Ulsterman Colin Bateman explains to Dawn Kofie why he would rather be broke than sanitise his work for an American audience reared on political correctness

''Northern Ireland is a terrible subject to sell, because people just aren't interested in it,'' says author Colin Bateman. Although there may be some truth in this statement, as many view the north of Ireland as a place of conflict and precious little else, it hasn't stopped him making a successful career out of writing upbeat novels set in, and featuring, all manner of weird, wonderful, and downright worrying characters from his homeland.

Divorcing Jack, his much-acclaimed, award-winning debut has been made into a film, as is currently its successor, Cycle of Violence. Empire State, his fourth book, starts filming later this year and he has two other novels yet to be published.

But, despite being the author of a string of bestsellers, Bateman still seems faintly surprised that his books are hugely popular, especially in Northern Ireland. ''People go mad on them. They're released earlier over here because everyone buys them as Christmas presents!''

He puts the popularity of his work down to the fact that he manages to capture the spirit of his home country and pin it to the page.

''There have been hundreds of thriller-type books set in Northern Ireland and they're usually written by journalists who may have worked here for several years. They get all their facts right, but never really capture the language or the sense of humour. I think once Divorcing Jack came out, people saw it was a good story and one they could laugh at. It wasn't condescending - that's why it caught on so quickly and the interest has continued.''

Like its predecessors, Turbulent Priests, his sixth and latest offering, is more than just a straightforward thriller; it combines the mundane and the bizarre with mordant humour. It sees the return of Dan Starkey, hero of Divorcing Jack, a cynical, wisecracking journalist with a love of loose women and Harp lager.

As well as trying to salvage the remains of his tempestuous marriage, the beleaguered hack accepts a commission to go to Rathlin, a tiny island off the Irish coast, to investigate claims of the Second Coming in the shape of a toddler called Christine. Despite its unlikely premise, the book is an engaging, swiftly-paced fusion of murder, sex, and religious fundamentalism, loaded with wry one-liners. In addition to the reappearance of Dan Starkey, Turbulent Priests also sees a return to Northern Ireland (Bateman's last three novels were set in the US).

Asked why the location of his tales briefly switched to across the Atlantic, the softly-spoken Ulsterman's answer is disarmingly frank. ''I decided I wanted to be extremely rich, failed miserably, and shot myself in the foot each time,'' he explains. In trying to crack the American market, he found the political incorrectness of some of his characters, including a venomous but dim white supremacist, to be a hindrance.

This was in addition to his inability to sanitise his work for an

American audience.

''Despite my ambition to be very rich I'm just incapable of writing in that way. So every time it comes to the point where I should be taking things easy in the book, I do something stupid. But that's just the way I am.''

It's not surprising that Bateman's output is unpalatable to those harbouring delicate temperaments. The stars of his novels are a motley crew which includes a particularly nasty hairdresser who just happens to be an IRA member, a detective with a penchant for chopping off people's fingers, and a Catholic priest ostracised by his flock because he is given a

Protestant heart during a coronary bypass operation.

Despite Bateman's employment of these finely delineated characters and the fact that his fiction contains more twists and turns than your average MP's life story, he claims he never creates a detailed blueprint before he sits down to write.

''To actually plan something out is a horrible idea to me. I have a basic idea for a book, but I just write off the cuff. If it's not a surprise to me when I'm writing it then it's not going to be a surprise to whoever's reading it.''

Bateman's success has inevitably prompted repeated comparisons with Dublin's literary golden boy Roddy Doyle, probably more as a result of the fact that the two men come from the same island than because of any real similarities in their writing.

Understandably, he thinks the parallels drawn between himself and Doyle are inaccurate. ''It's all too general a comparison. It's because Roddy Doyle is relatively young, Irish, and funny.

''I write in a different style and for a different market. I think it's a good thing that neither of us is stuck in some sort of literary ghetto where only the critics and the intelligentsia read our books. We're both

very popular with normal,

everyday people.''

l Turbulent Priests, by Colin Bateman (HarperCollins #10.99)