It is Sunday night and we’re all feeling a bit shattered, very happy and at the same time slightly sad that another fanbloodytastic Bute Noir is over.
What is Bute Noir? It’s a three day festival of crime writing held in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, just an hour or so ‘Doon the Watter’ from Glasgow. Held in three close by locations, The Rothesaty Library, The Bute Museum and independent bookshop, PrintPoint, it is a very friendly and fabulous festival, entirely run by volunteers. It is also the best value crime festival anywhere in my opinion, as not only are the tickets excellent value, but you always get a wee refreshment and a home-made cake at every panel. The Bute Museum links objects in the Museum to every writer and it is always fun to see what object has been matched with each author.
My huge thanks to Anne from the Museum, to Shirley from the Library, to Karen and her mum from PrintPoint, to Craig Roberston for his programming skills and to all the other volunteers who made the weekend so memorable.
I came to Bute on the Colintraive Ferry after spending the evening before with a friend in Tignabruaich. So it was a short 500 yard hop across the water to Bute and a quick check in to my apartment before trying out the delights of Kemli’s, the new cafe run by Syrians which makes the most delicious pastries. Of course I hardly ate a thing (c.Donald Steel)
Then it was on to the first panel of the day at Bute Museum,
A Starter for Tension with James Oswald, Sarah Hilary and Mari Hannah chaired by Craig Robertson.
The session covered their occupations before writing, and in James’ case in tandem with writing and what led them to become writers.
James of course is a farmer. Sarah wrote for a Royal Navy magazine but both always wanted to write. Mari’s decision came following an attack on her when she was in the Probation service, after which she unsurprisingly left the service.
Needing to recover but also needing to earn some cash she started writing short stories, then gained a place on the BBC Drama development scheme where she wrote Murder Wall as a script and later adapted it into a novel. She also wrote a romantic comedy that she is very proud of but which she describes as ‘bloody difficult’ to write. She says she learnt a great deal from that experience which helped her develop her writing career.
James started off writing comics and then fantasy. His move into Crime came after a prompt from his friend Stuart Neville, and he took a police character from his comics writing and turned him into the central character for his crime novels. Thus was Tony McLean born though it took a long time for his first publishing contract, for Natural Causes, to come.
Sarah said her novels are very much informed by her time living in London when she really got the feel of the city. She’s always loved the spy story genre and would be tempted by that if she wasn’t writing crime.
Asked by chair Craig Robertson what their biggest fear is was generally agreed to be running out of ideas, or having no time to write.
Then it was off to the next door Library for the second panel Far Horizons with Graeme McRae Burnett and Abir Mukherjee, chaired by Michael J. Malone. What a brilliant pairing this was. Clearly two chaps who get along very well, they were both a joy to listen to.
Entertaining, informative, passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, I felt a learnt quite a lot at the same time as I was laughing my head off. I’m not even going to try to sum up their conversation, but it ranged from class to race to literary influences and cultural history. Quite inspirational.
My last event of a Friday (nb I did miss a panel or two to eat) was Noir at the Bar. With readings from amongst others, one half of Ambrose Parry, Graeme McRae Burnett, poetry from Michael Malone, and new writers it was a packed house in the Black Bull’s back room.
Saturday thankfully started at the decent hour of 12.30 with one of the most popular panels of the weekend. The Time’s Up Panel on violence Against women in Crime Fiction was packed, with readers eager to hear from Mari Hannah, Sarah Hilary, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Alexandra Sokoloff.
This panel was whip smart, and the conversation crackled, snapped and popped as the women discussed the need to reflect society in their books and to understand where violence against women comes from. They covered the prevailing times both here and in the US and Iceland; gratuitous violence in books (of which they agreed there was not a great deal in most of the best books available); violence on TV, where gratuitous violence is more pervasive, to the Staunch prize.
A fascinating discussion which could have gone on for much longer.
Then I headed off to the Library for Denzil Meyrick and Craig Robertson, interviewed by our own Crime Book Junkie, Noelle Holton.
The subject was Our people and places, the importance of location and how much locations matter when setting a book. Craig’s books are mostly set in Glasgow, though he has written one partly set in the Faroes. Denzil’s books are set in a fictional place which is quite clearly Campbeltown. Denzil’s main series of novels includes 6 books of the Detective Chief Inspector – DCI Daley crime thriller genre. He draws from experience during his twenties when he served as a police officer with Strathclyde Police. After his time in the police, he followed a varied career, including the management of a distillery in Campbeltown, and many diverse roles, ranging from director of a large engineering company to freelance journalism in both print and on radio. He published his first novel, Whisky From Small Glasses, in 2012.
This was another fascinating and informative panel, laced with humour, and very much enjoyed by all.
The locations panel was followed by Now For Something Completely Different: with Chris Brookmyre, Helen FitzGerald, Abir Mukherjee and Luca Veste. These writers discussed what literary tropes they would place in Room 101.
From Helen Fitzgerald’s strong woman, to Chris Brookmyres ‘feisty’ woman, there was universal agreement on the ‘strong woman’ trope being overused, when what people really want to read about are real women, with real flaws and attributes. Chris also nominated Dream sequences, especially those in prologues, usually italicised, which he described as often no more than padding. Cue an embarrassed shuffle from at least one writer in the audience who has used that device.
Abir’s candidate for Room 101 was 2 dimensional ethnic characters, and especially ethnic characters whose dress belongs to another religion and their name to a third. It happens far more frequently than we might think. Luca nominated books where women describe themselves, usually looking in a mirror, in seductive terms. Pretty much always written from a male gaze by men, these are the books where a woman looks at herself and admires her ‘womanly curves’ or the way her dress ‘glides teasingly over her thighs’. No arguments there from the panel.
Also nominated were ‘the loveable stalker’, idiot and lazy foreign translators and author friends who write sex scenes. Much laughter from the audience but borne from recognition of some frequent mis-steps.
In the evening I opted for the Northern Stars panel with Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Alex Gray. I could have listened to these two for hours as they chatted about crime, criminals and all things Scottish and Icelandic.
The evening rounded off with A Question of Court: The Quiz fabulously chaired by question setter Craig Robertson, preceded by the awarding of the Brookmyre Cup, for putting prowess, won this year by a clearly delighted Grame Macrae Burnett.
The quiz was followed by a special edition of Mr&Mrs&Mrs with quizmaster Michael J Malone.
Probably best to draw a veil over which couples knew each other best, except to say that Yrsa and Oli were worthy winners and the rest were extremely entertaining.
Sunday’s panels attended included Bloody Bute: Myra Duffy, Alanna Knight and Michael J Malone at Print Point discussing the Bute setting in some of their books and what makes Bute such an attractive location for a crime writer.
In Hold the Front Page: Anna Smith and Craig Robertson discussed with Douglas Skelton how working in journalism had helped to inform their writing, what being journalists had offered them in terms of the writing discipline. Being trained not to waste words and to write a tight intro is hugely helpful, as is the ability to meet people from every streata in society. Anna talked movingly about people dealing publicly with private grief and both Craig and Anna spoke about how privileged they were to have been at the heart of some very strong stories at home and abroad. They talked about how the smells, sounds sights and experiences permeated their thinking when writing and how it is essential to really feel what you are writing about to be authentic.
Also discussed was the brilliant camaraderie, the fun and the sad demise of journalism today. There were lots of excellent anecdotes and some wise words about the need for an instilled sense of discipline when it comes to being a full time writer.
In Watching the Detectives: Denzil Meyrick, James Oswald and Alex Gray discussed their protagonists and other central characters in their books with Douglas Skelton. The panel discussed the popularity of crime fiction and why it is so successful, with answers ranging from the satisfaction of seeing a crime followed through to resolution, to the ability of the reader to be fascinated in a crime but from a safe distance.
They talked about why they write crime fiction, how their characters develop over time and whether they would ever kill them off, as well as which character they enjoy writing most. It’s interesting that some authors have a very clear picture of what their protagonist looks like, while others never describe them and have no fixed idea at all.
The final panel of the day was The Last Stand: Alex Gray, Anna Smith, Luca Veste , Alex Sokoloff, Myra Duffy and Douglas Skelton were questioned by Craig Robertson and a special mystery interviewer, who turned out to be none other than Luca’s daughter, Megan Veste. With some piercing questions, not least for her dad, we heard from the authors how they felt about being outsold by J.K. Rowling, had they ever thought about getting a proper job; the best thing about being a writer and the most embarrassing thing they have ever done. This young woman has a future as an ace interrogator!
Then all too suddenly the festival was over for another year and people were hustling away to catch their ferry.
With a final thanks to the organising committee, it’s back to the ferry. Bute Noir has been a blast and I can’t wait for next year!