1. How did you get started writing?
I was an academic for most of my professional career, having started in the ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere of North American universities. So I had to write academic stuff, though I had also tried my hand at student journalism at Glasgow University. I really wanted to be a journalist, but academic life seemed less precarious for a married man with a young family. Somewhere, unformed in the back of my mind, there was an ambition to write fiction. Or rather, a curiosity about whether I could do it. I found time to scratch that itch only after I retired: my first crime novel appeared in my seventieth year.
2. What drew you to write a crime novel?
I had an idea for a murder mystery that would draw on my academic background as
an expert in government, politics and public sector management, and on my experience as a public servant of working in large, complex organizations. I couldn’t make the idea work in its original form, but the notion of a body discovered after fifty years in the ground survived and was the basis for Bloody Royals. I thought I would be better at plot-driven rather than character-driven fiction, though I recognized that the invention of strong characters would be crucial to the development of plot. All of that pointed towards crime fiction.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
Given my background, I’ve had to read a lot of turgid academic prose, in which the clarity of the ideas gets concealed by the obscurity of the style. So a negative influence came from deciding that one should try to write simple, clear prose, with a minimum of complexity and a maximum of impact. Quite early on, I read almost everything George Orwell ever wrote. I knew that I would never write that kind of clear, limpid, lucid prose – ‘subject, object, predicate’, as my secondary school English teacher emphasized – but it was a style to aspire to. Among contemporary writers, few are better than William Boyd and John le Carre. A wonderful recent discovery was Stoner, by John Williams, originally published in 1965, and largely forgotten until it was reissued in 2013. A campus novel rather than a crime novel, but beautifully written.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
Still do! It’s a fiercely competitive and very crowded field. Most of the agents I contacted before I self-published my first novel as an e-book simply didn’t reply; a few said on their websites that their lists were closed; one prominent agent asked for sample chapters and then failed to contact me further. I continue to try to find an agent to take me on, for conventional publication, promoted by a publisher, is still the best way to get a book noticed, and read. Good reviews (mainly!) on Amazon help, but it’s not enough to get a writer widely noticed. It’s important, as all aspiring authors will tell you, not to take rejection personally and to keep at it.
5. There are many interesting characters in your Novels, do you have a particular favourite one?
It would be a surprise if I didn’t say DI/DCI Vanessa Fiske. She’s the core of the books, a consummate professional, but prone to the self-doubt that affects many women in male-dominated professions. I also have a soft spot for Harry Conival, the hardbitten, cynical press officer who presents as an idle sod, but can’t quite conceal his professionalism.
6. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your Novels?
The internet is a wonderful thing! I once heard a very distinguished writer at a literary festival confess that he had never visited the city that was so much a part of his latest novel, which I had recently read. Somehow, that stuck in my mind. On technical matters that are central to the plot, I talk to the appropriate expert. My academic past, and my current position as General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Scotland’s National Academy), are useful in securing access to the best people.
7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
Not consciously! When I re-read my books (to ensure consistency among them), however, I sometimes see characteristics that I remember from people I’ve met, or worked with. But they’re composites rather than clones.
8. What do you think makes your novels stand out from all the other Scottish Crime Fiction Novels out there?
That’s for others to judge! I can say only that I’ve tried to make them plot-driven, with a preponderance of dialogue over exposition and narrative description. I’ve also avoided gratuitous violence and not been afraid to allow characters to be opinionated and intelligent. Does that make the books ‘stand out’? Again, not my call!
9. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?
Some of my readers say they can hear my voice in the words of some of my characters…And sometimes I indulge my prejudices, I fear.
10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peek into any future novels you have planned.
I’ll say only that there’s a clue at the end of By All Means to the plot of the next Fiske and MacNee Mystery, which I hope to publish later this year.
11. Out of all the Novels you have written do you have a favourite one that stands out to you?
Of the three so far, By All Means, because it situates a strong story in a very real world of Scottish politics, but watch out for the next one!
12. As an up and coming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share?
Early in my academic career, I had colleague whose advice to younger staff members was always, ‘Don’t get dis-en-couraged!’ I can’t do better than that.
LINKS TO MY E-BOOKS
BY ALL MEANS
TWIN TRACK TO DEATH