalist with the life of a fiction writer or do they complement each other?
It is extremely difficult in terms of simply finding the time to jump off the 24/7 news merry ground and into the slower tempo you need for creative fiction. In the age of online news the correspondent is under savage pressure to feed the ‘monster’ of digital media constantly around the clock. Yet being in this business for so long has enabled me to transfer some skills from journalism to fiction. The attention to detail, the authenticity of voice, the imperative of different viewpoints, the necessity of clear, lucid prose.
Tell us about June Caldwell and the blog you co-author?
June is the genius behind ‘Shakespeare Couldn’t Email’ blog, technically and even down to the very title. She is a whizz at programming, links, video clips, still photos and the lay-out. June also came up with the name, realising its SEO potential and its ability to catch a Google-wave. She is my partner and is an acclaimed short-story writer whom I am confident is going to write a momentous novel about life in Dublin, family, and history.
A hard-task master, she cajoles me to do more for the blog as my output has dropped off a bit of late. The majority of the blog is reviewing books and films although June also inputs her short stories some of which you can also hear audio versions of on it. In addition she posts up a column I write for the Belfast Telegraph especially if it has any link to popular culture. I think it is important not to be too sniffy about content. Therefore I have reviewed a major wheel of a book about life before and after the collapse of communist East Germany but have also written a critique of the first Captain America movie as well as ‘outing’ myself as a fan of the Radio 4 soap opera ‘The Archers.’
In all these fields June is constantly supportive, gives great advice and is always way head of me in terms of the technology. She is an inspiration in so many ways.
Tell us about your two novels?
The first is with an agent in Belfast and a publisher in London at present. It was resurrected after about four years lying in the drawer having been rejected by 14 other major UK publishers despite in the main getting very favourable receptions. It is called Christopher’s Wrath and is set in modern Berlin, a city I have a long history with. It is a crime thriller, the central character is a former British military intelligence officer now in the Berlin Polizie who is hunting a serial killer who in turn has been hunting down convicted paedophiles. I saw it (see it) as the first of a possible trilogy or series based around this detective whom we first meet in the sauna of his favourite sex swingers club in Stieglitz. He is in fact ‘the swinging detective!’
The other novel is deeply personal, a story from the Troubles and Belfast. It is broken into three periods: the summer of 1978 and the love affair between a young punk and an older Bohemian art student; one day in 1979, specifically the Irish Cup final and the young punk now transformed into a football hooligan and finally, 1987 when the young punk is now a hardened paramilitary about to embark on the assassination of former comrades in a feud.
Provisionally entitled Red Army Factions the novel switches back and forth in time but involves the same core of characters from start to finish. I am 3/4 of the way through and am looking to steal time to finish the first draft. It too is packed with popular culture, Bowie soundtracks, sectarian football chants, juke boxes, pool halls, punk clubs, pubs, subways, bottles of Buckfast, porn, politics and murder.
Tell us about your non-fiction books – did they contribute to your desire to publish fiction?
I have written seven non-fiction books starting from 1993 to date. They are: Irishbatt (the story of Ireland’s blue berets in Lebanon); INLA-Deadly Divisions; UVF-The Endgame; UDA-Inside the heart of Ulster Loyalist Terror; Trimble; Colours-Ireland from Bombs to Boom and Gunsmoke & Mirrors.
Two of those books stand out in terms of influence on the second novel, the one set in Belfast. They are Deadly Divisions because it contains material that provided some of the ideas of the story of how three boyhood friends take different sides when a schismatic terrorist movement violently breaks apart. There are some chapters based on smuggled communications from prison that are linked to real-life illicit prison letters we used in Deadly Divisions.
My book Colours was partly memoir, part social observation about Ireland, north and south. Two of the chapters, ‘Red Army Blues’ and ‘Alternative Ulsters’, are written about that formative period in my life between 1978 to 1981. There is a direct connection between those chapters and the origin of the novel.
If you could have written any book, which would it be and why?
Can I have two because I operate in both the fiction and non-fiction world?
(LadyNicci says yes!)
The non-fiction one would be George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which is a book every journalist around the world should read some time in their career, preferably the earlier the better. It is a wholly honest book, written by a man of the left who as well as abhorring what Franco and his fascist gang were up to in Spain, was also prepared to point out the faults, the lies, the follies of his own side.
In terms of a novel that is a harder one to answer but if I was pushed it would be Robert Harris’ what-if-the-Nazis won novel Fatherland. I always admired Harris when he was political editor of The Observer and later as an erudite and entertaining Sunday Times columnist. His first novel was brilliantly written, rich in the hideous details of a triumphant post war Nazi Reich and perfectly plotted. I am not snooty either about the thriller genre versus literary fiction, I like them both. Fatherland was and is a masterpiece plus he made a fortune out of it… why didn’t I think of it first?!
Do you have a favourite place to write?
Yes, anywhere with a sea view but preferably near a sun spot I can escape into if the writing dries up. Getting out of your home environment is important sometimes. Doing little two or three day breaks can inject some energy back into the writing. But being by the sea would be my first preference.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes and am currently undergoing therapy for it…ha! Well, yes at present I am suffering from a bout of it.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Just focussing on trying to get Red Army Factions finished. Can I say that I belong to a writer group that meets every fortnight in a Dublin hotel. They are a wonderful bunch of eclectic writers (including June of course!) whose encouragement and editing of your work has helped me immensely. Dave, Joanne, Liz, Manus, Ger, Lisa and naturally June – I am constantly indebted to all of you for your help.
What do you like to read?
Because I have a multi-track mind and have been an insomniac for so long I read in parallel. What I mean by that is that while I might be wading into a work of high fiction I will also be reading non-fiction, anything from history to sports biography. So for instance this summer I read the biographies of two very different figures from European history – Hitler’s propaganda chief Josef Goebbels and the Czech dissident playwright and hero of the Velvet Revolution Vaclav Havel. In fact I read Havel’s life story after Goebbels’ biography almost as a cleansing process. I needed Havel to purge myself of the Nazi demon who was penetrating my nightmares.
Speaking of demons at present I am hooked on an audiobook version of William Peter Blatty’s horror classic The Exorcist, which I had forgotten was a superb read and even decades later still has the power to shock, to disturb, to haunt the imagination. At the same time I am half-way through Northern Irish writer Stuart Neville’s thriller Ratlines about the Nazi fugitives who escaped to Ireland, colluded with the IRA and eluded justice.
My favourite living novelists include the Israeli writer Amos Oz and Milan Kundera but I adore Martin Amis. Returning to that Nazi theme again (sorry), I think his take on the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest, is among the best books Amis has ever written. Naturally, it got a glowing review on ‘Shakespeare Couldn’t Email.’
Pic Source: IrishWritersCentre.ie
LadyNicci comment: I know Henry from a previous life when I worked in politics and would have been on the receiving end of some of those journalism calls, so it’s interesting to get behind the journalist and see what makes the novelist tick. What a number of influences he cites; from music to write to and soundtrack his work, the troubles in Northern Ireland and their influence on his fiction and non-fiction work, the toys he played with as a child and made up stories about, and the authors he reads, who are masters of the genre he is mastering himself. When someone asks, where do you get your ideas from, it’s clear there can be no one answer. The only answer is – everywhere. From your life, from your passions, from the things you are drawn to as a child and that never leave you. Recently in a Facebook group, we discussed the phenomenon of the frustrated journalist – the writer that makes a living from news writing but whose deep desire is to be a novelist. I don’t think that’s the case here , novel writing is simply another facet to Henry’s creative mind. I love that he admits to writer’s block too. Hopefully he’ll move past the current bout and get to the seaside soon.
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