“What happened to the third little pig, Daddy?”: Bob Burke on pig detectives and his Writing Life

Anyone who’s perused the crime fiction section of their bookstore knows the joy of finding something original among the tired old shelves of loner detectives who play by their own rules on the mean streets of some dingy inner city. The clichés of the genre were uppermost in my mind when I chose to write about Omar Yussef, a schoolteacher and detective in a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem. Irish writer Bob Burke has not merely blown the crime formula away like Dirty Harry's Magnum – he’s used them as the source of much of the fun in his great new novel “The Third Pig Detective Agency.” Bob’s first book in the series is populated by characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. His detective is the surviving Little Pig (after the Big Bad Wolf ate the first two) and his mean streets are in Grimmtown (as in The Brothers Grimm of fairy tale fame). In my review, I wrote that “Third Pig” is “undoubtedly the most whimsical hardboiled detective novel ever written, and it's utterly delightful.” As you’ll see from this interview, so is Bob Burke.

How long did it take you to get published?

Since I started taking writing a bit seriously, about three years – but I was lucky.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

In terms of what I got out of them, I’d suggest two: Stephen King’s On Writing for its very straightforward, no nonsense approach to putting pen on paper (as well as being a very honest autobiography) and Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication which shows how the industry works from first draft, through getting an agent, contracts, publication etc. Both are invaluable for anyone starting out.

What’s a typical writing day?

During school term I get my sons to school and am back at the house by 9:30 (probably still asleep). I’m definitely not a morning person so after a refueling session with coffee, I start by checking email, blogs, twitter and doing any publicity bits and pieces that may have arisen (aka arseing around on the web). Once I’ve evolved from zombie to something approaching human I start on whatever story I happen to be working on and work through until about 5pm, with numerous refueling stops along the way (coffee, must have more coffee). I never worry about word counts as long as I have something on paper (or on PC to be more accurate). Eventually something tangible appears from the combination of brain, caffeine and willpower.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Harry Pigg – sole survivor of the unfortunate Three Little Pigs incident and self-styled master detective – is hired by Aladdin to locate his missing lamp. The trail leads Harry through a maze of unreliable informants, mysterious strangers, not-so-dastardly villains, occasional beatings and an unpleasant encounter in a sewer. Is it great? Most people that have read it seem to like it, which is all I can ask for. It’s certainly a different take on the traditional detective novel.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

The formula for the detective story (particularly the hard-boiled type) is so well established that it provided the perfect template to work with – and take the piss out of. I just wanted to approach it from a slightly skewed angle but still work with all the conventions that people are familiar with (and probably expect). I’d like to think that my take on it has some degree of originality that will make readers want to come back to it again (and again and again and…)

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

It’s not great literature but that one line, the opening to “Treasure Island,” opened up the world of story to me. With that book I went from reading stories that were short and illustrated to a more intimidating volume that was rich with text and had no pictures. Almost immediately I was sucked into the story, all sense of intimidation gone as the narrative carried me into a true adventure story. Even now, Treasure Island remains one of my favourite reads.

The line that made me laugh the most (and still does) is from The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett: Rincewind had been generally reckoned by his tutors to be a natural wizard in the same way that fish are natural mountaineers.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

If I might be permitted to go all literary and pretentious, the passage that sends shivers down my spine is the last page or so of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce where he describes the River Liffey flowing into the sea. Yes, most of the rest of the book is impenetrable and I don’t claim to have made any sense of it but that one piece is accessible, evocative and so beautifully written

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

John Connolly. His ability to mix wonderful prose, engaging characters and compelling storylines make me want to weep every time I read one of his books. He’s also managed the difficult task of injecting his otherwise dark stories with a vein of black humor that never seems forced or inappropriate.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Jeffrey Deaver. Take an impossible situation, throw in a series of plot twists and end with a satisfying and logical conclusion and you have a recipe for one of his books.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

A quick shufti through the Bookmarks section of my web browser shows one link: an online version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Make of that what you will! In fairness, there’s such a rich treasury of nursery rhymes and fairy tales that I can “gleefully molest” (as one reviewer put it) that research isn’t as necessary as it might be for anything else I may write.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

I’d finished telling The Three Pigs to one of my sons and he asked, with typical child curiosity, “what happened to the third pig after the story was over?” I didn’t even have to think about it, the image of that third pig becoming a detective sprang almost fully-formed into my head. All I had to do then was work with it and develop a story.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

I think that discovering the power of storytelling through early exposure to Treasure Island and subsequently with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tolkien fuelled my imagination and gave me the urge to tell stories. Unfortunately there’s no hint of any trauma in the orphanage, wicked stepmothers or being sent out to steal by a shifty guardian in my childhood.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

Flog the web to death. Blog about it, twitter about it, link to blogs with similar themes. Also, local papers are always interested in the “local lad does good” angle and will more than likely welcome an approach, which may lead to other media taking an interest.

What’s your experience with being translated?

I’ll let you know if it ever happens!

Do you live entirely off your writing?

Not yet. I do some part time IT training in tandem with my writing but hopefully one day…

How many books did you write before you were published?

One. Again, I know how lucky I’ve been.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

A book tour, now there’s an aspirational goal.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

Well, if having a pig detective trying to find Aladdin’s lamp isn’t weird enough, I don’t know what is. Seriously, I think that any idea, regardless of how outlandish, may have the germ of a story in it somewhere. It may just need some nurturing and the occasional reality check before it ever becomes part of a coherent narrative.

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Comment by Dawn M. Kravagna on July 15, 2009 at 3:19pm
Congrats on "The Third Pig". Sounds like it's different from mine in which all of the characters are animals. I love the cover: really cool and noirish.
Comment by Tatjana Kruse on July 15, 2009 at 3:10am

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