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This Northern Irish author's new novel could be the next Gone Girl

We talked to Stuart Neville, whose new book Here and Gone has been optioned for a movie.

Haylen Beck Stuart Neville Source: Ollie Grove

STUART NEVILLE IS one of Ireland’s top crime novelists – but he’s gone and done something a bit unusual at this point in his career.

He’s taken on a new pen name.

Now, under the nom de plume Haylen Beck, the Armagh-born writer has penned what his publishers hope is the thrill of the summer, Here and Gone, which they say will appeal to fans of Gone Girl and Gone Baby Gone.

And it looks like it could follow those novels to the screen too – the film rights to the book have already been snapped up by Meredian Entertainment, with co-producer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), on board.

Here And Gone is about a woman, Audra, who has finally left her abusive husband. While driving on an empty Arizona road, she spots a police car behind her. She is soon under arrest for possession of marijuana… and hunting for her children, who she’s being told don’t exist.

Neville grew up devouring books by Stephen King, before moving on to writers like James Ellroy and Thomas Harris. So when he first sat down to write in his early 30s – having decided that it was ‘now or never’ to try this writing lark – he naturally gravitated towards thrillers.

He wrote two novels in quick succession “that will never see the light of day”, but his third, The Twelve, became his first published book in 2009. It won the LA Times’ award for best crime novel that same year.

While he set his first two books outside of Northern Ireland – America and Manchester – he soon turned towards his home country, albeit reluctantly. “At the time the one place I didn’t want to write about was Belfast and the one thing I didn’t want to write about was the Troubles,” says Neville.

Taking on a pen name

Here and Gone

Now, he’s always associated with Belfast-based books, so it made sense for him to take on a pen name when setting his new book in Arizona.

The book’s plot came to him as a line of dialogue that “just bubbled up” one evening. “It was a character saying: ‘There’s a man who’ll pay a million dollars a child or three million for a pair’,” he recalls. As he asked himself questions about this line, the story began to unfold.

The book’s location was inspired by trips to visit the Poison Pen bookstore in Arizona. The hills, heat and cacti all combined to create a delicious backdrop for a thriller.

“It looks like the surface of Mars or somewhere. And coming from where I’m from just outside Belfast, we’re used to grey skies and constant drizzle,” says Neville.

The new setting gave him freedom, “not having to worry about series characters or anything, the story idea itself was more high concept than anything I’ve done before, and is more overtly commercial”.

He didn’t even tell his agent and publishers about the book until late on, which gave him additional freedom. “Having a contract and a deadline puts fear into you, and it becomes much harder to just get into the story,” he says. “And also if it didn’t work I could just drop it and it didn’t matter. But thankfully it did work.”

What also helped the project to develop was an unexpected note from John Joseph Doherty of the Northern Arizona University, who invited Neville to come talk to his students. They ended up going on a two-day road trip from Phoenix to Flagstaff.

A lot of what they encountered on that trip made its way into the book – like the bald eagle they spotted near a dried-up lake bed, the convenience store they called into, and the town of Gisela, which was turned into Silver Water for the book’s purposes.

Becoming a villain

Neville has drawn praise for his depiction of violence, in that he doesn’t shy away from the details – but he doesn’t set out to shock either.

“I do enjoy writing villains, writing things from their point of view. I write every character as being the hero of their own story, so as far as any villain is concerned, they are the good guy. That does consist of trying to get into the mindset of dodgy people,” laughs Neville.

But there are lines he won’t cross. “This book involves the disappearance of children, within that there are places I wouldn’t go, because I’m a parent as well – there are things I don’t want to read so I’m not going to write them,” he says.

As for violence, he doesn’t “revel in it” – preferring the power of suggestion. At an event once, he read a scene from a book where one man goes to a house to kill another man, and stabs him. A woman approached him afterwards, admonishing Neville about how “awfully violent” the scene was.

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“And there was actually only one sentence in the whole two, three pages that I read that actually described an act of violence – everything else was the suggestion of it, the anticipation of it,” says Neville.

So I think quite often readers if they actually looked at what I’d written, they might be surprised at how little violence there actually is.

He believes the reader wants to picture what’s happening themselves, and get a thrill out of it. “I think it’s the same reason people go on rollercoasters, and ghost trains,” says Neville. “We want to be scared, but in a safe way.”

Normalisation

Neville never set out to write about Northern Ireland, but says his books tend to show the post-Troubles changes in the country.

“Belfast has kind of re-blossomed, even in the last five or 10 years there’s a feeling of very pleasant normality about everything, ” he says.

They also show how the attitude around Northern Irish writing has changed. For example, his first book was called The Ghosts of Belfast in America, but The Twelve in Ireland.

“And that stemmed purely from the difficulty at that time of selling the book with ‘Belfast’ in the title,” he says.

“Because there was a resistance to fiction about Northern Ireland and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland itself. The hardest place to sell a book about Belfast was Belfast at that time,” he says.

There’s been a real change and I really noticed it around the time of The Fall, the show with Gillian Anderson.

He suggests that people “didn’t want to be reminded of the drudgery” of the Troubles. “I think that was the thing about the Troubles more than anything else, it wasn’t that you were sort of constantly afraid, I think it was just a real drudge,” he says, describing barriers and curfews, towns that “died every night at 6pm”.

His work has drawn praise from heroes like Ellroy, something which underscores how happy he must be to have pursued writing full time.

“I remember sitting down and writing my first book and thinking ‘no one is ever going to read them – why am I spending hours and hours and hours on this’,” he recalls. “So then when you do get the book out and published, and you get a quote like Ellroy or you win an award, all of a sudden you feel ‘OK, this was worthwhile, I wasn’t wasting my time’.”

Here and Gone is published by Vintage and out now.

Read: Irish crime writing is having a killer moment right now>

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