By Owen Quinn
Gerard Brennan is already a local writer of hard hitting crime novels but he is also a playwright and together with his father, Joe, has a hit show on his hands. The Sweety Bottle is about to make a triumphant return to the Grand Opera House in Belfast and TW caught up with both of them to find out all about it in our very first double interview Has writing always been a passion for you?
Since I read my first Roald Dahl book. It just took a long time to figure out how to actually become a writer.
What made you want to go for it professionally?
When I realised I couldn’t be happy working in an office.
Are you a regimented writer so do you just go with the flow?
I started off going with the flow. Most writers do, I think, especially when they’re still finding their feet. But over the years I’ve realised that a good routine is the only way to keep the momentum going. That and outlining. Took me a few books to discover the value of a good outline (though I’ll not be a slave to it if the story wants to go in another direction).
What for you defines a good book?
What writers influenced you growing up?
Roald Dahl first. But when I graduated to the grown-up part of the library (around age 12) I became a Stephen King junkie. Read mostly horror all through my teens (Koontz, Simmons, Laymon) and some fantasy stuff (Dragonlance, David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett, mostly – three distinctly different flavours) and then discovered Northern Irish crime fiction through early Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee books. That’s when I realised I could write powerful stories about my immediate surroundings and others might actually read them.
What was your first published book and what is the story behind it?
THE POINT came out in paperback in October 2011 (before that I’d co-edited Requiems for the Departed, but that book belongs to all the contributors not jus me and Mike Stone). It’s about two young guys who move from Belfast to Warrenpoint and cause havoc. It’s kind of an inversion of my life in my late teens/early twenties as I moved from Warrenpoint to Belfast and had a wild time. I didn’t do anything illegal, though. My characters in THE POINT weren’t quite as restrained.
How did you go about getting yourself noticed? What avenues are there in Northern Ireland for up coming writers? And what worked best for you?
I suppose my blog, Crime Scene NI, got me the most recognition amongst other writers. I reviewed the books I was reading and interviewed as many of the authors I could. It was an interesting hobby that helped me find my own writing voice. I also went out and met authors when I could at their book signings and events, mostly at No Alibis on Botanic Avenue (one of the best avenues for any writer or reader) and found each one of them very generous with their time and advice. But first and foremost, writing and sending my work out was the most important thing. Networking and trying to figure out the publishing world yields nothing if you haven’t done the work.
You’ve contributed to several anthologies. Where does any writer here go to in order to fin out how to submit tot these anthologies?
When I first started writing I used websites like Ralan.com and Duotrope to find places looking for short stories. These were mostly geared towards speculative fiction, however, and as my writing became more crime fiction influences, I simply used Google to hunt for websites and magazines that might be interested in my work. Now I sometimes hear about anthologies on Facebook or Twitter, but mostly I get contacted directly and asked to submit, which is always nice. Again, it took a lot of work and patience (and rejection) to find myself in this situation.
How did Wee Rockets come about?
I lived in Beechmount Parade for a few years in the early 2000s. And I became fascinated with the place. Around the same time I randomly caught a programme about the slums in Peru where a gang of kids who called themselves The Piranhas mugged adults regularly. They overwhelmed them with numbers and the adults were powerless. It got me wondering if that sort of crime could ever happen in West Belfast. Those were the seeds.
Your books are very people based.They are hard hitting and don’t hold back from the likes of drugs and crime. Why do those stories appeal to you?
That’s real life. People watch reality TV and think they’re getting an insight into human behaviour. But most of that crap is scripted and as far removed from reality as you can get. I like to think fiction (ironically) can give you a better insight into human behaviour.
Northern Ireland books are usually associated with the Troubles. Have you seen a move away from that where readers can see there is more to the people here than the Troubles?
That was the trend for a good ten years, but now the real Troubles fiction is re-emerging and it’s written by writers from Northern Ireland who have had the time to come to terms with their respective experiences. I think we’ll see a renewed interest in Troubles literature over the next ten years, but it’ll be the best of it and more people will be interested in it. I’ve heard Stuart Neville or Adrian McKinty say (both masters of modern fiction heavily influenced by the Troubles) that the best stories about Viet Nam emerged after the conflict and that we’re entering a comparative era now in Northern Ireland. I think they’re right. Wish I could remember which one said it. Either can claim responsibility if they read this.
How did the Sweety Bottle come about?
My dad and I were talking to my uncle Michael over dinner one Sunday. The topic of my writing came up and Michael mentioned how many stories had come out of a shebeen my granda used to run on the lower Falls. That shebeen was called The Sweety Bottle. As my dad and my uncle swapped memories and laughed their backsides off it became obvious that there was a story there, begging to be written. Who better to write it with than my dad? He experienced the place first hand.
Again it’s a very people based story. Do you think that tradition of oral story telling has faded or has it just taken a new form?
Story-telling is in a weird situation right now. I suppose things like podcasts and video-blogs can imitate the tradition somewhat, but they’re not really group experiences. You can’t compare listening at your car radio or staring at your computer screen to going to the theatre with friends and family and laughing along with the rest of the audience. Story-telling is a bit neglected right now, but so long as people crave social interaction, I don’t think it’ll ever go away.
May people will identify with some of the antics in the story. How vital is audience connection to you with any story?
If there’s no audience, what’s the point? For me, writing, in all its forms, is about sharing experiences with others. They can do with that experience what they wish, but it’s my hope that it enriches their lives, even in the teeniest, tiniest way.
The Sweety Bottle is coming back to the Grand Opera House in August. Were you surprised at the excellent response to it?
Blown away. I knew that it was a great idea and that Brassneck Theatre Company had done a terrific job with it. I just didn’t expect that we’d be so lucky. There’s so much talent out there, but success in the arts has always been dependent on luck. This just happened to be our time with this play.
How do you go about getting your work performed on stage. Are there funding grants available or is it investment?
In our case, it couldn’t have happened without Brassneck. They secured the funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (huge thanks as always to the ACNI) and from there it snowballed. All a writer can do is write, write, write, then try to find the right person or people to bring their work to the next stage, whether that be a publisher, theatre company or production company. Northern Ireland is especially lucky to have a hard-working Arts Council that rewards innovation. I don’t discount those that work hard to secure funding by alternative sources, however. Kickstarter and similar sites have opened up opportunities for so many others who have the talent and drive to go out there and do it.
What for you is the appeal of The Sweety Bottle?Is it the fact it brings alive an era and a personality that may have been lost in the tech era where everyone is plugged into laptops and headphones?
Yes, that and the fact that the humour can appeal to all generations. Between me and my dad, we were able to cover a lot of ground.
Did the play accomplish the story you wanted to tell as a writer?
Yes, and then some.
Where do you hope the play goes from here?
Broadway, baby. The American one. We already conquered Belfast’s Broadway when we sold out The Culturlann.
What are you currently working on?
A novella based in Derry for the crime fiction festival to be held there in November as part of the 2013 City of Culture celebrations.
Where can people find out ore about your books and the Sweety Bottle?
And in the second half we talk to Gerard’s dad, Joe Brennan about how it all began.
How did the Sweety Bottle come about?
Our family lived in Raglan Street in West Belfast in the early seventies. About five doors down from where we lived there was a corner shop which was due for demolition through a redevelopment scheme. My father, Johnny Brennan (AKA JB) knew the owner, who was retiring, and was able to get the keys of the shop for his own use. At first he intended to keep the shop running as a confectionary and light grocery shop but then he came up with the idea of getting a wee drop of drink in, and opening the back room of the shop into a wee drinking club, and so, The Sweety Bottle was born.
Have you found that the oral tradition of story telling has gone? Was that a factor for you in bringing the story to tell the stage?
Just look around you, people talk less these days. Everyone is buried in their phone. Story telling is going, but it has not yet gone. Yes that is one of the reasons why we wrote The Sweety Bottle. And you know, it is working because I have had so many stories relayed to me since the play hit the stage.
As you’ve grown older, has community changed for you in that that the days of neighbours popping into each others houses unannounced are gone and the local pubs have closed literally ending the character gatherings that make a good night’s craic?
Definitely, nowadays a lot of people don’t even know the name of the people living next door, and sadly, don’t want to. Now, some of the local bars still have a few characters who keep the craic going, but that is fading too.
Is the Sweety Bottle a chance for you to preserve a part of our lives that may be gone forever?
The Sweety Bottle would have been forgotten, and to a certain extent so to the memories of it that were buried in the back of the minds of the remaining ex patrons. Now that has all changed. Memories have been rekindled, old stories are being retold, and untold stories are emerging, I think our play will help people fondly remember those good old times in Belfast
How closely did you and Gerard work together on the script? Does he get his writing skills from you?
Of course he got his skills from me. I won five shillings for writing, at the age of ten. That was forty eight years ago. I can still remember the two big silver half crowns, it was a fortune in those days. Seriously, I won’t try to take any credit for Gerard’s achievements, there was too much hard work and determination on his part to get where he is now. We worked very well together I think that was quite unusual.
The Sweety Bottle captures the essence of the Irish humour perfectly. Do you feel the best comedy comes from normal people who make you laugh in ways that TV comedians fail to do?
TV comedians do not hold a candle to our humour, but I would be more inclined to describe ourselves as, abnormal people pretending to be normal.
Was watching it for the first time an emotional experience for you?
It blew my mind. Emotional? I didn’t know whether laugh, cry, fart , shite or throw up!
Did the actors nail the characters you remembered and bring alive the heart of the story for you?
Every one of them got it down to a tee.
Is there more to those times that you would like to tell?