The beginning of Stuart Neville’s The Twelve lingers at a bar. The damaged anti-hero, Gerry Fegan, tries to drown his ghosts in whiskey and Guinness, shouting at the shadows that eventually drive him onto a reluctant rampage of revenge. These ghosts drive the page-turning action with a momentum that saw the book become one of the most acclaimed thrillers of some time, prompting James Ellroy to declare it, “The best first novel I’ve read in years. “ David Hare chose it as one of his top 2010 reads in The Guardian. Both sides of the Atlantic embraced the book, with the New York Times raving: “A rare example of legitimate noir fiction … Would rattle the composure of a saint.”
It’s a wonder Stuart isn’t haunted by his own gremlins, now writing under the shadow of such massive success.
“It didn’t make it easy,” Stuart said. “There was a lot of pressure in writing the sequel; it’s that difficult second album syndrome.”
Stuart wrote his debut in just ten weeks. “I should add there were nine months of revision after that, but the first draft was very fast. Collusion [the sequel to The Twelve] took almost a year. It’s that expectation and pressure of writing the second book. It’s very different to write something purely on hope than to write under contract, it’s much easier to write when there’s no real expectation. “
But Stuart didn’t just wake up and decide to be a writer. Even though, now aged 39, his past includes a multitude of jobs including being a teacher, baker and musician.
“It was something I wanted to do since I was a kid, even as a child I read a lot, my mum worked in the central library headquarters where they kept most of the stock, so there was always plenty of books in the house. But I got to my teens and started playing the guitar and got interested in girls and decided I wanted to be a rock star. It didn’t work out,” he laughed, “so I came to writing a little later on.”
And although The Twelve was his first published novel, it wasn’t about being an overnight success.
“I had written two novels in the run up to it, none of which were very good but both served as a learning process. So when I had the idea for The Twelve- it started as a short story – and I decided to turn it into a novel it was written very quickly because I had momentum from writing those other books. “
“Gerry Fegan came with that short story I wrote quite fully formed in my mind – characters tend to do that for me – but he was influenced by things I’d heard about paramilitary prisoners and their psychology. There were two camps – those that were cold and felt nothing and those who were completely in pieces and struggled to handle things – and there was nothing in between. Fegan falls in the falling to pieces camp.”
Part of the lengthy revision of his first draft was due to the responsibility of writing about recent history, where families still live with the fall-out from the Troubles.
“It’s a difficult line to walk. There were things I changed afterwards – for example one street name I changed because a brutal murder had happened on that street and the family involved could still be living there. So it did take sensitivities but at the same time you can’t sugar coat anything or shy away as that would be equally insulting.”
Sugar coating is the last thing Stuart did. The book, despite an almost universal positive reception from Northern Ireland and beyond, did ruffle a few feathers. “The only negative response was a small minority of Irish Americans who didn’t take kindly to having the green-tainted glasses dislodged.”
The violence in the book can make for difficult reading; when one character Davy Campbell is tortured, stomachs churn.
“There were moments that I struggled writing it. Having said that I sometimes think people look back in retrospect and think there’s more violence then there is. There are a couple of sequences that are quite graphic – the Campbell torture scene – but I’m quite squeamish about injuries. Writing that was about confronting those fears. When I wrote it I found the medical reality of it scary– it does scare me – which is why I write it.”
“The one sequence I really struggled with was the dog fight. I wrote that sequence because there was an expose by BBC news about dog fighting not far from where I live. It made me really angry this was going on 10 or 15 minutes from my house, so I wanted to write about it because it was something that really angered me.”
Nobody in the book is fully on the side of right, there are no clear-cut good guys, and the only truly innocent character who doesn’t have a stained conscience is a young child, Ellen. But Stuart insists his outlook on human make-up isn’t quite so bleak.
“The problem with a book like this is your focusing on a limited number of characters and people can interpret that as a broad sweep of society. One or two people in response to Collusion have said the police force is very corrupt but it’s actually the characters on stage. People look at what you do with that small number of characters and think it applies to everything – that’s something I’ve learnt. The majority of people in Northern Ireland want to get on with their lives in peace. But when you write you focus on the antagonists and the protagonists rather than those people on the side lines.”
For Stuart, it wasn’t primarily about making a moral comment on the compromised and corrupt politics of the peace process – although it’s perhaps the books strongest message – but about putting the story first.
“One thing I’ve discovered the more I write is I’m very story driven. But stories are made up of these different components. The theme is this moral and political aspect but only because it’s intrinsic to the story. I can’t separate them. The story is what it is. I don’t separate issues, if you try to consciously approach a book that way, to say something moral, it’s going to be obvious to the reader. The story always rules.”
What’s more, he’s conscious not to be pigeon-holed by his subject matter.
“I’ve just completed the third book and it’s to be treated as a trilogy I guess, but it’s very much a standalone thriller and less determined by the setting. I wanted to move away from the political side of things and being so rooted in paramilitaries because there’s more to life than crime and violence and political stuff in Northern Ireland. I don’t want to be tied to that if I can help it. I just wanted to write a scary thriller. But the fourth book is completely different, its set in the other side of the Republican border in the early 60s, so a complete departure. “
Being Irish comes with a whole host of ghosts it seems though, including the spectre of the island’s literary giants.
“The literary heritage goes back a long way. Some see it as a millstone as much as a benefit. John Connolly talked about the reason he doesn’t set his books in Ireland is he doesn’t like the expectation of writing the next great Irish novel because of the heritage of Joyce and those highly regarded, high up icons of literature. It casts a very long shadow, and so I think there’s the trap of writing books people think you should be writing, rather than what people want to read.”
People clearly want to read Stuart. The film rights for The Twelve have been optioned by Craig Ferguson, the Glasgow comedian who made his name as a talk show host in the States. Although Stuart doesn’t like to speculate about who – if it did get produced – would star in the lead roles.
“It’s something people have asked me but I don’t like to impose a face on characters. I don’t want people to go into a book with that in their head. One thing I don’t like is imagining what a character looks like then after 110 pages it says he has a big nose. I want my imagination to put a face to the character, so I don’t want to impose other identities on that.”
The success of his books has changed his day- to-day life. More old friends are coming out of the woodwork (“but that could be more to do with Facebook as much as anything else.”) He’s quit his old job where he was a partner in a web design company and writes full-time.
The success of The Twelve will always cause new ruffles as new readers come on board. The sequel, Collusion, published last year, was reviewed as “even more powerful” and “a worthy successor”, to his debut. The third book is awaited eagerly by fans.
“The next book will hopefully be called Stolen Souls and be along presently,” Stuart said. And he’s currently writing his fourth.
It seems this is an Irish writer who’s set to haunt readers for many years to come.
Find out more about Stuart and his books, visit: www.stuartneville.com