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Comedy with bite

Author Caimh McDonnell told David Hennessy about why vampires are ‘sex pests’ and a good metaphor for toxic masculinity, being compared to Terry Pratchett and why getting messages from readers in hospital means so much to him after losing his father.

Manchester-based Dublin author and former stand-up comedian Caimh McDonnell has just released the second novel in his critically acclaimed Stranger Times series, written under the name C.K. McDonnell.

The supernatural comedy series follows the staff of a struggling Manchester-based weekly newspaper dedicated to investigating the weird, the unexplained and the inexplicable.

Caimh is known for his Dublin Trilogy books of crime fiction with a dark comic edge which feature his anti-hero, Bunny McGarry.

This Charming Man sees assistant editor Hannah and editor Banecroft having to deal with vampires starting to pop up around Manchester

While the first book was launched in the bleak times of the height of the pandemic, the experience is different this time around.

Caimh told The Irish World: “It’s great.

“We’re doing a launch in a bookshop.

“When the first book came out, no book shops were open which was a bit of a bit of an issue.

“So it’s been great to kind of start doing the normal author stuff we weren’t able to do the first time.

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“The great thing about fiction is, on one level, you can escape from life.

“But on the other side you can also, if you like, comment and commentate on it a little bit. You can give your opinion on certain things.

“There’s been, in author groups, a lot of debate about whether you should mention the pandemic, or all these kind of things.

“And to be honest, I think most authors are basically thinking, unless it’s really important to the story, to basically just sort of ignore it.

“There will be some great stories to come out that are deliberately set in that time to talk about what it was like, but unless you need to mention it, I think most people have decided to avoid it.

“I think it’s probably the way to go to be honest.”

Caimh has good reason for this as he has received many comments from his readers about how his books have provided some distraction in bleak times.

“It’s pure escapism.

“I view myself first and foremost as a storyteller and an entertainer.

“All my favourite authors, like Terry Pratchett, when I was reading their books, I was invariably standing on a tube for 45 minutes every morning in somebody’s armpit reading a book. I wanted somebody who could take me out of that, give me some joyous escapism where I could enjoy a good story but also have a laugh along the way.

“I think that’s what I’ve always admired in my favourite authors, and that’s what I aspire to do.

“I’m not trying to reimagine the great literary piece or write the great Irish/ British novel but I am just trying to entertain people with a story and give them something they know they’ll like, and I think people respond to that.

“Throughout Irish literature, the thing that’s probably the common factor is that we were always particularly strong at telling stories.

“I think that’s the most important thing in the world. It doesn’t matter the fancy language you use, what matters is the story and how it affects people and how it entertains and engrosses.”

Caimh mentions his favourite author Terry Pratchett there. He has been honoured to be compared to the late author of the Discworld series.

Adam Kay, author of This is Going to Hurt which has been adapted and is currently showing on BBC, said of This Charming Man: ‘Wonderfully dark, extremely funny, and evocative of Terry Pratchett – which I think is the highest compliment I can give.’

This is also the highest compliment Caimh can receive.

“Terry Pratchett is my all-time favourite author bar none.

“The books are very different in many ways.

“But at the same time, I think the idea is if you like Terry Pratchett, you might like these. That’s the point.

“I’m very flattered that people have been saying that quite a bit.

“I’m not saying I am Terry Pratchett, the man was a genius but it’s just nice that people think that people who like his work might also enjoy mine.”

As well as Adam Kay, Caimh has had the support of crime fiction writer Mark Billingham as well as comedy figures like Jason Manford and Sarah Millican.

However, the most meaningful messages come from ordinary readers most in need of that escapism.

“We get emails from a lot of readers and stuff like that.

“As nice as it is to have names people recognise and stuff like that, some of the nicest things you’ll get as an author is like when I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve been in and out of hospital and what I do is I save up your books to read them in hospital because I know they will be entertaining and fun reads’.

“Genuinely, that kind of stuff is lovely. Because I recently lost my father.

“I was back in Ireland last week, it was my father’s funeral.

“I was going through that, going backwards and forwards to Ireland.

“He was ill for a while. He was 85. It was not a big surprise.

“And he was really very lucky in the sense that he wasn’t in a lot of pain or anything.

“But I know when I was going through that, I ended up going back and re-reading Terry Pratchett books because it was like my emotional comfort food.

“We’ve got these lovely emails that were saying, ‘I’ve been in and out of hospital and I’ve been using your books as something to kind of get me through that’.

“That’s the nicest thing I think anybody can ever say because it shows they really do connect and they find something in it, which is lovely.

“My dad was one of my favourite audiences. I loved making the man laugh. He had a great sense of humor.

“He was really proud of my books.

“I remember when we signed the deal and because traditional publishing has a long lead time, it was going to be 18 months later when the first book came out.

“And Dad at the time literally went, ‘I’ll be dead by then. What good is that to me?’

“’Stop saying that. You won’t. You’ll be fine’.

“And then luckily, he was here when The Stranger Times out came and he had actually seen This Charming Man as well.

“He was past the point where he could read, but he still loved having the books and showing them to people when they came to see him which was very nice.”

And Caimh is conscious that his father will live on in him and even his work and refers to a fundraising novella in aid of homeless charity the Peter McVerry Trust.

“He’s always in there.

“He’s a big influence on how I see the world.

“He worked his whole life in the St. Vincent De Paul.

“Like in the Bunny books before, I’ve done stuff about homelessness because I think it is important to be aware of the world you live in.”

This Charming Man also contains a tribute to the late comedian Ian Cognito, once known as Britain’s most banned comic, who died during a performance in 2019.

“The book is dedicated to a gentleman called Ian Cognito: Brilliant stand up. Should have been a lot better known than he was, but he died on stage in April 2019.

“That made news and what was a real shame was the reason wasn’t because Ian Cognito, the great comedian, passed away but because ‘comedian dies on stage’ was a much more interesting angle for the press.

“He was an extraordinary comedian, his own worst enemy in a lot of ways, but he was just brilliant.

“He was this classic alternative comedian where he could be sort of shouty and all this sort of thing but had amazing stage presence.

“You’ve never seen somebody quite take over a room the same way Ian Cognito did.

“I used to do gigs where he would have a guitar walking up and down the aisle in between the audience strumming it while telling them stories and alternatively shouting in some of their faces: Just an amazing experience.

“And around the time I started coming up with this book was around the time that Ian Cognito died.

“Comedians and everybody was sharing stories.

“And nobody had more stories to be told about them than Ian Cognito did.

“He was he was a properly rock and roll character in many ways.

“And the idea I came up with was to have him being represented by the character Cogs in the book, where he has forced to live on a boat, Ian did live on a boat, and he’s got this curse where he has to tell the truth which just seemed like a poetic little homage to him.

“The weirdest thing was I sort of wrote the whole book and thought, ‘God, I better check with Ian’s family they’re okay with this’.

“I remember feeling when I started sending the emails, this feels really weird because it was like, ‘Hello, you don’t really know me but I was a friend of your father’s. I have written a book with a character named after him. Would you like to read it? I just want to make sure you’re okay with it’.

“But thankfully they were, they were great with it because they’ve been around comedy their whole life and they got the whole thing was just a fun homage and a nice little tip of the cap to him.

“It ended up being one of the most fun parts of the book having this incredible character who is forced to tell the truth because it’s just a great device in a book and something I haven’t seen anywhere else.

“It just feels like a fun way of remembering somebody.

“And ultimately, that’s what stories are, they’re ways of remembering people.

“Nothing really captures seeing him live. He barely ever got on TV.

“He was considered to be too big a risk, I think.

“But if you had to pick someone to be the spirit of live stand-up comedy, it would be Ian Cognito.”

Vampires have been dealt with on the page and screen in everything from Buffy and Twilight to True Blood and Dracula.

Caimh has a slightly different take.

“I’m not a big fan of vampire books per se.

“They’re always presented as these kind of sexy things and I’ve read some various books about why people think this is but I always think it’s a bit creepy frankly because as far as I’m concerned, vampires are kind of sex pests, and how they became these sexy, alluring characters I don’t really know.

“I kind of enjoyed really just using it as a way of talking about toxic masculinity and I think it kind of fitted that really well.

“It happened by accident, as these things often do.

“But as the scene developed, I just felt like it sort of fit because I’ve never really understood the vampire thing.

“Because if you look at their behaviour, it’s pretty horrible.

“You don’t even have to go as far as the drinking blood and stuff.

“If the bloke who’s dating your sister was behaving the way vampires behave, you wouldn’t be happy.

“I don’t think this is the book for vampire fans necessarily. I imagine it is not their image of vampires. I’m going the other direction.”

What will be different about this book and any forthcoming adaptation to any previous representations of vampires is the Manchester setting.

Born in Limerick, Caimh was raised in Dublin. He has lived in London and even been the announcer with London Irish Rugby Club. He has called Manchester home for years.

“Manchester is a brilliant city. I think I’ve said this before, it really does remind me of the Dublin that I grew up in.

“I would say in a weird way, Manchester is probably the nearest you could get to Dublin without being in Dublin.

“And certainly the attitude of the northerners and Irish people are very similar.

“Manchester has that sort of weird thing. For the big city that it is, it’s also quite a small town in some ways.

“It has that kind of feel to it, again like Dublin.

“And I think they just have a distinctive sense of humour, which I like.”

Was the book’s title a tribute to The Smiths or Morrissey? “My intention is that all the books going forward will all have titles associated with Manchester bands. It just seems like a nice fun way of acknowledging the Manchester link.

“I think he next book is almost certainly going to be called Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

The television rights for The Stranger Times series has been won at auction by Wolf Hall and The Missing producers, Playground Entertainment while the Bunny McGarry books continue to also be developed.

“I know there’s things ongoing on both of them and there has been some exciting steps.”

For fun, we ask if Caimh pictures any particular actor in the role of Bunny McGarry or indeed as Hannah or Banecroft.

“It’s hard because people have these things in their head.

“Brendan Gleeson gets mentioned a lot for Bunny, people do sort of see him as the character which I get.

“The description of Bunny in the books is quite like Brendan.

“Bizarrely, it wasn’t meant to be.

“The character was half based on somebody I knew, who was a little short fella from Cork.

“And then literally weeks before the first book came out, I had a panic, ‘People are going to know who this is based on, he might not like it’.

“So I went back and changed it to him being a big fella.

“So people always seem to think I had him in my head when I was writing and honestly, I didn’t at all.

“I’m genuinely very open minded about it.

“For The Stranger Times, I can honestly say I haven’t picked particular actors.

“Dylan Morris, in a way, the character of Banecroft is maybe a little bit of him in Black Books.

“There’s an element of that to it.

“And he could certainly be great.

“I was actually lucky enough to meet Dylan Moran for the first time a couple of years ago. He’s a lovely man but he’s also incredibly healthy and clean living these days.

“He’s quite famed for being quite dishevelled and fond of the drink and when I met him, he was drinking herbal tea and taking very good care of himself.

“But no other actors apart from that really spring to mind.”

And the next Bunny McGarry book Firewater Blues is also not far away.

“It’s coming out on Paddy’s Day which is going to be the sixth in the, as we’re calling it, ‘the increasingly inaccurately titled Dublin trilogy’.

“The lesson I have learned is never put a number on a series.”

This Charming Man by CK McDonnell is out now on Bantam Press.

Firewater Blues by Caimh McDonnell is out on 17 March.

For more information, click here.

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