The police believe that Tom Kingsmill killed himself by jumping off a bridge but Mike Delvan is convinced he is still alive. To solve this mystery Mike will not only have to excavate the past but examine the fears, prejudices and secrets of the people of his home town, Dalmore. This carefully paced, illuminating novel explores, with sensitivity and humour, the complexity of life in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and where affection and friendship stray towards separation, deception and loss.
1.How did you get started writing?
This is actually a very difficult question! I can’t remember. My favourite activity in primary school was writing what were then called ‘essays’. I didn’t write essays, I always wrote stories. I haven’t managed to stop.
2. What drew you to write crime fiction?
I didn’t know that I was writing crime fiction until my publisher told me. There certainly is a mystery in ‘The Interpretations’ and at least one crime, but my intention was to use these devices to explore how the characters cope in a changing world.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
Well, the first novel I wrote – happily never published – was written in the style of Joseph Heller. Of course, I thought it was much better than Heller, but I was wrong! These days, I don’t know. I’m fond of understatement and I don’t tend to use lots of adjectives or similes but I’m not quite as pared down as, say, Raymond Carver. One of my favourite writers is Chekhov. If I could write one story as good as ‘Lady with Lapdog’ I’d start to be happy.
4. What was the inspiration behind the storyline of The Interpretations?
As far as I remember – and I began writing ‘The Interpretations’ a long time ago – the starting point was the idea of someone disappearing while running across a bridge: how could this happen and what are the possibilities? The bridge itself brought to mind the Kessock Bridge, because it’s one that I know, as I know the Black Isle, and the Skye Bridge because of the controversies that it raised. From that came the idea of a community divided in its attitude to the construction of a big, new bridge. Everything more or less fell into place after that.
5. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
Yes. My first novel, ‘The Truth of Stone’, went to several publishers before being taken up by Mainstream Publishing. And I had a bit of luck along the way. I wrote a letter to Jessie Kesson, who had been brought up on the Black Isle (‘Another Time, Another Place’ is an excellent book), and asked her if she would read some of my work. She said no, but… suggested I send my work to her agent. I did this and, two or three years later, ‘The Truth of Stone’ was published.
6. Scottish crime fiction is a very popular novel genre, what makes your book The Interpretations stand out from the rest?
I’m not sure that it does. I don’t actually see myself as principally a crime writer. The mystery or crime in my books – there is a central mystery in ‘The Truth of Stone’ also – is there to promote interest in the characters and enable the development of the main themes.
7. Your first novel was nominated for the Saltire Society First Book Award and your short stories have appeared in many major literary magazines and anthologies, how has that made you feel?
Pretty good! Long may the nominations and prizes continue! Regarding short stories, I’d very much like to have a collection published but that may be some time away. I’m not sure if I’m a novelist who also writes short stories or a short story writer who occasionally writes novels.
8. Your book The Interpretations has a host of really interesting characters, did you have a favourite to write about?
I’m very fond of the Reverend McFarren. I like him because he starts off as a very strict, unbending sort of man but in old age he mellows and becomes more accepting. A good trait, I think.
9. Why did you chose to set your novel in Dalmore?
Dalmore is very loosely based on Dingwall, a town I know well, with a big bridge not too far away. Also, the setting for the incident in the fish processing plant which opens and ends the book, is based on a couple of months I spent in the 1970s working in Conon Cold Store. It was quite sad for me to see, on my most recent trip north, that the Cold Store was knocked down a few years ago. There’s only some rubble left.
10. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
I think my answer is the same as most writers would say: some aspects of some of the characters are prompted by people I knew but no character is a complete copy of a real person. The Reverend McFarren, for example, is an amalgamation of several ministers I knew in my childhood, plus a few other bits added in.
11. Since you have started writing have any well known authors given you any advice?
Yes. Some years ago I met Gordon Burn (who sadly died in 2009). He’s best known for his book about the Yorkshire Ripper, ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’, but he’s also the author of some very fine novels (‘Alma Cogan’, ‘fullalove’ among others). He said, ‘Good writing should not be a distraction. It shouldn’t stop you thinking about yourself, it should make you think about yourself.’ That is a very demanding aspiration. I hope I can get at least some way to fulfilling it.
12. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?
Inevitably some of my traits slip into my characters. Again, I imagine this is the same for all writers. But which traits, which characters? I couldn’t possibly say.
13. What do you see for the future of Mike Delvan in your books?
Mike Delvan will not appear again. (Aaaaaw…)
14. If you can could you give us a sneaky peak into any books you have written?
I’m close to finishing the final revision of my next book – though I haven’t discussed it with Sandstone Press yet! Let’s just say that there’s another mystery (though no crime) and its settings include: a Scottish Island; London; Capri; the Antarctic. Oh, and it’s brilliant!
15. As a blossoming writer do you have words of advice you can share?
Well, a blossoming writer! Maybe a late blossoming writer – I’m 64! But yes, I’m happy to offer advice. Most important is to read lots and write lots. If you really want success, be prepared for a long apprenticeship. If your aims are fame and fortune, forget it. Also, I got an excellent piece of advice from my primary school teacher, Mrs MacRitchie of Cullicudden Primary School. She said, ‘Never use a big word where a little word will do.’ I was about ten years old and I was outraged! Why was she teaching us these words and then telling us not to use them? It took me about thirty years to realise the significance of what she said. Mrs MacRitchie died in 2009 at the age of 106 and I remember her with great affection.
The Truth of Stone, Mainstream, 1991
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