West Belfast writer Pearse Elliott discusses his debut novel and his latest play
Jenny Lee chats to award-winning Belfast playwright and screen writer Pearse Elliott about his debut novel, which follows the misadventures of an Irish smuggler with a murky past in a violent and corrupt Havana
GRITTY, raw and edgy are words you normally associate with a Pearse Elliott play. Now, the west Belfast writer has captured these qualities in his debut novel, which delves into the murky underworld of life in Cuba.
The Executive Game tells the story of O'Neill, a disenchanted ex-Irish republican combatant, who was lured to Havana by the promise of making a quick buck from smuggling contraband cigars.
Combining romance with crime thriller, the story evolves as O'Neill encounters a beautiful Cuban woman, who is under the command of a Cuban crime lord who organises knife fights for tourists called The Executive Game, from which the book takes its name.
It's a story that has been "fermenting" in Elliott's imagination for almost two decades.
"I have always been fascinated by Cuban history and found the revolution with Castro and Guevara an incredible event, where the will of the determined minority overcame a corrupt government," he says.
To gain an insight into life in Cuba under Fidel Castro's communist regime, in 1999 Elliott travelled to the Caribbean island.
"I had the idea for the book, so booked my flights and went and stayed in The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, in the middle of Havana and just let the whole place seep into my bones," he says.
Much of this is colourfully painted within the opening pages of The Executive Game: men smoking and drinking rum; street children; rickshaw drivers sharing catalogues of photographs of women in various states of nudity with tourists; the sounds of salsa, maracas, drums and jazz and the smells of cigars – the darker the colour the stronger the flavour.
"When I was in Havana it was a very different place than now. Castro was the omniscient presence – he was on TV and radio constantly. There was this sad paradox of an incredible education and health infrastructure, yet no money to sustain it. The underground economy meant you would have doctors working as taxi men, simply because they were getting more money from tourists," Elliott recalls.
The moment at which his plot came to life was when an illicit tour guide showed him chicken and dog fights and told him about executive games.
"That's what put my mind into overdrive – the thought that two men who would fight for their lives to entertain tourists," he recalls enthusiastically, while acknowledging that the tour guide could have embellished these fights.
As for research for the character of O'Neill, the Lenadoon-born writer laughs, "I grew up with them".
Likened to No Country For Old Men (Cormac McCarthy's novel, from which the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning movie was adapted, was originally intended as a screenplay), The Executive Game is a compelling read that pulls no punches in terms of language and explicit, gut-wrenching detail.
"I wanted to write something exciting, enthralling and sexy. Havana is a very alluring place as the people are very sensual and attractive. That comes from music being everywhere. At night it didn't matter where you where – everything was moving."
Elliott has received support from industry experts, including literary agent Felicity Blunt, sister of award-winning The Devil Wears Prada and Sicario actress Emily Blunt, and English actor and producer Larry Lamb, who has already optioned Elliott to write the screenplay of The Executive Game.
"Brad Pitt would make an excellent O'Neill," says Elliott, who as we spoke was finishing off what he hopes is a final draft of the screen adaptation of his bittersweet comedy The Holy, Holy Bus, which has been commissioned by The British Film Institute (BFI).
To date Elliott has written more than 20 critically acclaimed stage plays and has been nominated 15 times at the Irish Film and Television Awards for his work. His credits also include the TV series Pulling Moves and the films Man About Dog and The Mighty Celt. His stage play Man In The Moon has enjoyed success in Ireland, Britain and the United States and is currently enjoying a reprise at Belfast's MAC Theatre.
This month also sees the premiere of his new play The Sword and the Sand. Described by Elliott as "the west Belfast Sopranos", it tells the story of political refugee Azir, who comes here to Belfast to escape a life of persecution only to find himself right back where he started. He gets taken advantage of by Duff, a local drug enforcer, and gets dragged into a life of crime from which he tries to escape.
"The play embraces the refugee experience as well as the redundancy of republican militarism and global issues of radicalism and Western consumerism. Sadly, within these communities people are being shot for selling drugs and people are being shot for not selling drugs and it needs to be addressed," Elliott says.
Elliott's prolific pen shows no signs of slowing, as he juggles screen adaptation with new stage ideas and another novel.
"The next novel could be compared to the movie Get Shorty and is based on my experience working with Hollywood actors that ended up running around south Armagh dressed as Ninja Warriors pretending to be on Youtube."
:: The Executive Game is out now, published by Excalibur Press. The Sword And The Sand, produced by Rawlife Theatre Company in association with The Lyric Theatre, is at the Lyric until May 27. Details and booking at lyrictheatre.co.uk