Ken Bruen was born in 1951 in Galway, Ireland, to a middle-class family. During Bruen’s childhood, Galway, on the western coast of Ireland, was a small town in which everybody knew everybody else. It has since become one of Ireland’s largest cities, with its share of big-city problems. Raised in a bookless household, Bruen described himself as a quiet boy who stood out in a society in which high value is placed on the art of conversation. His father, an insurance salesman, did not encourage his reading or his quest for education. Bruen once stated that much of his life was spent trying to earn his father’s respect, even though his father was not impressed by the English degrees that he earned. Although his father did not outwardly approve of his writing career, Bruen once found a cache of clippings about his novels among his father’s effects, which he interpreted as a posthumous expression of paternal approval for his literary vocation.
After college and graduate school, Bruen spent many years traveling the world and holding a variety of jobs, including teaching positions in Kuwait and Vietnam, a position as a security guard in the World Trade Center, and acting jobs in low-budget films.
In 1978 Bruen accepted a teaching position in Brazil that led to a horrific experience that changed the course of his life. Arrested with four other foreigners in a Rio de Janeiro bar after a brawl, he was held without being charged for the next four months in a Brazilian cell where he experienced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of his guards and fellow inmates. He retreated from these horrors into what he has described as a catatonia from which he spent a long time recovering.
On his release, Bruen moved to South London, where he would spend the next several years and where his career as a serious writer began to take shape. He also resumed teaching and met his wife, Philomena. After fifteen years in London, Bruen returned to Galway, where his daughter was born.
Several echoes from significant events in Bruen’s life can be found in his novels. The settings of South London and Galway, for example, are the most familiar towns in Bruen’s life. Additionally, his daughter was born with Down syndrome, like the character Serena-May, the child of Jack Taylor’s friends Jeff and Cathy. His brother and several members of his wife’s family struggled with or succumbed to alcoholism, and Bruen once said that a brother-in-law was the model for the character Tommy in American Skin (2006).