Henry McDonald Q&A: The Guardian’s Ireland correspondent talks books
The author of seven non-fiction books has just written his first novel, The Swinging Detective
Henry McDonald: In the age of fake news, internet lies, social media rumour mongering, reading good solid literature, history, culture etc is a perfect antidote to the chaotic anti-truth era we are living in
Henry McDonald is the Ireland Correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. He has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and is the author of seven non-fiction books ranging from his first work on the Irish peacekeeping battalion in Lebanon to a biography of Nobel peace prize winner David Trimble. The Swinging Detective is his first novel.
Can you tell us about your latest work and how it came about, the story behind the story?
This novel was first conceived when I was living in Berlin on a journalist exchange programme involving UK and German media organisations. I was working for Welt am Sonntag and started to think about Berlin being the perfect setting for a dark noir novel with a 21st century twist. I started to write it in early 2006 and later during the World Cup in Germany that summer. My agent in London loved it and tried to sell it to 14 separate publishers. 13 out of 14 were extremely positive but none would get it over the line and I left it sitting in the cyberspace cupboard for almost a decade. Then in 2016 I tried to sell it again and by happenstance Martin Rynja, the owner of Gibson Square Publishing said Yes! Bit of a fairytale resurrection.
It is a story about an Anglo-German detective, a former British military intelligence operative, hunting down a “popular” serial killer in Berlin. The latter is killing for ideological reasons and is more akin to a terrorist than a serial murderer….but there is a personal twist in this killer’s story. There is a parallel investigation into a Russian Mafia hit in the German capital which, I hope, will develop through a series of books where my character Martin Peters is the central player. It is also strangely enough a ghost story – the spectres of the Cold War and the Northern Ireland Troubles come back to haunt Peters.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Treasure Island! Without question. The perfect adventure story with a rich array of characters and a wonderful plot.
What was your favourite book as a child?
See the above!
What is your favourite quotation?
“Nine out of ten revolutionaries are social climbers with bombs.” (George Orwell) A very appropriate quote in the Northern Ireland context.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Ignatius J Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces – satire in the Swiftian tradition, one of my favourite, funniest books of all time. He really knew about “the proper geometry and theology”.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Well, he may not like being called “under-rated” but I think Belfast based novelist David Parks is a fantastic writer. His The Light of Amsterdam is a pitch perfect novel which is deeply moving and that starts on the day of George Best’s funeral. Parks captures that sense of melancholy and existential dread superbly.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Oh print, 3-D books any day to have and to hold.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I have to say this as an Evertonian….it’s a photo-book essay capturing pictures of each of the 30 goals Everton striker Bob Latchford scored in the 1977-78 English First Division season. It’s a work of art capturing a work of art.
Where and how do you write?
The how first. By stealing time, which means the early hours of the morning before I start the journalism work or very late at night after the reporting is finished. Sometimes also on leave, in short but energetic bursts of time. Where? Anywhere! Libraries, trains, in the kitchen, a hotel room and even mercifully sometimes a little B&B somewhere by the sea.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
That is a tough one but I would say Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and generally his imperative about good prose having to be like a window pane. I can’t write any other way but through (well I hope so) plain, lucid English with a beginning, a middle and an end.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
All of the non-fiction books have been researched thoroughly but out of the seven I would say the first one ever – Irishbatt. It required me to spend long periods of time with The Irish Defence Forces in South Lebanon in the early to mid 1990s. Research for the novel was based on living and working in Berlin down through the years. Listening to David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) also helped. I listened to the albums constantly while I was writing it.
What book influenced you the most?
It has to be a toss up between, guess what, Treasure Island and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
It would be Homage to Catalonia especially if they happen to be aspiring journalists.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Well, that would definitely be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, the epic novel about the Russian experience of the second World War. I only read it last year for the first time and it absolutely blew me away.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Keep it clear, don’t show off but keep believing.
What weight do you give reviews?
Well, it’s nice to be loved by the critics but sometimes the news stories or features your book generates can sell more books. This is what my publisher Mr Rynja believes.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
A bit like the industry I work in – journalism – I think we are in deeply troubling times. However, there are signs of hope like the increasing sales of quality magazines like the Economist or the Spectator. Surely this is a signal to publishing that there are enough out there who want quality not just quantity.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
There is a disjunction it seems to me between the popularity of “big history” books and the lack of enthusiasm for novels, works of fiction etc.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
In the age of fake news, internet lies, social media rumour mongering, reading good solid literature, history, culture etc is a perfect antidote to the chaotic anti-truth era we are living in.
What has being a writer taught you?
To listen and observe and empathise with others….hopefully.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Henry Miller for the smutty stories; Christopher Hitchens for the wit and erudition; Charlotte Bronte to clash with Miller and Albert Camus just because such a morally upright figure deserves to be brought back from the dead.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
When Ignatius J Reilly enters the strip club Night of Joy and encounters the decadent side of New Orleans. This opening line is great, ‘Ignatius throws himself into the door to find Timmy, still adorned in a sailor uniform, who has been shackled and chained to the wall. This seems like a bad sign to Ignatius, and he worries that the “enemy” may be among them.
What is your favourite word?
Solitude…which is the home of my Belfast team Cliftonville.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
The 1978 World Cup in Argentina which while we watched in awe at the likes of Resenbrink of Holland, Gemmill and that goal for Scotland, and Kempes, the regime was still “disappearing” its liberal and left-wing opponents. And I intend to do so and have a plot worked out for it.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
It is from my novel, naturally. “Winter’s grip was relenting in the woodland, the air felt fresher, here and there Peters could make out in clearings little beds of daffodils, their shapes resembling tiny pale Pentecostal flames; even the magpies no longer had the forest to themselves as the trees transmitted the twittering and yammering codes of returning migrant birds.”
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
It has to be To Know a Woman by the Israeli author Amos Oz, a brilliant portrayal of love lost and grief that is hard to match.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
Oh, it absolutely has to be The Three Billy Goats Gruff which for several years I had not only to read at bedtime to my middle child Ellen (now 16) but also act out as both the goats and troll underneath the bridge. “Trip trap, trip trap, bang bang bang goes the hooves of the Billy Goat Gruff’….it is the triumph of good over evil!”