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Stranger things

Author and former stand-up comedian CK (or Caimh) McDonnell told David Hennessy about his new book. Set in a whacky newspaper and with more than a hint of the supernatural and fantastical, The Stranger Times asks, what if the weird news was the real news?

Caimh McDonnell, the Irish author based in Manchester, has made a few changes for his latest novel. Not only does The Stranger Times see him embark on a new series, it also sees him writing under the moniker CK McDonnell for the first time.

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

Caimh has also been a stand up comedian, comedy writer for television shows like Mock the Week and is a former announcer for London Irish Rugby Club.

We have all seen those newspaper stories about aliens invading Wolverhampton and women marrying the horse next door. The Stranger Times is the first in a series of irreverent supernatural thrillers centred around a struggling Manchester-based weekly newspaper dedicated to investigating the weird, the unexplained and the inexplicable.

With more than a hint of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and other supernatural fiction, CK McDonnell told The Irish World the new series could be just the escapism the world is looking for in these bleak times.

“We get so many readers going, ‘This is a brilliant escape from everything else that’s going on’. Obviously the book was written a while ago but it has come when people are looking for that kind of escapism.

“I remember, even in author communities, when the pandemic first started people were having these discussions, ‘All these post-apocalyptic books are going to do really well because people are going to start reading that stuff now’.

“And I was like, ‘No, I think they’re gonna look for something funny because more than ever I think people want a light hearted escape’. And that’s certainly been our experience this year.

“All my other books have been doing very well and from the amount of emails we get from people saying, ‘This has been brilliant, helped me get through the pandemic’. And people are actually going, ‘I’ve read all your books, can you recommend anyone else who writes funny books? Because I don’t want to read any other type of book’.

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“Especially now everybody has finished Netflix, people are certainly reading more in general, I think. It’s a great way to shut off and to stop checking the news. My self and the wife have done quite a few board games and jigsaw puzzles for the same reason, it’s a great way of not looking at your phone.”

The story follows its protagonist Hannah who is making a clean break after the demise of her marriage. Needing a job for the first time in her life, she finds herself being hired as assistant editor at the whacky newspaper where she slowly finds out that not everything they report only exists in the minds of lunatics.

“I just like the idea of somebody basically just trying to reboot their life. It’s great as an author if you’ve someone going through a big moment of change in their life, they’re an interesting person to follow anyway.

“She’s somebody trying to do something a bit brave. She’s throwing away all the money she had in her old life. She’s heading out on her own even though she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s one of those things where you find yourself hopefully pulling for her.

“When you’re coming into this whole world, she’s the eyes of the reader.

“I’ve always been fascinated by weird news stories. I’ve read books about weird news stories and odd conspiracy theories people believe. The Fortean Times magazine is the big thing for that where it’s always full of UFOs and aliens and stuff. Their whole philosophy is kind of what The Stranger Times is based on. They’re not saying these things exist but they’re reporting things that people have said. Their attitude is, ‘Isn’t the fact that people think these things interesting?’ And they’re open to the idea of looking at all the weird things in the world. A lot of weird stuff happens in the world.

“We grew up in Ireland where statues were moving left, right and centre bleeding all over the place. That was a phenomenon.

“Other countries have all that kind of stuff going on so I guess those things have always fascinated me.

“I think the actual main news is a bit grind you down but that kind of stuff is just fun to read about.”

Caimh has been interested in the supernatural from childhood, perhaps inspired by the moving statues phenomenon he references, and the idea of writing something set in a newspaper that reports people’s out there beliefs is one he has had for a while.

“I had an idea for a sitcom 15 years ago. There’s a script actually knocking around somewhere that I wrote and my agent at the time didn’t send to anybody. I thought it was funny. He just didn’t get it.

“I had this idea of the newspaper. I loved the idea, the premise of the newspaper and just the romantic image of what we all think a newspaper is like or maybe used to be because obviously that changes dramatically in this day and age.

“The leap was, ‘Some of the stuff they report is going to have to be true’. Then that whole world sprung out of it. The idea came first for the newspaper.”

Caimh has been helped in his writing by the fact the world gets stranger and stranger. In just the last year the Pentagon has formed a task force to investigate UFOs sighted by their own military aircraft.

“In the last year there has actually been senior American politicians who have openly talked about the UFOs that have been repeatedly seen flying around American bases. The really stunning thing about it is that htey would never go on record with those things before.

“In fact, Jimmy Carter famously saw a UFO when he was a younger man and then when he got to running for President he started denying he ever said it because there was that idea you would be a lunatic if you even suggested that.

“Now senior American politicians has openly discussed it and said, ‘We don’t know what these things are. They’re either from a foreign government or from somewhere else’. And that’s quite extraordinary. The comment is more extraordinary than any footage because in this day and age everything can be faked but that’s still a real comment that they made.

“Every time I was in the car with other comedians, especially if someone else was driving, I would spend a lot of time just scanning the sky looking for UFOs. That’s literally my default thing if I’m in the passenger seat of a car.”

“I am also genuinely fascincated by the fact women seem to marry weird things. There’s a woman who recently married a briefcase. It’s a mental thing where people love objects. Basically, women marry things and men frankly don’t take that romantic an approach and men are regularly found trying to be in flagrante with weird objects. There’s something fascinating about the difference between men and women.

“Those kind of stories just fascinate me. I don’t know why. It’s just nice to know you live in a world where even when everything else is going on there is still that kind of wonderful random madness out there that’s not hurting anybody else. It just shows you that we’re not all fitting in square boxes, that there are these random mad things going on. Everyone has these odd little quirks in themselves that most of the time don’t come out but in a weird way it is quite therapeutic to see, I think.”

Looking for some escapism himself, The Stranger Times has now spawned more than just a novel now with its own podcast featuring comedians like Hal Cruttenden and Laura Lexx.

“That’s actually weirdly why The Stranger Times has become a larger project than just a book.

“I kept writing short stories because I had nowhere else to go and I needed a break from my day job of writing novels. There was nothing else to do so I started writing short stories.

“I’ve ended up now with about 12 Stranger Times short stories kind of based around the book. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with them, and all my friends are comedians who can’t work at all now and are really struggling, I actually got a load of comedians and had them all narrate one and we made them into a Stranger Times podcast.

“That’s been great and a lot of fun. They’ve been so good at it and stuff. That was me going on a mental holiday, giving myself a break to just do a short story and have a bit of fun. I’m luckier than most because I was working from home anyway but any kind of a break is always appreciated.

“I’m always going to be writing the funny books. I’m always reassuring people they aren’t going anywhere but I enjoy writing this as well and I think the variety is really good for me.

“If people enjoy this, I imagine I’m probably going to be writing this world for years to come hopefully.

“I gave up stand up June of 2019 which as my friend Gary Delaney says is the greatest piece of comedic timing ever. I gave up the stand up just as the comedy circuit unfortunately went down the toilet for a year.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise due to it starting its life as a sitcom that The Stranger Times has already been optioned for the screen with Playground snapping up the rights. Playground have been behind Sky’s Dracula starring jonathan Rhys-Meyers and hits for BBC like Wolf Hall and The White Queen.

“They’re currently putting a script together and pitching it to broadcasters.

“That was really odd. Before I had written the books, I had TV scripts that were optioned and going around but not getting anywhere and then weirdly with The Stranger Times before we had even signed the book deal, we were getting interest in the TV rights.

“I went to London and I sat there with my agent and I said, ‘How do people know about this now? And then the agent said, ‘It’s out there’. And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’

“As someone who worked in TV for years I went, ‘Is this how this stuff realy works? It seems incredibly random.’

“We ended up having quite a lot of interest, particularly from America bizarrely, from big companies.

“To be honest the weirdest thing in the whole process was if you have to talk to Americans, they will spend 15 minutes telling you how great it was and what bits they love, how incredibly talented you are and all this.

“Frankly, as an Irish person, that is torturous. We are not designed to take praise. It’s not something you get as a kid in Ireland, at least not in my experience.

“Don’t get me wrong. My parents are lovely people but they didn’t sit around telling you how great you are all day. I can remember just waiting for that bit to be over. It was torture.

“The people at Playground seemed to have the best feel for it.”

The Dublin Trilogy is also being optioned for television as Caimh has been having discussions with companies who want the rights to a Bunny McGarry series.

“It’s now been optioned again. It’s got a British company attached to it. They’re now actively pushing to do scripts. They’re in the same place where they’re going to be approaching broadcasters and stuff. Both of them are out there and being pushed.”

So why was the name change necessary? Why did Caimh want to release his latest under the name of CK? “We kind of wanted to keep it separate. I wanted to use a different name and then hilariously I kind of said that in a meeting to the publishers.

“I said over lunch, ‘Maybe a different name would make more sense.

“I always remember Simon, my editor- Lovely, extremely English man and he won’t mind me saying that but he’s a lovely, lovely man and he went, ‘Oh thank God because I was going to have to bring this up and I was dreading it. They’re terrified no one will be able to say Caimh and the publishers were keen to use a different name anyway. I was just dreading having to say to an Irishman, ‘Would you mind not using your name in your native language?”

“They were thrilled. It was just one of those things where it worked out well for everybody. CK isn’t even my initials by the way. I put C/K McDonnell on the front of the manuscript and he misread it and just went, ‘CK, sounds good’.

“That’s why it’s CK McDonnell. It actually stands for Caimh/Kevin. It ended up being my name twice effectively. My Dad is quite annoyed. He’s like, ‘That’s not your initials’. I said, ‘I know it’s not my initials, Dad but that’s what we’re going with’.”

Born in Limerick and raised in Dublin, Caimh has now been adopted by his current city of Manchester but somewhat wishes now he had chosen somewhere with less rain. One of the strengths of the book is its Manchester setting. While we’re used to supernatural stories in an American setting, paranormal goings on in The Stranger Times are often met with Manc sarcasm or a Northern putdown.

“I’ve lived there now for ten years. Manchester really, really reminds me of the Dublin I grew up in before Celtic Tiger. I think there are some enormous parallels. Both cities have the music scene. Most comedians are based in London and outside of that the second biggest cluster by a long long way is Manchester.

“Manchester just has theatre and arts and music and stuff like Dublin, like Ireland does and it takes those things seriously. If you do something in Manchester and it’s good people will turn up whereas I’ve lived in Birmingham and it’s a tougher sell.

“I like Birmingham but people who live there who work in the arts will tell you it is a tougher sell to get people out.
“My apartment in Manchester- I found this after being in a converted mill that the area I lived in at the time- I’ve moved since- was called Little Ireland.

“It was basically a slum in Manchester where the Irish were when they first came over when the mills were a big thing.

“It was quite extraordinary to think the big luxury apartment we were living in would have had 20 Irish people crammed into that space. It’s quite extraordinary to realise that but Manchester has that history. It is a city with a great history and feel to it as well.”

Although he no longer works with London Irish, Caimh is still excited about the club’s future.

“Obviously I’m not there anymore but I’m keeping an eye on them. They’re back in London now so I’m looking forward to going down and seeing them in Brentford when that’s possible.

“They’ve got some good players there, a lot of young guys coming through. In my job I ended up interviewing the young guys quite a lot. Those are the guys I’m really excited about pulling for.

“I think there’s a really exciting generation coming through now.”

The Stranger Times by CK McDonnell is out now on Bantam Press.

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