James Oswald – ‘I have had a series of fortunate incidents’

Having forgiven James Oswald almost immediately for not being Eoin Colfer a couple of years ago, I also decided I really quite liked his Edinburgh crime novels. Even with my crazy reading schedule he gets enough of my time for me to read every Tony McLean book. So it stands to reason I’d want to interview this prolific Fife novelist farmer, and I have (truly) meant to ask him, when Bloody Scotland intervenes and asks for me.

It hasn’t been entirely easy to find a mutually convenient time, but once we do I am pleasantly surprised to find my train to Perth both comfortable, uncrowded and on time. The main drawback is having picked a hotel where they spend most of the afternoon vacuuming around us. We just have to lean close…

My photographer offers to go and get drinks. ‘I would love a coffee, please,’ he says, ‘just white, no sugar.’ And to me ‘are you getting all ready for Bloody Scotland?’
‘You’re the one getting me ready. They are going to give me a pass… in return for an interview.’ I realise I don’t want to sound as if I’m only talking to James for a freebie; ‘I was hoping to talk to you anyway.’

James Oswald

’It’s good to be good for something,’ he says modestly, and we laugh. ‘Any excuse to get me out of the caravan, at the moment.’
‘You’re still in the caravan.’
‘Still building the house. Not finished yet, and yeah, builders… There’s a lot of builders being killed nastily in my books. You get your frustration out on the page. I think that’s why crime writers are so well adjusted…’
‘Kill and be happy. I saw your name on a list of Scottish noir writers, and I thought “James isn’t noir!” Are you?’
‘I don’t even know what noir is, unless you go to Raymond Chandler and American hardboiled detectives, which is what I immediately think of. It’s more of a film thing.’
‘Don’t you think that more recently noir has come to mean something really dreadfully dark?’
‘I guess that’s what it kind of lends itself to, something bleak and hopeless, and doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. To that extent I would have said that no, my books are not noir, because generally speaking the bad guys get it, even if they don’t get arrested.’
‘The thing about crime novels is that usually you have a dead body, and I don’t know whether it’s the gruesome description of how someone is killed… I was thinking McLean reminds me very much of Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn. Maybe those murders were as gruesome as yours, and they were just too polite to mention it.’
‘I think in terms of noir the gruesomeness of the murder isn’t really what makes noir. It’s the way people fall apart, and at the end if there is no satisfactory resolution. I’ve never read any Ngaio Marsh. I am enormously badly read in crime fiction.’
‘That’s probably for the best.’
‘I started off writing comics, and then moved into fantasy and science fiction. Stuart MacBride, who’s an old friend of mine, started writing crime fiction. I had read a few of Ian Rankin’s Rebus books as my dad was a huge fan. I read quite a lot of Agatha Christie in my teens.’
‘I think we all did.’
‘And my grandfather was great friends with Dorothy L Sayers.’
‘Oh wow!’
‘So there were a lot of her books kicking around his house when I was growing up. Lord Peter Wimsey, maybe that’s the influence on Tony McLean.’
‘Your gentleman detective.’
‘Russel McLean who writes Dundee based PI novels, knows all these obscure American noir writers. There’s a lot of people like that in crime fiction, people with enormous knowledge. I feel a bit of a fraud sometimes.’
‘You can’t read everything. Even if you are interested, you can’t. You knew Stuart MacBride before he became a writer?’
‘I was at Aberdeen university, and when I graduated I stayed in the city. I was into comics and fantasy, and a friend set up a fanzine. I’d written a few comics scripts but I didn’t know any artists, and a friend who runs a comics shop – he is my dealer – introduced me to Stuart, who at the time was trying to be a comics artist.’
‘Oh, was he?’
‘He’s a very talented artist, as well as writer. We hit it off and have been best friends ever since. We collaborated on an immemorably bad comic, set in Edinburgh, and that was not quite the genesis, but almost, of Tony McLean. He was the policeman who turned up to work out what was going on.’
‘You had two books before you came to Penguin. How many more had you written?
‘I’d written some short stories, and I went to Stuart and he said to stop writing fantasy and comics, “crime fiction is where it’s at.” So I thought, well I’ve got this character, Tony McLean. I’ll just use him because I am lazy.’
‘I wrote half a dozen short stories to try and find out more about him. One of those stories was Natural Causes, and it was picked up by the online Spinetingler Magazine. The editor there said to me “there’s a novel in here,” so I expanded it into a novel. She also told me about the Crime Writers Association, so I put it in for the Debut Dagger and it was shortlisted in 2007, and on the back of the shortlisting I got interest from publishers.’
‘Then they saw it’s got this supernatural twist, and they didn’t like that. You can’t mix genres; crime is crime, fantasy is fantasy. But by that time I got so excited by being shortlisted that I started writing The Book of Souls, again with lots of spooky stuff, and put that in for the Debut Dagger, and it was shortlisted as well. Publishers always ask to see the shortlisted books if they can, so a lot of people looked at that, got very excited, only it’s got ghosts in it…’
I laugh.

James Oswald

‘That was about the time my parents died in a car accident, which just screwed everything up. I didn’t write anything, Then I slowly started to write again, sending things in. They still wouldn’t buy these books because of the ghosts and the demons. And then Allan Guthrie who’s definitely a noir writer…’
‘Yes, I read one of his.’
‘They’re very dark, very nihilistic, and generally speaking things don’t work out well even at the end.’
‘No,’ I laugh.
‘He suggested I try publishing on the Kindle, which he’d done with a couple of short stories. I came across another guy who’d done a similar thing. He had a series of five books, and made the first one free, as a taster. So I thought I could do that, and it just took off spectacularly.’ James has a way of telling his story as though it’s the first time, and specially for me, when he must have repeated it countless times. ‘Hundreds of thousands of copies of Natural Causes were downloaded in the space of three months.’
‘Yes, but how does that happen? Is it by word of mouth?’
‘I didn’t do anything. I literally didn’t do anything. I put the book out there. It must to a certain extent be there’s a quality in the book, to make Penguin want to come along.’
‘A lot of it is how Amazon’s algorithms work, if something sells well, it gets into the charts. If it’s in the charts it sells well, and it feeds on itself. This was almost three years ago, at the beginning of the whole Kindle self-published phenomenon, so I was really lucky with the timing.’
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, is what I think.
‘There is so much rubbish out there…’ he says.
‘There is.’
‘… but if you find something good, you leap on it, you tell everyone, this is a free book that’s good! And it just works. I did have a couple of lucky breaks, particularly in America. The Book of Souls, got randomly picked up by an email newsletter, with a massive readership. I was selling ten copies a week, and it went up to 20,000 over a weekend.’
‘That’s really good, I thought maybe you had a magic formula.’
‘I wish I did, but I had about 80 followers on Twitter, and five Facebook friends. I didn’t even do terribly well persuading friends and family to write reviews. One of my brother’s co-workers gave me four stars, because he thought if he gave me five stars people wouldn’t believe it.’
‘That year at Harrogate everyone was coming up to me saying “how have you done it, what’s the secret?” I just didn’t know.’
’It’s been the most galling thing, ever since you turned up at Bloody Scotland and I’d never heard of you, and I thought “who’s this newcomer replacing Eoin Colfer?” You were like a gold nugget. I almost didn’t mind that Eoin didn’t come.’
‘That again was a complete lucky chance; I’d met Craig Robertson not long before, and when Eoin Colfer dropped out Craig emailed me, and suddenly I’m on stage in front of 300 people not expecting to see me. And I made the mistake of reading my bit after Colin Bateman had read his,’ James laughs ruefully, ‘but I’d never met Colin before, either.’
‘Yes, those funny Irishmen.’
‘Won’t make that mistake again.’
‘I have had a series of fortunate incidents as they might say.’
‘I wondered why you hadn’t been invited to Bloody Scotland in the first place.’
‘Well, nobody knew me at that point. I had one book out in print, so it’s not surprising that I wasn’t on the radar when they were doing that. I’d been going to Harrogate for years, mainly again because Stuart…’
‘Said so?’
‘… said so, and I do everything Stuart tells me to,’ he laughs, ‘so I knew the regular crowd, like Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. It’s all happened very quickly.’
‘If two years ago you had three books written, you’ve written the other two since.’
‘Yeah, the last two and a bit years I’ve written three and a half McLeans.’
‘You either write extremely fast or you’ve got a big stash of them somewhere.’
‘My stash is empty. I’ve actually got to write them now, but we’re not doing one every six months any more. We did that to establish my name.’
‘To start you off.’
‘Penguin wanted to get them out quickly, because they’d been out as ebooks beforehand. By the time we got to book five I’d been in the Sunday Times list twice. The hardback gives me a year to write. Well it doesn’t give me a year to write, because I’ve got the fantasy books as well.’ He laughs.
‘Yes, poor you.’
’It’s a rod that I’ve made for my own back, so I can’t complain too much. I’ve been writing for 25 years, getting nowhere, now that it has happened I’m going to milk it for all I can.’ James sounds really modest when saying this.

James Oswald

‘Writers with an office job they don’t care about can give it up, but you can’t suddenly decide to stop farming.’
’It’s not an easy thing to walk away from. If it wasn’t my farm, I could maybe have walked away from it. But it’s a family farm and I do enjoy doing it. I have had to change my plans for it. I only took over the farm after my parents died, so I’ve not been running it that long. I’ve got my own livestock, and my original plan was to build up. It would be my full time and only job.’
‘We hadn’t quite got to the point where it was up at full steam, so I haven’t got the full livestock numbers that I was intending to have.’
‘So not as committed as you might have been?’
‘I’ve been able to re-think, and I’m looking at the possibility of going into partnership with one of the neighbouring farms. I don’t want to be a hobby farmer, with just a couple of spare sheep and goats, but equally I can’t farm full time. I could just about fit in writing one book a year, in the evenings after the farm day, but what’s really disruptive is things like this. (!) Today isn’t too bad; this is my local town. It’s only a couple of hours of my time, not a problem at all. Last week I was down in London for a couple of days, and it’s a couple of days travelling, so that’s four days. Harrogate, Bloody Scotland, fantasy conventions down in London. Everything happens in London.’
’Yes, it’s really annoying.’
‘There used to be a flight from Dundee to London City, which was brilliant. My best time door to door from the farm to the Strand was two and a half hours. One of the pilots on that route was an old friend of my dad’s, and he’d fly in over the farm, and I could look down and check on the cows.’ We laugh. ‘I got the train down from Leuchars to King’s Cross last week and got 2500 words done on the train journey, so it’s better than nothing.’
’It is. Your dogs, are they working dogs, or are they pets?’
‘Well, one of them was meant to be a working dog, but they’re all pets. The yellow dog, the labrador, Haggis, was my mum’s dog. He was actually in the car in the car crash, and survived. He was the only one who did, so I inherited him. He has such a soft gentle nature. The little black dog is a Patterdale Terrier called Tegid, who should have been a ratting dog, but he prefers sheep to rats, so I have to keep him on a lead.’ James laughs ruefully. ‘And the tricoloured thing… we were sold him as a Huntaway/Collie, which would be an ideal working dog for a hill farm. I tried to train him and he’s completely untrainable, and also too small, so I reckon he’s actually a Huntaway/Jack Russell cross. Dogmael’s lovely but completely useless, he tends to chase rather than round up. My brother’s got a.., my brother lives on the farm as well, he lives in the farm house which is why I’m in the caravan.’

James Oswald

‘I did wonder if there’s not a house that you could live in.’
‘There’s a lovely big house with the farm, but I’ve got two brothers and a sister, everything was just split four ways. He got the farm house and the old stone farm buildings. I got the modern buildings and the land. I bought a static caravan and I’ve been living in that for nearly five years now. We’re building a house and it’s getting there.’
‘The photographs you post on Facebook make it look so cosy.’
‘The caravan is very cosy. I’ve put it in a Dutch barn, which has got one side, so it’s sheltered from the prevailing winds. It’s got a bay window, looking north across the Tay and is in an absolutely gorgeous spot. That’s where the house is being built as well.’
‘Yes, I’m very jealous of the view.’
‘The first thing I did was I ripped out all the fitted furniture and put in a wood burning stove and my own sofas and things. I won’t miss it when I move into the house, but it’s a lovely place to live.’
‘When’s the house going to be ready to move into?’
James laughs. ’It should have been already. I designed the house myself, and one gable end is just glass, that overlooks the Tay, west and north towards Perth and beyond to the mountains. There have been problems with that glass window. That’s what’s holding things up. We’ll definitely be in by the autumn, whether it’s finished or not. I look forward to not writing out massive cheques. It is so expensive,’ he says with feeling.
‘But you do all right, do you?’ I ask after a slight pause, ‘I’m always pleased when I see your name on the bestseller lists.’
‘I make an embarrassing amount of money from the books, actually. It’s quite scary. I’m just negotiating a deal for another two Tony McLean books, books seven and eight. Yeah, I’m not going to starve on the money they are offering me for those.’
‘Can you continue McLean for a long time or do you think you’re going to leave it here?’
‘Well I’m slowing down, obviously, not writing one every six months. I never had an arc plotted out, at the end of which he would die horribly or march off into the sunshine. I suspect he’ll get old, retire maybe, but he’s younger than Rebus when when Rebus started so I’ve not got that problem of having to retire him and then bring him back. I’m not bored with him yet. One of the great things because I write fantasy as well, I can do a McLean book and I can do a fantasy book.’
‘You can just turn sideways and come back.’
‘A lot of authors like to do a standalone every so often. It’s not so much that you get bored of the characters, it gets harder and harder to remember what you’ve done. You are writing a scene where Tony McLean is having an argument with his boss, and you think, “hang on a second, I’ve written this scene before.” You need to have the argument, but to make it different, because it’s just them shouting at each other.’
’It looks like you’re intending to swap McLean’s bosses a bit. This is his third, I think.’
‘Yeah, chopping and changing. I’m mixing it up a bit as well. So Tony McLean has got a new boss, and he’s back at the sex crimes unit, and he’s got that boss as well. It’s quite a big cast of characters. He’s always going to have two different types of bosses, the bosses he gets on really well with, and those that he doesn’t. And the bosses he doesn’t get on with are always going to be unreasonable idiots, but hopefully they’ll be unreasonable idiots in different ways, otherwise you just cross out Duguid and write Brooks.’
‘What struck me in the latest book, you were referring back to… she’s Jayne, isn’t she?’
‘Oh, Jayne McIntyre. Yes I hinted at that, and I never told anyone what it was.’
‘I thought, I do not recall anything happening, how have I forgotten this?’
‘There’s a one line throwaway in one of the books, where it’s mentioned that that she’s going into uniform. Effectively there was a scene where it was explained and it got cut out. Like in a movie there’s lots of deleted scenes. She left her husband for a woman, and a journalist got a little bit too much in her face so she punched his lights out, and got demoted for that.’
‘For the violence, not the affair?’
‘There may be more to what she did, but it was enough that she was downgraded to detective inspector, but she gets quickly shunted back up to chief inspector, so she gets to be his boss in the next one.’

James Oswald

‘A final question, would I like Sir Benfro?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, I love any book that’s well written. And obviously I think all my books are well written. I don’t read that much crime, I don’t read exclusively fantasy, or crime. I have met people who will only read Lee Child, and they obsessively read his books over and over again. And I slightly worry about their sanity. I love it every time I get a review for a Benfro book, saying “I picked these up after the McLean books, wasn’t sure whether I would like them or not, and I love them!” I think that’s great; I’m corrupting people, and breaking them out of their reading habits.’
‘I made a note of it some time ago, and thought I must investigate this.’
‘They’re a classic magic dragons and sorcery fantasy, set in some kind of alternate world, but written the way I like to write things, which is as much character driven as anything, and the slight twist in it being that dragons are the underdogs at the beginning, and they talk and interact with people, though they try not to because people have been killing them for years.’
The photographer says ‘It’s tough being a dragon.’
’It is tough being a dragon.’
‘Penguin are doing those as well, I believe?’
‘Yeah, that was great, because again I wrote and self-published the first three. My [crime] editor took me out to lunch at CrimeFest a couple of years ago, and on our second bottle of wine he asked “what else do you have?” and I said “well I’ve got these fantasy books. I’ll send them to you if you want.” I forgot about it, I thought we were just chatting, but a couple of weeks later he asked “where are the fantasy books?” so I sent him the first three which together add up to about half a million words, and he read them all in a weekend. His wife was absolutely furious. He came back and said “we’ve got to buy these.”’
‘That sounds promising.’
‘Because I’d self-published them and they were out there in the wild, they couldn’t do this massive “new author, new world and everything.” The first of the Benfro books came out in August last year, the second in November, and the third in January. I haven’t really done much promotion, but the fourth book in the series, which a lot of people who bought the ebooks have been waiting three or four years for, is out in September. I think what probably will happen when book five is finished, next year, there will be a big push. Which will be nice. They’re selling well.’
I’m pleased for James. I only wish I had my own copies of Benfro, and maybe also some extra time for reading. I agree with James about well written books; it doesn’t matter so much what they are about, as long as they are good. (Penguin? I could send you my address again.)

James Oswald will be at Bloody Scotland on Sunday 13th September at 11.45. I’ll see you there!


3 responses to “James Oswald – ‘I have had a series of fortunate incidents’

  1. Pingback: Meeting my local crime writer | Bookwitch

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