An Interview with Ken Bruen
(Couresy of Craig McDonald at
Youíre a teacher, for Christís sake, taking a drink
in a pub in Rio de Janeiro.
It's 1979: Youíre over there to teach presumably
grateful Brazilians to speak English.
A fight breaks out.
You and every other European in the joint are
rounded up and jailed.
Bad enough, but your captors are sadistic
They shove your head into buckets of excrement and
You slide into a self-described state of
Your captors hold onto you for several months.
Half-a-year later you emerge from the Brazilian
jail, dangerously skinny and vaguely suicidal. Upon
reflection, you decide not to take yourself out ó
why let them win? (Your fellow European inmates
seemingly lack your determination for survival and
soon die or go missing.)
Where do you go from there?
If youíre Irish author Ken Bruen, you immerse
yourself in philosophical researches and cool down
with American crime novels ó the classics and the
best of the new cropÖCrumley, Pelecanos, Lehane,
Mosley, Ellroy and Daniel Woodrell. After penning
several mainstream novels that garnered good
reviews, but not enough readers, you try your hand
at your own crime novel and catch a wave, eventually
emerging as the undisputed King (and probably
creator) of "Irish noir."
Youíre a stylist ó terse and staccato as Ellroy but
more sardonic. (Your readers know theyíre in good
hands in your first novel, Rilke on Black,
when a character observes "Money canít be everything
if God gave it to Madonna and Julio Iglesias.")
You put all of yourself into your novels ó books
populated by literate lowlifes and studded with
stray lyrics and epigraphs pulled from other crime
novels, poems, philosophers and songwriters spanning
Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson and Tom Waits.
At this writing, Bruenís body of work includes
several standalone crime novels, and two ongoing
series: one about a crew of London police officers
(The so-called White Trilogy, which has gone
well beyond three novels) and his books about Jack
Taylor, an alcoholic, substance-abusing ex-Irish
Guard turned P.I. The first of the Taylor novels,
The Guards, was Bruenís breakthrough novel ó the
first of his crime novels to be published in the
U.S. and Australia.
Interviewer C.M. McDonald spoke with Ken Bruen in
early June, 2003 when Bruen stopped in New York on
his way home to Ireland from an Australian
Bruen: Let me
just say this Craig: Thereís no holds barred. Whatever
you want to ask me as regards my life or anything ó
there arenít any no-go areas, okay? It just makes it
McDonald: I appreciate that very much.
McDonald: Well, certainly some of the
moreÖunpleasant aspects of your life have been out
there quite a bit.
Bruen: Yeah. When I got to Australia, I decided
I would kind of go for broke. You see, my mother died
at Christmas, and as long as she was alive, I was a
little bit sensitive around certain areas in my life
because it kind of hurt her to hear things. But she
died at ChristmasÖand it means I can just speak freely
and not have to worry about her getting hurt by
anything I say.
McDonald: You have a degree in metaphysics. I
wondered if your decision to pursue that degree was
directly related to your imprisonment in Rio di
Bruen: Definitely. Because of what happened in
South America, I became absolutely obsessed with the
nature of evil. I looked around for some kind of
discipline that would kind of focus me away from the
darkness that I had been in and that also might help
to explain evil. I believe evil existsÖletís put it
that way. Itís not because of background. I mean, I
know people with horrendous backgrounds and theyíre
great people. So, I donít think itís, "Oh, gee, he had
a really bad upbringing and thatís the reason heís
evil." Some people just are. Theyíre like a force of
McDonald: You also instructed English language. Did
you use any fiction in your curriculum?
Bruen: Yeah. I tried all sorts of different authors
when I was teaching. Oddly enough, the author that
worked right across the board: Graham Greene. They
just adored him. Particularly in Japan. I think the
hardest teaching I ever did was in Japan, because you
walk into the classroom and the first thing they do is
give you a round of applause, and you think, "Good
Lord, I havenít done anything yet. Itís going to be
hard to top that." Of course, they have this thing
about losing face, so youíd say to the students, "Do
you understand that?" So as to make you not look bad,
theyíd say yes they do, but they donít. And then you
have to be very careful that you donít make one
student look bad in front of another for fear theyíll
go home and commit hara-kiri, so it was very strange
teaching them. Iím a kind of expert in it ó give me
six weeks with any nationality and Iíll have them up
and runningÖtheyíll be able to talk and converse. But
the Japanese, no, it was my one failure. They said an
amazing thing to me when I first went there. Talk
about a crazy thing. Iím Irish, right? The boss
brought me in the first day and he said, "Now, Mr. Bruen, we have a system in Japan where once a week we
like to go out and drink an awful lot of whiskey." He
said, "We call it letting the demons out." He said,
"Would you be able to come along one night maybe?" I
thought, "Boy, are you kidding? I have a lot of demons
to get rid of." The only trouble was I intended to go
out every night and I had a lot of demons to get rid
McDonald: So Graham Greene was the guy your various
students could relate to?
Bruen: That was true whether I was teaching military
English in Kuwait ó which became a terrible joke,
because shortly after I left Kuwait, the Iraqis came
rolling down the road. People said to me, "You didnít
teach the guys very good with the military English:
they didnít put up much of a fight!" The way you teach
military English is they give you a weapons catalogue
the night before, you go through it, and then the next
day you go in there and explain all the different
parts of it. It was just such a weird gig.
McDonald: You were literally teaching them the names
Bruen: Yeah, yeah, and some very lethal firepower. I
couldnít believe it. Then we had to go through the
stage where their higher brass actually brought in the
weapons. I remember standing there thinking, "Iím
Irish and look at this array of weaponry that certain
parties in Ireland would pay fortunes for."
McDonald: Those would be the northern quadrants of
Bruen: If they only knew what I was handling here, and
I thought, "Good Lord, Iím just a teacher." Iíve been
a writer about seven years, fulltime, which is an
unusual thing. Not even two percent of the millions of
writers who are out there can manage to write
fulltime. Most of them have to do something else, like
teach, or wait on tables or whatever it is. About
seven years ago, my wife said to me, "Ken," she said
"you donít have to teach anymore if you donít want
to." She does the books and I said, "Youíre kidding."
She said, "No, Iíve been checking out tax and all the
rest of it" and she said, "weíre in great shape
financially. You could just write fulltime" and it was
just such a liberation. Wow! It was just incredible.
That was before things really began to happen. I sort
of had a cult following ó the books sold very well in
Britain and were selling in Europe, but not in any
spectacular way. By no means was I a well-known
author, or anything. Itís only been in the last year
or two years that major things have happened.
McDonald: Every crime fiction author Iíve talked to
has been able to identify a particular book or a
particular author they were reading and suddenly just
realized, "You know, I think I could have written that
book." Is there a particular author or book you had
that experience with?
Bruen: I kind of had it with four, really. When I was
a teenager, because Iím Irish, I was supposed to be
reading Joyce and Yeats and all the rest of it. But I
had done all of that in school and I felt the heavy
tradition of them weighing on me. Then, by chance, I
encountered the American hardboiled school. I started
reading Jim Thompson and Chandler and Hammett and
James M. Cain. The four of them ó it was like an
explosion went off in my head. I couldnít believe this
dialogue. In England they always call me a novelist
"from the streets" and "of the streets." There was a
big campaign a couple of years ago to have the likes
of us suppressed because we were regarded as
destroying classic English crime fiction. They were
going to ban The Hackman Blues. I was hoping they
would, because for an Irish author to be banned is the
McDonald: Sure, just like Joyce. All that notoriety.
Bruen: Yeah! Iíd finally be on the list of banned
books. It meant Iíd be really famous. At the last
second they decided not to ban the book. They said,
"It would give him too much attention." I was so
disappointed. I kept saying, "No, no ban the book, I
want you to." But they wouldnít do it.
McDonald: You were reading crime fiction as a
teenager, but your first several books were not genre
McDonald: Theyíre almost impossible to findÖI
havenít found one yet.
Bruen: Hereís a nice thing: A friend of mine
said, "Go to this particular Web site on the Internet
so I did.í My very first book, which was called
Funeral, was about a boy who attends funerals like
other kids attend football matches or football games.
A very dark, strange novel. He knew all the best
funerals to go to and where youíd meet the best girls
and where you got the best food. It got great reviews,
but it sunk without a trace. It was a small American
outfit. Anyway, my friend told me the book was
changing hands (on the Internet) for $150. I thought,
"Oh, Iíll get out the thousand copies I have in the
warehouse and slowly filter them onto the market."
McDonald: Well there you go.
Bruen: Yeah. The second was called Shades of
McDonald: And then Martyrs.
Bruen: Yeah, Martyrs came after that.
With Shades of Grace, I had a terrific friend
at the time who was a social worker. Heíd been telling
me all these horrendous stories about social work and
all the rest of it. I said to him, "Can I use some of
this material?" He said, "Feel free Ken. Whatever I
tell you, you can use it." I did remind him of the old
clichť that "a writerís duty is to betray." I wrote
this scathing book, a black comedy about a social
worker. Craig, this is the absolute truth: He has
never spoken to me since.
Bruen: Yeah. He said, "I didnít mean you to
tell those kinds of stories." The third one is
Martyrs, which has actually just been re-bought by
an academic press of all people. Theyíre going to
bring it out with the French publisher, Gallimard.
They have a terrific guy, a managing director, called
Patrick Raynal. He hung out with people like James
Crumley and (Walter) Mosley. He knows them all. Great
guy. He did four months in prison during the Paris
riots, and, because I had done four months we just
kind of bonded straight away. He said to me he had
never ever in his life ó and he had met hundreds of
authors ó but he had never met an author who had four
books sitting on a shelf that he had never shown to a
publisher. I said, "Yeah, I have four." He said, "How?
Why would you just sit on them?" And I said, "Well, I
just felt the time wasnít right." He said, "Listen,
show them to somebody." So I showed them to this
academic press and itís all about the 1980s in London
and paranoia and how all these whiz kids suddenly went
down the toilet. He going to bring out the four books
together. He went over to Paris to meet with Patrick
Raynal who said, "Listen, if itís four new books by
Ken Bruen I donít even need to see them, Iíll just buy
them." Itís terrific.
McDonald: I hope theyíre going to come out in
Bruen: Theyíll come out in English first. Iíll
make sure you get copies.
McDonald: Your books ó your crime novels,
particularly ó are studded with epigraphs and chapter
headings that youíre drawing from pop music, crime
McDonald: They seem uncannily apt in almost all
cases for the material theyíre setting up. Do you have
a journal or a log of these?
Bruen: I keep notes all the time. I always
carry a notebook with me. In New York now, Iím with
Daniel Buckman, who's about to be The Next Big Thing.
He has a terrific novel coming out from Picador in
October. Heís an ex-paratrooper. He and I started
corresponding about two years ago through a mutual
friend. He sent me his novel Water in Darkness
and, ahh, this guy is like the new Robert Stone
crossed with Michael Herr. I just couldnít believe
heís so good. Watch out for him, heís going to be
huge. But, anyway, we kept saying we have to hook up
(heís from Chicago), so when I told him I was coming
to New York, he said, "Iíll come up and see you." So
the night I arrived, weíre staying at the same hotel
and it was terrific. We just kind of straight away
went straight into talk about books and the whole
shebang. Great. He said to me, "You just came off a
30-hour flight and the first thing you do is you start
taking notes!" I said, "I just heard so many things on
the plane that triggered me." Iíll hear a piece of
music, say, and old song from the í70s or something,
and Iíll think, "I know exactly the character thatís
going to love this music." Then, later on when I come
back to look at the notes, Iíll think, "Yeah, it is
the right music for the right guy."
Now, I have a very strange method of writing which I
better tell you about. My daughter says, "Aw, Dadís
gone mad again!" I get up at 7 every morning and I
write for two hours. Back home nobody calls me, nobody
comes near me, no one goes into the study. They think,
"Thatís his time." I really do think if youíre going
to be serious writer not only do you have to write
every day, but you have to have a time.
McDonald: A structured time?
Bruen: Yeah, and you do it every day,
regardless. I get all sorts of arguments from people
about it. I say, "This time, next year, Iíll have 20
books, in print, out there and thatís the proof to
me." Anyway, thatís what I do then the rest of the day
I go about looking after my daughter and doing
whatever daily work or routine. Then at the end of the
day, when sheís in bed, I go upstairs, close the door
and I take out my portable tape recorder and I do all
of the accents into it. Iím a failed actor. I get my
kicks that way. If the accents donít work in my head
when I play them back on the tape recorder, I bin it.
McDonald: Thatís interesting. I spoke with
Walter Mosley about a year ago and he was telling me
the same thing.
Bruen: Youíre kidding, really?
McDonald: Yeah, he reads the dialogue and
narrative into a tape recorder.
Bruen: Wow, Iíve never heard of anyone else
doing it. I thought it just meant that I was just that
little bit more out there. Someone said to me
recently, with two different series going ó the
southeast London cops from Hell series ó
McDonald: The White TrilogyÖ.
Bruen: ó yeah, number six comes out in
September (2003) and Iím writing The Guards
(number four Iíve just finished and Iím about to write
number five). They said, "How do you keep all those
characters in your head?" And the strange thing is, as
soon as I sit down to write, they start to talk to me,
literally. I can hear them ó all the different voices.
Then, when 9 oíclock comes, when I stop, they stop
talking to me. For the rest of the day itís whatever
action, or plot, or character developments, but
theyíre not actually talking in my head. But then, at
the end of the day, when I start to do the voices,
they start talking again. Itís the strangest process.
I tried explaining it to a psychiatrist and he said,
"You need serious treatmentÖitís just as well youíre a
McDonald: Losing it could disrupt your
Bruen: My wife says, "God forbid, Ken ever gets
McDonald: Sadly, I tend to subscribe the notion
that great artists have to be miserable to do great
Bruen: Yes, and we Irish we kind of do
melancholy well, you know. When you have that much bad
weather, you have something to be melancholy about.
McDonald: You conceived the Jack Taylor story
(which begins with The Guards) as five novels.
McDonald: Will you go beyond that?
Bruen: Definitely. There is a young police
woman that he has a kind of a running battle with. She
sometimes helps him and sometimes hinders him. They
have a love/hate relationship. Without revealing too
much ó as the series progresses, hopefully the
characters do ó it turns out sheís gay. Now, when I
started to write about her I didnít know about that. I
love what Elmore Leonard says. He said heís halfway
through a book before he has any idea what the
characters are going to do or be like. It took me
three books before I realized that's what her big
problem is ó that sheís gay. Itís very difficult to be
a woman Guard in Ireland, anyway, but to be a gay
female Guard is incredible. I do know quite a few
Guards. In one of the books, I just invented this
thing that you can always tell an Irish policewoman by
the little pearl earrings they wear. Now, it doesnít
mean that if you wear little pearl earrings that
youíre an Irish Guard, but Irish Guard females do wear
them. She told me afterwards, "You know, since the
book came out, Iíve noticed a lot of my colleagues
wearing little pearl earrings."
Bruen: Isnít that a strange thing? And, hereís
something else that a writer dreams about: that
something youíve invented will go into common usage,
as it were. Now, when I started writing A White
Arrest, I just made up the term ó "a white arrest"
meaning the big one that covers all past sins and
literally whitewashes all the mistakes youíve made.
Now, I see it in the newspapers.
McDonald: Itís entered the vernacular?
Bruen: Yeah, and itís just such a great thing.
Someone told me recently, "No, no, actually itís a
real term" and you just kind of laugh to yourself.
When I was doing the book, I wrote to Scotland Yard,
and I thought well, Iíd give it a shot anyway, despite
the fact Iím Irish and they wonít be too keen to hear
from an Irish person. I put down all of my
qualifications ó I have, like, three degrees and a
diploma in art and a Ph.D. and I put all that down to
impress them, so they would think that I was not
McDonald: Right, a solid citizen.
Bruen: And I said, "Iím proposing to write a
series on the London Metropolitan Police, and any help
you could give me as regards ranks and uniforms and
scales of pay would be a great help so that Iíll have
it right." They wrote me back this letter saying,
"Dear Mr. Bruen, we will not now, nor will we ever in
the future lend you any help, support or information
in any way. Yours, unsincerely, Scotland Yard." I was
going to put it at the front of the book, but the
publisher wouldnít do it. What a shame, yeah?
McDonald: A terrible shame.
Bruen: Let me tell you about the best review I
ever had. Galway now is such a cosmopolitan city. We
have so many different nationalities living there.
This friend of mine, Matthew, is a New Yorker and he
runs a bookshop in Galway. His brother-in-law rides
with the Hellís Angels in California. He used to send
them the crime novels. I didnít even know Hellís
Angels read books, but seemingly, they read crime
novels. He sent them The Guards and The
Killing of the Tinkers and two of The White
Trilogy. They adored it. The books were passed
íround among all of the gang. They E-mailed him back
with this blurb saying, "Read Ken Bruen or die,
mother-f*****." When I told Ben (Kenís U.S. editor),
he said we couldnít possibly use it or heíd have Sonny
Barger come looking for him. Which he probably would.
McDonald: Well, if Iím ever menaced by The
Hells Angels, Iíll know how to mollify them ó just
share my love for Ken Bruenís books.
Bruen: Remember the great book that Hunter S.
did on them?
McDonald: Hunter S. Thompson? SureÖ.He nearly
got beaten to death by them.
Bruen: Yeah, they nearly killed him at the end
of the book. I read his new one on the plane back,
and, boy, thereís some crazy stuff in there. Heís
definitely out there.
McDonald: I just got my copy of the third Jack
Taylor from Amazon.uk ó The Magdalen Martyrs ó
and loved it.
Bruen: Ah, thanks. But the Irish Tourist Board
are definitely going to ask me to leave the country,
though, because they keep saying I write about these
things they want to forget. The fourth one, The
Dramatist, which I just finished now ó are you
familiar with John Millington Synge and The Playboy
of the Western World?
McDonald: Actually, very much so.
Bruen: Heís very neglected in Ireland, and I
thought it was time somebody put him in a crime novel.
And, by one of those strange coincidences, itís his
commemorative year, next year, when the book comes
out. Somebody said, "Boy, you really planned that
well." Itís pure coincidence. I canít convince them
now that I didnít know, but, truly, Craig, I didnít
know. Itís pure accident. But, by the time it comes
out, Iíll say I did know. What the hell?
McDonald: In The Guards, Taylor is
dealing primarily with alcohol abuse. In The
Killing of the Tinkers, he has expanded his
repertoire to cocaine and in the third book it is
pills. Whatís Jackís next jones? I canít figure out
which addictions might be left.
Bruen: In Australia, there was a Q&A with
journalists, and one of them said, "Your books are
putting me off alcohol." I said, "Boy, what a thing to
say." When I die, theyíll say, "He put people off
drinking." What a terrible epitaph for an Irishman.
Guinness will never talk to me again.
McDonald: Youíre burning every bridge you can.
Bruen: Exactly. Four years ago, I was home, and
I got a call from the Australian police saying they
had found a body in the Outback and the only
identification on the body was three book reviews of
mine. I said, "Could you describe the body?" It was my
older brother who had died a homeless, vagrant
alcoholic in the Outback. So, people say, "Do you know
of what you write?" And I tell them, "Believe you me,
I do." This was a guy who had huge success. Owned four
houses and all the rest of it. Then, gradually,
alcoholism took over and he died of cirrhosis of the
liver. He was only 52. Getting his body home through
the bureau of foreign affairs, it had to be a sealed
casket. My mother was still alive at the time and we
just had to lie to her and say he died really
peacefully from a heart attack. We couldnít possibly
tell her. But, in Ireland, there isnít a family that
hasnít been touched in some way or another by
alcoholism. So, one of the things I set out
deliberately to do in the books, then and now, was I
wanted to take the glamour out of booze. In Ireland,
itís a hugely social thing. Everything revolves around
the pub. We have this whole culture of "Alcohol is
wonderful." I mean, I take a beer myself, and I love
it and I think beer and having a night out is
terrific, but there is the darker side ó alcoholism.
Itís destroyed so much of our country and people donít
want to hear about that. I figure, at least, people
can never accuse me of glamorizing alcohol. As I say,
thatís going to be my epitaph: "He put people off
drink ó what a thing for an Irishman."
McDonald: A temperance crime novelist?
Bruen: Matt Scudder, in reverse.
McDonald: You had success in the U.K., but
The Guards has been the book that has really
expanded your readership in other countries ó the
first of your crime novels to be published in the U.S.
and Australia, among others.
Bruen: What they call, "the breakthrough book,"
McDonald: Why this book?
Bruen: I had always intended to write an Irish
crime novel, but the time wasnít right. I returned
home to Ireland and I bought a house. We were then
experiencing what ó I donít know if youíre familiar
with the term ó was called "The Celtic Tiger."
McDonald: Absolutely ó the big Irish software
Bruen: We went from a nation that went to Mass
every Sunday, to Microsoft, without any preparation.
We became rich overnight and we just had no idea how
to handle it. People who were grubbing around for a
couple of bobs suddenly were rich. The country was
totally confused. Because we were suddenly a rich
country, we got this huge influx of people from all
over the world. Because of all these people who were
afraid of all these people coming in, Iím horrified to
say we have things like the rise of National Socialism
and bigotry. You see signs on the wall like "All
non-Irish Out!" and "Burn out immigrants!" Itís
terrific territory for a crime novelist. So, seven
years ago, I thought now, at last. An Irish novelist
once said "There can never be an Irish crime novel
because there are no mean streets in Ireland." Well,
Iíll tell you, let íem go home and have a look now.
Galway has crack cocaine, and when you have crack
cocaine, you get mean streets. A huge heroin problem.
And a massive suicide rate among 12 and 13-year-old
girls which the newspapers ó it was so bad, they had
to stop reporting it, because they thought itís
encouraging other young girls to do it. Itís an
amazing territory for a novelist; itís horrendous for
the country. We still havenít got a handle on it. Now
the Celtic Tiger has died and weíre in recession, yet
we have this huge population of what they call
politely "non-Nationals." I walk down the streets of
my hometown, which was a village when I was a child,
and itís black faces, yellow faces itís so
cosmopolitan, which I think, is a great thing for the
country. I think itís really time we opened up to the
world. Also, if the Irish ever operate a closed-door
policy ó which theyíre talking about doing ó that
would be some irony, because the whole world let us in
for 500 years. The one time that we get a chance and
we shut out the world, itís just one of those terrible
McDonald: I recently spoke with Irish novelist
ó I donít know if you know Eoin Colfer, who writes the
Artemis Fowl novels for young adults ó heís a huge fan
of yours, by the way.
Bruen: Oh, thank God I like him.
McDonald: Colfer touched on some of these
issues too. It sounds as though Ireland is standing at
a very pivotal moment in its history.
Bruen: Yeah, for years and years the Irish
literary establishment would say things like, "We
canít understand Ken Bruen ó he seems to be educated,
he could be a professor at a university, heís a
teacher. When you meet him he has manners (which I
thought was a nice touch). Why on earth is he writing
this stuff? This crime fiction?" Because, they really
believed it was the poor relation of
best-kept-in-the-closet. But now there is a huge
amount of Irish kids writing Irish crime fiction and
suddenly itís become almost respectable. I knew the
tide had turned when finally the Irish Times
rang me and said, "Ken, how are you?" I said, "After
twenty years of you not calling me Iím doing fairly
good, thank you very much." They said, "Oh, donít be
like that. Weíd love to do an interview." They did a
two-page spread, which is like, a huge deal in
Ireland. So, crime has arrived. Unfortunately, my wife
says things like, "I wish they wouldnít call you the
Godfather of Irish crime" because it makes her sound
McDonald: Hemingway famously balked at the
notion that he should be expected to "give guided
tours through the country" of his work. That said, you
have some vanishing or imagined priests in your novels
ó your first crime novel, and The Magdalen Martyrs
come to mind. Father Malachy also looms large in the
Taylor books. In light of your metaphysical studies,
how would you characterize your relationship with the
Bruen: This is a great story. As a child I
never spoke. I didnít speak until I was 7 years of
age, which is a real crime for an Irish child because
everybody talks. In our family, I had two brothers and
a sister, and, of course, my mum and dad. And they
never shut it, morning, noon and night. And I never
spoke. They used to say things like, "If we had money,
we get him assist. Thereís something seriously wrong
with him." All I did was read books. In our family
there was no tradition of books, never any books in
the house. I was talking to (my editor) Ben (Sevier)
about it. He comes from a background of books. I was
saying, "Wow, that must be just amazing to have books
in the house when youíre a child. Then, what was
worse, I wanted to study English. I had an opportunity
to go to Trinity. Back then, Catholics werenít allowed
in. Can you believe that? You had to go to the
Archbishop of Dublin, who was not a nice man, and ask
him. I went and I asked him and he said, "No you
canít. It would be a very bad influence for you." So I
went anyway. I think I was excommunicated and I donít
think they ever let me back in. Someone said to me,
"So, you donít believe in anything?" Well, I have a
great belief in spirituality. Someone said to me,
"Whatís the difference between spirituality and
religion?" I like the definition that religion is for
people who are afraid of going to hell and
spirituality is for those who have been there.
McDonald: Thatís a good line.
Bruen: Isnít it a good description? Then, the
other thing ó the Catholics in Ireland are so obsessed
with sin and anything you got a kick out of is a sin,
naturally. I read somewhere there are only really two
sins. One is to interfere with the growth of another
human being, and the second sin, which I really like,
is to interfere with your own personal growth. That
works for me.
McDonald: I believe you have a nonfiction work
coming out. What will that be about?
Bruen: Iím in New York, and I went down to
Ground Zero yesterday.
McDonald: Another point I wanted to hit on. You
were a security guard at the World Trade CenterÖ.
Bruen: Up on 107-A. My best friend, who was a
musician, he was on the ground floor ó literally on
the street. When we started off there we were just
kind of 19 and very naÔve. Iíll never forget the first
jumper he had ó suicide. The World Trade Center, or
Twin Towers, was about to be the highest building in
the world, and whichever building is the highest,
thatís the one they want to jump off for some reason.
So, like the first day on the job, he had a guy jump
who literally nearly landed on him. He was horrified.
But, by the end of six months, I would hear him on the
intercom, "Ah, this is Don on the ground floor, weíve
got another jumper, but thereís no hurry, heís DOA."
McDonald: That jaded, huh?
Bruen: After six months. If the jumper was dead
they didnít bother to come and pick up the remains
until like 8 or 9 in the evening. They said, "If heís
dead, thereís no point ó just throw some tarpaulin on
Bruen: Yeah. But, up on 107-A the view was just
amazing. Anyway, the book opens with being a security
guard there and those kinds of stories. Then thereís a
couple of essays on metaphysics because I think
philosophy no more than Joyce and a lot of Irish
literature is seemingly reserved for only certain
people and I hate that anything like that is
exclusive. So, Iíd like to write a couple of essays
that make philosophy not only fun, but that anyone can
read. I donít think it should be only for the few. I
always think Joyce is laughing in his grave when he
sees this huge scholarship and people who are
protecting the flame of his genius. Thatíd be the last
thing that he would want.
McDonald: So itís a kind of memoir, and more?
Bruen: Yeah. Iíll deal with South America ó
Iíve written about that ó and then about, hopefully,
trying to gradually return to the human condition,
afterward. And then, my wife is recovering from breast
McDonald: Sheís okay?
Bruen: Yeah, sheís doing okay. And then I have
a child with Downís syndrome. She has a mouth on her
like a fishwife. She tells me I donít understand
The Simpsons! She and I have been watching The
Simpsons for, like, seven years and I thought I
really got it. She told me recently, "Dad, Iím sorry,
you just donít get it." So I said, "What donít I get?"
She said, "You love Homer, right?" and I said, "Yes."
She said, "Thatís your problem." Sheís 11 ó out of the
mouth of babes! This is the best thing about her ó she
wipes the floor with me. Whenever Iím doing kind of
deep moments, she always says to me, "Dad, get real."
About two months after my mother died, I thought she
was in bed, and it was freezing cold April. I had the
open fire and I was listening to some melancholy music
ó you know, the sadder the music, the happier us Irish
are (no wonder we love Country and Western so much,
you know?). Anyway, I was sitting staring into the
fire and the next thing I realized she was at my
shoulder. She said, "Ah, dad, I have something to say
to you. Is that okay?" I said, "Oh, sure, whateverÖ."
She said, "I know your mum died," and I said, "Okay."
She said, "And I know youíve been sad." I said, "I
have." She said, "Get over it!" She figured, like, two
months we put up with the moping and the sadness, but
itís time to move on.
McDonald: Might be time for her to write a
Bruen: Yeah, yeah. Iíll tell you, sheíll take
over. I also wanted to write about the nature of
handicap, because, when she was born and people said
she had Downís syndrome, I remember people saying to
me things, literally, they would stop me on the street
and say, "Iím so sorry about your damaged child." It
really opened my mind. I thought I had a fairly open
mind about most things, but I realized I was very
closed in certain areas.
McDonald: Youíve dealt with it in the books a
bit, I know.
Bruen: Yeah, itís kind of a running motif.
McDonald: Many of your books have been optioned
for film. Are you going to try and write the scripts
Bruen: No. Screenplays I just have no talent
and no patience for. I think itís a completely
different discipline. One of the reasons I think L.A.
Confidential is such a good movie is because they kept
(James) Ellroy away from the screenplay. Now, heís
another guy who is pissing me off at the moment.
McDonald: Ellroy is?
Bruen: Yeah, he turned his back on the crime
fiction. "The crime novel is dead," he said.
McDonald: Ah, yeah. He said that about serial
killer novels, about ó
Bruen: Yeah, yeah. Heís a "social historian"
McDonald: Well, thatís what he calls himself,
but there is still plenty of crime in American
Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, I think.
Bruen: Yeah, exactly. They asked me in Australia,
they said, kind of like, "When you grow up, what are
you going to write?" I said, "Iím not like a guy
waiting on tables, hoping to be an actor. Iím not a
crime writer hoping to be a real novelist." What I
want to do is write the best crime novels that I can.
© C.M. McDonald, June 2003