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Crime author of the month interview with John Callaghan 

1. How did you get started writing?

 As with most people, I think the urge to write stems initially from a love of reading and the wish to create rather than just observe. You have to find stories in your imagination, too – you can’t go looking for them, they have to be there. And you have to love the words, not just the story-telling. I’ve seen some heroically terrible books by people who are highly successful as TV writers, but they have no feel for language on the page at all.

 Anyway, to answer the question, the very specific reason I wrote my first novel was because I was reading something on holiday – a Robert Ludlum, I think – and I literally thought “I could do that”, so I did. Now, I have to say the result was rotten…it was reasonably competent, in that it went from A to B to C and ended where it should. It had a good plot, a twist and it made sense. But…there was no spark to it at all – the characters were cardboard, the dialogue clunky and expository and you could see the joins between the events. Above all, there was no voice speaking, because I had nothing to say, actually. I was writing to a formula, and it showed.

 So, that was the first effort, many years ago, and it was a complete damp squib – I guess a better answer would have begun…‘how I got RE-started…’, and the most important thing was simply deciding to write in the first person.


2. What drew you to write a crime novel?

 Practically speaking, it was because crime writing was what I was mostly reading, at the time I decided to get back on the horse after the failed first novel many years before. Of course, crime also offers the opportunity to create intense plots populated by vivid characters and it opens the field completely for the writer to play with dialogue, which I love to do and is probably my biggest strength.

 Thematically, what interests me in crime fiction is – apologies for the pseudery – the effect of doing wrong on the human soul, the way breaking the law (any sort of law) corrupts your humanity. I love to explore the darkness and infection of crime, more than the act itself. Some people love blood ‘n’ guts, but I don’t do more than occasional violence, because it doesn’t interest me as a subject, and my characters only have sex on a real-world frequency. Betrayal, lies, deception, self-doubt, corruption, guilt, loss, profound moral compromise – that’s noir, not splattered viscera and crushed bones.


3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?

 I could probably say ‘every American crime writer, ever’. Although my subject-matter is Glasgow, my style is one-hundred per-cent American in its origins and I actually set one novel in Florida, as a homage of sorts.

I often say that the Glasgow Noir Fiction books are written in the first-person sardonic tense, so that immediately locates them in the territory of mid-century California private eyes in black and white movies. The dark humour in my books (which is a strong feature) definitely has a much bleaker flavour than those guys with their raised-eyebrow wisecracks. A good modern example of that would be Robert B Parker’s Spenser novels (I know that’s Boston…). Although their gun-happy, super-hero detective character is not my style, the mordant commentary is.

 The other thing people notice immediately about my novels is that they’re extremely dialogue-heavy; I like, where possible, to carry entire chapters through dialogue. That’s maybe the one part of my writing style which is a deliberate, conscious attempt to emulate other writers and George V Higgins was the one who showed the way – although you can’t mention the subject without bowing to Elmore Leonard as the master of this style of story-telling. Higgins, though, would carry chapters purely with dialogue, where you had no idea who was speaking, where they were or what they were talking about, until you gradually figured it out. As a reader, he made you work quite hard to understand at times.

 A complete stranger did compare my stuff to early Dennis Lehane and his Kenzie/Gennaro novels. I sort-of get that and it’s a massive compliment although I’m not aware of any influence – but that’s how others see it.


4. Okay, that’s twice you’ve mentioned your love of dialogue – tell us more…

 Well, my stories are in, from, of, and about the city of Glasgow, which is famous for its patter; if you write about Glasgow and don’t dwell on the rhythms of the language, you’re missing half the point, and half the pleasure. More than that, I love telling stories that let (or, if you like, make) the reader exercise their imagination. I think it’s a very engaging method that draws people into the world that’s on the page, makes them part of it as they marry the cadences of speech to their own impressions. It also sharpens and tightens the telling.

 So, I like to run for many pages on dialogue alone (which, don’t get me wrong, does tell the story) and let the reader picture the room, the body-language, the background. I almost never describe what people look like (only if it actually matters to the understanding of the character) and in particular I never pad the dialogue with post-commentary, like…‘she said, with a smirk’ and ‘I replied, knowingly’. I hate that flabby drawing-with-crayons type of writing – it adds nothing to the story and only bloats the word- count.

 The other thing about focusing in dialogue is that it allows – demands! – great torrents of swearies, which feed the mood.

 Er…all that said, I didn’t quite find the style I wanted and hone it until my second book, so you might find a conversational adverb or two in the first half of the first novel…


5. There are many interesting characters in your novels, do you have a particular favourite one?

 Although my main protagonist is a man, Stevie McCabe, it’s female characters I’d pick out. Bernadette Feeney, the lawyer whose ex-husband gets killed in the first book and by the second, McCabe’s fallen in love with her; that happens off-screen – she did it all by herself, nothing to do with me, which must mean something. And ML Munro: I wanted a classic femme fatale from Hollywood, circa 1952, and she was it – ruthless, sensual, ambitious and venal.


6. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your Novels?

 I’m bound to say that my research was being born and raised in Glasgow – that’s 99% of it. Occasionally, you have to Google a make of lock or check a point of law, but that’s about it. My next book but one is set in 1864, though, so that is demanding a lot more reading, to make the setting credible and to incorporate facets of history from the period – industry, politics, housing, disease and so forth.

7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?

 Hmmm…well, every book has the disclaimer – “All the events in this book are fictitious and the characters are completely fabricated. The city, though, is real.” So, make of that what you will.

 In practice, I think it always makes a story – or elements within it – more arresting if there is a clear connection between the tale you’re telling and real life. That might not matter if you’re in Narnia, but for crime fiction, I think it’s very important. Therefore, you will find specific lines or paragraphs, and sometimes general themes or story-arcs that refer to “real” events, although involving different people, or combinations of people, to the actual incidents.

 The one time I focused very closely on an actual happening was for a short story…when I was at primary school, a brutal double-murder took place directly across the street and, as it turned out, a member of my family was acquainted with the killer. That event stuck with me through all these years and – although names and location were changed, and a supernatural theme introduced to the narrative – the details of the event are accurate, as told in The Hardridge Ghost. The real-life origins of the story are mentioned in an author’s note.


8. What do you think makes your novels stand out from all the other Scottish Crime Fiction Novels out there?

 As I mentioned before, my points of reference are all American, and that’s also where the bulk of my sales are, so I’d tend not to see what I do in a “Scottish” context anyway. I am very clear that Glasgow does not equal Scotland and my subject matter is a city, not a country. And as for the term “tartan noir”…let’s say any tartan in my books is probably in flames.


9. Do you see any of your main character’s personality in yourself and vice versa?

 Yes – and if I didn’t, friends and family would leave me in no doubt. Because I write in the first person, and because Stevie McCabe reflects on the human condition, it’s hard for that not to become your own pulpit. He’s a disillusioned idealist, offering a sardonic commentary on what he sees.


10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned.

 Okay…I hope to publish the eighth and ninth Glasgow Noir Fiction novels almost simultaneously later this year. The former is called Say An Avé There For Me and this is a scene where Stevie is in conversation with DI Paddy Haldane and asks Haldane why he (probably his only friend in the police) was not present at a meeting where two other police officers tried to convince Stevie to go undercover on their behalf…

“Well, I thought you might be able to tell me somethin’. Like – why two coppers get me in a room to try and talk me into a situation that they knew I wouldny fancy and you’re not one of them.”

“Oh? I’d be able to talk you into it…why? Like, cuz we’re right good mates? I thought we had a conversation about this a while back and we separated out what we do as business from…whatever this is.”

“Aye, you said that no bastard on your team would even tell me which way was up. And I said that, well, mibbe you might, and mibbe I’d stick Annie onto the end of that list an’ all. That conversation?”

“Aye, that one. As for why it’s fuckin Bodie and Doyle talking to you, and not me doin’ it, let me take a punt…somethin’ about the Agnew crew?”

“Ah. There ye go. Talk to me, Paddy.”

“Fuck! If that’s it…Christ. Bollocks…fuck. I’m getting manoeuvred, Stevie. Townsend probly ‘hinks I’m bent.”

“What the…? Where’d that come from? Christ, Paddy – obvious question…?”

“No. The answer’s no. No, I’m not fuckin bent – and aye, course that’s what I’d say if I was anyway. And I know why you asked. Cuz in this business, you never know the minute till the minute after. But naw, not me. This is garbage.”

“So why’d’s he think it?”

“I got this call, couple of months back. Remember Richie Higgins?”

“Aw, I think I’d remember Richie, aye. It was him and me left on the top of the Marquess Magnum after Terry MacNeil took a header off it and went for a forty-storey holiday. You get to know a guy, times like that. But he’s in jail – he’s still trying to sue the polis for what happened on that roof, last I heard. Most likely workin’ on being a biped again, as well.”

“Was in jail. It was him called me from the Bar-L, had somethin’ to say, he thought I might like to hear. So, Richie gives me the address of a stash house, where to go, when to be around there. And sure enough – we lift two guys and hoover up a coupla thousand pills – all sortsa flavours – and eight kilos of Charlie. Call that three or four hundred grands’ worth, pure, and mark it up how you like once you’ve cut it for the street. Three or four mill, papers said.”

“I remember that at the time – never saw your name on it, though. And I ‘hink I see where the problem comes up – the two guys you got were in the Reid crew.”

“Naw – was the Hogans, but same difference. There’s Richie Higgins doin’ me a favour, but not one that actually does himself any damage, cuz he’s one of Jimmy Agnew’s boys. In fact, he’s doin’ the Agnews a good turn as well. And he gets himself out of jail and goes back to his old trade right away – slinging shit for the Agnews. So, they win two ways – boot the Hogans in the baws and get a wido back, just when they’re short on bodies to run the business, and somehow I’m the guy that made it happen? Out of the clear blue sky, no groundwork, no previous, just a present from Santa. Whit? Sure, Townsend’s all over it. Why was it Higgins came to you, Paddy, says he? He your CI or something? And, truth is, he’s nobody to me, beyond that thing at the hotel and it was actually Annie put him down, not me. So why? I asked Higgins that and he just said he remembered the name, could’ve been anybody. So I told Townsend that but – big fuckin shock here – he looks at me and shakes his head. Could it, he says? Could it have been anybody?”

“So now it looks like you’ve gone to bat for the Agnew family, got yourself some attaboys while you’re at it. And, since the Agnews do like to get coppers on the payroll…”

“Well, it only looks that way if you’re a nasty cunt, but ACC Townsend’s picture is on the cover of that book, so there’s me, not gettin’ invited to meetings with you, who thinks I’m policeman of the year, from where you sit. Recognise the tune?”


11. What was your favourite scene to write in your Novels and why?

 At one level, it’s a conversation in Every Stone A Story, where McCabe meets the elderly parents of a missing woman, a junkie who has most likely been murdered, and they look through childhood photographs. There’s an awful contrast between the bright innocence of the girl in the pictures and the bleak reality of the life she came to live as an adult…the endless possibilities of nostalgia crushed by human frailty. The loss of hope is a terrible thing.

 More upbeat (in a way) is the opening prologue of Only Dangerous In The Breeding Season, the book set in Florida. In it, McCabe has to leap into a swamp at night to evade pursuit and it’s a very physical and oppressive scene, wading through muddy water clogged with vegetation, unseen beasts croaking in the darkness, skin caressed by plant and creature, mortal threats lurking in the claustrophobic darkness where alligators and snakes await…


12. Who would play Stevie McCabe on screen?

 Ha! That’s a tricky one, because I don’t actually know what my hero looks like, beyond the fact he’s a big guy – “by Glasgow’s undemanding standards”, I think was the phrase. I was asked once by a reader about that, who said they’d always imagined him being ginger and I said I’m pretty sure he isn’t, but for that reader, he is. I think the only vital thing is to have (or acquire) a Glasgow accent – there’s nothing worse than an actor giving it all haggis-and-bagpipes and making a complete bollocks of all the vowels.

 To answer the question…dunno. How big is David Tennent?


 Clip Their Little Wings

Every Stone A Story

Black Wind Blows

My Name Is Never Was

No Shadow In The City

Only Dangerous In The Breeding Season

No Such Thing As Destiny

Low Words Of Bad Intent (short stories)

Coming in 2015 –

Say An Ave There For Me

The Laird of Baltimore (Early On One Frosty Mornin’)


 Amazon Author Page

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