Sitting with James here with a steaming cup of coffee and his books – now where were we…a few more questions if I may……ahh yes….
6. How do you create your characters and where does McLean come from?
I tend not to base my characters on people I know, so much as steal individual traits and mash them together to form someone new. I might, when writing a scene, consider how my younger brother might react in that situation and use that as a template. I have stolen a few names of friends – notably DC Stuart MacBride – although Professor Matt Hilton in The Book of Souls was created before I’d ever heard of, let alone met the thriller writer of the same name.
I don’t really know where McLean comes from – there’s undoubtedly bits of me in him, but he’s more than that. I first used him as a character in a comic script I wrote over twenty years ago, and he’s been in several other stories since, each time changing a little, his character slowly developing to fit new ideas and stories.
7. I enjoyed the supernatural ingredient to the police procedural one. Why did you want to write and mix both?
Probably because I didn’t know better? I started off writing comics, and reading far too many of them as well. Titles like Hellblazer, Swamp Thing and Sandman were my favourites, and all of them to some extent blend supernatural elements with the everyday.
What I didn’t know, when I first embarked on the story that would become Natural Causes, was how resistant to genre mixing the publishing industry was at the time. That book, and its follow-up, The Book of Souls, were both short listed for the CWA Debut Dagger award, something that usually gets publishers very interested indeed. My experience was almost universally one of ‘we like the writing, but can’t see a market for the mixed genres.’
I find the whole concept of genre profoundly irritating and unhelpful. I read a wide variety of different authors, and don’t really care if it’s a historical novel, something ‘literary’ (and there’s a can of worms best left unopened), hard science fiction or anything else. The only thing that I’m interested in is a good story well told.
8. How do you spread your time between writing and farming? It’s quite an unusual mix.
I’m at my most productive, writing-wise, in the evening. Farming is an activity that takes place mostly during daylight hours. I try to get the bulk of the daily farming jobs – checking and feeding livestock, mainly – done in the morning, giving me the afternoon to edit and the evening to write.
There are times when the farm demands more of my attention – sorting lambs for selling, dosing animals for worms and so on. These tend to be non-writing days, as by the time I’ve been working manually for twelve hours, sitting at the computer for another four tends to be unproductive!
I don’t get to watch a lot of telly these days, and I’ve not been to the cinema in a while either. Now that the books have been far more successful than I could have dreamed, I can afford to hire help in for some of the more time-intensive farming jobs and concentrate more on the writing. I’ve just signed a new deal with Penguin for another three McLean books, and they want one every six months, so I’ll be contracting out a lot more of the farming in the next eighteen months!
9. Tell us a little about the next installment of Inspector McLean – The Hangman’s Song
I wouldn’t want to give too much away! The story revolves around a series of suicides, seemingly unlinked and yet too similar to be coincidental. Already under pressure from dealing with the fallout at the end of The Book of Souls, Tony McLean is put under even greater strain as he struggles to investigate these suicides despite being told to do only a basic investigation and wrap everything up quickly. At the same time, he is on secondment to the Sexual Crimes Unit, investigating the strange case of a group of young prostitutes being trafficked out of the city and back to Europe. His team has been split up, too, adding to the stress, so it’s hardly surprising that he starts to make bad decisions.
10. Have you always been interested in books about gruesome murders and which writers inspire you?
I sort of stumbled into writing crime fiction by accident. I’ve know Stuart MacBride since long before either of us were published. We used to give each other critiques of our manuscripts, and collaborated on a comic strip a very long time ago. Like me, Stuart was writing SF and Urban Fantasy novels, but was advised by his agent at the time to write something contemporary – the result being Cold Granite, the first of his phenomenally successful Logan McRae series of Aberdeen based crime thrillers.
Stuart passed on the advice to me, and persuaded me to go to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, back in 2006. I knew very few people there, but found all the writers really friendly and supportive – even people I have subsequently discovered to be big names. I came away from the festival determined to have a go, and dusted off an old character I’d come up with many years earlier – Detective Inspector Tony McLean. He’d been a supporting character in that comic script Stuart and I had collaborated on, and I’d used him in a couple of other novels as the token policeman. This time I decided to give him his own starring role, and the result was Natural Causes.
Because I’d not been a massive fan of crime fiction, my knowledge of the genre was limited to a few of Ian Rankin’s books, some Agatha Christie when I was young, the Hardy Boys, of course, and all of Stuart MacBride’s novels, which I’d read as early drafts. I’d also picked up and enjoyed RD Wingfield’s Frost novels, but apart from taking some cues from them, I don’t think I could say I was inspired by them. My major influences are from comics, fantasy and SF. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, John Wagner, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis are probably my biggest inspiration.
11. At a dinner party on your farm – which 4 writers would you invite living or dead and why?
That’s a thorny one. Only four? Who will I offend by not inviting them? Alas, all-too-recently dead, I would have loved to have been able to spend some time with Iain Banks, so he’d certainly be on the list, as would Neil Gaiman (may he not be dead for very many years yet). I think JK Rowling would be an excellent dinner guest, and since she was a great friend of my grandfather, perhaps Dorothy L Sayers could make up the numbers.
Thanks so much James. Really enjoyed chatting with you. It’s been a pleasure
The Hangman’s Song – coming out in Spring 2014 – see an article on James’ blog http://jamesoswald.co.uk/?p=184