Last month four Scottish writers came to Newcastle to discuss all aspects of crime novels, including plot and writing, plus general death and destruction.
In conjunction with Waterstone's, the four had embarked on a 'Crime Factor' live tour with sell-out appearances across Scotland. Below you’ll find the questions that Newcastle Noir prepared to ask the authors about their work and crime fiction in general. However, the evening was so lively and the interaction with the audience so free-flowing, we sadly never got to ask them! Nevertheless, these writers are so obliging that they agreed to respond after the event & provide some fab responses. Also, if you were unlucky enough not to make the evening, here’s some excellent insight in ‘four men and a plot’.
Neil Broadfoot was nominated for the Deanston prize for his debut crime thriller, Falling Fast, whilst its follow-up, The Storm, won over readers and authors alike. A journalist for 15 years, his third book, All the Devils, is out later this year.
GJ Brown is the author of four crime thrillers, Falling, 59 Minutes, The Catalyst and Meltdown. He is also a DJ, runs a creativity training business and helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s international crime writing festival.
Mark Leggatt is the author of two international thrillers, Names of the Dead and The London Cage, and has appeared at several international festivals to talk about his work. European history and modern global conspiracy lie at the heart of his novels.
Douglas Skelton wrote 11 true crime / Scottish criminal history books before turning, in 2013, to fiction with Blood City, the first in the Davie McCall quartet. The final Davie McCall book, Open Wounds, was published in April and was long-listed for the 2016 McIlvanney Award.
- Neil Broadfoot
1. What led you to embark on this tour? - I wish I could say that there was a clever plan behind it all but, like most things with us, it was a happy accident. Mark had the idea, asked if I’d be interested and off we went!
2. What has been your experience so far with the Tour? - With the exception of having to spend so much time in the company of Douglas, it’s been absolutely brilliant. Everywhere we’ve visited, the audiences have been really keen to engage with us and there have been a lot of fascinating discussions. I’m not only a crime writer, I’m a reader and a lover of the genre, so going out and talking to fellow authors and enthusiasts about crime and writing in general is always a pleasure.
3. Why did you choose to get into crime writing? - Again, it was a happy accident. I’ve always been a writer, and I wanted (well, needed is a better word really) to get published to keep a promise I made to dedicate my first book to someone who was very important to me. I didn’t manage to do that while they were here and it was eating way at me. So I was walking in Edinburgh one day, desperately thinking of what I could write that would grab the interest of readers – and hopefully a publisher. Then I came on the Scott Monument and the idea of someone plummeting from the top of it came to me. Eighty-thousand words later, I had a book, and it was only when I was reading through the draft that I realised I’d written a crime novel. I guess I wasn’t too surprised, after all, I’ve always loved crime fiction so it’s natural that’s what I would gravitate to.
4. How hard was it for you all to get published? - It was a long, hard slog, and I got a lot of those oh-so polite rejection letters saying my work was “good but not what we’re looking for at the moment”. Then I got what every writer needs, that one bit of luck. I was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2013, which brought me to the attention of my publisher. And from there, it’s been a book a year – and a hell of a ride!
5. What can you say about the state of crime writing in Scotland and where do you see yourselves fitting in this field? - I think crime writing in Scotland is in rude health. You only have to look at the response to this tour and the buzz generated by festivals like Bloody Scotland to see that. As for where I fit in, I’m a fan of the genre and lucky enough to be part of a great community of writers who are the nicest, most supportive bunch of people you could hope to meet.
Your protagonist Doug McGregor is a journalist, how much of your own experience informs the way you have developed this character? - As journalists, Doug and I both approach stories the same way, and, believe it or not, when I’m writing a Doug and Susie book I’ve got no more clue than Doug does about what’s going on! We’re also similar in our views of the industry and the decline of newspapers and proper journalism in favour of churnalism, lower costs and click-bait headlines. I suppose we’ve both got similar morals, though Doug can be more ruthless than I can and sees his friends, including Susie, as chess pieces at times to either help or hinder him on the hunt for the next splash.
Why Edinburgh & not Glasgow? Is the rivalry that exists in reality between these two great cities reflected in the Scottish Crime Fiction - For me, Edinburgh was a natural choice as it’s my home town. I understand Edinburgh – the people, the places, the attitudes. Every city has a rhythm, an unspoken language and tone, and I get that about Edinburgh. I don’t have the same feeling for Glasgow, so it would be difficult for me to write about that city in the same way. Though if Skelton can do it, I guess anyone can!
I’m not sure there really is a rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow, they’re just two cities with different attitudes which have, in large, been shaped by their similar yet radically different histories. That translates into the fiction –the stories told reflect the cities they’re set in. OK, there may be a pop at Glasgow from an Edinburgh-based character and vice versa, but I’m not sure there’s a real, teeth-bared, knives-at-dawn rivalry.
Can you some up your main protagonist in one phrase/sentence? What do you like/dislike about them? - Overly idealist journalist with big ideas, bigger hair and a burning need to get to the bottom of the story behind the headline. I like Doug’s idealism, I’m jealous of his hair, and I dislike his ruthlessness and disregard for how his actions can affect those closest to him.
What next? I’m working on the next Doug and Susie now, picking up where I left everyone at the end of All the Devils. I’ve also got a few ideas for a new series, as well as a few standalones. Oh, and I owe my best friend, who does the covers for my books, a full-on horror novel, so that’s in the pipeline as well.
- GJ Brown
1. What led you to embark on this tour? - I'm struggling to remember the genesis of the tour. I now know what rock bands feel like mid-way through a tour - a little brain dead. The key reason I'm on board is the fun of working with Mark, Neil and Douglas. Whether they feel the same is another thing. Oh and the vast sums of money that have been transferred to my off shore account to tempt me into the road help a little.
2. What has been your experience so far with the Tour? - If I was to sum it up it one word 'surprising'. I wasn't sure what to expect. The format is very fluid. From the outset we take questions from the audience. And this means that the conversation can start anywhere, go anywhere and end up anywhere. No two nights have been the same and this has kept the whole thing fresh and interesting (at least it has for us). The reaction has been great. We take the questions seriously, the audience are looking for insight, but humour is woven through and this gives the whole shebang a nice flavour.
3. Why did you choose to get into crime writing? - Masochism. That might sound, ok it is, flip, but there is a certain amount of self-inflicted pain in the process. I never intended to get into crime writing. I just wanted to write. I have a number of unpublished novels in the suitcase under my bed. All waiting on the day that my next book becomes a global sensation and film companies stream to my door in search of my back catalogue. Those unpublished novels are important - they helped me hone my craft. The more I write, the better I get. It was one last concerted effort to get published that landed me on the planet of crime. I had a line in my head, 'The last thing I wanted to do was fall.' I had no idea what the next line was but as it appeared on the screen it morphed into a crime novel called 'Falling', all be it from the victim and bad guys POV - the police are notably absent. In hindsight it was a natural place to go. Writing about bad people is more fun than writing about good. My father was a policeman so the world of crime was never far away. And I love the idea of placing my protagonist(s) in alien situations and working out how they will fare. Crime just proved a more fertile field for this.
4. How hard was it for you all to get published? - If you omit the first twenty years and four novels, it was easy. The turning point was 'Falling'. I was just finishing up a contract for an existing client and, without a new client on the horizon, I had a summer ahead. I decided to have one last crack at a novel while the kids were off; with a view to finishing the book by the time they went back to school. I then edited for a month and sent a synopsis and three chapters to four publishers. To my everlasting amazement one of them came back and asked if they could see the rest of the book. Falling was launched the next year. With my fifth book coming out early next year I still count myself fortunate that my first publisher saw something in my work.
5. What can you say about the state of crime writing in Scotland and where do you see yourselves fitting in this field? - I think the current state of crime fiction in Scotland is fit and healthy. As a founding committee member of Bloody Scotland I've been privileged to meet some of the greats of the genre and give a small helping hand with a thing we call 'Crime in the Spotlight'. This allows me to steal three minutes from the front end of the bigger authors sessions at Bloody Scotland, and allow new authors to read a little of their work to the audience. You only have to look at the success of Graeme Macrae Burnett, and his Man Booker nomination, to witness the strength of emerging talent. Graeme was a 'Crime in the Spotlighter' in 2015. However it would be remiss of me not to mention the sad passing of Willie McIlvanney - the 'god father' of 'Tartan Noir'. I met him on a number of occasions and his writing was, and still is, an inspiration to crime writers across the planet.
Why did some of you choose to set your crime writing outside Scotland? - I didn't, at first. 'Falling' and '59 Minutes' were both set in Glasgow. When I wrote book 3 it was also set in Glasgow. Then I got in tow with author, Allan Guthrie who said, and I quote, 'Love the idea but don't like the story.' The result? I binned an 80,000 word novel and started again. This time I set it in the U.S. If I ask myself why, I like the canvass that the country provides. My last two books 'The Catalyst' and 'Meltdown' are thrillers and America has allowed me to paint large. I, in the main, set my novels in towns and cities I've visited in the States. My day job takes me across the Atlantic monthly and this has given me no end of backdrops to set the action against. Saying that, the new novel will take my main protagonist, Craig McIntyre, back to Scotland. It seems I can't resist the lure of my home.
The publicity talks about Craig McIntyre having a unique affliction. Why did you choose to give Craig this characteristic? A pub fight. That's where the idea came from. A friend and I were in a pub on the south side of Glasgow a few years back. It was quiet. Apart from the two of us there were only three other customers - two brothers, arguing, and a man sitting in the corner reading a book. The arguing brothers took their dispute up a level and started fighting. They were drunk. Too drunk to do any damage to each other. But they managed to trash a fair amount of the pub before the police arrived. All the while the man in the corner read on. Never lifting his head through the whole fight. And that got me wondering. What if that was because his life was like this all the time. Him at the centre of chaos. Maybe he was the 'creator' of this chaos. This is where the idea for Craig McIntyre came from. Craig has this issue. He brings out the worst in people. His mere presence enough to drive people to kill each other. But he has no control over any of it. I love this idea. It makes Craig's life unpredictable and makes for great action.
And how does the new book differ from this earlier series? - The new book sees Craig trying to find out whether this 'affliction' is natural or man-made. To do this he has to confront the past only to find that he is the result of a truly terrifying experiment.
Can you talk about your involvement with Bloody Scotland? - Where to start? I'm one of the founding committed members. Six years ago I attended a CWA lunch where I met Alex Gray and Lin Anderson. They had been talking about the fact that there were crime festivals around the world but not one in Scotland. Somewhere during this conversation I remember uttering the words 'Well how hard can it be to set up a festival.' Fatal words. It's been a heck of a ride. We've just finished year 5 - a record year. Year 6 is already being planned and Bloody Scotland has established itself as one of the major crime festivals, globally.
Can you some up your main protagonist in one phrase/sentence? What do you like/dislike about them? - 'Deliciously unpredictable'.
Like - he's the character that just keeps giving.
Dislike - he demands pace. Writing about Craig is a brain draining experience.
What next? - I've just moved publisher to Strident. Thanks to them I've been able to go back to 'The Catalyst' and 'Meltdown' and redraft them. I've now finished the third book and the three books as a trilogy, will come out early next year. I was also lucky enough to have my first novel 'Falling' published in the U.S. And they have just agreed to take a sequel for publication next year.
- Douglas Skelton
1. What led you to embark on this tour? – It was Mark Leggatt who approached me with the idea last Christmas. It sounded like fun and an ideal way to get out and meet readers, to discuss what they like/dislike/look for in their crime reading.
2. What has been your experience so far with the Tour? – It has been fun! And I think, by and large, the audiences have enjoyed it. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
3. Why did you choose to get into crime writing? –I’m from Glasgow, what else would I write? But seriously, it’s what I read, it’s a wide, W-I-D-E, field in which anything is possible. And I don’t see me doing a romance.
4. How hard was it for you all to get published? – My first true crime book was accepted within days of sending it to a publisher. The remainder of the non-fiction was relatively easy. Fiction, though, was harder. It took a few years for Blood City to hit the shelves.
5. What can you say about the state of crime writing in Scotland and where do you see yourselves fitting in this field? – It’s very healthy north of the border – too healthy, in fact. Chuck a stone in Argyle Street in Glasgow and you’ll hit at least three crime writers and another half dozen on the rebound. Don’t throw stones, though – it’s anti-social. We need to get rid of a few, leave the way open for the rest of us. I have a list. And I won’t be stopping at stone throwing.
Why Glasgow & not Edinburgh? – I’m from Glasgow, simple as that. If I wrote about Edinburgh it would have to be from the point of view of a visitor.
Davie McCall – henchman. Why write from the other side? – When I decided to leap to fiction I realised that there were already excellent writers doing police procedurals set in Scotland. I couldn’t add anything. I also wanted to approach the genre from the other direction. It’s fairly common in US crime fiction but not so much here, and certainly not in Scotland. I also like anti-heroes, which is what Davie McCall is. He’s a violent man but not without heart and that’s what I wanted to explore. Dominic Queste, my new protagonist, is less the bad man but still has issues. Hell, don’t we all?
You have written both true crime and crime fiction – does the process differ? – It differs in that with the true crime I have the facts to guide me and ground me, while the fiction is all mine and I can take it wherever I want. The storytelling approach, for me, is the same – how do I tell this in an interesting, entertaining and surprising way?
Can you sum up your main protagonist in one phrase/sentence? What do you like/dislike about them?
Davie McCall – a good man in a bad man’s skin. I like his stillness and his ability to cut through a problem in a direct fashion. I sometimes wish I could do that. His taciturn nature, though, makes him hard to write.
Dominic Queste – a joker with melancholy in his soul. I like his ability to come up with a one-liner just when it’s needed. I generally think of it about half an hour later. There’s a French phrase for that but it escapes me. I’ll remember it in half an hour! I dislike his self-destructive nature. It’s too close to home.
What next? – I’ve recently completed the second Dominic Queste thriller, Tag – You’re Dead. I’m now gearing up to move onto something else. I don’t know what yet but it’s coming!
- Mark Leggatt
1. What led you to embark on this tour? – To generate publicity and both connect and start a conversation with the audience.
2. What has been your experience so far with the Tour? – It’s been a hoot! Every town is different, and the audiences are great fun. Everybody in the same room with the same love of books makes a great atmosphere.
3. Why did you choose to get into crime writing? It chose me; the story I wanted to write fitted into the thriller genre, but I’m not fussed about genres.
4. How hard was it for you all to get published? Very hard indeed. 4 years to get an agent, and then 6 months being rejected in the US, before Fledgling heard and picked me up.
5. What can you say about the state of crime writing in Scotland and where do you see yourselves fitting in this field? I’m not writing typical crime, so I’m kind of on the edges; part of Scottish crime, being a Scottish thriller writer, but not writing Scottish crime per se.
Why did some of you choose to set your crime writing outside Scotland? No conscious choice, that where the character and his story would be.
How much research on the ground were you able to do for your novels? Quite a lot for Paris and London, but as I’ve lived there, I’m very familiar with them. For North Africa and Iran, I made detailed notes from colleagues I worked with in France, and asked them a million questions.
Your work focuses on the notion of global economic meltdown – fact or fiction? Fact can be so bizarre, that it’s too outrageous for Fiction, but I like to wrap up my fiction in hard fact
Can you some up your main protagonist in one phrase/sentence? What do you like/dislike about them? Male Protagonist; I like him most of the time, but he needs to control his anger. Female protagonist; I like her all the time, you never know what is going to happen next, and neither do I.
What next? The Silk Road – Underground banking, false flag terrorist attacks, illegal arms sales and mayhem!