On Beards and Books: A Discussion with Stuart MacBride

by Sandra Ruttan


Scottish author Stuart MacBride explains his lack of hobbies, the reason for his psychotherapy treatment and the way his twisted mind works. Seriously, I had the chance to sit down with this up-and-coming author at Harrogate and enjoyed the opportunity to ask him about his life and his craft.

Here you are. First book, right?

Yes.

You're at Harrogate. You've got Val McDermid singing your praises on the cover. How does it feel?

Very strange. It's one of the weirdest things to go from having a very, very small readership where it's just me and my agent, to people I've never met before reading the book. And suddenly getting stuck in the same sentence as Val McDermid or Ian Rankin or Mark Billingham. It's not really something I'd ever thought was really going to happen.

I was going to actually say that in Scotland particularly there is such a strong presence of crime writers and literary writers as well - we won't get into the debate about those being separate because I don't believe they should be - But did you ever feel intimidated to pursue a career where there were so many great people within your country?

No, not at all. I'd been advised by my agent to have a shot at writing a straight crime novel - though if I'm honest I've been writing crime all along, just not crime set in a standard 'today' setting. I suppose I didn't actually think about the book being successful at all or even about being published. It all came as a very, very big surprise. So no, I didn't feel any pressure.

I actually feel more pressure for the second book, but that's not about what other people are writing. It's about trying to make sure the second book lives up to what everybody says about the first book, so I don't let down my publishers.

I understand your agent suggested you try your hand at a serial killer novel. Beyond that, where did the specific idea for Cold Granite come from?

No one place, I suppose. When it was suggested, I went away and had a think about it. I'd just finished a novel which had a protagonist who had the darkest back-story I could think of, so I wanted to have someone a bit more human in the main role. Then it was down to lots of talking to myself.

The first thing that came into my head was pretty much fully formed. I was driving along one of the back roads in Cults (a pretty rural part of Aberdeen), looking at the farms, hidden away down these little, overgrown lanes, and I suddenly had an image of a PC staggering out into the snow. He's dressed in a Biohazard suit and clutching his hand. There's blood pouring down the blue plastic and he's screaming about rats the size of Rottweilers.

From there it was a case of figuring out what the hell was going on - why he was there. I work a lot like that

So your first image was from somewhere further into the book, so you worked backwards?

Both directions: I use mind-maps to do my plotting. That's my bible.

It sounded like you started with the character, wanting to have someone not as dark as the story before.

Hmm... I'm always telling myself that the next thing I write is finally going to be really, really dark. But up till now it's always been happy-go-lucky stuff. Still the one I'm working on now is MUCH darker. Which is nice.

Seriously!

Seriously. I think the Logan books have a very positive heart to them.

Cold Granite, a happy-go-lucky crime debut. Hmmm, why don't I see that as the summary?

I really wanted Logan to be a real person. Not a saint, not a dark and troubled soul, just a guy who's doing a tough job.

A lot of the humour in the book comes out of how the investigative team tries to cope with the crimes, and their own horror and revulsion to them.

The humour is a nice touch. Did you spend time working with the police to do research?

I decided to contact the police before I really got into writing the book, or even the planning. So I stuck together this HUGE list of questions, covering just about everything I could think might, just possibly, be involved. They were great about it - a little wary about having me in the station, but they did a lot of research on my behalf.

I think it's because no one had ever asked them before, so there was a lot of good faith on their part.

You have a very strong role for your pathologist. How did you research that?

I didn't! Well, not when I was writing it. I made a lot of stuff up, then when we were well into the editing with HarperCollins I decided I should try calling the Pathology Department at ARI. Sounds daft, but I'd been a bit embarrassed about doing that before the publishing deal.

Were they helpful?

That was the first time I'd ever spoken to Ishbel, and she pointed me towards the Anatomical Pathology Technicians' Handbook. Very useful book.

We also had a prolonged discussion about how a pathologist will peel off someone's face if they suspect there's damage to the underlying structure. Must have been a slow day in the Morgue.

And I'm sure you went right home and discussed it in detail with your wife... Does she find it hard to hear about all your research, or do you keep it to yourself?

Fiona sometimes will lean over my shoulder when I'm writing and go "Urrgh!

That's horrible!"

Did she read the whole manuscript when it was done?

Nope. Didn't read any of it until it was out as an ARC. She was scared she wouldn't like it. To date she's still not read any of my other books.

But I'm forcing her to read 'Dying Light' once the line edit comes back.

Is that the one you're working on now?

Dying Light is pretty much finished now. It's just the final tweaks on sentences and things going on.

Dying Light is the second Logan McRae book and it'll be out from May next year. Well, March if you're Norwegian.

Many authors talk about their characters having aspects of themselves, or growing and becoming more like them over time. Did Logan start off a lot like you or did he evolve to become more like you as you wrote the book or do you relate more to Colin Miller?

I don't think any of my characters are really like me at all. Though they all have little bits of me in them.

The back jacket says you've drunk heaps of wine and created the perfect recipe for mushroom soup - Was the mushroom soup necessary in order to survive as a writer, is that all you could live on and did you need the wine to get up the courage to do it?

Oh, no, no: I'd have wine anyway. Lots and lots of lovely wine. I come from a very foody family. My parents run a catering company. They catered the Queen's Jubilee Celebration Balmoral. My brother is the head chef for the American Embassy in Dublin, so I've got a very big background in food and I enjoy cooking. It's one of my hobbies.

Is that how you relax when you're stuck on something you're working on? Do you find that that happens, where you need to go away and just figure something out in your subconscious when you're working on your story?

I find that I tend to do most of my stuff subconsciously. I've often said I listen to the voices in my head when I'm writing. I don't plan chapter by chapter by chapter so I don't have a very strict roadmap that I follow.

It's all mind-maps.

Can you elaborate on that a little bit, if you wouldn't mind?

When I map out what happens the events aren't necessarily connected to individuals, so as I go through the book if somebody pops up in my head while I'm writing then I can just start saying "now this person is going to do that..." picking off points on the mind-map. It's quite organic. Which I like because I don't feel constrained to get person A into position Z by chapter 12, or the whole thing falls apart. They can be where they need to be as long as I'm fulfilling what's happening within the map.

As you're developing these people and these mind maps, do you take notes to keep it all straight?

Well, the map really is my note. For example, one of the characters in the book is there only because I wanted someone in the background to give a scene a little bit of character. Just made him up off the top of my head. It wasn't even supposed to be a speaking part, but as the novel went on this person just grew and took on much more of a life of their own. But because I do this mind-mapping thing I could just assign some of the points on the map to him, rather than anyone else.

So that really works for you then?

It really does: I like to be surprised by the way the story goes ˆ and I don't mean that as if the characters are writing themselves, it's just the old subconscious directing things. I often find as well that once I get to a point I'll suddenly go, "Ah! So that's why I did that four chapters ago."

So you're smarter than you know, is that it?

I'm less stupid than I think, perhaps. It's almost the same thing.

“ The punch shouldn’t have caught Logan by surprise, but it did. A fist like a breezeblock slammed into his stomach, tearing at the scar tissue, making fire rip through his innards. He opened his mouth to scream, but there was no breath left in his lungs.”

Cold Granite, page 11


That is a brilliant paragraph because I feel like you have given me the beginning of his back-story while you're moving the plot forward. You're moving the action, not stopping to say, "Well, you know, he had this trauma" but that's nicely tucked in there. How do you do things like that?

One of the things I really wanted to do with this book was make it not read like a first book. I wanted it to appear as if it was book three or book four in a series so the events have happened in the characters past, but I don't want to have to go in and say "This, this, this, this and this is what's happened to him." His past shouldn't need to be explicitly detailed; you the reader are almost expected to know about what's gone on before, because you've read the preceding books that have never been written. So it's just keeping everything pared down to the very bare bones.

It seems to work very well because it makes it very pacey but at the same time informative. Is that your intent?

Pretty much, yeah. I always hate it when a book gets to a point and it just stops and you've got this sudden two-and-a-half mile flashback three or four cases back...

So you've created your own innovative technique then, really, is what you've done because it's hard to pick up a book that doesn't have a flashback or some long process of thought about something that happened before.

Well that requires long processes of thought and I don't do thought.

You've written one of the best sex scenes I've read in a long time. (Maybe you should be on that panel next year.) Without saying anything to spoil that, are you deliberately messing with poor Logan and did you have a plan when you wrote that to develop the situation in future books?

The lady in question wasn't even supposed to be in the book! She just turned up in the second chapter. That's how tightly I plan.

The trouble with a relationship between two police officers is that they can't work together if they're seeing each other. It's banned. So I can either have them together in a physical sense, or have them working together. Not both. Bit of a challenge for the second book.

I notice you haven't avoided Scottish slang expressions and such. How much leeway have authors like Ian Rankin bought you with that, and did your Scandinavian translators hate you?

Lasse Tømte, the very clever man who did the Norwegian translation, was fine with it. The only things he had problems with were 'wince' and 'shrug'.

Apparently there's no Norwegian equivalents, so he had to describe the motions each and every time.

I didn't go all out with the vernacular as I find books like that difficult to read. I just wanted to leave in enough to give a flavour of the place.

Flavor of the place... On your website you have these lovely photos of places in Aberdeen that are referenced in Cold Granite. How important is setting to your writing?

I've been told Aberdeen comes off almost like another character in the book, which is gratifying, if odd.

You didn't plan it that way? Like Edinburgh is to Rebus, for example?

I suppose it all goes back to writing what you know. I've lived in most of the places that appear in the book.

I think when you're going on a series it becomes more and more difficult to keep on describing the same places in new and different ways.

Rankin does a great job with some very minimalist strokes.

Who are your influences?

The people I enjoy the most are RD Wingfield who did the Touch of Frost books. The guy is a genius when it comes to plot. Very, very tight. Excellent characterizations as well. Everything moves so quickly and so much happens. Val McDermid: great character development. Her stuff comes across as very grounded. Her killers are very real. And Mark Billingham of course.

My stuff is starting to get compared to his more often now rather than the more obvious 'Rankin connection' which happens just because I'm Scottish and I'm writing crime.

Which Billingham? What's your favourite so far in the series?

I think the first one. It's not because the other ones aren't as good, if not better, it's just that I liked what he's done with his character and the way he's set things up.

And it sounded like you wrote (Cold Granite) while you've actually been working at your job, so basically you've worked all day, you've written all night, so you haven't -

I have no hobbies. I'm starting to try and develop them.

An author I interviewed earlier this year had to press charges against a stalker who assaulted her. Had any weird fan experiences?

Nope, not famous yet. That's something I don't look forward to. I still get freaked out when people recognize me (doesn't happen often)

Secret Hermit Boy - that's me.

So if you get too famous you might shave off the beard for anonymity, or for charity fundraising?

Oh Hell no - done the charity shaven beard thing once in my life (the hair on top of the head went too) and once is enough. Raised a lot of cash though and the company I work for doubled it.

What is the thing with the beard?

It's the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. What else?

You seem very attached to it. No pun intended.

I've had it for years. It's an easy target for taking the Mickey out of myself.

When the charity shaving thing happened I used to scare the hell out of myself going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Switch on the light, see strange, bald, thug in mirror! Scream like little girl.

So, another Logan McRae book to look forward to early next year.

Yeah, and another one the year after that.

So you've been signed to a contract?

Three books. Hurrah!

Excellent! Congratulations! Does that mean you're giving up the day job?

Thanks. I've actually taken a leave of absence for a year from work. Seeing if this writing thing goes anywhere. If I'm lucky, I might get to make a career of it.

One of the strangest experiences in my life has to be sitting in a room in Guildford ˆ a couple of hundred miles away from home working on a huge hydrocarbon accounting project, surrounded by intense, grumpy-looking IT types - and getting an email from Agent Phil telling me about the deal from HC. And not running round the office shouting "Wooooo-hoooo!"

I managed to keep a poker face for about 12 months on that one.

Seriously? You didn't just ditch the meeting and hit the bar to celebrate?

Nope. Told my wife and my best friend and that was it.

Not even family.

They didn't find out until my birthday party this year:

http://halfhead.blogspot.com/2005_02_01_halfhead_archive.html

As for giving up the day job: the second book's in just now - it's being line edited so it's pretty much finished and the third one should be finished by Christmas. I'll start writing that in a couple months time once

I finish the stand-alone I'm working on just now. If I can get the standalone published, fingers crossed, I might see about another year off.

And the third one, you already have the idea for that? It's forming?

I have, yes. I was doing an interview and they wanted to know what the next two books were about. So I had to make it up on the spot: "Uh, okay, it's going to be about football hooligans and pornography and, um, what else do we fancy? Torture." Might not end up being like that at all; as they say - contents may vary from those depicted on the box.

For more information about Stuart MacBride, his compelling debut novel Cold Granite, or to read his insightful blog, visit:

http://www.StuartMacBride.com


Also visit  http://halfhead.blogspot.com/2005_07_01_halfhead_archive.html and scroll down to “More Violence Than Sex and the Faint Smell of Fear” to read some of Stuart's compelling insights on hot topics at Harrogate.


ABOUT OUR INTERVIEWER

Sandra Ruttan has studied journalism, communication theory and special education. After several years of early intervention work with children with speech and motor delays she is concentrating on her writing. She has written a police procedural that made the shortlist in an international unpublished novel competition, and another mystery she's been working on recently made the long list in a different competition. Sandra is now focusing on finding an agent or publisher for her work.

Sandra is a regular contributor to SPINETINGLER Magazine and can be reached at sandra.ruttan@spinetinglermag.com


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