An Interview with the Talented and Multifaceted Author, Conan Kennedy

by Pete

  by Peter Lihou

Author, Poet, Columnist, the accomplished writer Conan Kennedy shares with us his thoughts and inspirations. Conan was born in Dublin but divides his time between the West of Ireland and Italy.

Conan’s novels include; Here Be Ghosts  –  1982 O’Brien Press,  Ogulla Well – 2002 Morrigan Books, The Colour of Her Eyes – 2011 Kindle. Other works include; Ancient Ireland — Users Guide 1994 Morrigan Books, Places of Mythology in Ireland – 1989 (jointly with Daragh Smyth) Morrigan Books, A Walk on The Southside – 2010 Morrigan Books. He has also written and collaborated on a number of Irish local history and guidebooks, in addition to editing the Diaries of Mary Hayden (1878-1903), National Library of Ireland,  and a selection of her writings.

Conan also contributes articles to The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic newspapers and was a contributor to The Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press/Royal Irish Academy.

Peter: Your latest novel, The Colour of Her Eyes was set in the English seaside town of Bognor Regis.  Apart from being my birthplace :), I’m wondering what inspired you to set your story in this location?

Conan: I left Ireland in my teens, heading for London. Couldn’t find a job there, heard of seasonal work in Butlin’s in Bognor, and so I ended up there. Started work as a kitchen porter and, after about three months, ended up as a commis chef. I suspect this says more about Butlin’s cuisine in those days than my Masterchef potential.  After that summer I got a job on the old Southdown buses and spent a couple of years at that. We covered an area from Worthing to Portsmouth and inland up as far as Horsham. Taking in Chichester and Arundel and Midhurst and places like that. I got to really like Sussex and, living in Bognor Regis, it became one of my favourite places. It’s maybe a bit of a cliché, the charms of faded seaside towns and all that, but I suppose that’s where clichés come from, realities. So, to answer your question, I reckon I was simply setting the book in my adopted home town. And maybe also a more practical reason. Irish writers can really be a pain in the neck banging on about Ireland, and I reckoned it would do me good to get away from all that.

Peter: At the end of this novel you promise us a sequel, when can we expect to see it available?

Conan: Hopefully mid 2012. I’ve a kind of funny way of writing books. Actually do more or less finish the ms, but then sit on it for maybe up to a year. So that sequel is actually finished, but recently I’ve had second thoughts and will be revisiting. I’ve been reading reviews of Colour and interested to see people taking things out of it that I hadn’t known I put in. Wondering whether I should take that on board in revisions. Probably a terrible idea, but I get lots of them. Terrible ideas.

Peter: Will it be on Kindle again?

Conan: Certainly will. I did send Colour to one or two agents, but nothing much happened. So I got the notion that if it did well as an eBook then maybe someone would take it up hardcopy. It did do well and is still doing well and I alerted some agents about it…the response seemed to be ‘well we’d prefer to take mss from scratch and do our own thing’. I have worked in the book business and have no doubt about which wall the writing is on, but still I would like to see my fiction in some form of hardcopy as well as on Kindle. Maybe that’s misplaced snobbery of some sort!

Peter: How do you feel about the rise of eBook formats like Kindle, will you publish most of your future works there first; perhaps even exclusively?

Conan: I never thought I’d say it, but looking at the eBook world one sometimes does miss agents and editors and publishers. Their filtering process I suppose. Because the whole eBook scene is so indiscriminate and arbitrary. And an awful lot of eBooks are written by people who can’t really write. But there again, an awful lot of conventional books are written by people with no talent either.  For myself I see my fiction emerging first as Kindle then migrating in some way to printed. I say ‘fiction’ because that’s text only and seems to work. But I have illustrated non-fiction things going too and am none too sure about them in electronic format. Maybe because I’m old fashioned and snobby, but I do like physical books. I come from  a design (architecture) background and have worked in publishing. I just like books about the place.

Peter: You also conclude The Colour of Her Eyes by saying the sequel will continue Ruth’s story, can you share with us if this will include the other characters, especially Sandra, DI Harris or John Dexter? I will understand if this is asking for too much information!

Conan: Yes they’re all there, but maybe not in the same proportions, so to speak. Ruth is settling down and Sandra is…well…Sandra.

Peter: And could this be a series, or will the story conclude in a sequel?

Conan: There are three books in the series.

Peter: Do you take any aspects of your own personality in drawing your characters? If so, to whom do you most relate?

Conan: I think Harris demonstrates many of my personal characteristics. Not sure if that’s flattering. Actually I think novelists and policemen have a great affinity. Both tend to be grumpy, observant, and share a certain view of the human condition. That noted, I think I mostly ‘relate’ to Ruth. That sculptor Grayson Perry comes to mind, the bloke with a little girl alter ego. Well I reckon Ruth Taylor is mine, alter ego. I don’t actually dress up as her, but she’s in there somewhere!

Peter: What other projects are you working on, can you tell us a little about them?

Conan: Well I have a new novel, The Snake Dancer of Sati Choura, and that’ll be a Kindle book in early 2012. I also have a book called Attic.Stuff.Write, which is a non-fiction, a memoir sort of thing, a printed book. Which will appear just so soon as I can find someone to publish it. And I have a book Connections, which is a collection of my newspaper articles on old photographs. I’m big into early photography. My grandfather Alexander Conan was a pioneer photographer and I inherited a lot of his material. He was cousin of Arthur Conan Doyle, hence my first name. Those projects are complete and ready to go but, as to actual writing over next few months, I’ll be polishing off Ruth Taylor (not literally, she survives) and going back to a book I’ve been working on for years. It’s set in South Africa. Where I lived after Bognor Regis!

Peter: How did you go about researching your location, do you spend time in them or research them on the Internet?

Conan: As mentioned earlier, I do know Bognor and Sussex pretty well. But I did go back there specifically to mooch around when writing the Ruth Taylor books, The Colour of Her Eyes etc. That new book I mentioned, Snake Dancer, that’s partly set in Dublin, which obviously I know well. So location research for that is no bother. The other half of the book is set in India. In Victorian times. Where I’ve never been. So I did research that on the internet. And in books also. Results of internet research can be a bit ‘lite’ I suspect. And now anyway in some kind of peculiar way I suspect the Indian part of the book works better. I’ve seen reviewers describe books as being ‘over researched’ But there again others say ‘only write what you know about’. People who comment on writing and books have a lot in common with economists, all those differing opinions.

Peter: You write in a number of forms including poetry, fiction, factual, and your columns. What do you enjoy to write the most?

Conan: Fiction definitely. I really don’t like writing for newspapers or magazines. I think it’s the deadlines. Must-have-something-for-next-week sort of thing. I only get fits of writing poetry. I find the modern poetry scene pretty grim. I reckon I’m pretty bright but struggle to understand where most modern poets are coming from. But I do know where most of them are going…oblivion! I was thrown off Poetry Ireland’s website for voicing such opinions.

Peter: And what do you like to do with your time when you’re not writing?

Conan: I’ve been building a house in the west of Ireland for the past thirty years. It’s not finished and probably never will be. But I do enjoy the physical aspect of building. I spend a lot of time with my wife. We’re very close. Just as well. Because I first met her when she was a schoolgirl, and she married me when she was eighteen and went to America with me. Being Irish Catholics we’ve had five children, four survive. I wrote about all that in my book A Walk on The Southside. A crazy little book which sells and sells. (Well, in Dublin!) I watch television on Sunday evenings. Strictly, and Antiques Roadshow sort of things. Apart from news programs during the week that’s about it. I’m right out of the TV loop. Though I did once write comedy scripts for Irish TV. I find now if I read TV reviewer columns I don’t recognise any of the shows. I’ve heard of Downton Abbey because the  wife watches it. When visiting Dublin I go to pubs with old mates. In Italy I look at old churches. Life eventually boils down to old mates and old churches.

Peter: You share your time between the West of Ireland and Italy I believe, which do you consider to be your main home, now and how much time do you spend in each?

Conan: Ireland definitely. Spend slightly more time there these days. Probably because I’ve a lot of writing going on and something in me tells me Italy is ‘down time’ or ‘vacation’ or some such.

Peter: Do you seek solitude to write or are you happy to work amongst the distractions of others, as J K Rowling did in her cafes?

Conan: When writing a novel I get up at around half four in the morning and work for about four hours. That time between sleep and wake where paths to dreams are still ajar, best time for fiction. I can write non fiction anywhere/anytime. And often do.

Peter: Are you organised, do you set aside a set amount of time each day, or do you write when and for as long as the fancy takes you?

Conan: As mentioned, very organised, as regards fiction. Both re time of day and deadline to finish, number of words per, etc etc.  I would like to write as fancy takes but find the fiction thing closing up after about those four hours. Thing about fiction writing, in itself it’s going to flow, and you need to be fiercely organised to both keep it flowing and keep it on some kind of track. On the other side of the coin I’m chaotic with non-fiction. Hopeless. Bits and pieces all over the place.

Peter: It’s clear to me that you take great care in ‘filling out’ your characters so the reader becomes intimately familiar with them. One technique I much enjoyed was the way your characters were allowed to drift off subject, I felt we learned almost as much about them from their excursions as we did when they followed the plot. Do you have other techniques you have drawn upon or that you admire in other authors, which similarly contribute to the richness of characters?

Conan: Maybe that question is making a virtue out of a necessity, in that me allowing characters to drift off is just me drifting off myself. Never thought of it as a ‘technique’. I do think however that Irish writers do have this absolute-concentration-with-frilly-edges sort of thing.

Peter: Finally, whom do you most admire as a novelist and what would be your ‘desert island’ book?

Conan: That’s difficult. In all honesty I don’t actually read that much fiction. It strikes me there’s a lot of expertise out there but very little talent. In actual fact I think the talented writers are overlooked in favour of the school-of-creative-writing-variety, probably because there’s an industry of lit crit and education professionals built up around the latter. That said I suppose I do admire novelists generally because it’s a pretty tough job. It’s very competitive and there’s little money in it.

Desert Island book? I’d probably bring along The Diaries of Mary Hayden. It’s in five volumes but that might count as one book. She was an Irish women’s rights campaigner, interested in politics and history and literature, friend of Patrick Pearse and W.B.Yeats and so on. All of Ireland’s history in one book. Well, in five volumes. She also travelled widely, living in Greece and touring India. She was also engaged to my great uncle Arthur Conan. Never married because he died in the Boer War. But there’s a lot about my own family in the diaries and I’m interested in genealogy.

Maybe I spread myself too thin!

Peter: Thank you Conan, it’s been a real pleasure to meet you and I will look forward to following your future work.


The Colour of Her Eyes is currently available from the AB.c shop on Amazon

You can learn more about Conan and follow his work at his website