Belfast author Thomas Paul Burgess on how 9/11 inspired new novel Lands of The Lost
Belfast-born Thomas Paul Burgess talks to Noel McAdam about new noir thriller novel Through Hollow Lands and his 'life less ordinary' involving the Troubles, punk rock, academia and September 11 2001
BUT for a simple twist of fate, a Belfast-born novelist could have been among the victims of September 11. At the last minute, Thomas Paul Burgess and his wife Mary decided to fly to Las Vegas rather than San Francisco, which would have put them on the doomed Flight 93 which crashed into a Pennsylvania field 17 years ago next month.
The irony of growing up in west Belfast during the Troubles to end up almost being killed in the horror of the Twin Towers terrorist attacks is not lost on Burgess (58).
In fact, this twist of fate forms the backdrop to his recently published second novel Through Hollow Lands, a noir thriller which is also something of a satire on the times in which we live.
Burgess believes the current state of moral deterioration in the USA today began with the events of '9/11'.
"Even five years ago, if I had told you that Britain would leave the European Union and a reality game show host would become President you would have thought it was a dangerous fiction," says the author, who has been a senior lecturer at University College Cork for over 20 years.
"Given enough time it would seem that almost anything can become plausible. But on the morning of 9/11, Mary and I were at Newark airport preparing for our honeymoon trip. A late change of plan perhaps saved our lives.
"To this day I can't remember a firm reason why we decided to start in Las Vegas rather than San Francisco. Maybe we just wanted to get Las Vegas out of the way first.
"Had we been on Flight 93, there would have been a certain dark sardonic irony for someone who grew up during the Troubles."
Irony is a theme with Burgess, who had a troubled time as a pupil at Belfast's Boys Model school, which he later returned to as a teacher.
"I ended up on the wrong side of the headmasters' desk," he tells me of his school days.
"Nothing very serious – mitching and some elaborate scheme involving the tuck shop, all of which lead eventually to a suspension and my parents being humiliated."
Burgess's first novel, White Church, Black Mountain (Matador Press, 2015), dealt with how the legacy of the Troubles and the Historical Enquiries Team could still impact on the present.
It was also semi-autobiographical: as a younger man, he had a parallel existence as a singer and songwriter with the punk rock band Ruefrex – the name was a nonsense spelling of their original moniker, the Roof Racks – whose controversial top 30 chart hit Wild Colonial Boy excoriated Irish/American funding for republican violence.
Born in the former Jersey Street area of the Shankill and having failed his 11-plus, Burgess still wears his working class credentials like a badge – including through what he calls the "Borgias-like" politics of university education.
Yet unlike other Belfast Protestants, including the late David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson – with whom he worked closely as an academic focussed on conflict and identity studies – Burgess never felt the lure of paramilitarism.
"I have said to both David and Billy that I did not agree with their line that they took up arms to defend their community," he reveals.
"Of course, the mid-70s in the Troubles were pretty bad but I never felt inclined to go down that route."
Instead, Burgess took another traditional route, into an office job at Shorts, where many felt he had a job for life – "people said that was me sorted" – before going back to study at the College of Business Studies and then New University Ulster at Coleraine, all from a love from a love of English literature.
After completing a BA in English literature under the guidance of the late poet James Simmons, Burgess attended Oxford University studying ethics and moral education, before earning his PdD at UCC for research into social policy developments in the area of conflict resolution.
Along with several spells teaching, he was also a community relations officer in local government and a researcher for the Opsahl Commission of Inquiry into political progress in the north.
On his Twitter account, Burgess describes himself as a 'novelist/ song writer/ musician trapped inside the body of an academic', but also insists he is "less driven" these days.
"In a perfect world I would have [always] been writing novels but I am a bit more philosophical about it all now," says the author, who underwent triple bypass surgery after being diagnosed with advanced heart disease when he was 39.
"But in many ways it has proved to be something of 'a life less ordinary'."
Author Colin Bateman has described Burgess's writing as having an element of Brian Moore 'given a makeover by James Ellroy'.
"I was actually pleased by that," he tells me.
"What Colin was getting at, I think, was the very dark aspects of Ellroy who, like Moore, is one of my literary heroes, along with the human dimension of Moore, whose Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne would still be one of my top five novels."
Indeed, Burgess believes we are living in "dangerous times".
He says: "Nothing can be taken for granted. Enlightenment values in the face of fundamentalism and Donald Trump are something we are, incredibly, fighting to maintain."
However, George Bailey, the protagonist of Through Hollow Lands, has the same name as James Stewart's lead character in the eternally optimistic Christmas classic Its A Wonderful Life.
Burgess describes his George as a "charming but feckless opportunist" who is trapped for a time in Las Vegas just the author and his wife were in 2001.
George is being pursued by his ruthless boss who is representing the Russian mafia, in a fast-paced story which also examines "the trauma experienced by the American psyche in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks."
Which is where we came in....
:: Through Hollow Lands is out now, published by Urbane Publications. The author will launch the new book with a free event at No Alibis in Belfast on September 15, free tickets available via Tinyurl.com/tpblaunch?