It is so exciting to be back at Granite Noir, with an amazingly strong programme, some great well kent names and some newcomers to look forward to. I can’t cover everything going on in this amazing festival and so I am not going to try but I do want to give you a flavour of my own experience. This is a summary of what I went to and how I found the festival, but really, do not live vicariously through me, make plans and visit Granite Noir for yourself. It is so worth it!
Locals in the Limelight
In the first spot for local newcomers, always a delightful and fascinating moment for spotters of the ne big thing, Emily Utter read from her novel The Fire Dwellers. Whether it was her clear reading style or her compelling prose, I found myself simultaneously captivated and slightly repulsed by her all too graphic prose when describing a burning body, resulting in an involuntary ewww from me. That’s indicative of a book I need to read, so job done here.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Mark Billingham. Staying Alive,Surviving a Series
Them we were treated to Fiona Stark interviewing Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Mark Billingham. Yrsa told us that she had originally started writing children’s stories because she felt the quality of what was available 8n Iceland was not good enough. Her son wasn’t reading and she wanted to encourage him, but the Icelandic fashion for children’s literature at that time was that books had to teach children a lesson.
So she wrote 5 books for children which were successful. Then she stopped writing for 2 years. When she began again, it was crime that she loved to read so it was crime she began to write.
Mark Billingham was an actor. He was a character in a long running TV series, Maid Marion. He began to write scripts for the series, but he found that he disliked that ‘writing by committee’ style of script writing and grew to hate that so many others were involved.
Like Yrsa, Mark was also a crime fiction reader, having been introduced to Sherlock Holmes by his school maths teacher. Then he got in touch with his local paper and volunteered to review books. He interviewed crime writers and then, one holiday, he sat down and by the end of his two weeks he had 30,000 words.
Yrsa told us about the genesis of her character, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She wanted to write about a central female protagonist who was different from the archetypal depressed, alcoholic policeman.
Mark wanted to write about the victims of crime so he plucked a copper out of the air and that turned out to be Tom Thorne. Now he is celebrating 20 years and is writing a prequel to the Tom Thorne novels for the 20th anniversary.
Mark does, though, like to change things up from time to time by writing a stand-alone.
Yrsa talked about characters and the fact that happy characters are simply not as interesting as miserable ones. As she says, no-one really loves Mickey Mouse, but everyone is fascinated by irascible old Donald Duck.
Yrsa discussed her Children’s House series, in the context of crime in Iceland, which does not have a lot of serious crime [I think the average is 1.5 murders a year). Hilariously, we heard that a recent blackmail case in Iceland had not been too difficult to resolve as the blackmailers had asked for a receipt.
Her current novel, the third to come out in this country, is based on a real historic case.
The authors discussed the notion that a series is no longer the Holy Grail for authors. Yrsa says she writes for herself, and not for the market.
Rime writers are of course renowned for being the most sociable of writers, or as Mark described it, the smokers of the literary community.
TV and film are not the Holy Grail.both authors agreed that for them, the skill is different and that adapting your own work is not the best idea.
Discussing the writing and editing process, we learnt that Yrsa edits her work as she goes along, meaning that she submits her work to her publisher chapter by chapter and it’s ready to print when the publisher receives the final chapter. Mark can’t go on to the next chapter until he has fixed the first one, so he too, delivers pretty solid first versions. Yrsa spends a lot of time thinking about her books before she starts writing, so has a clear plan and doesn’t really deviate from that. Mark has a whiteboard in his office ostensibly for planning purposes, but it is usually festooned with pithy phrases like ‘Get dressed, and buy cheese’. After all, as Mark says, what we writers do, is we make shit up.
Exploring the Shared Heritage of Bengal and Scotland – Nicola Sturgeon and Abir Mukherjee
My second session of the day was held in the newly refurbished Music Hall and what a treat it was. If you like crime novels at all, you will know about Abir Mukherjee, who is not only very talented, but also very nice, extremely funny and as he showed us in conversation with the FIrst Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, intelligent and passionate about his subject.
The First Minister is well known for her love of literature and she never fails to promote the books she is reading on social media, which is a massive bonus to the profile of the books and authors involved.
In conversation with Abir Mukherjee, she was careful to ensure that he was centre stage as they discussed his work. Abir, as Nicola said, writes books which are a mixture of thrilling plots, really interesting characters and Indian history. Which came first, she asked; crime or India?
Answering, Abir talked about his Indian ancestry and his love of crime since he first read Gorky Park. He spoke about growing up in Hamilton in the West of Scotland. For him writing was about his search for identity (and the need to know that there’s more to life than accountancy). He finds Crime a really good way to look at social issues; a good way of layering crime and social commentary.
He described himself as culturally schizophrenic. Growing up,he didn’t learn much about British colonial history and what he did learn often didn’t chime with what he had been told by his dad.
Abir spent a long time thinking he wasn’t good to enough to write. Then, when he was 39, he saw Lee Child on Breakfast Television and learnt that Child had started to write after he lost his job aged 40.
So he wrote a novel, thought it was awful and put it away in a drawer.what changed was that he saw a Telegraph competition for unpublished writers. He dusted down his manuscript and sent in the first few chapters – and won!
Nicola remarked that really good historical fiction can perform the same job as a history book. Abir’s books, she said, really bring Calcutta to life, so much so that you can smell it. She was interested in what research he does.
Abir referred to himself as a research nerd who once spent 2 days researching the sewer system of Calcutta. His family is rooted in CLcutta, a relatively young city, founded by British people, with a Scottish strand which is different and distinct from the English strand.He can see the Scottish influence in place names, statues and in the name of the missionary college, the Scottish Church College, founded in 1830. The Scots, he says, went for the Indian elite, whilst the English went for the poor. The Scots brought the enlightenment to Calcutta , bringing culture, science, literature and art, thus contributing to the Bengali renaissance.
He talked about Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali artist and polymath who was the first non-white winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore was a huge fan of Burns and as a result many artists and poets took their inspiration from Burns writing in his native tongue.
Mukherjee talked about the ways in which Scottish wealth came from trade with India. Jute came from India to Dundee, resulting in Broughty Ferry for a time having the most expensive real estate in the U.K.
For Mukherjee, the need to know and understand our past is what should inform our present. He referred to Churchill’s decision to stop food going into Bengal.
Following the Japanese occupation of Burma rice imports to India were stopped and then the British, under Churchill disrupted transport of much of Bengal’s market supplies resulting in the deaths of almost 3 million people.
So, says Mukherjee, when you ask us to integrate, it’s important that you and we understand our history.
Nicola Sturgeon agreed there was a need for nuanced debate and commented that Mukherjee novels were set against the backdrop of Indian independence. What did Abir make of Scottish independence and Brexit? A laughing Abir commented that it would be very difficult to fictionalise Brexit – it would be hard to make it any more of a rollercoaster.
Nicola asked Abir how he managed to get the balance right between all the important themes that he includes in his books and keeping the book an attractive fictional work for readers without polemic. Abir replying said he thought it was because he himself sits between 2 cultures and can see the positive whilst also condemning the bad. It also helps that he loves both cultures and people. He described Bengalis as ‘like Scots with less access to drink’. He also remarked, somewhat mischievously (he is a very mischievous man) that neither the Bengalis nor the Scots could understand why they are dominated by their nearest neighbour.
But it is clear that whilst Abir can poke fun, that comes from a place of love.
Abir talked about his characters. Sam, who belongs to that first generation of modern men, tempered by the Great War. A quintessential outsider with an open mind. He sees hypocrisy but at the same time he has his own prejudices. Sam hold up a mirror to society.
Surendranath Banerjee, or Surrender Not as the British call him, claiming his name is unpronounceable, is also evolving through Abir’s books and according to Abir, taking on a life of his own. In the fourth book, we can look forward to him asserting his identity even more.
Abir still wants to write about the Bengali famine, which he describes as the holocaust we don’t hear about because one man thought that Indians were less human. There’s an understandable anger and sadness in the room when he says this as the awful truth sinks in. But as Abir says, history is told by the winners.
He also wants to write about the immigration experience of his parents and about integration. He has a lot to say about opportunities and the positive experiences that his parents had as they were welcomed in to this country, but he is also able to contrast that with the lack of opportunity afforded to poor white working class families.
I can’t tell you how amazing this session was. To have an interviewer who is passionate about the books and the issues that are in the books was a terrific bonus and, in Abir, an intelligent, passionate, humorous and very articulate author who clearly has thought deeply about the issues around what he writes. There were little hints of real anger and true sorrow there and that just made the whole experience even more unforgettable.
I do not think I will forget this interview for a very long time. If Granite Noir did nothing else (and it has done a lot) it would be worth it for this alone.
The OtherHalf with My Darling Clementine
My final session on Friday was a lovely way to come down from the high of the big interview. Crime fans will know of Mark Billingham’s musical prowess through the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. You may also know that he is a massive country fan.
What I did not know is that he has a softer, more romantic side (why would I?)
It is this side that comes to the fore in the stage show that he has written for the country duo My Darling Clementine. With narration written and performed by Billingham and sung by the acclaimed American duo My Darling Clementine. Tender, poignant and beautifully sung, this was a perfect way to end a fantastic first day at Granite Noir.