Category Archives: Interview

Alex Gray’s New Crimes – Bloody Scotland

My resolve was to try new authors. At least new to me. And then Alex Gray turned out to have a whole event featuring new crime writers, which was perfect. She herself was obviously not new. The others were. Sort of.

While I didn’t recognise the very smiley Felicia Yap, as soon as she mentioned that she had been introduced to her husband by Anton Du Beke, I knew I had read about her in the Guardian recently. She is one of these people you want to dislike, because they are both attractive and talented and can do/have done so much.

Rob Ewing, Ian Skewis, Mark Hill, Felicia Yap and Alex Gray

This must be what led Mark Hill to claim that he had also been a catwalk model, although I feel that ‘only being a journalist’ is no bad thing. Ian Skewis, on the other hand, was a ‘pissed off’ former actor, and Rob Ewing a Falkirk GP. Ordinary, but not really ordinary. All four have got a debut crime novel out, something that made Alex point out that anyone can become a crime writer.

Rob’s book – The Last of Us – is set on Barra, except he doesn’t say it’s Barra, but it is. The bit he read to us was partly about posting coconuts through a letterbox, and surprised cows. I think it was, anyway. Ian read on the Kindle from his A Murder of Crows, which he began writing in 1989, and as he mentioned finding a dead body (in real life) ten years earlier, I’m having trouble working out his age. He looks younger than that.

Mark Hill and Felicia Yap with Alex Gray

Mark Hill’s novel Two O’Clock Boy was always going to be a crime novel. No doubt about that. Finding out it was going to be published made him the happiest ever. Unless that was having a child. And Felicia read from Yesterday, about the difficulty of solving a crime when you can only remember the last 48 hours. She might have claimed she wrote it on the dance floor.

(I’m wondering if books featuring amnesia are ‘in’?)

I found it interesting that all four had strong opinions on how to write, despite not having lots of books under their belts. Maybe they have lots of unpublished ones? Mark plots on a blackboard with coloured pens. Felicia writes anywhere as she travels a lot, and her writing in Germany differs from that in Italy.

Rob does only a little plotting and planning, while Ian said that writing over so many years has had an impact on the book. That, and being OCD, and having your characters talk to you. He crowdfunded his novel, which has caused him to have 900 friends on Facebook, after having virtually none.

Rob Ewing and Ian Skewis

How do you know when your book is finished? Felicia reckons when you are tired of it. She did 14 edits on Yesterday. Rob wrote fast, and Mark a bit less so, and as we’ve mentioned, Ian took a very long time. There’s the issue of having a day job, too.

Titles are difficult. All went through several, and had help from editors and agents.

Asked whether they could see themselves writing a series about the same character for 30 years, like Ian Rankin or Val McDermid, Mark reckoned he wants to have a go, and is already on the second book [about the same character]. Felicia is writing a prequel, and here I got rather lost in the days of the week. Might be called Today, or perhaps Tomorrow?

Caro Ramsay was in the audience, and she wants Ian Skewis to read audiobooks, because his own reading was so fantastic.

Finally, Mark had a question for Rob, the GP. He wanted to know how he would go about starting a pandemic. And Rob has clearly given this some thought, as he had his reply ready and waiting, finishing with ‘that will do the job.’

Well, that’s good, I suppose…

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Off the beaten track – Bloody Scotland

The Saturday lunchtime event Off the beaten track, was – I think – a discussion about picking far-flung settings for your crime [novel].

Catriona McPherson, CF Peterson and Michael Ridpath were talking to Russel McLean, who was having a little bit of trouble speaking the lines he claimed to have written down. He introduced the three authors, and asked them to tell us what made them pick their settings.

‘Californian’ Catriona joked that she’d obviously been inspired by Wisconsin. She’d found a former army firing range, and somewhere she felt would be a great place for someone to have a breakdown… She read from her new Weight of Angels, which she said felt longer than when she planned the reading. It was about Mary Queen of Scots, who had her head chopped off, although she didn’t actually sing it, and the audience didn’t either.

CF (whose name might be Callum), felt he needed to set his story some other place than where he lives, but it’s still close. He read a piece from Errant Blood, about finding a dead body.

Michael had wanted to set his book in Vermont, but his agent told him that wasn’t a good idea, so it had to be Scotland instead. He picked the isolated cottage where he had spent a holiday as a boy, and read an excerpt from Amnesia, about an old man who can’t remember anything. Or so he thinks.

Michael Ridpath, C F Peterson and Catriona McPherson, with Russel McLean

Talking about how you see Scotland when you are somewhere else, Catriona feels that it looks different, and that distance makes her braver and she’s not worried about letting her characters live in someone else’s house. But after years in America, she occasionally needs to ask her friends stuff like whether you call trackie bums sweatpants…

Callum, who has a past in South Africa, already knows it’s too late to set a book there, without going back for more research. Asked about characters, he did pick a main character first, but sees the weather as another character which determines what happens.

Michael spoke about doing research in Greenland, and also Iceland. It’s important to collect impressions. But Capri is more fun than the distant corners of Scotland. He used no locals for his remote cottage, because people coming and going make things more neutral and also isolated.

Russel wanted to know if they have ever killed anyone. Not sure what he meant, as they clearly kill in their books, but ought to be sensible enough not to own up to any real life killings. Catriona replied that she has ‘happy and well adjusted down pat.’ I’d say so. She must have mesmerised the whole audience with her red, shiny earrings, which matched her red cardigan so beautifully.

An old manuscript by Michael’s father which he found after his death, contained things he’d later put in his novel. You just never know what you will find, and Catriona mentioned a friend’s grandfather discovered in a photo next to Hitler.

A member of the audience asked if they feel Scotland is overcrowded yet, from a crime-writing perspective. Michael said it’s no Midsomer, and that Sutherland is empty and offers endless opportunities. We’ll take that as a no then. As for whether Scotland has nice cosy crime like England, Catriona pointed out that Agatha Christie was far darker than people generally think.

Michael Ridpath, C F Peterson and Catriona McPherson

Somehow the talk moved on to ‘depleted uranium’ which made Catriona mention that she doesn’t want to ‘know things’ again, and she’s too lazy to do research. This didn’t seem to have stopped her from sheltering from the rain in a bread oven at some ancient house, where she was busy taking notes and needed to protect her ink from getting wet.

At this point poor Russel almost choked and had to be revived with some water before we were sent on our way with the happy thought that at least no one had asked anything about bubblebath dispensers. Apparently Iain Banks had once been asked if he or any of his characters had ever been made into such things…

This will now prey on my mind and it will be hard not to ask about.

Launching Trespassers

No sooner had I met Claire McFall last Saturday than she invited me to her book launch, which was last night at Waterstones. So back to Edinburgh I went. This was no hardship, as I’d had several days of ‘rest.’ And I was able to meet up with two toddlers on the same day, both of whom took exception to their mums being a bit busy with other people.

Claire McFall

The second toddler belonged to Claire and he was a little vocal about mum sitting over there on the chair, without him. I thought that was rather lovely, and realised that there are too few tiny children helping launch their parent’s books.

Lari Don was there as well, and I will not speculate on why, or make anything up. Maybe. She had chaired Claire’s event at the book festival on Saturday, so has read both Ferryman and Trespassers. (Ferryman is Claire’s first novel about the afterlife, the one that is doing well in China, and it’s just been re-issued by Floris, so it can help usher the sequel Trespassers in.)

Claire McFall and Lari Don

Between them Claire and Lari have enthused a lot about how wonderful they feel Floris have been. And that is good. Floris had laid on lots of crisps and chocolates and drinks, too. (And I know why Lari was there! She offered to hold my glass so I could drink and work.)

Claire McFall

After an enthusiastic introduction, Claire told us all – well, some at least – about herself and her writing, what comes after the afterlife, and how she used to read trashy books as a teenager, and was a little surprised to find she’s now seen as writing romantic fiction. (Not surprising at all, and nothing wrong with that, I say.)

I had already encountered several spoilers re the end of Ferryman, so coped relatively well with Claire’s reading from Trespassers. It sounds at least as good as the first book, so those Chinese fans are in for a treat. As are the – slightly fewer – Scottish fans. Some of them are Claire’s students at school, and they were there last night.

Claire McFall

Lots of photos were taken, including some great ones by Claire’s mother, which I had to go and ruin by suggesting maybe the book shouldn’t be held upside-down. I won’t be invited again.

Claire McFall

Here’s to another million sales!

The ones not yet chosen

Is it silly to review a book you, my readers, can’t read? I’ve got so caught up with Maria Turtschaninoff that I’m not only working my way through her books, but I want to tell everyone else about them too.

Maria Turtschaninoff, De ännu inte valda

So to begin with, I’m simply glad I’ve managed to source her un-translated books, especially after my rant a couple of weeks ago. Of six novels, two have been translated into English. The other four don’t even make it into Swedish bookshops, despite being written in Swedish, because Maria is from Finland.

De ännu inte valda (The ones not yet chosen) is her first published book. It’s fairly short, and aimed at younger readers than Maresi or Naondel. While fantasy, it is half set in the real world, and half in some other place. We meet step-siblings Martin and Emmi, who really don’t get on. Each of them would prefer to be left alone; he with his mum and she with her dad.

But now the parents are going off, leaving the two with Emmi’s aunt. And as so often happens under these circumstances, a fairytale muse pops through the window one evening and the two children accidentally-on-purpose leave with her, and discover a whole new world.

It’s a story world, where the muses are charged with catching every inspirational thought authors have, and help them fill their stories with the right characters. It’s an important task, as it wouldn’t do to put the wrong characters into a story.

No sooner have Emmi and Martin arrived, than it becomes clear this world is under threat, and they realise that they are the only ones who can fix it. But they are still fighting each other, so first have to learn to cooperate, and that both of them can be right. And wrong.

This is a lovely story and it’s such an obvious plot in a way, that I’m surprised I’ve not encountered it before. It makes sense, because how can you leave characterisation to a mere writer? You want a specialist.

And needless to say, this is also a plot that urgently requires a translator.

Day 7

Let me tell you about Keith Gray. Eight years ago, on our seventh and last day of our first Edinburgh Book Festival, Daughter and I happened upon Keith Gray signing in the children’s bookshop. It had been a bit of a learning curve for us, and we realised when we discovered Keith sitting there, that authors might be there even if we hadn’t gone to their events, and even when we didn’t know there was an event.

Keith Gray

Back then I was less shy about being forward, so walked up and introduced myself, and we had a nice chat. Over the years Keith has tended to pop up in Charlotte Square at some point, and there have been other Scottish-based events as well. But ever since that day – the 26th of August 2009 – in my mind he has personified the happy coincidence of the bookfest.

Yesterday was also the 26th of August, and Keith and his family had organised farewell drinks in Charlotte Square, for their many book friends, because they are moving away from Scotland. It was lovely of them to do so, and they will be missed. Much less coincidental popping in future, I suspect.

Jasmine Fassl and Debi Gliori

So, it was especially nice that Daughter was able to be there with me, freshly extricated from the Andes. She was able to say hello to Frances in the press yurt, and – oh, how convenient – she was able to take photos for me as I had an interview to do. I’m nothing but an opportunistic user of my nearest and dearest.

Claire McFall

The interview was with Claire McFall, about her astounding fame. In China, in case you were wondering. She’s lovely, and didn’t even complain as we almost cooked her in the ‘greenhouse’ café. (There will be more about Claire later.)

We’d already spied Michael Rosen, and I’d caught a glimpse of David Melling with Vivian French as they walked over to the Bosco Theatre (which meant I missed out on their signing in the Portakabin) for an event. The signing no one could miss was Julia Donaldson’s, still taking place right next to us in the greenhouse, a couple of hours after her event.

Kirkland Ciccone and Sharon Gosling

Pamela Butchart

Despite not dressing quite as loud as usual, we still managed to see Kirkland Ciccone, signing next to Sharon Gosling and Pamela Butchart. Who else but Kirkie would have posters of himself to sign and hand out? Pamela wore some rather fetching furry ears, but it wasn’t the same. Also milling about in the children’s bookshop were Danny Scott and Keith Charters. The latter chatted so much to Daughter that I had to do my own photographing…

Keith Charters

I believe that after this we managed to fit in eating our M&S sandwiches, before keeping our eyes peeled for one of Daughter’s heroes; Catherine Mayer of the Women’s Equality Party.

Catherine Mayer

We searched out some shade after this, enjoying a wee rest next to the Main theatre, where we were discovered by Kirkie and Keith C and chatted before they departed for home.

Cressida Cowell

Noticed Gill Lewis at a distance as we sped across the square to find illustrator Barroux in the children’s bookshop, and then straight over to the main signing tent for Cressida Cowell. Her signing queue was most likely of the two-hour variety, and necessitated the services of her publicity lady as well, so no chat for me.

Barroux and Sarah McIntyre

And as it seemed to be a day for dressing up, we lined up to see Sarah McIntyre sign, in her queenly outfit. You can join her but you can’t beat her. Barroux, who was still there, seemed to think so, as he stared admiringly at Sarah.

John Young

After all this to-ing and fro-ing we had covered all the signings we had planned for, and we went in search of the drinks party out in the square. Debi Gliori was there, before her own event later in the afternoon, and she and Daughter had a long chat, while I talked to Keith Gray himself. He introduced me to a few people, including debut author John Young, whose book I luckily happen to have waiting near the top of my tbr pile.

Philip Caveney and Lady Caveney turned up, and so did a number of other people I knew, but mostly people I didn’t. We were all charmed by a lovely young lady, who spent most of her time smiling and playing on the grass. If it had been socially accepted, I reckon Daughter might have taken her home with us.

Little M

Daughter and I had placed ourselves strategically by the path, so that when Philip Ardagh strolled past, we cut him off, forcing him to chat to us for a little, while also giving Keith an opportunity to come and say goodbye. And then Philip made Keith take the photo of him and the witches. It only looks as though we are of different height. In reality Philip’s arm on my shoulder was so heavy that I sank straight into the mud, making me look a little short…

Philip Ardagh and witches

We’d never have got away if we hadn’t had a train to catch, so we got away, and the train was caught, but not before we’d encountered Jackie Kay on the pavement outside. Seemed fitting, somehow.

Day 4

The days are getting shorter. Well, I suppose it’s that time of year. And it felt like even the long trains were also shortening; unless there really were that many extra daytrippers yesterday, being a Sunday and that.

DSCN0184

I didn’t quite make it to see Jo Nadin or Tony Ross at their signings, but you can’t have everything. I was there for the event with Maria Turtschaninoff and Alwyn Hamilton, chaired by the little known Daniel Hahn. It was in the new Bosco Theatre venue, out on George Street, and this was my first time. What I will say is that Theresa Breslin was spot-on earlier in the week, when she said it was lovely, but not for wearing stiletto heels in. At the time, Keith Charters and I looked at each other, both fairly secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be.

The other thing about the venue is that the signing tent is very small. No room for Bookwitches wanting to take pictures, except for this close-up of Alwyn’s handbag contents. But I dare say it wasn’t made with me in mind.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

I joined Daniel Hahn outside instead and forced him to sign a book (one he had edited, so I wasn’t being totally unreasonable) and then he made me want to go to Denmark with him in October…

After this fantasy event I wandered back to Charlotte Square, catching William Dalrymple signing for a queue of fans, after what looked like a full Main Theatre event. I feel I know, as I stood there trying to take photographs of Chris Close’s picture display, and I tried at just the wrong moment, when the whole tent walked past, very slowly. Well, obviously it wasn’t the actual tent that moved, but the people who had been in it.

William Dalrymple

Hoped to see Ross Collins and Claire Barker after their event, but they must have been busy chatting to admirers, as they hadn’t emerged when I had to make a move.

Because, dear readers, I had an interview to conduct, and was meeting Maria Turtschaninoff in the gap between her own event and seeing Jonathan Stroud. We sat in the sunshine on the deck outside the authors’ yurt, chatting about mothers and books and how arrogant Sweden is towards the other Nordic countries. I mean, I said that. Maria is far too polite to.

And as she went off with a bagful of Lockwood books, I walked to Waverley again, prepared to fight the other festival-goers, but struck lucky by finding an unexpected train going my way a couple of minutes later, and it wasn’t even full.

Bosco Theatre

Thrilling Fiction

They fought about who would sit on the middle chair, Michelle Paver or Peter Høeg, and while they did, their chair Daniel Hahn quickly sat down on the shiny red chair on the far side. In the end Michelle won, and Peter’s fame got him the chair between her and Danny.

I’d never thought about this before, but when Son pointed out earlier this summer that Peter Høeg hardly ever does events, it sort of made sense. So we made sure we were there to hear him speak, sparingly, about his new book The Susan Effect. (Everyone knows him for Miss Smilla.) And as I said last week in my review, I loved Michelle’s Thin Air.

Daniel began by saying they’d discovered they had one scientist and one mountaineer between them, and one book about science and one on climbing. But the trouble was that the ‘wrong’ person wrote the books; with Michelle covering the climbing and Peter the physics.

Describing Thin Air as a ‘thrilling, intense, really scary book’ that he shouldn’t have read alone late at night, Daniel asked Michelle how it came about. This story about the frozen world of Kangchenjunga began with her suffering from a frozen shoulder and when she couldn’t sleep, she got up and read something from her shelf of mountaineering books. Originally it was to be set in South America (she fancied making a research trip there), but in the end it had to be Kangchenjunga, with God at the top and the abominable snowman further down. And ghosts.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

Peter usually gets his ideas during a ‘fleeting short moment’ in the middle of another book; this time about a woman who makes people speak the truth. He’s got a couple of such people in his own family, so knows what it’s like. It’s important how the character speaks. It has to be someone the reader can spend a week with, and the author maybe two years.

Like many Scandinavians, Peter speaks English well, slowly and with a marked Danish accent, but quite competently. He said Michelle ruined his reading of Thin Air, but Danny pointed out that this is what book festivals are for; having your illusions destroyed.

For her children’s series Wolf Brother she felt it important that children could like the characters, but for her adult books she’s quite happy to ‘be’ her new character, however unpleasant, or racist, they might be.

Peter tries to create something new each time, feeling it’s dangerous to repeat yourself. He was surprised by the humour in this new book. It’s warmer and more fun, and that makes him happy. Michelle mentioned that his line about a raisin made her laugh out loud when reading.

Peter Høeg

They both read from their books, with Peter apologising for his bad English as he read a short piece from the beginning of The Susan Effect. Michelle read the bit where her character wakes up in the tent, and how there might be someone out there…

As the middle of three sisters, she felt she had the necessary experience to write about sibling rivalry, and she mentioned the background of ‘beating the Hun’ and the public school ethos, and how men couldn’t admit to things like altitude sickness, which might affect a whole group.

Both authors admired each other’s books, and spoke about different – non-literary – genres, and how you need all kinds of books. The Danes, like other Nordics, read crime in the summer, a bit like porn. Michelle said that YA is good, because it tends to have a plot, and it doesn’t need to be literary.

Peter writes his first draft by hand, from beginning to end, and then he types it up, editing as he goes along. And if a day feels as if it won’t be a writing day, then he doesn’t force it. According to him, there are no books, only reading. We all read differently and there are as many versions of a book as there are readers.

Question time made a slow start, with Danny saying that if this had been a children’s event, all hands would be in the air. He mentioned one very important aspect about Peter’s book, which is that none of the words are his, but those chosen by his English translator (Martin Aitken). Peter said how grateful he is to him, and how all of Denmark relies on people to translate their small language. Daniel described the translating process as the translator first reads the book, then has to become arrogant – in a positive way – in order to rewrite the words so the book reads as though it is English. ‘Little Denmark’ likes this.

Michelle likes MR James, likes ghost stories, and she recognises that it’s unusual with ghosts somewhere empty like Svalbard (Dark Matter). Daniel said first you are scared because you are on your own, and then a stone moves, and you think ‘oh my god, I’m not on my own!’ And that is worse.

She does a fair bit of research, travelling to the places she sets her stories, and looking into things like illnesses and reading up on what others have already written, like the early climbers on Kangchenjunga.

Peter did research the first twenty years. And then the internet happened and he lost interest in old style research. He has a love for both science and music, but neither loves him back.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

At the signing afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Michelle never travels without her paw print stamp for when fans bring copies of Wolf Brother. And she let me have a paw print in Thin Air. After all, we don’t know what’s out there on that mountain. Could be anything.