Yeah, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I never really know how well I sit within the genre. I’m really happy to be put in the genre; I think it’s done me a lot of good. When I started to write my first novel,The Cutting Room, I thought I was writing a Gothic book, and I was very conscious of the Gothic conventions and tropes in it. I didn’t want to write a horror novel, but I did want to draw on that Gothic tradition which has always been allied to crime – the idea of exploring the victim, the way that we portray the victim, but also the urge to have a strong narrative and not to concentrate on these things but somehow have them as part of a strong story, which crime lends itself very much to.
At that point, I was very conscious of the portrayal of women’s bodies, and I think it’s something crime fiction often does quite badly, quite offensively – the use of the naked female form to turn the plot often lacks respect for victims, which is perhaps more to the fore in television adaptations where you see this prone naked female body. I wanted to explore that. Maybe it’s quite naive in some ways, but in that book the use of photographs is an attempt to somehow distance us from the body and to ask the questions: “Is somebody dead? How do we know they’re dead?”
The thing to remember about first novels is that you never know anyone’s going to read them. So you have this huge amount of freedom. You can go for it and should go for it. I wanted this to be published – I actively pursued publication – but I wasn’t ever sure that it would be published. There wasn’t a commercial angle to it. I actually thought it wouldn’t be sellable because of the location, because it’s very firmly set in Glasgow, and you can’t really imagine that other people are that interested in the city you live in. Also the sexuality: Having a strong gay character at the centre, I could imagine gay men reading it, I could imagine some women reading it, but I couldn’t really imagine straight men reading it. So it wouldn’t be commercial for those reasons. I was really pleasantly surprised when it came out. I was astounded, actually.
Ian Rankin said he felt he was writing in a Scottish literary tradition, so he personally moved Knots and Crosses out of a book shop’s crime fiction section. Are similar feelings at the heart of your refusal to write body-in-the-drawing-room crime fiction?
Ha! That’s funny. When I started The Cutting Room, I was reading Elaine Showalter, who has written some really interesting Feminist history, and I was conscious that I did not want to reproduce that kind of sexualised female body in my book. I think this connection between Eros and Thanatos is human nature: the attraction of the woman once she’s quiet – you get it all the time in advertising, these passive women in perfume ads – and what could be more quiet than being dead?
I wanted people to see the body. I wanted them at points to be disgusted or to be worried or scared, but I didn’t want this sexualised form. Although I often write in a male voice, I consider myself a Feminist, and I think the body is often absent from the books. In Tamburlaine Must Die, we do have a death, but really it’s Marlowe’s death we’re waiting for, and we don’t see that death. We know it’s going to happen, but we don’t actually see it. I was very interested in G.W. Pabst’s movie Pandora’s Box, based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. There’s a very beautiful, lively dancer: She makes love to men, she makes love to women, and she seems completely amoral – she lives for fun. She commits a murder by mistake, and in the end she goes to London. It’s very atmospheric, and she’s murdered by Jack the Ripper, because she has to be killed in the end.
For the sake of poetic justice?
Yes, exactly! So in The Bullet Trick I wanted to play with that and have that supposed death, but there isn’t a death. There’s a resurrection, and it’s all part of some illusion. In this book, Naming the Bones, there is a death, but we’re not sure how that came about. There are several deaths, but they’re not conventional murders.
Have you always been intrigued by the unconventional or why do you seem so comfortable in the Scottish literary tradition?
That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t think this is peculiar to Scotland, but I do think we have a tradition of working class intellectualism. You can have a good and inquiring conversation with somebody you met 10 minutes ago in a pub, somebody who wouldn’t necessarily have gone on to further education but will nevertheless be informed through their own reading. When I had a bookshop, we couldn’t keep philosophy books on the shelves, and it wasn’t purely students we were selling them to. We were selling them to guys in overalls, to guys who were going to the pub, looking for something to read. There’s still a respect for learning. That is a strong part of a Scottish tradition I respect, that I’m pleased by.
Alcohol, of course, is a big part of it. I myself am labouring under a slight hangover at the moment. Ha! There’s this idea that we’re often looked down on as a country because of how much we drink, yet I think we should be compared to the Scandinavians, because a lot of that has to do with the weather.
Aren’t they also celebrating a literary renaissance in their crime fiction?
Yeah! I was going to ask you about that, actually.
Is it fair to say that the worse the weather gets, the better writers drink and drinkers write?
Ha! I just wonder – we’re natural allies in that way. The further North you get, you get shared behaviour and a shared sense of humour. I find them a lot of fun anyway.
Have you noticed the mileage they’re getting out of the reverend Robert Louis Stevenson?
Yeah, the thing about the light and the dark, the Jekyll and Hyde – I actually worry a little bit about that. Maybe it exists, but maybe we talk about it too much.
Might the actual commonality be your sideways reflections of extremes?
Might well be, actually. I guess it’s true: We are drawn to extremes. This idea of extremes is a very good one. Obviously, as writers you don’t get much say in how you’re marketed or what goes on your jacket, but I think that’s a very nice plus point of somehow being identified as this genre of extremes. With this new book, Naming the Bones, I kept the tone quiet for quite a long way through. I wanted to experiment with that – a little bit like the actor coming on stage and seeing how long they could hold the silence for. Part of what enables that is the idea that the reader has this foreknowledge that something is going to come. I think we’re on page 300 or somewhere pretty far in before we get a body. That’s fun, and it’s quite delicious to be able to do that.
How important is humour to crime writing?
It’s really necessary, I think.
How important is humour to character development in The Bullet Trick?
Part of what I wanted was for William to go to a place that isn’t actually so different from home. I think we have a lot of shared culture between Germany and Scotland, and yet there are differences, so there’s just that light wrong-footedness you get when you think you’re on solid ground and suddenly realise: “Oh, I just got that wrong. I got that completely wrong.” Maybe humour is a part of that, because it’s also him as an individual. He’s not a confident person, and his lack of confidence makes him a bit unattractive to people at points.
Also, the cabaret scene is genuinely active in Berlin; it’s not frozen-in-aspic. There are actually some quite fun, quite interesting avant-garde things going on there. So that place was where William could operate as a professional. There’s a straightforwardness about things that is very attractive to us, because we don’t have it.
Does this deep structure tend to be on your mind when you write or when you edit?
Gosh! It all becomes the same, especially a few years on, because inevitably you’re working on something else. I’m thinking about starting a new novel just now, and I start very much with notebooks – trying not to recognise what a big task it is, not to scare yourself, to take lots of little notes, and to read around things. The Pabst thing in The Bullet Trick was very conscious. I’d wanted to write about that for quite a long time. The Gothic was very conscious in The Cutting Room.
Were you conscious of the cultural context of Tamburlaine Must Die?
That’s probably the most researched book, just necessarily because it was about Marlowe.
Were you conscious of the controversy about Marlowe and his death when you started Tamburlaine Must Die?
No, no, not at all. I didn’t study English literature, and this is going to sound really ridiculous: I wanted to write about Marlowe because I’d shared a flat with somebody who was doing theatre studies, and they’d been very interested in Marlowe. We talked a lot about Marlowe, and then I went to see just about every version of Doctor Faustus I could see in Glasgow. I really, really loved it. That was part of my life, and I’d moved on, and when I came to think about writing about Marlowe, I didn’t realise how interested lots of other people were.
I didn’t know that, for instance, there was a Marlowe society, although I did know there were people who said that Marlowe had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I didn’t realise they had the society and were so serious about it. If I had, who knows, it might have put me off – it might not have.
In the end, you showed how crime fiction can defy genre scepticism with cultural consciousness. Were you at all politically motivated?
Aw, that’s a nice thing to say. You know, I was conscious of being political in that book. What is the point in writing something historical if it doesn’t somehow pertain to our times? At that point, I was interested in Dungavel prison, an asylum seekers prison. There were children being locked up and all sorts of awful things going on. That was very much part of my consciousness when I was writing Tamburlaine Must Die, that and the Elizabethan period and its hatred, fear, and distrust of outsiders and immigrants. That was the idea, but it’s very much embedded. It’s not at the forefront of the book, but nevertheless that concern is there.
Perhaps, if I’d realised how brilliant he is, I possibly wouldn’t have written this book in his voice. I think I found out a lot as I was doing it, and I still have a huge affection for Marlowe. I was very worried about writing a false history, because I studied history at university, and I was a really bad student, but I thought: “No, if I add a bibliography it suggests that this is a learned book.” So I said: “I got a lot of information from this book and that book.” I mentioned two or three books that had been good sources for me, but I didn’t put in a bibliography, because I thought it would be showing off. All we have to give interested readers is three books. They’ll find their own bibliography.
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