At the fag end of last week we reviewed Black’s Creek, Sam Millar’s heady, atmospheric journey into the dark heart of adolescence. And, by god, we liked it. Belfast-born Millar is the author of the Karl Kane detective series and other crime novels, and has racked up all sorts of literary awards along the way.
They say you’ve got to live a little bit if you want to be an author. Well, Millar’s an writer with a fascinating back-story. His membership of the IRA earned him a lengthy stay in the Long Kesh prison, known as The Maze — and in American penitentiaries.
In 1993, $7.4 million was stolen from the Brink’s Armoured Car Depot in Rochester, New York. It was the fifth largest robbery in US history — and Sam Millar was a member of the gang who carried out the heist. He was caught, found guilty and incarcerated, before being set free by Bill Clinton’s government as a part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. He writes about his life and the aftermath of the raid in his memoir On The Brinks.
I’m chuffed to say that Millar gives us the intel on Black’s Creek, his extraordinary life and, of course, his writing process…
Tell us about Black’s Creek…
Black’s Creek is about revenge and perceived injustices, some real, some imagined. The story tells about three young friends setting out to avenge the death of their mate, in the belief he was sexually molested by the town loner. Their actions will not only have devastating consequences for themselves, but also their loved ones, and some of the town folk.
It’s a hugely atmospheric novel – part Jim Thompson, part Stephen King. What was the inspiration?
Stand By Me by Stephen King and Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon were the main influences for the book. Both are classic stories, and for me ultimate coming-of-age tales told by two masters.
As well as a crime novel, it’s also very much a coming-of-age-tale – how much of you as a teenage boy is in the novel?
Quite a bit. One of my friends was murdered at a very young age (16) and I remembered the last summer we spent together, not realising it would be our last. His death had a profound effect on me, and changed my life forever.
There aren’t many crime writers who have been pardoned by President Clinton. How have your own experiences, in the republican struggle and among armed gangsters, shaped your writing?
They say you should write from experience, but I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy! Seriously, though, I have used it in all my novels and stage plays. People were shocked when they read my best-selling memoir, On The Brinks, which has just been acquired for film rights. All my novels contain elements of my life, warts and all, frightening yet told with very dark humour.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I was very lucky growing up as a young lad in Belfast. My father was a merchant seaman and was always travelling to America. Upon every trip, he would bring back a suitcase of American comic books, which I devoured and became totally addicted to (and still am!). Stan Lee, the Marvel comics creator, was a great influence in my young life, and I probably learnt more from his writing and stories than I did at school. I always wanted to be Stan Lee and finally got to met the great man, and other heroes of my childhood, when I lived in New York.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
Usually up by 6am each day, sometimes earlier. Cup of coffee to set a spark to my battery. After that, I will sit and type whatever comes into my head, never stopping. After a few hours, I’ll halt and do the usual mundane chores about the house. I have a stray cat, and she keeps me pretty busy looking for attention. I was never a cat person, per se, and had little time for them. Then one rainy and stormy night, she entered my life, and things have never been quite the same since. Afterwards, I will start to go through what I wrote earlier in the day, hoping to come across something worth keeping. It’s a bit like prospecting for gold, hoping to come across a nugget or two.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
It’s a tough profession, with plenty of hard work and dedication needed if you want to survive. The flip side is that I am living my dream, and wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
How do you deal with feedback?
Depends on what the feedback is. Sometimes it can good, bad, or downright ugly. Sometimes it can be very positive, but other times rather negative. Initially, when starting out, I took negative feedback very personally. Now, it’s all in a day’s work. I take it in my stride, and appreciate the fact someone has stopped to think about your work. Even if they didn’t like it, they felt strong enough to take time-out to write a comment about it.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Cormac McCarthy. His writing is so beautifully dark, original and haunting. Stephen King, a master storyteller. Robert McCammon, a natural storyteller, one of the rare breed.
Give me some advice about writing…
Write… there is no wrong way to write, but always try be yourself, with an honest voice. We need new voices in writing, not ones that are already out there. Don’t try to be someone else. Oh, and never give up. Never.