By David Hennessy
Although he has been an accomplished screenwriter for over 25 years and his first novel Crusher was published to critical acclaim last year, Newry writer Niall Leonard, is not even the most successful writer in his own house.
That would be his wife, EL James, author of the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels.
Such has been the publicity juggernaut accompanying that success that Niall’s own novelistic achievement was met by spiteful and resentful jibes in some quarters that his book’s success was only because of that of his higher profile wife.
But even the briefest glance at his CV – his writing credits include Ballykissangel, Pie in the Sky, Spender, Monarch of the Glen, Wild at Heart and Hornblower – reveal such jibes for the envy-inspired nonsense they are.
But Leonard never let such talk bother him or measuring himself as a writer against the author of the fastest-selling paperback of all time, with whom he just happens to share a bedroom.
“If you spent all your time comparing yourself to other people (writers), you’ll never actually get around to doing what you wanted to do yourself,” he says.
“I think it’s human nature to go: ‘Oh well, he’s got that because of this…’ And it’s not true. Crusher definitely got a leg up because I knew somebody but they wouldn’t have published it if it hadn’t been a damn good story in its own right, and I never had any doubt about that and so when people would say something, I would just shrug because I know it’s not true.
“I defy you to find any star who hasn’t got someone following them around going: ‘Ooh, you’re a chancer, you’ve got no talent’. Everybody does and it’s just part of the process and it’s something you’ve got to learn to live with.”
Niall’s debut novel Crusher tells the story of Finn Maguire, a seventeen year old dyslexic who finds his father murdered and then trawls the London underworld to find out who did it and why. Reviews have been positive and Niall has already been working on the second and third instalments to the series.
What inspired him to create his hero? “I really wanted Finn to be an outsider. He’s sort of like a prototypical Raymond Chandler character, Philip Marlowe. One of the ideas when I first started out was thinking about how Philip Marlowe ended up so cynical and so lonely? And I wanted to see what would bring a person to that place and so, horrible things happen to Finn and they keep getting more horrible but at the same time, he’s got a very strong core. He’s an engaging character, he’s fun to write because you put him in dark places and he finds a way out but at the same time, you keep coming up with darker places to send him.”
Niall has a teenage son himself. Was this helpful to his research for writing Finn? “Yeah, in a lot of ways. It certainly helps you with some of the terminology and the rest of it. I did some basic research asking about his attitudes to certain things. Originally when I was coming up with the idea for Crusher, I was going to use a rather safe middle class kid and then I realised that was too easy and not really engaging so I had to give him a lot of troubles and make him really struggle. I wanted somebody that people would misjudge and so I made him suffer from severe dyslexia that had never been properly treated or addressed, to give him a disadvantage, and also give him a reason to be roaming the streets instead of going to school.
“A lot of people say ‘dyslexia is like this’ and ‘dyslexia is like that’ but of course there’s a whole spectrum of severity and there’s the whole issue of whether it’s been properly diagnosed or treated, there are ways of addressing it. It’s an interesting condition in the sense that some people (who suffer with it) deny it exists altogether and with other people, it really does make a difference to their lives so you can’t really generalise about how it affects everybody because it affects everybody differently.”
With his resume of screen projects and his intriguing novel written so visually it lends itself to a film version, how would Niall feel about Crusher being adapted for the screen? “I wouldn’t mind seeing a screen version of Crusher, that way you get two bites of the cherry. Sometimes you write a film script and it goes around and no one gets to see it but if you write a novel, everybody gets to read it and if it’s interesting, they’ll make a film script out of it so in a way that’s one of the best ways of doing it.
“I never set out to write a film in a novel form. I mean you’ve got a lot of exposition which is easy to do because you just let the characters talk about themselves, you follow their train of thought and of course, that is one of the challenges to the screenwriter – how are you going to get all this story across without having someone sit down and make a bloody speech?
“So I found the novel form very liberating because screenwriting can be very restrictive. It’s a real challenge to try and say things economically, without being really on the nose or obviously just making speeches, so you’re constantly trying to find ways of expressing the story without letting everybody see what you’re doing.
“In a novel, you can do anything you want and at the same time, that’s actually quite intimidating because you don’t know where to go next.”
Being left to plot away by himself comes as a relief after years of Niall writing around a table with various film and television executives making their contributions.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll work with a bunch of people who are very interested in what you have to say, how you have to say it, and they will let you do it. The vast majority of the time, the sort of shows I worked on like Monarch of the Glen and Ballykissangel, there was a big team of people.
“I have found myself at times in a room with 14 people around a table, all of whom have got something to say and all who insist on saying it and you actually have to acknowledge their contribution even though you do end up saying, ‘Look, 14 people can’t write a script’.
“But you can’t do that because they’ve all got a job to do so you have to pretend that 14 people can write a script. I used to say to people, ‘it’s a well-paid job but half of the money is for your talent and the other half is for your ability to put up with all the bullsh*t’, quite frankly.
“In a collaborative medium, working with two or three people, you can have a really good time. When you get 14 people, it turns into a committee which drives you crazy. In a novel of course you work with publishers and it’s like a different world because they’re interested in your voice and what you have to say and the story you have to tell and the way you want to tell it.
“That’s really exciting and really liberating and it’s a real ego trip for someone who has been working in a committee all their lives. From that point of view, it was tremendous to work on Crusher just to actually be able to do stuff I wanted to do the way I wanted to do it.”
Niall has spoken in the past about having his best ideas mangled by the television process. Can these ideas find their way into his books now? “Sometimes they do. If you’ve got an idea you love in television, you usually keep it in the back of your head. When I had the idea for Crusher and the story of the murdered dad, suddenly a lot of things fell into place, a lot of the stuff I had been researching and a lot of the stories I had been thinking of suddenly all fitted in. Some things fall by the wayside and other things stay in and some of the things that fell by the wayside, I’ve kept back things for books two and three.”
Talking about collaborations and writing by committee, do husband and wife bounce writing ideas off each other? “Erica will throw these ideas at me and I’ll say ‘that sounds fantastic’ and she’ll go into her own little world and do it.
“I’ve given up a long time ago making suggestions because we’re very different writers, she’ll see certain aspects of a story that wouldn’t appeal to me. You can almost put it down to a brutal male/female thing, she’ll go for the romantic character, introverted approach, exploring emotional things and I’m finding ways to twist the story and narratives that make it really exciting.”
For the full interview, see the July 6 print edition of The Irish World.