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​Q&A with C.K. McDonnell, Author of The Stranger Times

Posted by Lucy H on 22nd Jan 2021

​Q&A with C.K. McDonnell, Author of The Stranger Times

The Stranger Times cover photoFirstly, this book has been a real highlight of a very miserable year so far, so thank you for that! It has the feel of an absolute classic in the making.

Did you start this book with a view to beginning a whole new series, or did that decision happen once you’d created The Stranger Times world?

I knew very early on it would be a series as the world just had so many potential stories in it that I want to tell and many directions that it could go in. Even in the first book there are so many threads that need to be followed – it’ll take me a long time to follow them all.

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

I like to think my work can appeal to a fairly wide cross-section of people as I think the humour element hopefully brings in readers that maybe don’t normally read a particular genre. When writing, I do think of a particular reader and that is me about eighteen years ago when I was working in London and spending my fifty minute commute each way crammed into a tube and reading brilliant authors like Terry Pratchett and Christopher Brookmyre. I want my books to be fast moving and compelling reads that can engross a reader and help them ignore the joys of their face being in some dude’s stinky armpit.

Do you have much time to read? Do you read for pleasure or for work?

I certainly try to. I do most of my reading in bed, much to the annoyance of my physiotherapist. When I met the brilliant author Gregg Hurwitz I did inform him that I nearly broke my nose when I dropped the hardback of one of his amazing Orphan X books on my face. I’m not sure he knew what to do with that particular piece of information!

How do you write? Do you have a special place, rituals, or a system that you like to use?

I now have my writing office at the end of the garden which I love. Before that, I had offices in various dodgy parts of Manchester. I can’t write in my own house, as it’s too close to the fridge, my bed and the TV. Luckily the end of the garden is far enough away while still being close enough for the dog to regularly check in on me.

Do you have any sage advice for aspiring writers?

Write short stories! I’m amazed how many people go straight for writing a novel. Short stories are so much more achievable and you will learn far more writing a dozen of them than you will a novel. They also give you that buzz of finishing something which is so important early on.

It’s clear from the dialogue that you are a gifted speaker, and that makes it a joy to read. How different is writing fiction to writing comedy?

They’re really quite different as prose gives you the ability to really set the scene and you can be anywhere, including inside somebody’s head. With stand-up you are always battling against the audience’s attention span and giving that statistically there’s a good chance they’ve had a couple of drinks, that is important. Less people read while sloshed, at least I think that is the case!

Do you prefer writing to performing?

Writing! I think I am better at it and, also, I don’t have to get on the M6 in order to do it! I do miss stand-up a little, but as much as anything that’s missing the company of stand-up comedians. They are some of the most engaged and intelligent people you could meet (with a few notable exceptions!)

What are the plans for the next Stranger Times book? Are you already working on it or is it waiting in the background somewhere?

I completed the first draft of the next book just before Christmas but it’ll probably be a year before it is out. Publishing moves quite slowly even when there isn’t a pandemic!

In the meantime, I have created The Stranger Times website and podcast where, in each episode, a wonderfully talented friend of mine from the comedy circuit narrates a Stranger Times short story that I have written. I’ve loved doing it and writing the stories have been a wonderful way to expand The Stranger Times world. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

The police in The Stranger Times brought the excellent Rivers of London books to mind. There were elements which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and (of course) the late great Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. That made The Stranger Times feel as if it occupies space in the same universe, which I loved. Which bit of the Multiverse would you make your home if you could go anywhere?

Thank you – I am a massive fan of literally everything you just mentioned. Without doubt I would go and live in Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork though, not least because I’ve read his books so many times that I would be able to find my way around easily.

Do you have a favourite genre or author? What would you say were significant influences on you (TV, film, or music?)

As previously mentioned, Sir Terry Pratchett is my all-time idol and that won’t be changing any time ever. As I have a tendency to read three to four books at a time, I’m essentially always reading one of his books.

I’m a massive fan of Aaron Sorkin and I have seen everything he has ever written. I’m also an unashamed geek for all things Marvel. Don Winslow’s cartel trilogy are books that were incredible reads and that fundamentally altered my view of the world, which is a rare thing.

Genre-wise, I mostly read crime and fantasy.

Visually and imaginatively this book is a treat – would you like to see it transfer to TV or the big screen? If so, who would you like to see play your characters?

Thanks. Luckily the Stranger Times has been optioned for TV by a brilliant company called Playground who made Little Women and Wolf Hall which is very exciting. The TV process is so labyrinthine though with so many potential pitfalls I think it is best for any writer’s sanity if you just worry about what you can control. i.e. writing the next book!

One thing which struck me was how solitary each member of The Stranger Times staff is. They really only have one another. Was this a deliberate plan, or did they evolve that way?

I guess to a certain degree that is the nature of the job. To end up seriously reporting stories that much of the world dismisses as nonsense you have to be a bit of a loner. In each other they find an admittedly highly-dysfunctional family.

The Covid situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?

Honestly – see above. I write novels for a living and I love doing that but the podcast and short stories is what came out of me needing to find something different to occupy my time.

What would your perfect day look like?

A lie in, followed by a long walk on the beach with my wife and Diller our dog, a few hours of writing, a BBQ for tea and then a trip to either the Komedia club in Brighton or any of The Stand clubs to enjoy a top night of stand-up comedy and a few drinks.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Crow Folk by Mark Stay. Witches in the WW2 English countryside. Delightful! Also Going Postal by Sir Terry and a short story collection by the brilliant Irish crime writer Stuart Neville.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Watership Down. I can remember being terrified that the bunnies would all be OK.

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.

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