Author Interview : James Oswald – part one

Interview with James Oswald - writer of these two very fine books!

Hello James!

Thank you first of all for your kind interest in wanting to do this interview and for taking the time to answer the questions with such interesting answers. I have hungrily read both of your books and promptly jumped on a train in order to do the book trail! I thought I knew Edinburgh well having lived there as a student but, oh no, I hadn’t experienced it through the eyes of Inspector McLean!!

1.You lived in Edinburgh as a student. You capture the spirit of Edinburgh very well. How did you go about getting this detail right?

What not a lot of people know is that I wrote the first two books, Natural Causes and The Book of Souls, whilst living in mid-Wales. I bought myself OS Landranger maps of the city and surrounding area to make sure I got the names right, but the rest was just dredging up memories. I studied for an MSc in Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University in the early nineties (alas, a course I never completed, lacking sufficient natural intelligence.) I also spent five years living in Roslin to the south of the city, commuting in by bike. I’ve known the city a long time, though even I get things wrong from time to time.


2. Do you think Edinburgh lends itself well to gothic, supernatural murders? How important were the settings in your book to reinforce the dark content?

Edinburgh is a very old city, with many layers to it both geographically and socially. It also has a long and bloody history and countless tales of ghosts, ghouls and foul goings on. It’s the city of Burke and Hare and Mary King’s Close, the Black Museum at the Surgeon’s Hall and countless horrifying tales. Ghost walks around the Old Town are enormously popular, and walking those dark narrow streets, shadowed by tall tenements, it’s not hard to see why. The settings I use for the books undeniably help to build the atmosphere, and the joy of using the city is that a lot of my work is already done for me.


3. What was your experience of E-Publishing and how do you feel to be a published author now with Penguin?

E-publishing was very easy to do, especially given my background in website development. An e-book is basically a specially formatted web page, so making my books look good on an e-reader wasn’t hard. Making sure the words were all spelled correctly, the punctuation was right and there were no continuity errors was not so easy, and that is where a lot of self-published authors fall down. Proof reading your own work is nigh-on impossible. Designing a cover that is both arresting enough to grab someone’s attention in a fraction of a second and easy enough to be read even in small thumbnail size is another skill most authors don’t have. I paid for professional cover design – not as expensive as you might think – and had several friends read the books for typos before I put them out there. Even so, the finished result wasn’t perfect.

Working with Penguin has been a joy. I always wanted to be a writer, not a publisher, and having professional editors go over my manuscripts has improved them immeasurably.

Holding a print edition of my first book in my hands was undeniably a high point in my life, but the best moment was a couple of months later when I got onto a train in London, heading back to Edinburgh, and sat down opposite a woman who was reading Natural Causes. And yes, I did introduce myself! (Book trail note: Quite right! I would have loved to have been there to see their face!)


Those book covers showing a super spooky side to Edinburgh you have never experienced before!
Those book covers showing a super spooky side to Edinburgh you have never experienced before!

4. Any advice to give an aspiring writer?

Finish the book. So many people I know have started writing a novel and then given up after a few thousand words. People often go back and endlessly rewrite what they’ve done so far. Don’t. Leave it alone. It’s far more important to get the whole, finished story down. It will be rubbish, but it will be a starting point for the other key job of an author – that of a rewriter.

Having said which, I would add that you should never take any piece of writing advice as gospel. It’s just advice. Weigh it up, try it for yourself if you think it might help, but don’t struggle with it if it doesn’t fit the kind of writer you are.


Inspector Mclean's flat in Newington
Inspector Mclean’s flat in Newington

5. Are any of your characters based on people you know or have known? McLean especially interests me. Oh and I love the name Grumpy Bob.

Grumpy Bob’s name comes from the nickname of an acquaintance of many years ago. I don’t think he knew that was what everyone called him. I love the way the sound of it rolls off the tongue. Grumpy Bob is, of course, notable for his lack of grumpiness, and apart from the name is entirely made up.

There are so many good and interesting answers to my questions that I just had to savour them and share them in two parts. Come back tomorrow for some more insights into McLean’s  Edinburgh. In the words of the man himself!

Natural Causes – Edinburgh part two

Natural Causes book trail part two
Natural Causes book trail part two



Carstairs Weddel in the West End
Carstairs Weddell in the West End


Mclean remembered a time, not so long ago, when all the Edinburgh family firms, the lawyers and stockbrokers,merchant bankers and importers of fine wares had their office  the grand old houses of the west end, now the streets were full of basement restaurants, boutique shops, health clubs and expensive apartments. times changed, but the city always adapted. – page 99


Carstairs Weddell occupied the entirety of a  large Georgian terraced house in the west end of the city. where the more modern and progressive law firms had moved into purpose built offices on the lothian road of further out towards Gogarburn, this one small partnership had held out against the tides of change. – page 99




A murderous location
A murderous location


As it was, their destination was only a few minutes from his flat. Patrol cars flashed blue lights on the cobbles of the royal mile just across from St Giles Cathedral as uniforms fended off curious friday night revellers, keen to get an eyeful of whatever was happening. – page 145


St Giles Cathedral ….



The North Bridge
The North Bridge

Waverley station was busy at the best of times. with the festival and the fringe in full flow it was a nightmare of milling backpacks, horn-tooting taxis and lost tourists. throw in an ambulance ,  a couple of squad cars and a halt on all train movements and the chaos was complete – 220


a new vista of the city
a new vista of the city


Stepping out on the station roof was a strange experience. it was a completely new vista of the city, looking up at the underside of North Bridge and the lower basement of the North British Hotel, McLean always thought of it as the North British. As far as he was concerned, Balmoral was a castle in Aberdeenshire – page 225





I don’t know if this was the inspiration but I went in anyway and ate a meal fit for an inspector!

And he is right, their deserts are pretty special!




The festival
The festival

The city never really slept, especially during the festival. The usual crowd of late shift workers and rough sleepers was augmented by drunken students and wannabe actors , dustbin men and road sweepers. The streets were quiet in comparison with the day , but it was early yet, and a steady stream of cars still fought their single-occupant ways to destinations unknown.


Well I leave Edinburgh for now – I’m reading Book Of Souls and have a chat with the author himself soon – right on this very blog! I’m very excited about it.

Jackson Brodie’s tour of Edinburgh – part two

Following on from Jackson Brodie’s tour of Edinburgh last week, now that the festival has started – here is part two:

The first day of the festival - the excitement is building
The first day of the festival – the excitement is building

Jackson goes to the book festival! 

In the book ‘One Good Turn’, Kate Atkinson of course features a lot of the action in and around the book festival and the fringe festival on the Royal Mile.  This enables her to write some acute observations on the atmosphere and the people who attend the writer events.  Read Kate’s words and imagine yourself right there. Linger on Jackson Brodie lingering at the back of the tent. Or Jason Isaacs – whatever takes your fancy.

‘CRIME WRITERS FOR LUNCH’ – As if they were going to be eaten  by their audience. “Lunch’ was coffee and filled white rolls, which were free and served from a bar at the back of the Spiegeltent. And the writers were the entertainment. Dancing bears. – 319

The rest of the description of the book festival is as witty and amusing as it is an honest and very apt observation of the festival atmosphere. Having been in that tent with writers answering questions and hosts directing anything the audience throws at them, it was as if I was right back there, watching  the great Kate Atkinson in admiration and recalling the words of the novel in my head as she spoke.

Was this life imitating art or the other way around? Kate did talk about Jackson Brodie and I did think that, like in the book, if I turned my head, he might be standing there at the back of the tent, watching as Martin described:

 He looked for Jackson and saw him standing near the bar, straight-backed with his hands in front as if he was going to stop a penalty shot. All he was missing was the black suit and the earpiece to make him look like a presidential Secret Service agent. – 321

The audience was predominantly middle-aged and female, as usual at these events… – page 322

When it came to question time, hands shot up everywhere. Young people, student types, ran around with microphones and Martin braced himself with questions  – page 322

Kate Atkinson in the signing tent
Kate Atkinson in the signing tent

In the signing tent, they sat at three identical tables. Every time an eager reader approached him Martin felt a little knock of panic to his heart, imagining each newcomer reading across the table as he signed his name and stabbing him with a knife, shooting him with a gun.- 323

I really hope Kate didn’t feel any of this ‘panic’. Everyone seemed nice and chatty in the queue and Kate herself was pleasure to meet -chatting and joking all the time. I laughed as I did overhear two women discussing the fact that Kate had mentioned that she was born just after the war – when her novel was set – and they were working this out in the queue.  ‘I can’t believe it. She looks a lot younger! I hope they told Kate this! Someone else I got chatting to, was happier to talk about her book rather than her appearance thankfully and she was keen to tell me what she would like to change in her life if she got the chance ‘to do it all again until she got it right’.

I asked her what she would do differently. She smiled at me and said ‘Ooh I don’t know really but it just sounds a bit tiring that’s all. I mean doing things over and over? I think I’d need to write a list to remember what I’d done the first few times.’  Ooh I did laugh with her. She was clearly a Kate fan – had read every single one of her books she told me – and was going to tell Kate that. I do hope she did and that Kate had a nicer and less eventful time than the Martin character in her book!

The Royal Mile – home to the festival

St Giles cathedral
St Giles

The Royal Mile was beginning to feel almost familiar to Jackson now. He felt like turning to the nearest person and pointing out to them St Giles Church and the new parliament building (ten times over budget – how could anything be ten times over budget?) – 28

Jackson goes on a little walk, taking just a morning and sees some interesting parts of Edinburgh at the castle end of the Royal Mile: The Camera Obscura for one is a popular tourist attraction with stunning views over Edinburgh  and a MAgic Gallery and Electric room for example. Wonder what Brodie made of it all? 

Greyfriars Bobby

I took a walk,’ Jackson said, ‘went to a museum and the Camera Obscura. Had a look at Greyfriars Bobby’s grave –

The statue in memory to the lovely Greyfriars Bobby
The statue in memory to the lovely Greyfriars Bobby

‘Oh.’ Julia made a  tragic face. The mention of a dog, any dog, always provoked an emotional reflex in Julia but the idea of a dead dog upped the ante on the emotion considerably. The idea of a dead, faithful dog was almost more than she could handle.

“Yeah, I paid him your respects,’ Jackson said. – page 41

The grave
The grave

The mound

The mound from where Jackson takes the 41 bus to Cramond
The mound from where Jackson takes the 41 bus to Cramond

Jackson  climbed on board the 41 bus on the mound and thought, OK, if she wanted him to take a bus he would take a bus. The 41 covered a long route that ended up at Cramond. He knew Cramond as a hymn tune, not a place. Or was it ‘Crimond’? So many things he didn’t know. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. Was he? It seemed unlikely somehow.

An old woman waiting at the bus stop with him said, ‘Oh, it’s very nice out in Cramond, you can go to Cramond Island from there. You’ll like it.’ He believed it; years of experience had taught Jackson that old women tended to tell the truth. – page 96

The alley way  – 

There are many small alley ways  along the Royal Mile – one was even featured on the cover of the Kate Atkinson novel itself: so I took my own advice and revisited the cover so to speak:

The book version of the close
The book version of Milne’s Court
The real thing
The real thing

Jackson fought his way up the royal mile , thourgh the crowds and the tartan tat, until he finally gained the castle, soaring almost Cahtar-like on top of the volcanic rock.

 A city en fete
A city en fete

Crowds flowed down the Royal Mile like the lava that had once moulded landscape out of fire, moving around obstacles in  the way -the statue of David Hume , a mime artist, a piper, several student theatre groups, people handling our flyers (lots of them) , another piper, a man eating fire, a man dressed as Sherlock Holmes. Another piper. It certainly was a city en fête. – page 75

Just before I left the Royal Mile to head back to the book festival, I noticed something that made me smile. Something that would have made Jackson smile I think – I hope even that it might have been named in his honour. Yes that’s going to be the version I tell myself as it’s the one he and Kate deserve:

Jackson Brodie remembered
Jackson Brodie remembered

I left Jackson here but thanked him for taking me on this interesting tour of his city. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.

Edinburgh via book covers

I thought I would take you on a short tour of some sights in Edinburgh as depicted on book covers. There are more but I just wanted to keep near the old town for now.

Fleshmarket Close
Fleshmarket Close

Fleshmarket close in the old Town just off the Royal Mile is as spooky and dark as it appears on the cover. Visit here to see a dark and mysterious corner of Edinburgh where the old meat market used to be. Then go next door to St Mary’s close for a tour underground and to meet the resident ghost.

Off the Royal Mile
Off the Royal Mile

In the book there is an ‘incident’ which affects many of the characters and it happens on the royal mile – on the rainy cobbles, near the stone stairs, with people watching  and waiting in the shadows. The Royal Mile is a cavern of myterious and spooky places to lose yourself in. A maze of discovery.

Greyfriars Close
Greyfriars Close

No, you can’t come to Edinburgh without going to see the famous statue of Greyfriars bobby. It’s the famous story about the loyal Skye Terrier who stayed beside his master’s grave for fourteen years. The grave is in Greyfriars Kirkyard, about 75 yards from John Gray’s grave. Bobby’s monument is on the corner of Candlemakers Row and King George IV Bridge .

Princes Street
Princes Street

This is an image of Princes Street with the open top tour bus going past. Now I for one find these buses quite useful for getting around a city if you are new to it, and even for picking up some interesting snippets of information about the history and people who lived there. Even if you don’t take a tour, walk along Princes Street (On the side of the gardens) and make sure you sit in the gardens and look up at the castle. Listen out for the one o’clock gun. Get a poke of chips from the chippy on Rose Street and sit and enjoy them here. If you enjoy people watching, you’ll still be sat there hours later. Edinburgh walks by you when you sit here.