1. How did you get started writing? I can’t really remember how it started. It’s just always been part of what I do. I just like the magic of words.
2. What drew you to crime fiction? Pure accident. I suppose it was the genre I read most but my first novel was just intended to make readers laugh.An agent liked it and took me on but I’ve rewritten (and retitled) it many times since. It’s now The Sparrow Conundrum and it’s got lots of excellent, generous reviews and won two top awards for humour and satire. Then I wrote a stand-alone thriller which my second agent sent to Piatkus. They liked it but weren’t doing stand-alones at the time and asked if I’d written any police procedurals. I hadn’t, but they said if I did they’d like to see it. That’s obviously just the sort of spur you need to get writing, so I wrote the first of my 5 Jack Carston novels, Material Evidence, and they published it in hardback. When they also took the second, I supposethat made me a crime writer. I’d rewritten the stand-alone a couple of times then realised that, with a bit of imagination and a lot more rewriting, it could fit into the series and it became The Darkness.
3. Which crime writers past or present have influenced your style of writing? Consciously, none. I was interested (and secretly pleased) to read a review of Material Evidence which said it showed ‘Rendellian touches’ because I’m a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell, so perhaps her influence was there without me realising it. But I also like stories to have humour, even in the darkest places, and she’s not strong on that. I love the one-liners of Elmore Leonard and the characters of Janet Evanovich and I used todevour the Spenser novels of R B Parker. But there are so many excellent crime writers around now that this answer could easily become nothing more than a list. I must, though, add the giant of Scottish crime fiction –William McIlvanney. His novels are about so much more than crime.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get interest from publishers? That’s a question that brings home how much the business has changed. Before writing novels, I wrote radio and stage plays and contact with the producer or broadcaster was always direct, personal. When I switched to novels, the best way forward then (in the 90s) was to get an agent. I was lucky enough to get one quite early. He was very encouraging and tried hard for me but I was impatient and moved to another one. (That’s how easy it was then – relatively, anyway.) At last, she got the response I’ve mentioned from Piatkus and I was on my way. In those days there were lots of good writers who didn’t get lucky. I think self-publishing and the growth of small independent publishers has made things much easier.
5. You have written many books, standalone and series, do you have a favourite one so far? I’ve always said that, for a male writer, holding a copy ofhis newly published book is the nearest he’ll ever get to having a baby so you’re asking me which of my children I prefer. If forced into a corner, I still wouldn’t be able to choose between my top three – all different. The Darkness is my favourite in the Carston series, The Figurehead is a crime novel but it’s set in the 19 th century and I loved immersing myself in the period, andThe Sparrow Conundrum has made lots of people laugh. It was also my first-born and, even though it’s had extensive surgery and various transplants, it still has a special significance for me.
6. You recently were involved with the 2nd Edinburgh Ebook Festival, Can you tell us more about that? It’s the brainchild of Cally Philips, a writer friend. The main Edinburgh Book Festival is marvellous and she thought that creating a parallel festival featuring ebooks would open a virtual Edinburgh Festival for readers and writers who couldn’t make the trip to Charlotte Square. It started in 2012 and Cally tried to make it pretty eclectic. It was a success but we all learned from it and this year’s was much more structured and featured some terrific slots covering lots of different genres with blogs, workshops, guest contributions and resident writers. Again, it was a great learning experience and I suspect 2014 will be even bigger and better. My own hope is that there’s some technology that’s easy for dumbos like me to use in order to hold truly interactive sessions.
7. Why did you decide to set your books in the North East of Scotland? I’ve lived here most of my life so I know the places, the climate, the moods and attitudes of the people here.Aberdeen’s very different from the rest of Scotland. In fact, its allegiances with ports around the North Sea are closer than those with other parts of the country. I regret (but only slightly) having decided to invent a fictional town (Cairnburgh) for my policemen. My thinking was that I might want to say critical things about police processes so I didn’t want to alienate Grampian Police, who were very helpful when I asked for information on procedures. Paradoxically, the year after the first book appeared, there was a major scandal involving the Chief Constable which went far beyond anything I might have imagined. In later books, I’ve written about a university and a hospital, both fictional, and it would have been hard to write it in the same way using one of Aberdeen’s actual universities, colleges or hospital departments.
8. If you were to write another Jack Carston do you think that the amalgamation in April of the Scottish police force into one organization could effect the way you write? That’s a fascinating question. I do have another Carston (probably the last) in mind and it really should acknowledge such a major organisational change. On the other hand, my main interest is always in the characters (police and others) who feature in the story and real policemen probably find the ‘procedures’ in my books leave lots to be desired. Jack Carston has developed through the series and I suspect that the next book will find him sick of having to conform as well as weary of his daily contact with the evidence that people can be so nasty to one another. I think he’ll probably leave the force. Luckily, he has a great marriage and his wife won’t let him vegetate.
9. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your books? As I mentioned earlier, Grampian Police were very helpful at the start. I knew nothing of procedures so I wrote asking the Assistant Chief Constable if I could talk with some of his officers. He said yes and I spent a whole morning with a Detective Superintendent and a Detective Inspector asking them daft questions and coming away with more information than I could ever use. Libraries also have a great selection of books on the forensic aspects of medicine, law, archaeology, psychology and other disciplines. Perhaps more interesting was the research I did for The Figurehead. One of its central characters is a figurehead carver so I joined a woodcarving class to make one for myself. That was many years ago but I still attend the classes and have wooden sculptures, including two figureheads, all over the place at home now. It really gave me the feel of what it was like to find the figurehead in the wood. For the same book, I also paid to be a member of the crew of the beautiful square-rigger, Christian Radich, on a trip across the North Sea from Oslo to Leith. That was a dream of mine anyway so I loved climbing to the yards, taking the helm, being on watch at night on a sea with oil platform flares visible all around. For me research is more than reading words or looking at pictures or objects. I like to feel what the characters might feel.
10. Are the characters in your books based on any in real life? Emphatically not – at least, not consciously. In fact, in the past, I’ve tried to base characters on real people I’ve met (especially nasty ones) but when I do, I find that the real person gets in the way and doesn’t allow the character to grow into who they’re supposed to be. Sometimes, I may use a specific incident which has occurred in real life, but as soon as it happens in the book, the fictional character reacts to it in his/her own way, and that may be completely different from the reality. Having said that, though, when I’m writing, the characters are more real to me than the people actually around me.
11. Since you have started writing crime novels have any known authors given you any advice? People may be surprised to hear that most writers are very generous, helpful people and always ready to pass on tips, advice, or other information which may solve your writing problems or tell you about new markets for your work. Theoretically we’re all competing in the same market place so we should guard our secrets, but that never seems to enter into it. One of my claims to fame is that I got an acknowledgement from Ian Rankin in hisBlack and Blue. He knew that I’d done a lot of work on safety DVDs for offshore platforms. Rebus had to fly out to one so Ian asked me what procedures he’d have to follow. I know that I could ask almost any member of the Crime Writers’ Association for information about one of their specialities and I’d get a comprehensive run-down on it.
12. Do you see any of your characters’ personality in yourself and vice versa? Another very interesting but quite difficult question. I suppose it’s inevitable that at least some of my people will share my attitudes, but I think writing’s a bit like acting in that you have to get inside and understand the character. That means using his/her voice and reactions, pushing aside your own self and adopting theirs. On the other hand, I have to admit that, sometimes when I read extracts from my books, I’m surprised at how much of me there is in them. I suppose we’re bound to reveal ourselves if we’re passionate about something.Sometimes I do wonder, though, whether my baddies are saying and doing things that come from levels of me of which I’m unaware. It’s a scary thought.
13. If you can, can you give us a sneaky peek into any books you have just released or are in the process of writing? I’ll give you both. My last release was Alternative Dimension, which isn’t a crime novel. It’s a satire on the interplay between the real and virtual worlds. Some years ago I joined the online role-playing game Second Life TM to do some research. It was fun and, while I was there, I wrote a few short stories about the people and the avatars I met. The stories were all different but clearly linked by themes involving who we are and who we’d like to be so I rewrote them, created an extra narrative thread to hold them all together and they became a stand-alone satire on how we operate in a space that’s both real and false at the same time. And my work in progress is the sequel to The Figurehead. I’ve researched and worked out the various themes I want to explore in it but the issue that’s proving the most difficult concerns the two central characters. InThe Figurehead, John and Helen both contributed to solving the mystery but they were also attracted to one another and the book ended with them having what I called ‘a lovers’ kiss’. The sequel starts a year later, so what the hell have they been doing meantime? This is 1842 so there’s not the freedom to indulge or experiment that we’ve enjoyed since Victorian times., There’s also a wee social gap between the characters, and I’m not sure either of them wants to marry anyway. I know they’ll tell me their secrets eventually but, at the moment, they’re being a bit awkward with one another.
14. You and Stuart McBride were two of the first authors to use Aberdeen as a backdrop for their novels instead of Edinburgh or Glasgow, this in turn has influenced some authors to do the same, how does that make you feel? It would be great to feel that I had that sort of influence but I’m not sure that’s how it works. I think budding crime writers have realised that setting their works in a named, recognisable location gives them a head’s start in finding an audience. It anchors the stories and the people. I don’t just mean the books get a local following; they attract others who want to find out more about the Western Isles, Inverness, Skye, Bute and many other places. In a way, it adds romance to the reading experience – not kissy-kissy romance, but the romance of places which can sound exotic to outsiders – and that means just about anywhere in Scotland.
15. As a blossoming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share? I’m not sure I’d go along with the adjective there but I’m always happy to share thoughts about writing. In talks and workshops, I always offer the same advice to new writers. Make writing and editing separate processes and be meticulous about both. Read your work aloud. It’s better for spotting bad grammar, mis-spellings, punctuation problems, repeated words, sentences which are all the same length and therefore make the writing monotonous. Most of all, it lets you feel the all-important rhythms of the piece. Trust your own voice. Writing doesn’t have to be posh or complicated. Some of the best crime fiction is written in a simple, almost staccato style. Respect the profession. Words are your tools, use them well and don’t submit work unless you’re absolutely positive it is as good as you can make it. If you can afford an editor, use him/her. Editors have very special skills.
The Jack Carston series:
The Sparrow Conundrum
Short story anthology:
Other People and other stories
You Write (co-authored with Kathleen McMillan)
Brilliant Study Skills
Brilliant Workplace Skills
Brilliant Academic Writing
Amazon Author Page