Interview by Mike MacLean
I read much of Allan Guthrie’s latest novel sitting in a baby’s nursery, surrounded by painted flowers and cute stuffed animals. As you might guess, I wasn’t in the appropriate setting.
Hard Man, like the rest of Guthrie’s writing, is a million miles away from cute. It’s a nasty story… a dark story… a story with grit under its fingernails.
Right up my alley.
So of course, I jumped at the chance to interview Edinburgh’s Guthrie concerning his new book, his work as an editor for the very cool Point Blank Press, and his sideline as a crime fiction agent.
MM: Thomas Perry says about Hard Man, "I promise this is a story you haven’t read before." I’d say Perry is dead on in his description. What makes Hard Man so different than most books on the shelves?
AG: That’s very flattering of both of you. If Hard Man is different, then I don’t think there’s one single thing I can pinpoint. Let’s see. Could be that most crime novels tend to deal with heroes and/or detectives, and have author-smart protagonists. Hard Man has none of those. Or it could be the nods to Jacobean Revenge tragedy, Grand Guignol, Theatre Of The Absurd. Or the multiple character-specific voices. Or it could just be the very high level of swearing. Or the combination of humour and horror. Could also be that I break the rule about having an active protagonist. Not only is Pearce (my protagonist) passive and largely reactive, but he spends the first third of the book trying his hardest to do nothing, and then when he does try to do something, he’s quickly incapacitated and rendered immobile for a good chunk of the rest of the novel. But whatever the reason, it’s great to hear you think it’s different.
MM: It seems your writing style has changed since Kiss Her Goodbye? How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer? Were these changes the result of a conscious effort on your part?
Two major changes between Kiss Her Goodbye and Hard Man, I think. First, the latter was written to be read aloud – a decidedly conscious effort on my part so’s I wouldn’t have to edit the book for reading aloud at events after it was published as I had to with the previous one. That’s why Hard Man has far more dialogue attribution than Kiss. The other major stylistic difference is that whilst both books are written in multiple limited third person, Hard Man is also character-specific. There’s an indication of that in Kiss, where I use a teenage suicide’s diary to tell part of the story. But in Hard Man I had to come up with a raft of different voices (seven, I think), and tell the chronological narrative in their voices, with their vocabulary, linguistic tics, etc. Technically, it was a much, much harder book to write.
MM: Instead of chapters, Hard Man is divided into sections that are given movie titles (Ghost Dog, History of Violence, True Romance). What made you break up your novel this way?
AG: I’ve never been a big fan of numbering chapters. Seems pointless, unless you’re counting backwards. So in the original draft I gave each ‘chapter’ a heading, but those were deemed a little cumbersome and disappeared in the edit. Consequently, I needed to link the headings that remained, and movie titles seemed appropriate and added a little metafictional touch. I especially like the one that’s called "EI8HT". I’d have used Jacobean revenge tragedies as titles, but I already used a lot of references to those in Kiss.
MM: What role do you think setting plays in your books?
Oh, various, I think. It’s crucial for my debut novel, Two-Way Split. Edinburgh’s a divided city. There’s the Old and New Town. And the city’s volcanic legacy (the Old Town is built on a volcanic ridge) is a spectacular visual backdrop, which at the same time conjures up images of massive violent activity. For Kiss, part of the action takes place on a remote Scottish island, so there’s a lot of interplay between urban Edinburgh and the rural Orkney. With Hard Man, setting’s least important. After all, a large chunk of it takes place in a dark cellar! I’m always aware of trying to ground the reader in the physical world, though. So in that sense, setting is the first thing I think about in every scene I write. I always ask myself the questions: what can the point-of-view character see, what can they smell, is it hot or cold, what’s that noise, etc …
MM: There are a few instances in Hard Man where the internal dialogue of characters disintegrates into streams of consciousness, which isn’t always easy to follow. It was a bold choice and pretty effective. What made you write these scenes like this? Were you ever afraid of loosing readers?
AG: A terrific Scottish writer called Ray Banks made me write scenes like that. Seriously. He’s my first reader and provides invaluable editorial feedback. After reading an early draft of Hard Man he mentioned that he thought some of the characters sounded too similar. So I decided to give him different. With knobs on. I confess it never occurred to me that anyone would find the various narrative voices difficult to follow. To me, they’re all just third person written as if first (or at least that’s the idea). I have heard that some people don’t like multiple viewpoint novels at all though, preferring to stick with just the one viewpoint throughout. As a writer I usually find single-viewpoints too restrictive for the stories I tell. Although, come to think of it, I did write a single-viewpoint novel between Kiss and Hard Man but it never got out to play.
MM: A character in Hard Man who believes he is Jesus is literally crucified. Is there a statement about religion here? If not, what made you include this image in your novel?
AG: Walter Mosley. Originally Jesus was going to be Satan, but Mosley brought out The Man In My Basement, which was just too close for comfort (I won’t spoil it by saying why). So I performed a 180, decided to see what happened if Jesus was in the basement instead. First thing that occurred to me was that he’d have to be crucified. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be a very convincing Jesus. And there’s a sort of shared insanity going on, where Jesus and his captor both, at times, believe that he really might be Jesus. I’m hugely drawn to the idea of shared insanity – a fascinating concept, brilliantly exploited in a terrific Belgian horror movie called Calvaire, which I hadn’t seen at the time I wrote Hard Man or it might have been a section header. Anyway, in Hard Man, the guy who carries out the crucifixion has something of a God complex – and I figured that crucifixion would spring rapidly to mind. He’s not the kind of guy who’d just give you a stiff reprimand if you piss him off, and he’s really pissed off, so crucifixion seemed a good choice.
MM: According to the Point Blank Press website, you are an acquisitions editor. What exactly do you do for Point Blank?
AG: The title says it all, pretty much. I acquire and edit books. That means I’ll read submissions (when we’re open), negotiate contracts and carry out all forms of story- and copy-editing.
MM: What can a small press like Point Blank do for its authors that a bigger company cannot?
AG: We’ve always seen PointBlank as a potential launching pad for new writers. The original novels we publish are primarily by debut novelists, and for the first five original novels PointBlank published, it’s certainly been significant in terms of getting deals with publishers who actually pay advances (those four novels are my own Two-Way Split, Ray Banks’s The Big Blind, Duane Swierczynski’s Secret Dead Men, Dave Zeltserman’s Fast Lane and Anthony Neil Smith’s Psychosomatic). So I guess we can get writers noticed, generate some critical acclaim, occasionally sell a few books, and provide a foot on the lower rungs of the publishing ladder.
MM: You wear three hats in the publishing world: writer, editor, and agent. How does being a writer affect your work as an editor and agent?
AG: I don’t think being a writer makes much difference to how I edit. It makes a lot of difference as to how I am as an agent, though. I spent a long time in pursuit of an agent myself, and dealt with various frustrations along the way that only writers are familiar with. I know how it is to feel out of the loop and utterly ignorant of what’s going on. I know how it is to feel like I’m the lowest priority. So I use all of that to MAKE MY CLIENTS’ LIVES HELL.
MM: As an agent, what makes you decide to represent a writer?
AG: I tend to take on clients because I want to spend time with them and their manuscripts and because I think those manuscripts should be published. It’s hard to be specific.
MM: As an editor, what do you look for in a book?
AG: You’ve probably heard of manuscripts getting rejected with the phrase "It’s good, but I just didn’t love it enough." I don’t think I appreciated what that meant until I starting editing. On average, I’d say that I’ve ended up reading the manuscripts I’ve edited up to half-a-dozen times each, so I have to know that the book is one that can stand up to a lot of readings. And that’s a tall order.
MM: What are you working on now?
AG: I have a novella, Kill Clock, for adult reluctant readers coming out in August. That’s another Pearce story, written with typical Guthrie adult content but for anyone with a reading age of 8+. Working on the edits for that was a terrific learning experience. It’s fascinating to know what readers struggle with. And I’m now finalizing my next novel, Savage Night, before embarking on the screenplay for Two-Way Split.
My thanks to Allan for taking the time to speak with me.
So Murder fans, here is a question for you. If you were a small press editor like Mr. G, what kind of books would you publish and why?
Don’t forget to watch Murderati’s own Ken Bruen on THE LATE LATE SHOW with Craig Ferguson tomorrow night!!! (technically Tuesday morning)