Veteran Irish journalist and producer Paul Waters on his debut novel Blackwatertown
Blackwatertown, the debut novel from veteran Irish journalist and producer Paul Waters, is a compelling mystery thriller set in a fictionalised version of this quiet border village during the 1950s. The Buckinghamshire based Belfast man explains the close-to-home inspirations behind his page-turning tale of a Catholic RUC maverick and the unique challenges of publishing in pandemic times
SERGEANT John 'Jolly' Oliver Macken, the thoughtful yet robust young Co Down cop in Paul Waters' Blackwatertown, makes for a striking addition to crime fiction's long and proud tradition of troubled policemen.
Though the veteran journalist and radio producer's riveting dark hearted and darkly humorous debut novel is set just over a decade before the start of the Troubles, it highlights the extent to which the sectarian attitudes which seeded the imminent conflict were already ingrained here during what's often misremembered as an idyllic period of our history – especially for a Catholic RUC officer like Macken, who's subject to suspicion and at times outright hostility from colleagues and his 'own' alike.
Effectively exiled from his regular beat following a farcical incident involving the policing (or lack thereof) of an Orange march, Macken arrives in the sleepy border outpost of Blackwatertown in Co Armagh intent on solving a recent tragedy to which he has a secret family link.
However, almost immediately, the entertainingly unfortunate copper gets caught up in another headline-grabbing debacle while on duty which forces a largely dormant IRA to dust off their guns with haste. The book charts the mounting political and personal fallout in Blackwatertown and beyond over the course of an increasingly turbulent week, as events unfold which have potentially dire consequences for Macken, his enigmatic local love interest Aoife and indeed his entire country.
Tensions creep towards boiling point, culminating in a shocking explosion of violence which finds Macken literally fighting for his life.
"I was thinking about writing something about Catholics in the police for a long time," explains Belfast-born Waters of his inspiration for what is a hugely promising publishing debut.
"Other people like Chris Ryder [author of the factual tome The RUC: A Force Under Fire] have done that well already, but I also had relations who were in the police and the UDR. They had lots of interesting stories about problems they encountered from inside and outside, as well as dodgy stuff that they were aware of. The stories were too good to waste.
"I thought that the 1950s setting was maybe a safer place to start without offending everyone I'm related to. I used to hear stories about the [IRA's] 50s campaign, so that kind of gave me the background for the book."
Waters, a father of two who lives in Buckinghamshire and works as a producer for BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service and Times Radio when not co-hosting his literature-orientated podcast We'd Like A Word, also manages to incorporate story elements based on the infamous case of Kevin Halfpenny, the so-called 'Henhouse Boy', who was discovered living in his mother's chicken enclosure in Co Down at the age of seven in 1956 and who inspired Seamus Heaney's poem Bye Child. The book also references the then quickening space race as a clever counterpoint to the backward sectarianism of the book's religiously divided rural Irish setting.
Indeed, the casual and not so casual sectarian language of Blackwatertown's locals – such as the shopkeeper who cheerfully informs Macken that she has "no quarrel with any Roman" – will no doubt shock younger readers and indeed those unfamiliar with the 'bad old days' of a north under Protestant majority rule.
"I worried that I should tone down the sectarianism to be honest," admits Waters, who was a youth leader with the Northern Ireland Peace People before getting his start in journalism.
"I didn't want to paint a caricatured view for people outside Northern Ireland. I guess somebody local reading it would think 'oh yeah, I recognise all that', whereas anyone else might be thinking 'this is horrific!' and then that would be a distraction for them.
"The sad thing is, it was all kind of comfortingly familiar to me. You almost get homesick for that sort of thing, in a weird way."
The writer's publishing deal for Blackwatertown is with Unbound, which uses an 'advanced sales' model: this involved Waters generating interest among his prospective readers and persuading them to actually invest in the publication of Blackwatertown in exchange for a copy of the book and their name among the list of backers within. Unbound then set him up with a structural editor to help shape the final draft of the novel before handling the distribution side of things.
"The way it works is that, like any publisher, [Unbound] decide whether or not it's any good and if they want to publish it," explains Waters, who cites Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri (Inspector Montalbano, etc), fellow Irishman and broadcaster-turned-novelist Maurice Leitch and Kilkeel's finest Eoin McNamee ("the master of claustrophobia", he enthuses) among his favourite and most influential authors
"The next thing is, you have to prove that there's a market for it by getting advance sales. The people who did the advance sales, most of them I don't know. I was literally coming up to people in the street and in cafés and asking them if they were interested in supporting the book.
"I just kind of looked at it the same way as telling people about it after it's been published. Hopefully it means there's already been a lot of word-of-mouth by this stage."
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown publishing schedules and life in general into chaos over the past few months.
"It has been a massive challenge with all the shops closed and the pandemic disruption," admits Waters.
"But it's also been fun as well. I started by getting shops that weren't even bookshops to sell it because they weren't open. I got it into a local deli and and a beer shop, which was doing lockdown beer tasting sessions for their customers on Zoom.
"They invited me to join it, to try the beers and do some readings. It started polite and then became a lot more robust as the evening progressed. One of the guys on it eventually asked me 'oh, do you know Woodbourne in Belfast?'
"I told him the only Woodbourne I knew was the barracks in west Belfast and he said, 'yep that's right – that's were I was with '2 Para'!', which probably means he was looking out at me going to and from school every day. So I've got to meet all sorts of interesting people.
"I'm still fighting to get it into bookshops too. In Belfast, No Alibis was the first bookshop to order it. It's also available from The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus, Sheehy's in Cookstown and various ones across the Republic and England and Scotland – but not Wales, yet. I don't know why. Getting it into the likes of Waterstones and Easons is the next challenge."
Excitingly, Blackwatertown's audiobook rights have been sold to WF Howes, with the novel recorded by Irish actor Patrick Moy (whose voice will be familiar to fans of Hilary Mantel's audiobook editions) for release in the near future. There has already been interest in a TV adaptation also.
Best of all, for readers who enjoy 'Jolly' Macken's exploits in Blackwatertown, the good news is that Waters is already working on another page-turner featuring his reluctant hero.
"Macken will return, though he may go travelling this time," the author reveals. "I've got some bad things lined up for him."
:: Blackwatertown is published by Unbound and is available now from No Alibis in Belfast, The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus, Sheehy's in Cookstown and other independent Irish booksellers. For more information, visit Paulwatersauthor.com