Nothing to lose

How Ken Bruen became an ‘overnight success’ after thirty years of writing

IT WAS a quiet midday morning in Bohermore when Galway writer Ken Bruen received the call that would change his life forever. However, he was somewhat unprepared for the moment.

London Boulevard

“About two years ago I was sitting in my apartment when the phone rang,” Ken tells me. “I thought it couldn’t be any of my friends because they know I write in the morning. Anyway, I answered it and this guy said: ‘I’m Bill Monahan and I’d like to film London Boulevard.’

“I thought it was one of the lads winding me up and so I replied “Yeah? Whatever!” and hung up the phone. Then I started to think that maybe it wasn’t a wind up and thankfully the guy phone back. It was William Monahan, who wrote the screenplay for The Departed.

“He’d been in London and he wasn’t too well and during that whole time he read London Boulevard and it cheered him up. After his big success with The Departed he had free rein for a year to pick his pet project and he decided that his first film as director would be an adaptation of my book London Boulevard.”

London Boulevard is the story of an ex-convict who finds work at a Holland Park mansion and falls in love with a reclusive actress. The crime/romance film began shooting in June last year with a cast featuring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightly, Anna Friel, and Ray Winstone. Executive producer is Redmond Morris, who is from Galway, and the film marked William Monahan’s directorial debut. It was released in Britain and Ireland last month.

“The reviews of the film have been mixed and you either love it or you hate it,” Bruen says. “A few people have said that Colin Farrell’s London accent is terrible but I’ve no problem with it and I lived in London for 15 years.

“I think Anna Friel is fantastic as the main character’s crazy sister and Ray Winstone has such a brilliant way of speaking that I’d listen to him read the telephone book. I think Bill Monahan is going to adapt another of my books Once Were Cops and he’s going to put Farrell in the lead again.

“Usually from the time the makers say ‘Yes’ to your book to the time that the film is actually in the cinemas takes about five years. In my case it was two years. I’ve been very lucky.”

The cinematic quality of Bruen’s writing is no accident as at one stage in his life he harboured ambitions of being an actor.

“Before I went to college in Dublin I got a part in Alfred the Great playing a dead Viking and that kind of gave me the bug for acting” Ken says “I got accepted to RADA when I was a teenager but my father said ‘No way’ and that was that. Then I spent 20 years teaching English overseas and when I came back to Ireland the first job I got was on a Roger Corman film.

“A few years ago I played a sheriff in Alabama in the American Deep South and I finally got to wear the mirrored shades and call someone ‘Bubba’. I got the DVD of the film and I just couldn’t watch it because my acting was so bad. I thought ‘Thank God I didn’t pursue acting as a career’ and I’m so glad that I pursued writing instead.”

Cult writer

Bruen earned a PhD in metaphysics from Trinity College and spent 25 years as an English language-teacher in Africa, Asia, and South America. In 1979 he accepted a teaching post in Rio de Janeiro and soon after was wrongly imprisoned. He suffered horrendous torture and abuse in prison and it was to shape the rest of his life.

Upon his release four years later he moved to the south London district of Brixton and it was there that he began his career in writing. His series of Jack Taylor novels have been among his most famous.

“I had all those years of writing and nothing happening,” he says of his early writings. “It was kind of nice though having the down escalator all to myself. The great thing about being ‘a cult writer’ is that you can write what you want because there’s no editor looking over your shoulder. It means that you get lots of good reviews but you don’t sell too many books.”

The character of Jack Taylor is an alcoholic/poet/philosopher ex-Garda Síochána who becomes a private investigator in Galway after a number of mysterious deaths in the city. Taylor has a troubled life and battles with many demons but does so with a keen sense of humour. Recently the story of this hard-boiled cop has been adapted into a TV3 television series.

“I’m delighted that The Guards is being made here,” Bruen says of the filming in Galway. “I never wrote The Guards as my ‘break-out book’ but that’s just the way it happened. I had 18 books written and published and Jack Taylor was just an idea I had that really took off.

“I was on the train to Dublin recently and there was a guy sitting across from me that really looked like a guard. I got chatting to him and he told me that he was an actor playing the part of a guard in Jack Taylor.

“I love the fact that women come up to me in the supermarket and tell me that their houses are being used in the film and that their friends got parts as extras.”

Through Bruen’s books the thriller/crime fiction world has focused upon the west of Ireland. Ken has been credited with creating the ‘Galway noir’ genre.

“I’m not sure about that,” he laughs. “I’d be glad to be responsible for something though. It’s much better than people saying that I was responsible for the swans getting killed! ‘Noir’ is such a different genre to pin down. I’d say it’s something that starts badly and gets worse and then, of course, there’s ‘noir light’ where everyone gets killed!

“I think Irish people could write really brilliant noir because we’ve such a dark sense of humour. The darker something is the funnier we find it. It’d be great if we could do for Galway what Iain Rankin’s books have done for Edinburgh”

Amazing Grace

Ken returned to live in his native city 18 years ago after the birth of his daughter Grace. Her arrival gave him a fresh perspective on life and his writing career as she was born with Downs syndrome.

Grace is perhaps his harshest literary critic and joked recently in an interview that she would prefer to become a hairdresser rather than an author because she wants to make money.

“I remember when Grace was born people used to say to me ‘Isn’t it a terrible tragedy that your daughter is damaged’ and I used to feel so much rage,” Bruen admits.

“Phil and I had to make a decision very early on that we were either going to raise a child with Downs syndrome or we were going to raise Grace. We opted to raise Grace.

“She’s a teenager now and of course nothing dad does is interesting or cool. Recently though she went to cinema with her friends and there was a huge poster of London Boulevard in the foyer and she said ‘That’s cool’. Finally after all my years of writing I got the best endorsement I could have hoped for.”

London Boulevard is in cinemas now. Ken Bruen’s novels are available in all good book shops.


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