By David Hennessy
“I hate bursting people’s bubbles, everybody wants to believe something like a fairytale has happened over here but it hasn’t,” says crime writer Sam Millar when asked if Northern Ireland has changed from the bitter and divided place he grew up in.
Sam Millar spent years in Long Kesh Prison where he endured the blanket protest. He has written about his experiences in his 2003 memoir, On the Brinks, which also details his involvement in illegal gambling in New York and his part in the infamous Brinks robbery.
Pardoned by President Bill Clinton, Millar returned to Northern Ireland, the place that he simply had to leave as a younger man unless he was to spend further time behind bars. On the Brinks has long been lauded, Warner Brothers even bought the rights before backing out to controversy, and Millar is now a celebrated writer of crime fiction.
Travelling the world in his work, people like to ask Sam if Northern Ireland has really emerged from its violent past but the writer sees the same problems still there under the surface.
“It’s changed superficially but for working class Protestants and working class Catholics, it hasn’t changed. There’s still a lot of people out of work, a lot of poverty and it seems the politicians are the only ones who seem to benefit out of this Good Friday Agreement which has been a terrible let down to be honest with you especially in nationalist communities but for myself being a writer, of course, I have been able to move away and I felt guilty. You don’t want to turn your back on your neighbourhood but at the same time,
“I’ve young children. I want them to have a better life. I don’t want them to have the life that I had so I moved into a middle class area and I’ve got all the quietness and all this but I still think of my friends who live in tough areas and nationalist areas. For me, it didn’t change. My writing changed, that’s what helped me but here, there’s like a falseness of peace.
“There’s been a lot of suppressing the truth. Certain parties now control more or less what’s being said in certain areas and God help you if you speak out against them: You’re labelled an informer, a dissident, a drug dealer, a paedophile. Once you say the wrong thing, rumours are attached to your name and God help you if you can’t stand it.”
Sam’s latest novel, Black’s Creek, deals with a mystery from protagonist Tommy’s youth being reopened. It follows a string of well received novels from Sam which include the stories his Northern Irish detective Karl Kane. He has also written plays. Can the author believe the effect On the Brinks has had, winning the Golden Balais d’Or for Best Crime Book? “I was quite shocked.
“I wrote the book when I was in the penitentiary in America, really to save my life. It was getting me away from the dreary thought of violence that was always hanging over me in the place and I wrote it never believing it would ever be printed. I wrote this book in my cell, to get the poison out of my system and just to help me day by day. If somebody had told me it was going to be bought by Warner Bros and how many awards it was going to win, I would have laughed at them to be honest with you.
“It was just to keep me sane. I must have wrote about 800 pages and I was taking them as I was getting moved from penitentiary to penitentiary and I was always dreading losing it all but I managed to bring most of it back home with me and one day, I just sat down, typed it out and started looking for a publisher not really believing it would ever be published.
“I wrote it as a personal thing, I always knew there was going to be a backlash from certain sections of the community but for me it was mostly written for myself and for my family.”
On the Brinks deals with Sam’s difficult childhood. His father and young Sam struggled to cope after Sam’s mother left them. It was only years later that Sam understood that his mother was struggling with depression and the author has done work with people who suffer with the mental illness.
“I like to think it helped certain members of my family but it has also helped quite a few prisoners who were on the blanket and who separated, divorced from their wife and never actually explained about what went on there, about the rapes and everything. It was the first time they were able to show that to their children: Why they had changed so dramatically.
“That was the one that always touched me, to have prisoners and their families discussing the book or when I go to various community centres and people still talk about how it affected them. I didn’t do this deliberately, I didn’t realise the effect it was going to have on people but here in the north, it has had an amazing effect, especially on ex-prisoners.”
The second Bush administration were not happy about a film being made of Sam’s life in the wake of 9/11 and so Warner Brothers dropped their plans of adapting it. But now, it looks like Sam’s memoir will make it to the screen: “On the Brinks has been accepted, it’s getting made into a movie so I’m going down to meet a guy tomorrow. We’re getting ready to sign a contract to get the film going.
“Once Warner Brothers had bought the rights to it, I just let it be but then after a couple of years, they more or less dropped it. There was a bit of controversy over it because 9/11 had just happened and the Bush administration had got involved and Warner Brothers dropped it but since then, there’s always been a few people interested but nobody really willing to jump in but the last year has been pretty good, there’s been quite a few companies interested.”
However, Sam confesses to some relief that Warner Brothers never made their version of the book: “When they sent me the script, I was saying: ‘Which book did you read?’ They had turned it into sort of a Rambo film which is sort of scandalous but I had already signed my book over to them so in a way, when they dropped it, I was a bit saddened because who the hell doesn’t want to have a book made by Warner Brothers? But at the same time, it was a relief because I would have got dog’s abuse from all my friends and relatives: ‘What the hell’s that there you wrote?’”
Sean Penn was once in the frame to play Sam. Now, the author would prefer Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker and American Hustle: “It would be a dream because I think he’s got that roughness and doesn’t really give a crap attitude, like he would take on anyone despite the size of him. A bit like myself, I never backed down from anything which was probably my downfall.”
Millar has been described as “Ireland’s most controversial novelist” and his books have been lauded by publications such as Rolling Stone and New York Times who love his authenticity. Does Millar feel other tales that deal with Northern Ireland lack similar validity? “I find the vast majority of films that are made about the North of Ireland are anti-Nationalist, anti- Republican, there’s always a British viewpoint or a British person comes and rescues everybody and the two bad tribes over here are rescued by this person. I don’t really watch them because they’re so depressing.
“You have to think beyond The Troubles. People, especially here in the North, don’t want to read about The Troubles. We want to see a different viewpoint of Belfast. The view I give is not really liked, the tourist board have been very critical of my books because I’m portraying Belfast the way I see it. They want it all: ‘It’s a great place to visit’. It might be but it’s not the way I see it so it’s up to anyone who wants to write about it the north to think originally.”
Black’s Creek centres around a crime writer with a dark past. Unsurprisingly, the author says it is based on himself. Protagonist Tommy was fourteen when he saw his a young boy commit suicide by drowning. Convinced it was the molestation of an outsider that drove Joey to such an act, Tommy and his friends take things into their own hands. They get away with it until the case is reopened many years later.
The writer explains its inspiration: “I lived in New York for about fifteen years and there was always a story about a guy who had been killed by these teenagers. (They said it) was because he was a paedophile, that he had actually sexually molested one of their friends but the guy actually committed suicide and then a few years later, he was actually proven not to have been the perpetrator. It was one that stuck in my head.
“I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s Stand by Me so I tried to blend that into the story in my own way. That’s more or less how it came about. It’s been in my head for quite a long time but because it’s sort of an American story, I didn’t have time to write it because most of my books are based in Belfast. I don’t know how my readers would have responded to an American story but thankfully it has been well received in Belfast here.
“You hear different stories and you read different news articles but that’s always struck me about how you always see these horrible pictures of a person when they’re accused of being a paedophile. You say: ‘Yeah, he looks like one’. About four or five years later, the man was actually cleared of being one. He was dead, the person who did it was one of these ‘right moral people to the community’ so I was just trying to think of a story around it. Without giving away too much of the ending, it’s easy to accuse people who may be innocent after all.
It undoubtedly goes back to his own childhood and his mother but a theme Sam explores again and again is wounded childhood. Is this conscious or subconsciously? “It’s quite cathartic at times. It’s great because I think after years and years of torture and tormenting myself, writing has finally brought peace for me. I know that might sound a bit dramatic but it has. It’s quietened me and it’s calmed me and it’s given me a new outlook on life. I suppose you could say it’s been my saviour. It gives me something to focus on, something positive.”
Black’s Creek by Sam Millar is out now.
For more information, go to http://millarcrime.com/.