The Ox: You’re primarily known for the Jack Carston Mysteries – could you talk a little bit about this ongoing series? Would it be fair to describe it as Tartan Noir?
Bill: The more I’ve been asked to say things about Tartan Noir, the more complex I realise it is. When you apply it to the great man himself, William McIlvanney, it’s self-explanatory. His books are distinctly Scottish, dark, but also have that element that I think links them to the ‘films noirs’ from which the tag was nicked – a broader existential uneasiness. Now having said that, if I claimed my stuff fitted into that specific variation of the crime genre, you’d send me straight to Pseuds’ Corner – justifiably.
The first Carston, Material Evidence, was written in the 90s. I was reading lots of Ruth Rendell at the time and I think that shows – so there’s not much noir about that. I did, though, have an idea that readers of crime like a bit of gore so I wrote a nasty scene towards the end which is quite bleak. (My agent introduced me to friends at a party as ‘a nice man with nasty thoughts’.) I’ve since regretted writing that scene and rewritten it. But I can’t use the rewrite; I have to leave the book as I first wrote it.
What has happened through the series, though (and this wasn’t planned), is that Carston has progressively become more sensitive to and appalled by the sort of things that he has to deal with. I think that progression’s most obvious in the third book, The Darkness, and it marks a change towards darker, murkier crimes. If they’re deliberate, there’s a feeling of bleakness in the face of the awful things people are capable of doing to one another, and if they’re accidental, a helplessness at our inability to control or shape life. I think the next Carston (number 6) may be the last – at least with him as a member of the force. I think he’s had enough and finds it all quite depressing. Luckily he’s happily married to a woman with an excellent sense of humour, so he’ll be OK.
The Ox: In “Love Hurts”, there are crime/thriller elements, but the texture lifts it to a higher level. What was the planning process for this story?
Bill: Bizarrely, it was initially some jottings about a title I’d read somewhere – The Colours of Love. I was simply playing around with themes involving colour changes and, for some reason, the colours around the yellow/red part of the spectrum started to dominate the notes. So I had gold, yellow, bronze, copper and (of course) blood-red. So that led to sunsets, the passage of time and I had a character sitting on a window seat looking at the changes in the sky as dusk fell. And love had to be part of it so I made the character a woman. But I didn’t want it to be ‘just’ a love story, so I steered away from romantic love and charted the course of a different sort. It seemed to fit with the dying of the light, the darkening of the colours and their consequent loss. The shape somehow created itself.
Describing it all in that way makes it sound like a series of deliberate choices, but it wasn’t. It was a sort of organic growth, just me daydreaming and each bit of it leading necessarily to the next. Once the central character started taking shape, she took over.
The Ox: Who are your biggest influences as an author?
Bill: This calls to mind the Oscar Wilde quip ‘Good writers borrow, great writers steal’. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously borrowed or stolen from another writer but there’s no doubt that some images, turns of phrase, dramatic effects are so powerful that you retain them (maybe even subconsciously), and use an echo of them if it helps you to achieve the impact you’re looking for. I remember writing the embarrassingly pretentious description of one character being ‘crucified on a spreadeagled whore’. (Oh the shame of it. Forgive me, I was young.) But that was nicked from Flaubert of all people.
Which leads me to a suspicion that my biggest influences come from some of the books and articles I had to read as an academic about some of the great writers (especially the 19th century French ‘Realists’). I enjoyed the books themselves but then reading the critics’ analyses of them, seeing them break down how the imagery worked or the symbolism was incorporated into the bones of the story or how all sorts of other textual and linguistic tricks were used helped me to see the machinery of the form.
The Ox: How do you see the future of publishing shaping up, thanks to the online revolution?
Bill We get different theories thrust at us every week, don’t we? I’m no good with statistics so all I can go on is my personal experience over the past decade or so and my overall impression is that it’s looking healthier for authors than it has for ages. I started in the days of the famous ‘gatekeepers’ and was both lucky and unlucky in the breaks that came my way (and those that almost did). Now, I have choices. As long as I’m strict with myself about editing, proof-reading and keeping an honest eye on the quality of what I’m producing, I know that I can put my books out there (in digital and/or paper form) and a few people will read and, I hope, enjoy them for different reasons. The power of Amazon is scary and it’s not nice to think that they could alter the situation on a whim. On the other hand, it’s in their interest to keep people reading and buying books and we’re the suppliers to meet that demand.
Writing has changed. The enfeebled, consumptive romantic starving in his garret but unloading his soul onto paper was never an attractive archetype. He’s been replaced by millions of normal people typing their dreams and imaginings onto high-tech screens and at least getting the chance to find readers. The thing that hasn’t changed is the rewards for their efforts. Writing is no way to make a living.
The Ox: What are your latest writing projects?
There are three. The sixth Carston is just a set of notes and ideas – no crime yet, no victim or perpetrator, but I do know that Carston is going to do something pretty terminal to his career. Then there’s a sequel to my black comedy, The Sparrow Conundrum. I’ve written the opening sequences of that and I’ll enjoy the absurdity of it all once I get into it. But first, I have to finish the sequel to The Figurehead. I’m 27,000 words into it and it’s stalled a little, but I’ve made myself plan it carefully in terms of scene sequences (which I rarely do) and I’ll get there eventually. Secretly, I’m also toying with the idea of going back to writing drama, but I’ll never admit it.
The Ox: Finally, what is your favourite pub finger food?
Bill: Easy. Crisps. More or less any flavour. You buy one packet and share them and that sets you up for the next round when you make sure you buy as many packets as there are drinkers. From there on, it’s exponential.