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Interview with Stuart Neville: "2016 and 2017 will provide storytellers with material for many years to come"

We discussed with the acclaimed crime writer about the violence in his books, his alter ego Haylen Beck, music, and many more, and he prepared a special mixtape.
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NevilleStuart Neville's debut novel, THE TWELVE (published in the USA as THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST), won the Mystery/Thriller category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was picked as one of the top crime novels of 2009 by both the New York Times and the LA Times. He has been shortlisted for various awards, including the Barry, Macavity, Dilys awards, as well as the Irish Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year. He has since published six more critically acclaimed books. His first five novels have each been longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and RATLINES was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Stuart Neville kindly answered our questions concerning the violence in his books, his alter ego Haylen Beck, music, and many more, and prepared a special mixtape.

- You have gained praises by various writers, including James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane. How important are this kind of words for a young writer?  Having an established writing career, which of your fellows would you praise, in your turn?

It’s very encouraging to hear kind words from writers I admire. Like most writers, I suffer from a lot of self doubt, so being endorsed by someone like Lee Child or Dennis Lehane feels like a vindication.
Aside from the writers already mentioned, I’m a big fan of Megan Abbott, Chris Holm and Steve Cavanagh. I like a writer with a strong voice that can pull me in and keep my attention.

- The legendary New York literary agent Nat Sobel got attracted by a short story you had published online. Since then you have been working together. How is your relationship after so many years?

Nat and I have been working together for almost ten years now, but it doesn’t seem that long. We still have a great relationship, and Nat and his wife Judith Weber have been good friends and mentors to me, especially in those times when things haven’t gone so well.

- What influences your affection towards your published books? How do you measure their success?

I like some of my books better than others. The one I’m most proud of is “Those We Left Behind”. With “Ghosts of Belfast”, it was written ten years ago, and although it’s the book that got me a publishing deal, there are still things I would go back and change if I could.

- In your first novel ("Twelve"/"The Ghosts of Belfast") we were following a killer. In most of your next novels the main characters are detectives. Was this change conscious?

I usually go whatever the story requires, and in most cases, that was a detective. A character like Gerry Fegan in the first book couldn’t go on forever, so there needed to be a change. Having said that, my books will always show the villain’s side of the story. They’re usually the most fun to write.

Those We Left Behind- In an interview you had stated that in the beginning you had started various novels but none ever got past a few chapters. Does this occur now as well? Do you ever return to old ideas or unfinished novels?

I still have false starts, and I have set a few books aside after I’ve started them. Sometimes you have to get some pages written before you can tell if the idea really works or not. With “Those We Left Behind”, for example, I started writing that before “The Final Silence”, but it wasn’t working, so I set it aside. After I’d written “The Final Silence”, I tried using one of the new characters from that book in “Those We Left Behind”, and it suddenly worked. Sometimes there’s just an ingredient missing and you have to figure out what that is.

- Violence is a common driving force in your stories. Do you believe that the reader can experience the description of violence, getting overwhelmed from real-life violence, in addition to the depiction of realistic and non-realistic violence in cinema and television series?

I’m more interested in the consequences of violence, the aftermath of it, than the violence itself. I don’t revel in the violence in my books, and very often it takes place out of view. Readers sometimes think they’re more there than there really is. And I think readers know when violence is gratuitous, there for its own sake, and they will not react well to that.

- We lately saw in the cinema "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train". Currently we can see "The Circle" and "The Dark Tower". Just to name a few novels turned to movies. As a writer and a movie fan, how do you see the relation between cinema and literature? Does it affect the writing?

Although cinema influences me as a storyteller, I try not to think of my stories in terms of movies. If you write with one eye on a possible film deal, then I think that will harm the work. Movies and books are two different forms, and one shouldn’t cross over the other. Several of my books have been optioned, and I take nothing to do with them; the film, if it ever gets made, has nothing to do with me.

- "The past is a foreign country". However, you did not hesitate to set a novel in the World War II ("Ratlines"). If you had been born in 50 years from now, what would be interesting for you as a writer in 2017?

2016 and 2017 will provide storytellers with material for many years to come. What’s happening in America will be talked about for decades, with Brexit being a side note – we now know that the Russians interfered in the Brexit referendum in the same way they did with the US presidential election, and the full impact of that is yet to become clear. I look forward to reading the equivalent of “All The President’s Men” whenever it’s written.

- You recently introduced a new novel (“Here and Gone”) under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, a name referencing Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck. What does Beck have in common with Neville, and which are their main differences?

The main difference is the setting; all the Haylen Beck books will be set in America, and they’ll be standalone thrillers. I’ll continue my Belfast-set crime series under my own name as long as anyone wants to publish me. I hope to move back and forth between the two names.

Here-and-Gone- You are a musician and a composer. You have disclosed that you wanted to write a soundtrack album to go with “Here and Gone” but didn’t get the time. I find it a brilliant idea! Any chance for you to try it again in the future?

You never know! I still want to do it, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time. I still record lots of rough ideas for music, but never seem to get the time develop them into full pieces of music.

- Do you still have time for hobbies? What would you prefer for a Saturday evening, going to a concert or to the movies?

I still play guitar, so that takes up most of the spare time I have. I also like repairing and customizing guitars, which is what I’m most likely to be doing on a Saturday evening.

- At least in the beginning of your career you were living in N. Ireland. Where do you currently live?

I still live in Northern Ireland, not far from where I grew up, about half an hour outside of Belfast. It rains a lot here!

- What are your future plans? Should we wait more from Haylen Beck? Are Jack Lennon and Serena Flanagan going to return?

There is another Haylen Beck book in the pipeline, and I have plans for more Serena Flanagan books. I do have an idea for a final Jack Lennon book, as well as a sequel to “Ratlines”, but I don’t know when I’ll get the time to write them.

- We would really appreciate it if you could prepare a mixtape for Mix Grill. It could have whatever thematic you may choose.

I play guitar in a band called the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers with other writers like Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. These are some of the crime-related songs we play:

I Fought the Law – The Clash
Watching the Detectives – Elvis Costello
I Used to Love Her – Guns N' Roses
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive – Hank Williams
Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix
Psycho – The Beasts of Bourbon
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
Whiskey in the Jar – The Dubliners


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