. . . the stand-up comedian who writes seriously good crime fiction?
No it’s not a joke. And this time it’s not the sublime Mark Billingham. The new funny man on the crime writing block is Caimh McDonnell whose first novel – A Man With One Of Those Faces – is published early next month. It’s so good, I still find it hard to believe he’s not written a book before.
Caimh’s already firmly established on the British comedy circuit as the ‘white-haired Irishman whose name no one can pronounce ’ and I reckon he stands to become equally well known as a crime writer.
I think his work’s original, innovative, intelligent and in places laugh out loud funny. The book deserves to be noticed, but it’s a crowded market out there which is why I’m spreading the word.
I first came across Caimh eight or so years ago during the research for one of my Bev Morriss crime novels. He was on the bill at a comedy night in Birmingham and afterwards I talked to him about his life in stand-up. I doubt either of us had any idea that evening that nearly a decade on, I’d interview him again about his role as a crime writer.
So Caimh, what’s a nice stand-up comedian like you doing working in the murky world of crime fiction?
I think in some ways, it is a natural fit. By the nature of the job as a comedian, you’re working nights and you’re travelling through city centres in the wee small hours. You end up being a night person by necessity so you perhaps see more flashes of the darker side of life than somebody in a regular day job. Besides, you can’t spend as much time staring at the two remaining sandwiches in a motorway services at 2AM without contemplating homicide.
Also, there are rumours Mark Billingham got himself a swimming pool and now half the comedians in the country have started working on their crime novel.
Why choose the crime genre?
In all seriousness, it kind of chose me. A few years ago, I had an idea for a novel that I tried to write and I couldn’t get it to work. I decided that although I’d written a lot of scripts, I didn’t have the prose writing skill set I needed, so I signed up to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Met University. I then decided to spend a year concentrating on short stories. I’m always a bit surprised when I see articles giving people advice on writing their first novel that more authors don’t suggest writing a load of short stories first. You don’t train for a marathon by running a marathon, you start doing 5ks, then 10ks etc.
After writing several other stories, I started working on one about a guy whose job was visiting dementia patients in hospital and pretending to be who they wanted him to be. It was a nice idea but it lacked an inciting incident. I was about to scrap it when I hit on the twist of one of the patients trying to kill whoever they thought he was. This threw up way more questions than could be answered in a short story and A Man with One of Those Faces was born.
How does your ‘night job’ in comedy feed into the writing?
To give you an odd analogy, good NFL quarterbacks are said to have a clock in their heads that tells them when they have to get rid of the ball or else they’ll get crushed by an avalanche of humanity; comedians have something similar. It goes off in your head and tells you that you’ve not said something funny or engaging in a certain period of time and you’d better or you’ll start losing the audience. I think that carries over to writing. Comedians and writers understand you engage your audience or you die.
I think combining humour and crime fiction is notoriously difficult to pull off. I also think you do it exceptionally well. Do you find blending the two difficult to achieve?
Thank you! To be honest, the humour side sort of happens naturally, I don’t over-think it. If you give me a start and an end of a scene the route my mind goes down will be humour-based by default. Where I have to be careful is making sure the funny doesn’t over-ride the plot. I’ve read a lot of crime fiction that contained humour and sometimes where it goes wrong is when the comedy takes control. The plot and the characters are the most important things – you can’t compromise them for a gag. I was lucky enough to get the brilliant Scott Pack as my editor. His big note was to let the darkness be dark. In my final scene for example, during the editing process I removed pretty much all the comedy because, while they worked as jokes in their own right, they were compromising the dramatic integrity of the scene.
I found myself laughing out loud at some of the wonderful lines in the book. Do you laugh as you write them or when you read them back?
I think first and foremost I try and entertain myself because if you’re enjoying it then odds are your reader will too. My wife is my first reader on everything. I have heard her laughing and ran into the room to check which bit it was.
I’m not into spoilers, suffice to say it’s a great story with lots of twists and cliff-hangers; lots of what I call ‘flipping the signposts’ and definitely no spoon-feeding the reader. Tell me, did you work from a detailed outline or write by the seat of your pants!
I’m a mixture of pantser and plotter. With A Man With once I really realised it was a novel, I had the ending in my head fairly early on but I didn’t know how to get there. I also initially intended it to be two main characters going on this journey but then a third one turned up and literally refused to leave.
I’m now becoming more of a plotter. It’s a gradual process, though. I’m a big believer in worrying about just trying to get better bit by bit.
I love the book’s pace and flow – there’s no padding or verbiage – I get the impression you edit with a finely-honed scalpel? Do you edit as you go along or write several drafts?
I typically do what every writing book tells you not to. I start every day’s writing by re-reading and editing the work from the day before. It seems to get my head in the space I need to be in. I then do several drafts – I’ll often give myself the task of cutting 10% from every chapter. If I can’t, that’s fine – what’s important is trying. I’m also really lucky, my wife is a former non-fiction editor and my other first-reader is Clare Campbell-Collins who is a brilliant playwright. Between them, they really kick me into shape so by the time it gets to my editor Scott, there’s less kicking for him to do!
The prose has real rhythm and the dialogue sings off the page – I’m guessing you read your work out loud at the end of each writing session?
I actually don’t. I think because I’m used to delivering things out loud, my internal monologue sort of automatically performs, if that makes sense. Having said that, I do want to read stuff out more. I did a book reading to an audience as part of my Masters and that really helped. I now try and read things aloud when I’m editing so I can feel the rhythm.
I love the characters. How did you come up with such an original bunch of individuals? Do you ‘see’ them in your head/base them on people you know?
Absolutely, my three main characters are Frankenstein’s monsters made out of bits of people I know. I want to care about my main characters and I want the reader to hopefully feel the same about them.
My work and the brilliant Mark Billingham’s are very different in tone, but the one thing they both have in common is that if you’re a really obsessive comedy fan, you can have a fun game of comedy bingo spotting the names of circuit comedians scattered throughout.
I was delighted to learn the leading characters will feature again in your next book. Did you always see A Man With as the start of a series?
Not initially. I started writing the story and then the characters came to life for me and at the end, I just didn’t want to leave them. I’ve also spent a lot of my career developing various sitcom projects, some of which came pretty close to getting made. I’ve been waiting for an awful long time to write a second episode and I’m loving the chance to go back to the same characters again and again.
I’ve nearly finished the follow-up, The Day That Never Comes, and after that, I think there’s going to be a prequel and a third book to complete what I’m provisionally calling The Dublin Trilogy. After that, it is going somewhere that I think is pretty unusual for an on-going crime fiction series but I’m keeping that to myself for the moment.
A Man With . . . is your first crime novel yet you’ve already developed what I think is a really distinctive authorial ‘voice’ – how did you manage that? Again, I’m guessing you read a lot so you know what’s out there and what works and doesn’t work?
I read a fair bit but I also spend an awful lot of time in a car on my own travelling to gigs, so Audible is a big part of my consumption. Then, when I get home it’s late and I’m too full of caffeine to sleep, so I consume an awful lot of TV crime drama. That comes through really clearly in the novel as I made one of my main characters a huge crime fiction geek. That means she often tries to figure out what to do next by referencing things she has seen in ‘fiction’. It’s a fun way of wearing my fandom on my character’s sleeve while at the same time, hopefully giving the whole thing a twist the reader won’t have seen before.
Okay before we wrap this up describe a typical day at the Caimh McDonnell type-face.
My entire day runs on a frankly alarming amount of Diet Pepsi. I wrote A Man with One of Those Faces in the university library but people between the ages of 18 and 22 are way too full of hormones to whisper properly, so I have since moved. Lord knows who has taken over my shushing duties. I’m now part of a co-op office in Manchester, which is ace. I’m always trying to refine my writing process so I’m moving from 2,000 words a day to trying to hit 3,000. It can be a long day but nothing feels better than heading back home after hitting my word count.
And for once, he’s not joking . . .
You can find out more about Caimh’s double life here: http://whitehairedirishman.com/
The book’s out now.