If you don’t know who James Oswald is, where have you been? As well as writing a bestselling crime fiction series, James runs a 350 acre livestock farm, raising Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep. He’s also been immortalized on late night TV by appearing on the Craig Ferguson Show. His latest Inspector McLean book, Prayer For The Dead, will be released February 7th 2017.
Spinetingler: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
James: I remember reading The Box of Delights by John Masefield, when I was about seven. My mother gave it to me just before packing me off for another term at my hated boarding school. It’s a magical tale and a spy thriller all wrapped together and perhaps sowed the seeds of my own blending of crime fiction and the supernatural. I picked up the book again as an adult, hoping to rekindle that sense of wonder I’d had as a child. Alas, it was awful!
Spinetingler: What’s your new book/work in progress about? What inspired you to write it?
James: I’m working on book eight in the Inspector McLean series now, as yet untitled. The story steals elements from the first story I ever wrote with the character, about 25 years ago, although he wasn’t the protagonist in that one, just one of the supporting cast. It’s about the investigation into and aftermath of a horrific accident in the centre of Edinburgh when a lorry loaded with hazardous waste crashes into a bus stop full of people. Tony McLean is tasked with investigating the accident and identifying the dead. As is always the case when he is involved, nothing is straightforward.
Spinetingler: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?
James: Empathy. Making your readers care about your characters – even those they hate – is the key to any good book, but it’s a hard trick to pull off. All too often writers try to mold their characters to the plot, and that rarely works. About half way through the first draft of Prayer for the Dead I hit a wall, couldn’t write, was introducing new characters left right and centre and nothing made sense. It wasn’t until I stood back from the story and looked at the core cast of characters that I realized the mistake I’d made. One of them did something that they would never have done. Once I fixed that – and it really wasn’t a major change, just a switch of emphasis really – the whole thing came back together again.
Spinetingler: What’s one thing that you and your protagonist have in common?
James: We were both sent away to boarding school at a very young age (6 in my case).
Spinetingler: What’s your personal life motto?
James: Never give up.
Spinetingler: Tell us something about you that isn’t common knowledge.
James: I was at school with Joss Whedon in the early 1980s. He’s a bit older than me and I don’t remember him at all. It’s very unlikely he would remember me, but that school influenced some of the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Spinetingler: What’s the best thing about writing?
James: The hours.
Spinetingler: What’s the worst thing about writing?
James: The hours.
Spinetingler: You have to flee the country. Where are you headed to and why that location?
James: New Zealand, probably, although Canada (BC or Alberta) would be a close second. They’re both countries where Scots settled in the past, and so aren’t too alien. My ideal would be a small vineyard and winery on the South Island. New Zealand has the added benefit of being on the other side of the world. If I’m going to flee the country, I’m going to do it properly.
Spinetingler: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?
James: To be honest, I think I’d rather give them all up and just live with the memories than try to pick ten, or five, or one.
Spinetingler: What conspiracy theory is your protagonist most likely to believe in? Roswell? JFK? Princess Diana?
James: Tony McLean doesn’t believe in anything. He was raised by a staunchly atheist grandmother after his parents were killed in an airplane crash when he was four years old, so he has little time for faith of any kind.
Spinetingler: If you have to live in a potential natural disaster zone, would you pick blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions? Why? If you had to describe your protagonist as a weather system, what would they be?
James: Earthquakes, but only because I would love to live in New Zealand. I think Tony McLean would be the Haar, the fog that rolls in off the North Sea and blankets Edinburgh for days at a time. It’s slow, methodical and gets into everything.
Spinetingler: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue?
James: Probably dialogue. I read it out loud over and over to get the rhythms of speech right. I read the whole book out loud to myself before it goes to the editor, but dialogue gets multiple passes. I get unreasonably agitated when a proof reader makes changes to my dialogue and always change it back again.
James Oswald is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling Inspector McLean series of Edinburgh-based mysteries, the first of which, Natural Causes, was the winner of the Richard and Judy Book Club Summer Reads 2013. He has been short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger and Dagger in the Library, the UK National Book Awards Debut Author and his latest, The Damage Done, made the long list for the inaugural McIlvanney prize in 2016. As J D Oswald he has also written the epic fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro.