1. How did you get started writing
My first career was journalism so I have been writing, commissioning or editing for a long time. I’ve worked for eight UK or Scottish newspapers – my last job was editor of The Herald in Glasgow. That background was invaluable when I switched to writing novels. Not only was I used to being published and edited, but I had first-hand experience of real life dramas, whether domestic in scale or international news events. For example, I’ve interviewed people who have just escaped from a burning flat as well as witnessed Lockerbie on the night Pan Am flight 103 fell on the town. The most important lesson that journalism has taught me is this: nothing is more important than telling a good story simply and with sufficient pace to carry readers to the end. So that’s what I try to do in my books.
2. What drew you to crime fiction
Honestly? I wasn’t so much drawn to crime fiction as to the idea of a protagonist who was an oceanographer with investigative skills. Cal McGill, the sea detective, has particular expertise in tracking flotsam and jetsam, whether to hunt down polluters or, in the case of bodies, to work out where they might have gone into the sea. Instead of DNA or fingerprints, he works with his knowledge of tides, winds or eddies to solve cases. Crime fiction provides him with a variety of interesting cases.
3. Which crime writers past or present have influenced your style of writing
This probably has to do with my background in journalism but I like books with strong narrative momentum. Sometimes these will be crime books (Black Water Rising by Attica Locke; Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller; Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina) but just as often they will be other types of novel (Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg; The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan; most books by Ian McEwan). I have a confession to make: I don’t really enjoy plots which are driven by traditional police protagonists because they tend to follow a familiar structure.
4. What was the inspiration behind the Sea Detective Series The idea for an oceanographer detective occurred to me first when I was visiting Ardnamurchan on the west coast of Scotland. There’s a graveyard there by the sea which looks out on to the islands of Muck, Eigg and Skye. Inside the gate are the graves of two merchant seamen who had washed up on Ardnamurchan in World War Two. Their gravestones carry similar inscriptions: ‘A sailor of the 1939-45 war’ and also ‘Known Unto God’, which marks the graves of unidentified war dead. I thought how sad it was for the families of these two men that they never knew their bodies had been recovered or that they’d been given a Christian burial in such a beautiful place. Then I had this idea: wouldn’t it be good if an oceanographer, an expert on tides, currents and winds, could work out which ship they’d been on and possibly go on to discover their identities? It’s probably not a thought you’re supposed to have in a graveyard…..
5. Did you find it hard to get publisher interest for your first book
Well, there’s interest and there’s ‘yes, please, we’d like to publish’. Publishers were interested in the idea of my first book, The Sea Detective. So they read it, sent my agent complimentary comments and then generally said ‘thanks but no thanks’. On two or three occasions enthusiastic editorial directors took it to their internal committees and came back with ‘no’. Another time a big London publisher was very keen over the phone, promised to ring me as soon as she returned from holiday and I never heard from her again. However, I found the process useful as well as encouraging. Most publishers liked the idea of The Sea Detective as well as most of the plot execution. When they had objections that I thought were fair, I made changes before the book was sent off to the next publisher. So the plot was being improved as the process went on. In the end I was delighted to find Sandstone Press, a small publisher based in the Highlands. It and Cal McGill, who spends much of his time in that part of Scotland, seemed like a very good fit. And it has been.
6. Which of your two books have you found easier to write The first book was easier. I worked away at it without any pressure to meet a deadline and without people knowing I was doing it. I found the second book much harder because there was a deadline (I missed it, of course) and also because I wanted it to be better than its predecessor.
7. In both of your books you have made up fictional Scottish villages and islands, why did you decide to do this?
Most Scottish coastal settlements and islands have rich histories of their own. I didn’t want to run the risk of any plot I invented being mistaken for fact, especially as I was writing about crime, dead bodies and communities with dark secrets. Also, in the first book, I used surnames that were appropriate to the Tongue area of Scotland’s north coast, MacKay, Rae, Sinclair etc, etc. By giving villages and islands fictional names, I avoided the danger of using the name of someone who actually lived there.
8. Another place you use to set your books is Edinburgh, why did you choose this city
I know it. I live there. It’s on the sea and Leith, where Cal McGill rents an office cum bed-sit, has a maritime history. I wanted him to have a city base because one of his character traits is to escape to remote coasts when he’s troubled, for example when his marriage was disintegrating. In the second book, The Woman Who Walked Into The Sea, Edinburgh only has a walk-on role. I suspect that’s how it will continue in book three.
9. What kind of research did you have to undertake for your book?
I read lots of books about the sea as well as oceanography textbooks and academic articles, some of them rather bizarre. For example, I have here ‘Human Body Buoyancy: A Study of 98 Men’! Also, Twitter is very useful for alerting me to new developments in marine science. I follow most of the big oceanographic institutions around the world. A very patient Professor of Oceanography called Toby Sherwin also gives me invaluable suggestions and advice. He was good enough to read the drafts of both my published books. Any errors mine though….
10. Are the characters in your books based on any real life people
No. I’d rather avoid that complication.
11. Since you have started writing crime novels have any known authors given you any advice
I don’t think so, no, though one or two have reviewed the books and have said complimentary things.
12. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa
Cal McGill feels the pull of coastal NW Scotland and the islands. He likes being in wild places. Me too.
13. What do you see for the future of Cal McGill in your books Because he’s quite young, turning 30 in book three which I’m writing now, his character is still in formation. In a brief about him, I’ve written that he’s similar to the flotsam/bodies he tracks. He’s buffeted by metaphorical winds and tides. So it’s possible he’ll become more estranged from the mainstream, more marginal. But he might not!
14. Have you been surprised by the success of your books I’m surprised and pleased that people seem to like them. Success? I’ll be happy to have finished book three and some people liking it too.
15. As a blossoming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share
Absolutely not. A literary editor once said that embarking on writing a novel was like spinning a roulette wheel even for an experienced author. I’m still a learner and that roulette wheel is definitely spinning.
Cal McGill – The Sea Detective Series Books
The Sea Detective
Sandstone Press Ltd
The Women Who Walked into the Sea
Sandstone Press Ltd
Also you can check out his author page on amazon at