I am so excited! Tonight I will be in the Church of Holy Rude in Stirling, waiting for the announcement of the book that will win the Scottish Crime novel of the Year – the McIlvanney Prize. I cannot wait to see who will win and begin the weekend of the year at Bloody Scotland.
What could be more fitting then, to close the Bloody Scotland blog tour, than by interviewing Liam McIlvanney, author of one of tonight’s four shortlisted books, The Quaker.
First, some information about the book.
A city torn apart.
Glasgow, 1969. In the grip of the worst winter for years, the city is brought to its knees by a killer whose name fills the streets with fear: the Quaker. He takes his next victim – the third woman from the same nightclub – and dumps her in the street like rubbish.
A detective with everything to prove.
The police are left chasing a ghost, with no new leads and no hope of catching their prey. DI McCormack, a talented young detective from the Highlands, is ordered to join the investigation. But his arrival is met with anger from a group of officers on the brink of despair. Soon he learns just how difficult life can be for an outsider.
A killer who hunts in the shadows.
When another woman is found murdered in a tenement flat, it’s clear the case is by no means over. From ruined backstreets to the dark heart of Glasgow, McCormack follows a trail of secrets that will change the city – and his life – forever…
You can read my review of The Quaker here, but you should know that I loved it. So it is a real privilege for me to chat to Liam McIlvanney about his book and all things writing.
Liam, welcome to Live and Deadly and thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
What drew you to the subject of The Quaker. Clearly it is a re-imagining and beyond of the Bible John story, but what fascinates you about that story and what made you want to take it further?
The Bible John murders have fascinated me since I was a boy. I was born the year the murders ended – 1969 – but the killings cast a long shadow over my childhood. I remember how the artist’s impression of Bible John, or sometimes the identikit photo, would recur in the pages of the Daily Record every few months. People couldn’t get enough of the story. The fact that Bible John was never caught meant that people in Glasgow and the West of Scotland could never really put the story behind them. I think what fascinated me was partly the paranoia that swept the city at the time, the suspicion that anyone – your next-door neighbour, the guy who read your meter, the man sitting beside you on the bus – could be Bible John. I knew I wanted to write about the murders but I had misgivings about creating an ‘entertainment’ out of events that were still raw for the victims’ relatives. My solution was to fictionalise the whole thing. I kept the bones of the story, but changed the names and some of the details. It was a very liberating development – suddenly I was in charge of the material rather than the material being in charge of me.
What is it that still drives you to write about Scotland – Glasgow in particular?
I’ve lived in New Zealand for ten years but my imagination keeps returning to Scotland. It’s the place I know best. It seems to me that a big part of fiction lies in trying to render the physical textures of life – to capture the smells, the tastes, the colours of a landscape, the particular shade of sky. The textures of Scotland are what I know best; the textures of New Zealand are still new to me.
Is there a Kiwi-set novel in you somewhere?
There may be. I actually started a Gerry Conway novel set in Dunedin and I may get round to finishing that at some point. Part of the problem is that the market for New Zealand crime fiction can be a little sluggish, even in New Zealand. The Kiwis read a lot of crime fiction, but they tend not to read their own crime writers. Someone like Paul Cleave sells far more in France and Germany than he does at home. In other words, making a go of it as a Kiwi crime writer can be a tricky gig. As far as settings go, I’ll probably stick with Glasgow and the West of Scotland for the foreseeable future.
Who are your go to novelists? Who inspires you?
I go back to Grahame Greene a lot. I love how he combines gripping plots with moral seriousness, magical evocation of place and powerful, elegant prose. He remains, for my money, the absolute gold standard for popular fiction. I’ve been reading Greene’s The Quiet American almost on a loop for much of the past two decades. There are a few other writers that I always go back to. I read Muriel Spark for her economy, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson for their Gothic menace, and George V. Higgins for his dialogue. I also read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and DeLillo’s White Noise most years. One of the best crime writers of recent times, Peter Temple, died earlier this year; I’ve read his novel Truth more times than I care to recall and it’s a constant source of inspiration.
What’s the best book you have read recently?
I read too many books to have a clear answer to that question. Among the books I’ve recently enjoyed are: Ali Smith’s Winter, a joyously inventive and typically idiosyncratic novel from Scotland’s finest writer; Michael Hughes’s Country, a staggeringly powerful and fiercely lyrical novel that transposes the Iliad to ceasefire Northern Ireland; Leontia Flynn’s brilliant new poetry collection, The Radio; and James Lasdun’s stylish psychological thriller, The Fall Guy. I have also belatedly discovered the spy novels of Mick Herron and will be working my way through them over the coming weeks.
Are you a rigorous plotter or a seat of the pants writer?
A bit of both, really. I spend a lot of time with the great screenwriting manuals – Robert McKee’s Story, Syd Field’s Screenplay, John Yorke’s Into the Woods – and I’ve learned a huge amount about structure from these books. I firmly believe that story structure is a real thing, not some academic theory that screenwriters have dreamt up. In other words, I think a story works best when a sympathetic protagonist confronts powerful obstacles in pursuit of a meaningful goal, and when a plot features an inciting incident, turning points, a climax and a resolution. That said, a novel is not a screenplay. There is much greater scope for digression and apparent irrelevancy in a novel. Accordingly, while I like to establish the major plot points in my novels before I begin, I’m quite relaxed about how I get from one plot point to the next.
Where do you write? Describe your set up – do you have a view?
When I’m in NZ I write primarily in my office at the University of Otago’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies in Albany Street, Dunedin. It’s a comfortable space and I can write very happily there, though there’s not much of a view. My desk faces a wall of books. Things are a bit different here in Scotland. I’m in the middle of a six-month stint living with my family in Fairlie on the Ayrshire coast. The back gate of our rented house opens onto the beach. I write at the kitchen table, looking out onto Arran, the Cumbraes, the Cowal peninsula and the endlessly beautiful Firth of Clyde. It’s distracting and inspiring in equal measure.
How do you begin a novel?
Slowly and painfully. I try to come up with the central scenario or predicament. I do a fair bit of research. I try to get the major plot points in place and plan out the structure as far as I’m able. But at some stage you have to just jump in and start getting the words down. As for coming up with the initial idea, I often find that the subject of the next novel is buried in the novel you’ve just finished. You just don’t know where it is until it presents itself.
What’s next in your writing journey?
I’m currently working on the sequel to The Quaker, provisionally entitled The Civilian. It’s set in 1975. DI Duncan McCormack is back in Glasgow after a stint with the Met down in London. He’s heading up a team in the newly established Serious Crime Squad and has to investigate the murder of a local businessman. The resulting inquiry beings him into conflict with Walter Maitland, who has replaced John McGlashan as crime boss of the city’s northside, and takes him as far as Aberdeen, where North Sea oil is just starting to flow. I’m hoping to have a draft completed by the end of this year.
About Liam McIlvanney
Liam McIlvanney was born in Scotland and studied at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. He has written for numerous publications, including the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. His debut, Burns the Radical, won the Saltire First Book Award, and his most recent book, Where the Dead Men Go, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. He is Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He lives in Dunedin with his wife and four sons.
Follow Liam on Twitter @LiamMcIlvanney
Thank you Liam, for an insight into your writing life. Good luck this evening to Liam, Lin Anderson, Charles Cumming and Chris Brookmyre, the shortlisted authors.
If you haven’t been to the Bloody Scotland Festival, then take a look at the programme here. Honestly, its the best and friendliest crime book festival ever, with something for everyone.
Read about other Bloody Scotland authors by visiting stops on the blog tour.
About Bloody Scotland
Bloody Scotland established itself as the leading Scottish International Crime Writing Festival in 2012 with acclaimed writers Lin Anderson and Alex Gray at the helm, then joined by Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown. Based in Stirling, Bloody Scotland has brought hundreds of crime writers new and established to the stage with always enthusiastic attendees who make the festival every bit as much as the writers do.
Priding ourselves as the literary festival where you can let down your hair and enjoy a drink at the bar with your favourite crime writer, we strive to put on entertaining as well as informative events during a weekend in September, covering a range of criminal subjects from fictional forensics, psychological thrillers, tartan noir, cosy crime and many more. With an international focus at the heart of Bloody Scotland, we are always looking to bring in crime writing talent from outside of Scotland whom you may not have heard about. You might, however, knows us for our annual Scotland vs England football cup which always draws a crowd and inevitably ends in tears for someone…
The Bloody Scotland Team 2018: Lin Anderson, Gordon Brown, Craig Robertson, Jenny Brown, Muriel Binnie, Catriona Reynolds, Bob McDevitt, Laura Jones, Abir Mukherjee, Fiona Brownlee & Tim Donald