Conversation with author Stuart MacBride, August 2013

When I had MacBride’s crime novel Close To The Bone to review, the distributors gave me the opportunity to interview Stuart in August 2013. It became more of a conversation–a more charming person one could not have for one’s first “interviewee”. As per Stuart’s request, the recording was sent to the Distributors to forward to his publisher, but I heard no more.

Reading through it today, I decided it is not too bad. Our chosen site for the interview – a roadside seat at a café across the road from his mid-city hotel – was a bit of a mistake. Road works nearby, cutlery and crockery clatter, and a delivery truck left with engine rumbling right beside us…nngaargh!

In all its “glory” (?) here is the transcription; breaks caused by traffic and cutlery clatter

REDPENN:   What triggered your first realization that writing was your call?
STUART:       I’m one of these guys who writes his first novel at age four, …and I had a couple of friends when I was in my mid-twenties who were writing fantasy novels .. But …[that wasn’t for me]. I began to write a crime novel, but I started… Yeah, I know, it was pretty…

REDPENN:   So you did try the fantasy genre yourself?
STUART:       I’d love to. I used to love fantasy when I was growing up … [I was with] Russell Kirkpatrick last time I was here touring South Island. I’m touring around North Island, and we’ve been discussing how fantasy novels of some kind come together, in the car, and I’d love to – I ‘d love to have a go.

REDPENN:   If I tried writing a fantasy novel myself, (with fantasy fans full of expectations of whatever elves “can” or “can’t do”), I’d be too lazy to do the research.
STUART:       The thing is, elves [laughs] don’t exist – you can write whatever the hell you write. As long as you don’t write in “Tolkien” you’re right. Go for it!

REDPENN:   You’ve always enjoyed writing crime?
STUART:       I’ve always read crime.

REDPENN:   I’ve loved your books.
STUART:       Ooh, thank you. Now, this could’ve been the awkward part where you’d said “I hate your books! [laughs] We’ll carry on anyway, shall we?”

REDPENN:   The book you’ve just released, “Close to the Bone” – when I’d reviewed it for Booksellers, they asked me to interview you and I had to say “Well, I can’t really interview him when I’ve only read one book,” so they sent me a few. I’m halfway through, and I love them. I love D.I. Steele – she is such a … She makes me laugh.
STUART:       She’s unusual, isn’t she? She’s one of the people you either love or hate. I do sometimes get emails saying ‘Retire her. I never want another word about this woman ever, just get rid of D I Steele, please’.

REDPENN:   But who could you replace her with? You’d have to write in a strong character.
STUART:       The thing is, I think I could probably kill off Logan if I keep writing the series, but I don’t think I could kill off Roberta Steele, and still have the same … It just wouldn’t work.

REDPENN:   No – the interactions among the teams …
STUART:       I could do “D. I. Rennie Investigates”, that would be fine, but not, not D. I. Steele.

REDPENN:   How do you get inside the heads of your “baddies”? Do you have a “dark side” and never let on?
STUART:       Oh, everybody does. Now, I’m a big believer that there’s no such thing as an evil person, there are just people who do evil things And, we all have that [just lurking] inside us. Just, to me, it requires justification. You, know, you can do anything if you can justify it to yourself.
So, if someone kidnapped your son, for example, and was going to kill him, and someone else who was part of the gang knew where he was, how far would you go to get that information out of that guy?

REDPENN:   I’d kill for a child of mine.
STUART:       Yep, exactly.

REDPENN:   The Israeli Army recognized women as more ferocious than men in defending family and home than men are.
STUART:       Well, in modern times. Back in ancient times Celtic warriors were quite often women. But, that’s what it is – it’s just finding that bit of humanity inside the darkest character, and just showing to people, it has to make sense to them. And, say, it doesn’t matter if they’re a cannibal, or … …

REDPENN:   Someone like Roadkill?
STUART:       Yeah.

REDPENN:   [laughs] He made me laugh.
STUART:      You cruel person! [indignant, but grinning] A poor damaged individual …

REDPENN:   I laughed at the situation, imagining all these weird houses, all stacked with road kill, thinking ‘Oh, God, that pitiful clean-up crew…”
STUART:       Well, everybody has to have a hobby.

REDPENN:  What would it take to have Logan McRae take a trip outside of Scotland?
STUART:       Well he has, he has; in “Blind Eye” he takes a trip to Poland. He flies into Warsaw, takes the train to Krakof, and has a little adventure there, and then comes back to Aberdeen.

REDPENN:   And have you yet fulfilled your promise to set a novel in Aberdeen in summer?
STUART:       I have, I have indeed. And the book, set in the height of summer, and I got So Bored of – [in monotone]- ‘The sun was shining and it was lovely and -‘
Oh, for goodness’ sake; who cares? Rain! Please! So I had to put in a big thunderstorm.
Awh! Oh, that feels much better, yes, now I think I can get on with the story now. ‘Cause I like the rain – I love the rain.

REDPENN:   Now you’ve broken away from the series and given us a few stand-alones.
STUART:       I have, yes.

REDPENN:   Have you enjoyed writing them?
STUART:       It’s a very different thing. When I’m working the series, there’s always a thing that’s like “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go mad, and do things I wouldn’t be allowed to”, because for the series I have set rules for Logan’s world – the characters and so on.

REDPENN:   All the characters having their own personalities; you can’t have them suddenly take on something too different.
STUART:       When I start writing the stand-alone book it’s got to be different, it’s got to be better. It comes with its own set of challenges, and at some point I’ve thought “it’d be nice to be writing the series again”!

REDPENN:   In terms of sales, how have your stand-alones done, compared with the series?
STUART:       Well, there’s only one straight crime standard so far, and that’s “Birthdays for the Dead”. And I wasn’t sure how people would take it, because it’s basically a Shakespearean tragedy, and that’s the structure that I write to, for form. And it sold more than the fourth …. So I’m very lucky that people didn’t just go “Oh! This is different! I’m not buying this.”

REDPENN:   But usually by the time they’ve worked out that it’s different, they’ve already paid for it, so you don’t mind. [laughs] I’m sorry, I never said that!
STUART:       Yes, but … well, they can always tell someone “Ooh, don’t buy that, it’s different”.

REDPENN:   When you’re writing, what comes to you first- the plot? Or the villain?
STUART:       Oh, sometimes I don’t know who the villain’s going to be until … even more than halfway through the book. Sometimes even right from the beginning. I don’t write…
Ah, this’ll be complicated. I don’t really write in a straight line, but I do …
I start at the beginning and I go through to the end, but if I get to chapter three and decide something would be better, I’ll go back to chapter two and fiddle with stuff and have a go.
I’m always bouncing – like a bungy cord, going up and down, up and down, up and down, so I can be three quarters of the way through the book and I’ll go ” Oh, I know! that would be much better” and I’ll go back to chapter three and make changes there, and work backwards and forward until it all makes sense.

REDPENN:   I use a crime scene line, branches coming in, or leading off, and once I have the whole story plotted, I can write whatever scene I feel like writing, but make sure it all flows and fits together. Are you a “Planner” in any way like that, or ..?
STUART:       Well, sometimes I do Mind-maps, which are something similar to that, but more like word association, and I’ll fill my whiteboard with that and then start writing. But it means I’m not entirely certain of what the scene’s meant to be, just that I have a rough idea of who’s doing what. Sometimes. Maybe.
But I’m one of these writers that, if I start and something shiny takes my attention, I’ll go off on a tangent from the plan, and then the whole plan will have to change because of the new place I’m in. There’s no “Oh, let’s go back to the plan!” It’s “No, let’s just see what happens if we go from here.”

REDPENN:   How do you keep McRae fans keen for more?
STUART:       I have no idea. Absolutely no idea.

REDPENN:   It’s just the adoration for the character?
STUART:       Well, hopefully it’s just that they can connect with him, and like the world, but I don’t sit down and think “Hhm, what would the fans like?”
I sit down and think “How am I going to make this story work and make sense?”

REDPENN:   I’ve read them in the order of eight, one, two, three, –
STUART:       Oh, the dirty one …

REDPENN:   (‘Uh?!’) … then five, and I’ve wanted to know, right from the first there’s a pre-story. Are you ever going to write book zero?
STUART:       No

REDPENN:   You’re going to leave it open?
STUART:       I don’t think I need to [write it] because – mmm –

REDPENN:   Enough’s been [covered] through the other books?
STUART:       Over the first four books, you get enough to tell what happened. I’m not a fan of back stories.: I don’t like the books where you get “And now, previously, on Logan McRae…”

REDPENN:   [laughing] Sounding like a soap opera?
STUART:       Well, exactly! You get two characters saying:
   “Do you remember what happened last year, John?”
“Yes, I do, Philip. When the serial killer came and killed my brother.”
“Yes, he did do that, didn’t he John.”
My God! If it’s not… If it doesn’t matter for the story, I [as a reader] don’t want to know about it, and if it isn’t important then I want it to come out through the characters, how they act.

REDPENN:   [teasing] But wouldn’t it make a marvellous competition for your fans to–
STUART:       [mock horror] No –no–God, no!

REDPENN:   –write book zero?
STUART:       No, we’re not doing that!

REDPENN:   Not even if ‘Stuart will not be the judge’ [laughter]?
STUART:       No, we’ll get the lawyers! [chuckles]

REDPENN:   At what stage do you celebrate finishing the book–when you finish the first draft, the last edit, or when it hits the book stores?
STUART:       Well I celebrate completing the first draft, the second draft, the edit, the copy edit –

REDPENN:   All the milestones …
STUART:       But not page proofs, and not publication, because there’s not a lot about that stage I can say. I don’t do anything much, as far as [celebrating] because I’m home most of the time, or I’m on tour somewhere.

REDPENN:   So, how do you celebrate?
STUART:       Normally it’s a bottle of fizzy wine from this part of the world, and usually some prawns.

REDPENN:   Prawns?
STUART:       Yep, ’cause that’s our little ritual, my wife and I.

REDPENN:   I’ll think of you, next time I have prawns.
STUART:       And remember the fizzy wine.

REDPENN:   What personal reading do you like–other crime writers? Something completely different? STUART:       Oh I do read a lot of crime fiction; ever since I started going to crime festivals I’ve met a lot of crime writers, so I like to read the people I like, so I do read a lot of crime fiction.
I’m very eclectic in my tastes…I’m quite happy to read chick-lits, and … Um … Anything at all–biographies, romance, fantasy, fiction, science fiction, any good books.

REDPENN:   If someone were to say “I’ve never read any Logan McRae books”, which one would you suggest they jump right into, without necessarily starting with Cold Granite?
STUART:       I would say, the most recent one, because when I wrote “Cold Granite” I wrote it as if it was in the middle of a series, which is why there are things that have obviously happened to Logan but you don’t get told that.
It was always meant to be … we haven’t started at the beginning, getting introduced to everybody – it’s already up and running. So you should be able to start anywhere you like. And if you like that book, go back.

REDPENN:   As you suggested, I read the latest book, and found the first three on Amazon at 0.99 cents. STUART:       I had no idea!

REDPENN:   Then the publishers sent me hard copies of the rest. Which one of the series gave you the most angst while writing?
STUART:      Every single one of them. Well, except the first, as that was under contract then, so I was just writing for fun. I didn’t have to worry about anything.
But as soon as the first was published, from then on I was very much aware that there were people whose jobs depended on me. It is important that I don’t cock it up, and there are readers who don’t want me to ruin things for them. I’m very loyal as a person, and very duty oriented, so as soon as that first book came out I was like “work harder, do better”.

REDPENN:   When you’re busy writing, are you elsewhere or are you at home?
STUART:       Everywhere

REDPENN:   Anywhere?
STUART:       Yes, I was writing in the hotel room this morning, and in the plane flying up from Wellington.

REDPENN:   So you’re not like some writers, tied to one writing corner, in one room?
STUART:       I couldn’t. I couldn’t meet deadlines and such if I did that; I would never get a book finished. So…the back of taxis, airport lounges, you name it.

REDPENN:   Are you averse to questions about your family life?
STUART:       Depends what it is.

REDPENN:   I’d like to ask how your wife feels about you spending so much time at a keyboard somewhere? – Instead of rubbing her toes and bringing her lilies?
STUART:       Well, it’s … Hey! What about my lily needs? No, we’ve done remarkably well with the books, and she’s very much aware that this is what I do, this is my job. Yes, I’m home all the time, but I’m not sitting there eating chocolates and watching sport on television. I have my free work space, and that pays for nice things.

REDPENN:   Final question–would you like a CD or an e-version of the recording of this interview or would you like a copy of the interview questions and answers sent to you?
STUART:       Well if you wouldn’t mind sending a CD to Harper Collins that would be nice. They’re always very, very keen.
I can’t stand listening to myself. I go “Oh, no, I’m burbling a lot of nonsense again!” I can’t, I just can not listen to myself.

REDPENN:   I’m going to finish there, because you’ve kindly answered more than I needed. It’s been an honour and a pleasure, Mr MacBride. Thank you. The tea’s on me.

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