How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
Foul-mouthed thriller writer, shambolic musician and whisky drinker.
How would your best friend describe you in one sentence?
That cunt never shuts up.
An American, an Englishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…
And the Scotsman gets the round in, cos the idea of the stingy Scotsman is a fucking myth.
Crime fiction is at its best when…
The worst literary vice is…
The highest order a writer can aspire to is…
clarity of storytelling.
Plot or character?
What’s your favourite word?
If you could remove one word from the parlance of our time, what would that be?
If you could rid the planet of one celebrity, who would what be?
If you could rid the world of redundant professions, which would be the first to go?
Which fictional character is going to be shot come the literary revolution?
The narrator of John Banville’s The Sea.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet?
Begbie from Trainspotting.
What’s the best pickup line you’ve ever heard or used?
They’re all shit, never used one.
Who is on your ideal dinner party guest list?
Irvine Welsh, Yoda, Greg Dulli, Charlie Brooker, and Diego Maradona
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Preston Falls by David Gates
Sum up your latest book, Smokeheads, in no more than 10 words.
Whisky Galore meets Deliverance.
What’s the most amusing situation your notoriety has got you into?
Absolutely hammered at Latitude festival with Irvine Welsh.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
Writing’s for suckers.
If God exists, what’s the first thing you’ll say to Him if you get past the pearly gates?
‘You don’t exist.’
As for your creative work, the title of your first novel Tombstoning is about as clear as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and the meaning is similarly dark. What gave you the idea?
It was one of those serendipitous things – I was keen to write about small-town Scotland, specifically using my own upbringing in Arbroath, and as I was researching I discovered that kids were throwing themselves off the cliffs there and calling it Tombstoning. It was just too good a title to not use. It tied in with the wider story of returning to your roots, revisiting your path, and of course the deaths that happen in the plot along the way. The cliffs at Arbroath are incredibly cinematic, and I knew I had to end the book there.
Isn’t it rather unusual for Scottish crime fiction to be set outwith cities? What made you choose this village as the setting of Tombstoning?
The vast majority of Scottish fiction seems to be either set in gritty urban landscapes or idyllic rural backwaters. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to tackle the large spaces in between – the small towns that a lot of people grow up in. It’s been done before, something like Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar for example, but I just wanted to write about my own experiences in that strangely claustrophobic environment.
What brought you and David together?
Ach, he’s like a hapless version of me. A lot of my fiction tends to deal with the idea of ‘what if…’ – as in, what would’ve happened to me if I let myself drift along in the job I was in, going nowhere, etc, instead of quitting and becoming a journalist and writer. There are different versions of this character that appear in each of my novels, I think, although that’s not deliberate, just some pretty basic Freudian psychology going on, I guess. My books tend to have hopeless drifting child-like men who are saved or transformed by strong, independent powerful women. I guess you could ask my wife about whether that’s got any bearing on the real world.
In the meantime, let’s stick with the Freudian theme: What brings David and fatalities together?
Well, Tombstoning is a thriller, really, so something has to happen, right? I mean, at the start of the book, David is haunted by his past, and specifically the death of his best friend at school – that kind of hangs over everything he does, even though he’s put it to the back of his mind for fifteen years. It’s still affecting how he lives his life, so when the opportunity to go back to Arbroath comes up, I guess he sees it as a way of confronting that. And then, well, another person turns up dead, and things go off the deep end. It’s not the most subtle thriller in the world, but it hopefully gets the job done. I’ve always liked the idea of combining nourish thrillers and something more literary, that’s what I strive for, although as I go along the books seem to be getting darker and darker, for whatever reason.
Well, one of the greater challenges of crime writing is to convey the trauma and hurt that accompanies death in a way that doesn’t read like the brochure of a funeral home. So how do you keep the comedy alive?
It just seems very natural to me, that the story will always have a seam of dark comedy running through it. Part of it comes from the kinds of characters I write about, and the situations they find themselves in. It’s the 21st century, everything’s post-modern, and the people I write about are always aware of the ridiculousness of their situations. Part of the comedy in Tombstoning comes from recognition – the ludicrous awfulness of school reunions and small town life.
Is this universal theme – the trouble of revisiting one’s past – especially suitable for crime fiction and its concern with culpability and conscience?
Good question, yes, it is very suitable for crime and thriller fiction – the idea that you can’t escape your past is a very strong one whether it’s specific crimes committed, or the people you grew up with or whatever. It’s a very familiar trope in cinema as well, of course, lead characters always trying to outrun their Mafia past or other nefarious goings on in their childhood. It’s just a really compelling storyline, and one that we can all relate to, I guess – we all have a past, and it makes us who we are today.
Tombstoning starts with a school reunion, and in the age of online communities most readers will be familiar with the half-heartedness of such attempts at ‘catching up’. Do you see such loose social circles as a substitute for real friendship or perhaps even a safety risk?
I think fundamental changes are happening in how humans are interacting with each other – I think we’re at the start of a massive change in human behaviour, and no one’s really got to grips with it yet at all. I’m not particularly concerned with the safety issues, although there are some, I’m more interested in how it will affect future generations psychologically – as far as I know, no one’s written a great social networking novel yet, but I think there’s a wealth of material in that. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, just a form of human evolution. I still like the occasional bit of face-to-face contact, mind you.
So tell me about your own background. What brought you to crime writing?
Mostly, I ended up writing the kind of thing I read, and the kind of thing I wanted to read. I don’t really consider myself a crime writer, certainly not of conventional police procedurals. But there are certainly crime or thriller elements to what I do. My more recent work is getting more into noir territory, which is a result of me finally catching up with the great American noir writers’ canon, which has had a pretty big effect on me and my writing.
The great Christopher Brookmyre was one of your earliest fans, and more critical acclaim has followed. What was that like for a debutant crime writer?
Amazing – yeah, Christopher Brookmyre was incredibly kind about Tombstoning, and since then other brilliant writers like Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh have said nice things about my work. It’s fairly surreal, to be honest, to think that writers with their reputations like what you do, I just hope I can keep the quality up.
Is the genre coming of age in Scotland?
I don’t know if it’s coming of age as such, but it certainly is a bit of a golden era for crime writing in Scotland – there seems to be no end to the public’s appetite for these stories, and the quality of the new writers coming through is impressive. Scotland of course has a long tradition in examining the darker side of the human psyche, so that probably feeds into the whole thing. We’ve got that darkness in our bones. Same with all the great Scandinavian crime writers – it’s cos of the miserable, cold winters, it leads to introspection and a tendency to dwell on the morbid.
Aside from the climate, then, whose work has influenced your style most?
Hard to say, there are so many that have inspired me to write, as opposed to directly influencing my style, I think. Early books that blew me away were Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. I don’t particularly have that much in common with them stylistically, it’s more they opened my eyes to the kind of things you could write about. Most of my other favourite writers are American – Raymond Carver and David Gates originally, and more lately I’ve discovered Jim Thompson, James M Cain, Horace McCoy, people like that.
With your second novel you picked Scotland’s most common and yet unrepresented problem with pop culture. Is The Ossians the Scottish This Is Spinal Tap?
It’s like Spinal Tap in a way, in that it’s an examination of the ridiculous nature of the rock ‘n’ roll myth. Stylistically it’s very different, but the fundamental idea that rock ‘n’ roll is essentially a childish endeavour is the same. I also wanted to look at questions of national identity as a myth, and how that is changing in the face of modern globalization.
Following the band on their tour I get the feeling that we’re not following shortbread crumbs. With so much being said about Scotland and Scottishness, do you enjoy bashing clichés?
All my work has, to some extent, been about Scottishness and the country in the twenty-first century. This is most explicit in The Ossians, even down to the band name. Part of that stems from me not really seeing the kind of modern representation of my country in literature of late. After all, most writers do what they do because they don’t see it happening anywhere else. I’ve always been fascinated by questions of Scottishness, and what that means in an increasingly homogenized world.
So what does it mean to be a Scottish writer, apart from being ‘not English’?
I’m not sure there’s an answer to that. Scotland is a smaller country, which I think leads to a lack of arrogance generally across society – the idea that if you get up yourself you’ll get taken down a peg or two. That seems to seep into Scottish writing. There are very few pretensions in Scottish writing. It seems to be more linked into the ancient Gaelic idea of oral storytelling, more than an excuse to show off with language. And I’m all for that.
Your readers are split into two camps. There are those who would wish for greater twists, and then there are those who appreciate the absence of such erratic plotting as an opportunity to enjoy your intriguing characters. Where do you stand on the issue?
I’m not a great man for plot twists. I enjoy reading a well-turned plot as much as the next reader, but I find when writing that that kind of stuff just feels a little phony when I do it. Maybe I’m just not good enough at it. I hate obvious contrivance in a story, and you see that a lot more in movies than in books, and it drives me nuts. If the reader can get a little more depth to characters instead of constant plot twists, that’s fine, although of course you still have to keep them hooked, there still has to be something making them turn the page.
Are there any aspects of your writing that you’ve set your mind on improving?
Probably the plotting thing. A little bit more planning on that front probably wouldn’t go amiss, as long as it didn’t jolt the reader too much. Apart from that, I’m always just trying to hone the prose to be as lean and efficient as possible – try to say what you want to say with as few words as possible.
Is there anything in particular you wish to achieve in or with your writing?
Not really – hopefully I can tell a good story, make the reader enter into my particular world for a while, and slip in the odd thought-provoking theme or resonance along the way. But ultimately, if any reader finishes one of my books and says ‘That was a good story’, I’m happy with that.
So what’s next?
Well, my next novel, Smokeheads, is just out. It’s set in Islay and is essentially ‘Whisky Galore meets Deliverance’, a violent thriller set around the whisky industry.
My next novel is already written, and will be out next year. It’s about a hit and run, and is set in Edinburgh.
Apart from that, I’m dipping my toes into screenwriting, although it’s a big learning curve, so we’ll see.
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: The Ossians