My review of Crow Mellow was published in the Fairfax Press today.
The back cover blurb consists of two sentences. ‘This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.’
While only the name of the writer, Julian Davies, appears on the front cover, Phil Day’s drawings are an essential part of the reading experience, and so I think it’s fitting to include both names in the title of this post.
Most often, the drawings surround the text; sometimes an illustration occupies a whole page, and half of the adjoining one, so that the words are nestled within it. Of course, this kind of reading experience is familiar to us from children’s picture books.
Day’s drawings are often ironic, sharp, and poke fun at themselves as well as the fictional characters they depict. Since I’m writing this post on January 10, 2015, I can’t help being aware that any cartoon or satirical illustration has acquired a whole new depth of resonance this week, and will probably retain it for quite a long time to come.
Who is being satirised in Crow Mellow? As I say in my review, it’s a bunch of people staying in a rich man’s country house. Crow Mellow is modelled on Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, Crome Yellow, published in 1921. Davies’ protagonist echoes Huxley’s – an aspiring writer beset by self-doubt. In both books, the wealthy host is writing a family history. There is a beautiful young woman with whom the protagonist is in love, and a bitter, wordy individual, who acts as a kind of chorus, in the tragic sense, to the mostly frivolous proceedings.
In an interview with Sally Pryor, Julian Davies talks about writing and publishing these days, and in particular Finlay Lloyd, which he established as a non-profit publishing venture in 2005, initially as a partnership with four people.
‘”The thing I realised is what a hidebound set of conventions book publishing is bound by, and literary people don’t even think about it,” (Davies) says. “And sadly, often literary people aren’t very visual and most books are horribly over-designed. Even the better publishers, the books are so covered with gumph because everyone’s so scared of their book not selling. They cover it and smother it, and there’s no room for designers to really design.”‘
‘By the time Davies had become fed up with mainstream publishers, Phil Day and his then-partner were already producing handmade books in small editions as Finlay Press in Braidwood. With Davies, they decided to start publishing books together, and their great friend, the artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe, was also keen to be involved. But eventually Day and his partner split up, Wallace-Crabbe drifted away from the process, leaving Day and Davis to their own joyful devices.’
Pryor’s interview is informative and interesting, well worth reading in its entirety. As is Crow Mellow. I’m just sorry I’m not clever enough to be able to scan a double page of the story, plus illustrations, for this post.
Nancy Christie is the founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a day, (the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere), for sharing short stories and enjoying them. I was so taken with the idea of short fiction day that I read Nancy Christies’s collection, Travelling Left of Centre and Other Stories.
The stories in Nancy Christie’s collection are vivid and compelling. The protagonist often finds her or himself in a trap – an impossible relationship, where the only way out is through violence to another, or oneself. In other stories, an event from childhood rears up to ambush the main character. Sometimes these characters are unable to distinguish between the fantasies they have created – for comfort, as an emotional shield – and the world of everyday reality to which they are compelled to return.
In the title story, a mother remarks to her pregnant daughter that, ‘on the highway of life’ she was ‘always travelling left of centre’ – a dreamer who kept dreaming, but never quite achieved her modest hopes, and meanwhile made herself an easy prey. It’s a description that fits most of Christie’s protagonists.
The stand-out stories for me were ‘The Shop on the Square’ where a young man walks into danger out of the hot Mexican sun, seeking only a cool place to lie down; The Sugar Bowl’ where the central image – beautiful, fragile and mysterious – says a great deal about the girl who owns it; and ‘Misconnections’, where the failure of machines is linked to emotional failure that can’t be put right.
In ‘The Storyteller’, a kind woman, who is not allowed to go on telling stories to sick children, does her best to let them down gently. In ‘Anything Can Happen’ a woman’s careful routines crack wide open. Christie’s stories chart the emotional chasms that open up under deceptive everyday surfaces, and pay tribute to the damaged human beings who must cope with them. A memorable collection.
“The winter solstice marks both the start of winter and the shortest day of the year. So why not take advantage of the long winter night to curl up with a good short story?” ~ Nancy Christie, founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day.
I’ve only just discovered Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a little late, since the solstice has just passed – and on the wrong side of the world, of course, for the shortest day! But why not make the summer solstice an occasion for celebrating short stories too?
I love short stories, and refuse to see them as the poor relative of the novel. So why not mark this solstice, or look forward to the next one, by curling up on a beach with a good collection, or share a much-loved story with a friend?
My two favourite story collections for 2014 are Australian Love Stories published by Inkerman & Blunt, and The Trouble With Flying, published by Margaret River Press. I’d also like to mention two wonderful bloggers who value short stories, Whispering Gums, who reviewed both these collections, and Charles May, whose Reading The Short Story is both an education and delight.
Thanks to Pixel Hall Press for drawing my attention to this wonderful opportunity for celebrating short fiction.
Pixel Hall Press is certainly doing its bit to keep the form alive, as shown in this quote from their website:
‘When we established our PHP Shorts imprint, we predicted, “The market for short stories and novellas is about to experience a renaissance, spurred in part by the proliferation of smartphones, eReaders and tablets. The length of a story is becoming irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s a great story that captures the readers’ interest and imagination.” Whether readers choose to enjoy it on an e-reader or prefer the tactile pleasure of turning the pages, the result is the same: a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction from reading a complete, beautifully crafted story in one sitting.’
Let’s hope that, by the next solstice, we’ll have a Celebrate Short Fiction Day in the southern as well as the northern hemisphere!
My review of Window Gods was published in the Fairfax press today. Though on the surface, and at the start, it appears to be a straightforward ‘novel of manners’, Window Gods turns out to be a surprising, many-layered book.
There’s a lot about art and artists – visual, literary, botanical - here’s a quote that has stayed with me and that I didn’t have the space to include in my review:
‘…the hypothesis with which the artist is stuck is the lifelong nub against which talent writhes like a cat possessed. You have to stick with the nub despite fashion and fortune – or never produce a body of work. Too bad if your idea is bad or infantile, or proves to be a cul de sac or something that happens before its time. Art is a never-ending fascination with perception. It’s facile to say all people are artists; artists are those who embrace the nub and never give it up.’
I’ve just come across a brilliant prose poem, ‘The Ships’ by Constantine Cavafy. Judging by the number of English translations on the official Cavafy website, the work is well known, but I’m glad to have found it, if a trifle later in life!
This photograph of the poet dates from around 1900.
‘From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it. The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods…’ More
The prose poem is a wonderful evocation of the imagination as a ship and well worth reading in its entirety.
Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived most of his life in Alexandria and whose poetry went largely unrecognised in Greece during his lifetime. One of his best known poems is Waiting For The Barbarians.
Gert Loveday had done it again with another wild, whacky and delicious comic novel.
Writing Is Easy, Gert’s debut novel, is a marvellous send-up of a writing workshop and the people to attend and run it. Crane Mansions, the place, is a school for foundlings – literally babies left in baskets – presided over by Dr Crane, who is obsessed by pigeons and has created an entire philosophy built around observing them. Crane leaves the running of the school to evil Marcel Hogue and a group called the Leaders. The children, the Learners, are half-starved and bullied, made to parrot nonsensical Texts, Precepts and Axioms, and punished for failing to interpret them correctly.
This sounds grim, and on one level it’s meant to be – a satire on the worst kind of boarding school. Like all good satirists, Gert exaggerates in order to make her point, and we laugh at the ridiculous posturings of the so-called teachers, and the pupils’ schemes to get the better of them, one way or another.
But Crane Mansions is more than a simple or straight-forward satire; it has at its heart a humanity and warmth that many satires lack. Milly Lord is apparently an indigent foundling like all the other children, though she arrives as a seven-year-old rather than a baby. Milly has memories of another life, and is wise and imaginative as well. She responds to Crane’s kindness, manifested at first by offerings of cake and a willingness to listen, and gradually the whole, cruel edifice of the school begins to crumble.
The cast of humorous villains includes Trish Vowles, out to swindle Milly if she can, her partner Sam, who, in an attempt to win her back turns himself into a furiously sun-tanned and bewigged buffoon, and Eustace Pugh and Sybilla Shaw, who start off on the side of the villains but are redeemed in time.
The cover tag line reads ‘a novel about the redeeming power of cake’ and while this is obviously a joke, it also holds its own kind of truth. Crane Mansions, while sending itself up continually, and tying itself in knot after knot, is redemptive in ways that only a special kind of comedy can be. So that even the crazy Thoughts of the headmaster come to mean more than they appear to, and the Pageant at the end becomes a celebration of human ingenuity and irrepressible sense of fun.
* Gert Loveday is the pen name of writing duo Gabrielle Daly and Joan Kerr
Crane Mansions is available for sale on Amazon
This year I was privileged to judge the Barbara Jefferis Award, together with Margaret Barbalet and Georgia Blain. Actually, the award was for two years, 2013 and 2014. There were 72 entries from 32 publishers, plus a small number of self-published novels.
Here is our shortlist:
Amy Espeseth: Sufficient Grace (Scribe)
Tracy Farr: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press)
Jacinta Halloran: Pilgrimage (Scribe)
Margo Lanagan: Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin)
Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest (Penguin Books)
Margaret Merrilees: The First Week (Wakefield Press)
Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain (Vintage Books)
A further novel was highly commended: Laura Buzo: Holier Than Thou (Allen & Unwin)
Barbara Jefferis was a feminist, a founding member of the Australian Society of Authors and its first woman president. (See my earlier post about her and the award.)
Judging the award was a lot of fun, but hard, because there were many sparkling contenders. One thing that stands out for me about our shortlist is that the books on it couldn’t be more different – apart from the quality of the writing, of course.
The Mountain is an ambitious, panoramic novel spanning the years since Papua New Guinea gained independence, while The First Week, as its title suggests, takes place over only a few days, with a small cast of characters. Sea Hearts is a fantasy novel, and The Night Guest rubs shoulders with the surreal. Jacinta Halloran explores ethical and emotional dilemmas within a realist framework, as does Tracy Farr.
By referring to genre categories, I don’t want in any way to diminish the originality of the shortlisted books, but to point out their diversity.
Another interesting point to note is that, out of seven shortlisted titles, four were published by small (or small to medium-sized) publishers, although by far the greatest number of entries were submitted by the ‘big names’ – Penguin, Random House, Allen& Unwin and so on. In making our selection, we didn’t discuss publishers at all, and it’s only now, in writing this post, that the comparison has occurred to me.
I’ll have more to say about the shortlist, but I wanted to end this post on a personal note. The award entries I’ve been reading and thinking about over the last two and a half months are associated for me with the places I read them. I live near the sea and often sat with a favourite view of Port Phillip Heads and two or three novels beside me. At other times the wind was cold, and I found a sheltered spot by the mouth of the Barwon River.
Then, as my friends who read this blog will know, my mother became ill. (She died on July 30.) I took books to the hospital to read. I couldn’t stand staring at the walls, and it didn’t seem to be any kind of insult to my mother, who loved reading and had considerable success herself, with poetry and short stories. It’s a strange kind of accident, I suppose, but some of the entries – I won’t name them – will be forever linked for me with wards and nurses and a morphine drip.
A few weeks ago I began drafting a post about the difficulties of ending novels. I was going to talk about the problems I perceived both as a writer and a reader, and how I often lay in bed after finishing a book, wondering why it had to end in just that way.
But then my mother died. Two weeks ago today, early in the morning, I got the call to say she’d passed away in the middle of the night. Ivy Johnston was 94 years old. She caught pneumonia and the doctors said that she could not recover. But then she seemed to rally, and for five days hung between life and death. Not a long time. Not long compared to many.
I’m looking now at the thoughts I’d set down on fictional endings, the points I wanted to make about aesthetics, the comparisons between musical and written language. They seem trivial and silly – yet maybe not entirely so.
I was going to compare the ending of a piece of music with a work of prose fiction or a poem, and try to capture the feeling I have when learning a piece on the piano, of looking forward to the end. When my fingers are just beginning to grasp what is required of them, when finger memory is just beginning to take hold, I begin to anticipate returning to the home key. I long for this, and the comfort of knowing that it’s there.
The home key marks the ending of a journey. But it must be the right ending and the right return. I hate aesthetic endings that come cheap, but with the ending of a real life, can this ever be said to happen?
I began playing the piano again after my father contracted Alzheimer’s. (He died in 2001.) It’s often observed that musical memory is retained after other kinds are lost. I set down my own thoughts about this once in an essay.
The truth is, I don’t yet believe that my mother has gone. I feel as though these last few weeks have been some kind of weird rehearsal and that we’ll all do better next time. When I wrote this in an email to a friend, she replied, ‘But you’ve only got one mother’. By ‘rehearsal’ I didn’t mean that another mother would step in and take over, but that mine was only practising for being dead.
On the second of those five days spent waiting in the hospital, my daughter burst into the ward, the way the sun bursts, or a sudden shower, carrying a big bunch of daphne, and my mother, her grandmother, opened her eyes and smiled.
‘These fragments have I shored against my ruins’
What a weight that verb ‘shored’ has to bear. How courageously it does so!
A Facebook page titled ‘Queenscliff Ghost Tours’ includes the following information: ‘The Royal Hotel Queenscliff, built 1853, is known to be haunted by at least half a dozen ghosts..’
On another website, I found this testimony, written by a ten-year-old boy.
As I walked down the stairs with Terry, my ghost tour guide, I could feel the floorboards sagging beneath me, and the floorboards groaning above. When we reached the bottom step, we didn’t realise that the cellar of the Royal Hotel in Queenscliff, was actually once a morgue..
Terry told us what had happened one day when two men came down into the bar for a drink. They ordered their drinks and the bartender brought them over to the table they were sitting at. They were about to pick up their beers when they heard girls giggling and the next thing they knew, their beers were knocked off the table and smashed on the floor. It is known that the ghosts are the two young daughters of the Leigh family, who sadly drowned nearby and were stored in the basement overnight before their journey to Geelong, a day’s horse and cart ride away. It is believed that during this time their spirits escaped and now haunt the hotel running along corridors and giggling into the night.
Terry also told us about other ghosts, which inhabit the hotel, like the little girl who also sadly drowned in a natural well under the hotel. The well was bricked off, but sometimes a child’s footsteps are seen in the sand near where the well was located.
As well as being Queenscliff’s first morgue, the Royal was also a mental asylum for some years. The basement windows, small and high up, are still barred.
I’m currently writing a mystery novel about a Henry Handel Richardson scholar found strangled in the Royal’s basement. Henry Handel Richardson was a spiritualist, as was her father, Walter.
I’m having a lot of fun with my characters, which include a formidable psychic and tarot card reader; the present owner (fictionalized of course) of the house where HHR lived as a small girl; and the local police constable, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, out of his depth.
My favourite ‘Royal’ ghost has not been mentioned so far. It’s that of a young woman who jumped to her death from the hotel’s tower.
Here’s how I write about her in the novel, (working title Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune). My constable’s name is Chris Laker.
‘Before long, Chris supposed, someone would write a social history of Queenscliff, and include the Royal. The murder in the basement would become part of the town’s folklore, joining the story of the woman who’d jumped in despair from the window he was standing in front of now.
Every day for weeks, this woman – Chris had no name for her, but no doubt the social historian would dig it up – had climbed the tower stairs to watch for the ship bringing her lover to Australia. It was before the days of steam. According to the versions Chris had heard – they differed in detail while remaining essentially the same – the woman had been allowed into the tower to watch. Apparently the staff had taken pity on her, but then she’d decided to stay there.
The staff had tried to coax her down, then fed her, made sure she had enough to drink. Then one night, perhaps spent and exhausted, perhaps driven to the last threads of self-control by worry and frustration, seeing at last the ship sailing through the heads, and knowing for certain that her lover wasn’t on it, she’d thrown herself from the window and smashed her body on the street below.
Chris decided that he liked this story. He liked the fact that he knew only the bare bones of it, and how there was probably a similar story for every on-the-surface-dull Australian country town. He liked how the nameless woman might have been a mental patient, kept in the basement behind barred windows; yet she hadn’t been. She’d climbed the tower of her own free will. The staff had let her keep her vigil and they’d tried to help. He thought it said something about a raw frontier town, and also about kindness.’
Bill Kirton was born in Plymouth, but has lived most of his life in Scotland. He’s written stage and radio plays, songs and sketches for revues, flash fiction, short stories, novels, stories for children and books aimed at helping students to write effective academic essays and dissertations and get the most out of university and work. He’s been a university lecturer, actor, director, TV presenter, visiting professor and artist at the University of Rhode Island and spent a few years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow in universities in Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews. He loves writing and exploring many forms and genres. I met Bill through the Awesome Indies website and I’ve read the first of his Jack Carston series, Material Evidence. I’m looking forward to reading the next four.
Do you think of yourself as a ‘Scottish’ crime writer and, if so, what does this mean to you?
With this year’s referendum on independence, that question’s got several levels. I was born in England but have spent most of my life in Scotland and I’m treated by most in the writing community as an honorary Scot. In fact, although I recognise and identify with the generally accepted notion of Scottish culture (a sense of community, left of centre politics, humour which is often blackish but rarely cruel, etc.), I’m uneasy about the divisive associations of any brand of nationalism. I don’t consider that my identity derives in any way from the fact that I happen to have been born on one side of a river and not the other. In fact, I’m a federalist and would prefer to be a citizen of the world. (I know, I know, that sounds pretentious, hippyish, but I mean it.) Why multiply inequalities when there are so many already? Having said all that, there’s no doubt that Scotland has a deserved reputation for producing great crime fiction and to be bracketed in that category is a privilege.
I confess to being ignorant about Scottish crime fiction. I’ve read some Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith and have put my name down at the library for Laidlaw by William McIlvanney. But apart from that almost nothing, I’m afraid. Who are your favourites? What have you learnt from them?
Well, Conan Doyle is Scottish, of course, but Holmes and Watson aren’t. I’d put William McIlvanney at the top of my list. He’s a great writer and a great man – charismatic, principled, unassuming and eloquent about his Scottish roots. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are way up there, too – serious novelists who happen to use the crime genre to examine all sorts of social, political and moral issues. They’re highly gifted, committed writers and commentators on the form but I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything from them. I could add more, but there are so many excellent writers, male and female, that this would just become a list and I’d be bound to forget to include someone.
Here’s a link to an article about ‘tartan noir’ that I found informative, and I’d be interested to hear your views on it.
Maybe this is a boring answer but I just have to endorse everything the article says. First, as I’ve already said, the man himself is extraordinary. I was in the audience at his ‘Bloody Scotland’ gig in Stirling and his charm, warmth and intelligence had everyone there (a full house) transfixed. He’s the embodiment of easy but powerful charisma. Next, the Laidlaw books are so rich that calling them ‘crime novels’ or ‘tartan noir’ seems reductive. Yes, that’s what they are, but they’re so much more. I think the use of the French word is significant. ‘Noir’ was first applied to films and while, like the films, Laidlaw’s books deal with the darker aspects of human behaviours, they also have the same underlying existential bleakness and empathy for the human condition as part of their fabric. Yes, they depict some of the basest of human impulses but as well as asking who, what, how, where and when, they also pose that most difficult of all questions, why. Tartan noir exists, McIlvanney is its greatest exponent, but he goes beyond it, too.
Do you have a view about national characteristics in crime writing? Are there any pre-occupations, or stylistic qualities, that seems to you to be held in common?
Despite what I said earlier about my uneasiness with nationalism, it can’t be denied that different nations do produce different brands of literature. Some of the best crime fiction couldn’t have been written or set in any other country but the USA – fast-talking, cool-headed loners with an inexhaustible supply of laconic one-liners, apparently fearless when faced with insuperable odds and gangs of armed-to-the-teeth hooligans whose threat they nullify with wit. Then there’s the current vogue for Scandinavian books and TV series, whose protagonists are recognisably different from their European counterparts; more thoughtful perhaps, more brooding, with the emphasis on a sort of world-weary acceptance that crime, especially murder, is an inescapable aspect of reality. Then there are all the different crime sub-genres – cosy, psychological, serial killers, private eyes, police procedurals, horror, Miss Marple-style puzzles, whodunits and whydunnits. They’re so different from one another and yet, through almost all of them, there are common themes – solving a mystery, righting wrongs (or failing to, which belongs to the same moral dimension), exposing, understanding and explaining human behaviour, creating a good-bad balance, a meaningful structure that doesn’t occur often in reality.
In Material Evidence Carston’s successful marriage (and Ross’s as well) provide a strong contrast to those of other characters. How important is this contrast? Is it developed in your later books?
The contrast is certainly deliberate but its importance lies in giving Carston (and Ross) a stability on which to base their moral judgements and their interpretations of others’ motives and impulses. For both of them, home is the antidote for some of the excesses they come across through the job. Neither of them is flawless, in fact Carston becomes more irritable and frustrated by bureaucracy and incompetence through the series and his moods manifest themselves through sometimes childish behaviour which he regrets but can’t suppress. The only thing that keeps him level is his marriage. Kath, his wife, knows him well and always uses humour to restore his equilibrium.
A crime novel with such domestic ‘ballast’ is relatively rare. I can think of Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford, but the loner stereotype is much more common. Are you consciously writing against this stereotype?
This is a very perceptive question. The reason I became a crime writer (as opposed to ‘just’ a writer) is that a publisher liked a novel which I’d submitted but was looking instead for police procedurals and asked if I’d try one. Material Evidence was the result. At the time, I was reading lots by Ruth Rendell (and her alter ego, Barbara Vine) and liked the ‘ordinariness’ (which isn’t meant to be pejorative), of her settings and the people in them. Somehow, the fact that her murders and other crimes occurred in the midst of simple, everyday scenes made them worse, gave them a more sinister aspect than those of gore-fests or contexts in which violence was the norm. So that was part of what I was aiming for. But also, my attitude to crime (both those I invent and the ones we see in the newspapers), is that it may be aberrant but it’s an ever-present ingredient of daily life. In books, crimes are almost always solved and their perpetrators are punished. I usually add a coda to my books to imply that, while the central crime has been solved, others are simmering elsewhere and the feeling of completeness is illusory. Having a married cop who loves and is loved and whose home life consists of good food and wine and lots of humour is a counterpoint to the notion that our world is inescapably corrupt.
Material Evidence kept me guessing till the end. Did you know the end before you started writing? How much, and in what way do you plan your books?
I don’t always know the end, or even the perpetrator, when I begin writing a book but in this case I did. As I said, it was my first crime novel so I had to do plenty of research for it and the type of death that occurs here was inspired by a couple of actual cases I read of in a book on forensic medicine. Once I had that, I could start thinking of motives and all the structures and complexities that led up to it – in fact, made it necessary. I’m not a great planner. Ideas come from all over the place (or from nowhere) but once I have one that seems to demand I take it seriously, I start thinking of what themes it’ll explore, what aspects of human nature will come into play. Once I’ve settled, however vaguely, on those, I start wondering what the characters involved will be like. I start writing, these characters emerge, and they take over, leading me in various directions, showing me who they are through their words and deeds. Sometimes, they surprise me and take me towards motives or conclusions which I hadn’t considered. Sometimes, the murderer I’ve chosen turns out to be innocent and one of the others does the killing instead. That makes it all sound erratic, untidy, but it comes out of a narrative logic which is dictated by the relationships of these characters. So far they haven’t let me down.
I liked the humorous exchanges between the policemen and women, which made them come alive for me. They suggested an ambivalent ease with one another, and also Carston’s authority, which he exercises firmly without being domineering. Ross sometimes talks back to him, for example. Yet Carston is an outsider, only recently arrived in Cairnburgh. Is his ‘outsider’ status important in the series?
For me, humour is a vital part of any human interaction (although it’s noticeably absent from these answers). OK, if there’s tragedy or horror involved, it’s in the background, but hearing people take the mickey out of one another, exchange pretend (or real) insults, indulge in swapping one-liners – that makes them real, punctures any potential ‘literary’ pretentiousness. The type of humour they use also helps to distinguish them from one another. Carston doesn’t seek to be an outsider but his attitudes to his (admittedly inept) superiors make it inevitable. I think it may be more complex than that, though. I think it’s probably part of my constant awareness of the artificiality of a genre in which all problems are solved, villains get punished and law and justice are synonymous. Real life is chaotic, unstructured, meaningless and murderers and others get away with it. Paradoxically, crime fiction sanitises it, gives it structure and balance. I’ve maybe given Carston my own attitudes to all that. In fact, I know that’s definitely the case in the third book, The Darkness.
In an interview on the LL –Publications blog, you speak of ‘Getting the rhythms of those words right, using them to create new meanings or characters, structuring fictions in pleasing ways – ’ These are general aims to which all fiction writers might be said to aspire. Crime fiction, however, imposes its own framework and sets limits to so-called ‘literary’ qualities. These limitations can be stimulating, or restricting – or both at once. At least that’s my view. How do you approach and work out questions of aesthetics? Do you think in terms of aesthetic resolutions as compared with, or opposed to, plot ones?
I know what you mean about crime fiction discouraging certain ‘literary qualities’ but I don’t agree entirely with you. Yes, steer clear of lines such as one I remember from an Albert Finney character in a stage play years ago, when he spoke of ‘lurching from one derelict sunset to the next’, but don’t shy away from literary tricks that could add to the reader’s pleasure. At the risk of appearing immodest, let me offer a wee example of deliberate alliteration from another of the Carston books. Two characters are chatting at a post funeral buffet. One is a very messy eater and, as he speaks, has a mouthful of sandwich.
“All the same… Foul play, that sort of thing… It’s preposterous.”
He waited. Carlyle’s only reaction was a small shake of the head and an unheard prayer that Leith would use fewer plosives.
“I mean, persistent police probing.’
OK, it’s hardly ‘literary’ in the sense of purple prose, but it’s a deliberate stylistic choice. And I always maintain that one of the essential aspects of style – in any genre – that’s not always given the consideration and attention it needs is rhythm. Ugly, unbalanced prose unsettles the reader. It’s as bad as a direct authorial intrusion. The length of words and sentences, the frequency of pause points, the overall feel of the rise and fall of intonation – these all contribute to the pleasure of reading. I’m a fan of Elmore Leonard’s ten (tongue-in-cheek) ‘rules’ for writers. He sums them all up by saying ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’. I love words, images, stylistic flourishes but if a writer indulges him or herself, they intrude, they disrupt the narrative. One of the basic bits of writing advice I give when asked is to separate the functions of writer and editor. You can be free and self-indulgent when you’re writing a first draft but only if you’re strict with yourself when you revisit the text as editor. You can create characters who use colourful – even literary – language but, as narrator, you must stay out of the text.
You describe Cairnburgh as a fictional town near Aberdeen. Why did you decide to create a fictional town for your series?
Another Rendell influence, I’m afraid, and one that I regret. Her Kingsmarkham setting was real to me as a reader and allowed her to create whatever she needed for her plots. I decided that, since I was planning on making some of my policemen inept, even corrupt, it might be wiser to create a fictional place rather than set my books in Aberdeen and risk getting parking tickets and other harassments. In fact, the year after the book was published, there was a scandal involving the Chief Constable of Grampian which was worse than anything I could have imagined. On the other hand, the freedom to invent places and institutions without fear of libelling anyone by proxy allowed me to set one book in a university/hospital without fear of lawsuits from ex-colleagues in Aberdeen University. But I think nowadays readers prefer their policemen and criminals to be in real cities and places.
You are very good at dialogue. Did you learn this skill through writing radio and other plays? Was there anything you had to unlearn when it came to writing novels?
Thanks for the compliment. When I first starting writing (as an adult) I gravitated naturally towards drama so I suppose I must have felt comfortable with dialogue. I still had lots to learn about radio drama, though. (One example, reasoning that lots of blind people listen to the radio, I made a central character in one play blind. When it was being recorded, the producer pointed out how difficult it was to convey blindness on radio, so I had to write some extra dialogue.) One thing I did find with novels was that, when I read sequences aloud (as part of my editing process), the dialogue wasn’t nearly as natural as it had been in my plays. I suspect that writing extended prose narratives gets one into particular rhythms which don’t belong in speech. For that reason, I pay particular attention to correcting dialogue. Incidentally, the voice (my voice) you hear in these answers is significantly different from the one you’d hear in conversation. Dialogue is, mostly, spontaneous, unstructured.
I saw on your Amazon biography that you used to teach French. Who are your favourite French writers in general, and your favourite French crime writers? I recently discovered Fred Vargas and have enjoyed several of her books. Does being bi-lingual help when it comes to writing in English, or is it irrelevant?
As I’ve answered these questions, I’ve realised that each one could easily be the subject for quite a long essay, and this is no exception. My answer, though, is going to be disappointing because, although I know how popular Fred Vargas is, I haven’t been able to get into her works. Maybe I’ve just chosen the wrong ones, but there’s a surprising lack of pace in those I’ve attempted. It’s easier to talk about French writers in general because I used to give classes on authors from the middle ages to Sartre and the rest. I love and admire the greats of the 19th century, especially Flaubert. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Madame Bovary and I still read bits of it now and then, just to marvel at how not a single word is wasted or misplaced, how the gaps between events are as important as the events, how tragedy and comedy can coincide, how imagery can be substituted for narrative, etc., etc. I think the history of French literature is rich in contrasts, reactions, counter-reactions and I love the clarity of the demarcations between periods, fashions, schools and how they reflect so accurately everything else that was happening in their particular era.