What is the Prix Intramuros and what did winning it mean to you?
The Prix Intramuros is an annual award given at the crime-writing festival in Cognac in France. A committee arrives at a shortlist of 6 or 7 books for the prize, and the books are then sent out to prisons all over north-west France, where panels of prisoners read them and vote for their favourite. So the best crime book is actually chosen by criminals. There can hardly be any better plaudit for a crime writer than to receive the acclaim of the criminal fraternity!
After winning the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year Award at age 21, why did you move into crime fiction?
I only ever went into journalism as a means of making a living from writing. But I always wanted to write fiction, and in fact moved from newspapers into television drama, where I was a scriptwriter, and latterly producer, for fifteen years. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that I dedicated myself to writing books, and fell into the crime-writing genre more or less by accident.
As the only western member of the Chinese Crime Writers’ Association, you seem to have wide access to police and forensic procedures in a country famous for its secrecy. How come?
An introduction to the Chinese police is a little like an introduction to the mafia – it must come from a trusted person. In my case that trusted person was an American criminologist called Dr. Richard Ward who trained most of the top police in China during the nineteen-nineties. I was fortunate enough to meet him in Paris, where he agreed to put me in touch with his Chinese contacts. That opened a door for me that is normally closed foreigners, and I never looked back.
Do your China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan, attract a wider audience than domestic crime fiction?
It is true that many readers came to my China Thrillers because of an interest in China. So yes, the appeal of them was considerably broader than just those fans of crime fiction. And, I think, these days that interest in China – which is likely to be THE major superpower in the next fifty years – is pretty universal.
What attracted you to the trans-European mix of your Enzo series, set in France featuring an Italian-Scottish forensic scientist?
Growing up in Glasgow, I was aware of the sizeable Italian community in the city. In fact, one of my best friends had an Italian mother and an Uncle Enzo – whose name I borrowed for my main character. Living in France, as I do, the French setting seemed perfect for bringing the three cultures together. It has been a lot of fun.
How well does the thrawn Scotsman’s cultural heritage serve Enzo MacLeod in France?
Enzo is pretty thrawn himself. He is a stubborn, womanising, almost naively honest, ageing hippy, who has spent long enough in France to absorb much of the culture and characteristics of the French male. While never having fully integrated, he is probably more at home there now than he would be back in his native Scotland. So perhaps we could describe him as Frottish – or Scench.
What do you think makes Scottish crime writers so popular abroad these days?
I think Scots write with an unvarnished honesty and humour that strikes a universal chord.
Between travelling, researching, and meeting readers, how do you manage to keep writing and keep your writing authentic when you are in so many places at once?
A very good question. Having just spent three months on the road – two of them in the States – I am asking myself the same thing, for I have another two books to write within the next nine months. It’s just a question of clearing the decks and getting down to it. I will probably surface again around New Year to see if the world is still turning.
How important is a sense of place to you?
Place is crucial in all my books. I always regard the setting as one of the main characters. It will bring its own personality to the story, and its weather, people, moods and geography will always have a bearing on how the story is told.
Do you make a difference between US, UK, Irish, and Scottish crime fiction?
In a way the differences in crime fiction are cultural. There is certainly a sense of a British style of crime writing, with Celtic offshoots, just as people are now aware of a Scandinavian school. British crime fiction is characterised by the name we give it – “crime” fiction. It is hard, and uncompromising. Americans call their crime fiction “mystery”, a much softer term which is, I think, reflected in the style of stories they tell and the way they write them. The French have a much higher regard for crime fiction than any of the critics in the anglo-saxon world. It is as highly regarded as literature and has its own literary category in “roman noir” – literally the black novel.
What do you make of ‘Tartan Noir’ as a collective term for Scottish crime fiction?
I think it’s inward-looking and parochial, and in no way does justice to the diversity and quality of writing that exists in Scotland. It sounds like something a tabloid newspaper has dreamt up.
Switching between locations, cultures, and sub-genres, in what literary tradition do you write?
The writers who had the greatest influence on me when I was young were Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J. P. Donleavy, and of course Raymond Chandler.
Do you have a writing routine?
I get up at 6am and write 3.000 words a day. I always stop when the counter reaches 3.000, and always leave my desk knowing exactly what I will write first thing the next morning – that way I never suffer from writers’ block.
How much of a back story do your serial characters have? Do you keep a file on each of them?
My characters are thought through in considerable detail, and yes, I keep a file on each – advisable when writing a series, because it is very easy to forget when writing book six what you said about a character in book one. I keep a kind of bible of all my research and story and character developments in a piece of software called Scrivener. The Enzo Scrivener file now runs to several gigabytes, including location videos.
Having garnered over 1.000 credits as a television writer, would you say the skills you developed during your journalism and television days are compatible with crime writing?
They are. From journalism I brought the techniques of in-depth research, and the ability to write fast under pressure. In television I honed my abilities as a writer of dialogue, which I have now brought to my books. Most dialogue in literary fiction is dreadful.
Do you plot your novels or write to see what happens next?
I spend several months developing story ideas and character. I then write a very detailed synopsis of around 20.000 words – which is where I enjoy the white-heat of creativity, and the joy of freehand storylining. Other writers do this in the book itself, and then spend the next several months re-writing through several drafts. Once I have my synopsis, all my attention is devoted to doing the story justice through the quality of the writing. I never re-write when finished, just polish.
Which of your novels would you recommend to a novice?
The Firemaker, the first of the China Thrillers, is as good a starting point as any.
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