No stranger to fiction

Having earned his place alongside writers like Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens in the Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 Crime Writers, Northern Ireland’s star crime writer, Colin Bateman, answered Ryan Jennings’ questions.

By his own admission “when your hobby becomes your day job, you’re left without a hobby”. Fortunately Colin Bateman is one of those people who enjoys his day job, which came about almost by accident.

Before becoming internationally known as the author of Divorcing Jack he started out as a cub reporter in the County Down Spectator at the age of 17. “I was very, very shy and had a phobia about using phones, but the editor Annie Roycroft must have seen something in me,” he quips. “It was a great training – you had to write about everything and anything. And as a young punk rocker I was very much into music and was able to write about that and get into gigs for free, so it was great!”

Growing up he wasn’t the joker in the pack so when humour, satire even, started to creep into his work, it got a good reaction: “I always wanted to write fiction, but I don’t think you can whenever you’re 17 – you haven’t any experiences to write about. Besides the usual journalism, I started writing columns and the confidence to try my hand at fiction grew out of that.”

Written in 1992 but not published until three years later, Divorcing Jack was his big break. “I wrote it purely for fun. Most journalists say they have a novel in them, and I’d been promising myself I’d write one for years, but I eventually got to the point where my life wasn’t great and I wasn’t going anywhere, and I just decided ‘now or ever’,” he recollects.

A sense of genuine disbelief generates from the Bangor man on the subject of his big break, partially because Dan Starkey’s first adventure was written over the course of a year, without Bateman really expecting it to be published. “That was backed up by all the literary agents I sent it to over the course of about two years. I more or less gave up on it until my girlfriend got to read it and just told me to send it to the biggest publisher I could think of.

“It went to HarperCollins and by fate or luck someone found it in their huge pile of manuscripts and wanted to buy it. It was the first time they’d found a book like that for years.”

His most well-known protagonist, Dan Starkey, is very close to Bateman, with much of his character’s personality and lines taken directly out of his satirical columns in the Spectator, which are still available, should anyone want to seek them out.

The best thing about fiction for Bateman is that it gives you time to get the words right: “The difference is that in real life when you get in a situation you can never think of a smart line, or you think of it about an hour later when it’s no use. In fiction you can set up the situation, think about it for a couple of hours, and come back with a good line and nobody can tell how much you sweated over it,” he confesses.

Hailing from Bangor, Bateman did not experience the worst of the Troubles, though the security situation certainly did affect him as a writer. “There was very little fiction coming out of Northern Ireland during the Troubles because almost every story inevitably had to have some kind of terrorism background, or if it didn’t, it just looked odd without it. But as things have improved so more traditional crime fiction has begun to blossom here.”

However, as a market for writers, Northern Ireland does have its drawbacks. “Northern Ireland is a very small place – you can’t sell enough books to make a living, while a big market like England has never been particularly interested in anything to do with Northern Ireland, whether it’s news, films or books.

“So getting published is hard enough, and it’s an uphill struggle even after that,” he adds.

Having a journalistic background, he prefers to work through his novels quickly, editing what he writes as he goes, rarely looking at it again afterwards. “When I’m doing a novel I prefer to write it in one stretch, but that’s not always possible. I write TV scripts as well and they can take up a lot of time. I pretty much work normal office hours,” he concedes, bringing an end to the perception of a work-when-you-want regime of a writer.

Since Divorcing Jack, he has written 17 novels and five children’s books, as well as trying his hand at screenplays. The BBC series Murphy’s Law, starring fellow Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt, is now into its third series, although Bateman no longer writes the screenplay, citing writers’ equivalent of “musical differences”.

“Screenplays seem easier [than novel writing] because you can write them quickly, but then you have to re-write them to someone else’s specification anything up to a dozen times, so that’s very time consuming. Doing films or TV is very much a team game so you have to expect to lose a lot of battles.

“The books are different in that they appear pretty much exactly as I write them. The first book came out in 1995 and the first film a couple of years later, so I’ve been doing it for quite a long time. Although I love it, it’s important to freshen things up once in a while, that’s why I started doing the children’s books.”

He also has aspirations, subject the influx of “a couple of million quid (any takers?)”, to make a full-length feature film. His experiences so far have not soured his taste for it. At present, however, TV is high on the agenda.

“I’m currently working on a couple of TV projects, one for the BBC and one for Sky. But you never know, things get to a certain stage and they either get made or they get quietly dropped.”

As a result of being an author and screenwriter he cannot help but look at film and books analytically, whether it is his susceptibility to influence or “being depressed when someone’s really good”.

Consequently in his free time he is “still hauling my old bones around a five-a-side soccer pitch” though last year he suffered a cruciate ligament injury, similar to that which Michael Owen and Paul Gascoigne and Tiger Woods had.

“It’s a real career threatening injury. Fortunately I don’t have a career. At least in footie. I’m back playing now, but I’m on borrowed time. People have suggested I try swimming instead. But you don’t score in swimming!”

His new book, Orpheus Rising, has just made its way onto paperback and already there is another, Mystery Man, scheduled for spring 2009. Work on its sequel, entitled The Day of the Jack Russell, has already begun. It’s true, the man works fast.

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