As I’m wandering around the States on tour at the moment, it seemed an ideal opportunity to allow another author to wander around my Thursday Murderati spot. I’m delighted to be interviewing Scottish crime author, Crime Scene Scotland blogger and reviewer extraordinaire, Russel D McLean. Russel’s debut novel, THE GOOD SON, was described by John Connolly as marking “the arrival of an exceptional talent”. Russel lives in Scotland’s fourth city of Dundee, where his novels are set, and shares a house with a cursed mask. (Honestly, I’m not making this stuff up!)
Zoë Sharp: Can you tell us about your early work prior to publishing the first book in your PI J McNee series – THE GOOD SON?
Russel D McLean: I used to think I’d wind up writing Science Fiction, and indeed a lot of my early published shorts (for no pay, back in the days when ezines were first really kicking off) were (frequently poor) SF stories, usually dystopian, surrealistic and downbeat.
My first published crime shorts were still downbeat but I found the form suited my style for and soon enough I found paying markets like Alfred Hictchcock’s Mystery Magazine taking me on. Many of those early stories were focused on a Scots PI called Sam Bryson who served as my first run at themes and ideas I would later explore in the novels.
ZS: PI J McNee is described by another character in THE LOST SISTER as “You’re a man who drags his own disaster round with him like a wrecking ball. You want to help. But you can’t.” Does this sum him up for you, and where did the character of McNee come from?
RDM: It does sum him up in a way. McNee is consumed with guilt – both deserved and self-inflicted – and I think that leads to him making some very poor decisions which can really have an impact on those around him. Not that he’s a complete screw-up. It’s only one aspect to who he is, but in his darkest moments, this definitely applies to him. The person who says it is looking to hurt him with the statement. And I think it hits the mark.
As to where he came from, he started out as an archetypal PI, but I found the more I placed him in the real world the more he couldn’t be just a “lone ranger” hero. He became more complex than that. One of the things I wanted to do within the crime fiction sphere is show that actions and thoughts and events have real consequences, and McNee’s personality is very much formed by his experience.
ZS: What was it like to follow-up THE GOOD SON with the difficult second book – THE LOST SISTER?
RDM: I think, actually, it’s the difficult third book, if I’m honest. Number 2 had to be written fast due to contracts and luckily I really wanted to explore themes I’d tried in one of my earlier attempts at a debut novel.
The premise of THE LOST SISTER was supposed to be my first book and was originally written to feature Sam Bryson, a character I had explored previously in short fiction. Had all gone according to plan, I think the book would have been vastly different. But McNee brought a unique atmosphere to the book and writing with him as the protagonist allowed me to go to some very dark places I couldn’t have explored with Bryson. There are one or two elements still in place from that first attempt: a missing girl, a man who may not be what he appears, a mother hiding dark secrets, but I think because it’s now a second novel, it feels much more mature than it might have been otherwise.
So I had a ball writing it. But keeping everything straight – it’s a more complex plot than I think it looks – was mind-blowingly difficult. One of the many editing passes was strictly for dates and ages when we realised the missing girl was variously given as three different ages. So it was complex but hugely rewarding. I truly believe it’s a better book than THE GOOD SON (which I would still humbly suggest you read if you haven’t!)
ZS: How would you describe your books to someone who is just about to read them for the first time?
RDM: Really really good for propping up that table with the wobbly leg … oh, wait, you want me not to do the whole Scottish self-deprecating thing?
Dark crime novels with a real emotional hook that move the private eye from the traditional mean streets of America to the back alleys of modern Scotland.
How’s that work?
ZS: Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
RDM: I have to work when I can with my schedule and the fact I’m also employed full time. At home I tend to work very late at night. But I do have a “country retreat” (or, as it’s also called, my parents’ house) where I disappear and just write 24/7 for a full week or so when I’m coming to the end of a draft. I reckon if I lived out in the middle of nowhere, I’d write more.
But yes, I’ll write whenever and wherever I can. Which often means I don’t have much of a life, if I’m honest, between full-time work and what amounts to another full-time job writing. But the truth is, I bloody love doing it.
[Russel has set McNee’s PI office at 1 Courthouse Square – conveniently To Let, as you can see …]
ZS: How do your stories normally come about?
RDM: A lot of them start with images and notions. I usually have a scene in my head and I work from there. I need to give ideas a lot of time to stew, though, and generally it’ll take a long time for one of these images to become a workable story. I have a number of sketches (in words) and ideas scattered around my filing system and I just let them stew there until I have a really solid feel for how they should pan out.
ZS: Do you already have an outline or do you just have an idea at the back of your mind and see where it takes you?
RDM: I work half and half. Generally winging it right up to the point my agent demands an outline. Then I give him one. Generally that helps me figure out where I’m going. But usually right from the start I know my opening scene and my end scene. Those are always very clear to me. Everything in between is up for grabs. And a lot of the time, even with an outline, I’ll find a number of things change as I go on. It’s an inevitable part of the process. But while I don’t like the idea of outlines, I have to do admit they do help keep me focused and allow me to not have to think about complexities of plot when I’m focusing on bringing out the character in a piece.
ZS: What is the most important element for you when you’re writing?
RDM: Lots of coffee. An internet connection so I can do research on the fly. And isolation. If I could, I’d get myself one of those writing cabins all the cool writers seemed to have back in the day.
ZS: What aspect of the job do you enjoy most?
RDM: The sheer buzz that comes from writing. Genuinely, it’s the one of the few things I’ve ever felt absolute joy over doing. I am a huge believer in storytelling, in writing and in engaging with stories.
I still consider myself a reader who got lucky. Sometimes it’s very strange – and a huge honour – to think there are people out there who might be reacting to my books the way I have reacted to so many other authors.
ZS: You set your PI series in Dundee – Scotland’s fourth city. I know you explain in THE LOST SISTER that Dundee was founded on the three ‘J’s – jute, journalism and jam – but what appealed to you about this particular location? Forgive me, but it’s not the first place that springs to mind when you mention hard-boiled private eye novels!
[Dundee’s Caird Hall has doubled for St Petersburg in several Brit movies]
RDM: Ahhhh… but it’s not three “j”s despite what everyone says. Jute is right (we were the centre for the jute industry), journalism is also correct (DC Thomson are journalistic giants) but jam… the truth is it was bloody marmalade. Mrs Keillers, if I remember correctly.
In fact, it should really be two J’s, an M and a P as we’re also famous for pies. Or “pehs” as it’s pronounced locally.
[Desperate Dan of The Dandy comic is published by DC Thompson in Dundee]
But … here’s the serious answer … it’s not the first place that springs to mind and that in part is what makes it perfect. Dundee is essentially an unknown quantity to many people, but there’s so much that can be illuminated in the service of a good crime story. There’s a lot of history here, more than you might expect. There are a lot of small streets, of hidden stories. And then there’s the fact that it was a city that has gone through such great changes. From big industry to virtual poverty and back again. The old city is being swept away by a new cosmopolitan ideal and that’s fascinating to watch as it happens.
[Captain Scott’s ship, The Discovery, used in his ill-fated Antartic expedition, is berthed at Riverside in Dundee]
There’s a book (I think it was ten weeks at the top of the Scottish charts based pretty much solely on sales from Dundee) called THE LAW KILLERS by Alexander McGregor. A collection of true crime stories from Dundee. Part of the reason for its success was the idea that such things could happen in Dundee. So there is a very dark side to the city, too.
But mostly it was the fact that no one else was writing crime novels in the area (at the time – since then I’ve also been joined by McGregor writing his first fiction novel and Chris Longmuir whose debut, Dead Wood was also set in Dundee and loosely based on one of Dundee’s most famous murder cases) and that I felt it was physically and historically a great setting to use.
ZS: What is your biggest distraction when you are writing? Getting motivated to write is a problem for many authors. Do you have any strategies or ploys that you use to grease the gears of your craft, or has self-motivation never been an issue?
RDM: I am very easily … oooh, a shiny penny!
Sorry, what was I saying?
Yes, I am easily distracted. So sometimes it’s hard to get started. I’m always thinking about what I haven’t done or what I need to do. I’ve developed an inner voice, though, that tells me I need to pull my socks up. Basically I get going through fear and guilt. Most of the time these work for me. I also set goals for myself and until I achieve them I cannot my arse from the chair. Not even for bathroom breaks. When I’m working on a first draft it’s 500 words. Redrafting, it’s reaching the end of a chapter. So if I do find myself trawling Youtube or the blogs, it’s my own fault that I then need to pee and can’t get up until I’ve written the next 300 words.
So far, there have been no accidents.
ZS: There is such a thing as Too Much Information, you know … Anyway, what made you decide to write a series and not a standalone novel? Would you write a standalone novel?
RDM: I would write a standalone. I have one at early stages but it still needs more work. A lot more. It may not be entirely what people expect, of course, but that’s the fun.
In honesty, when it comes to McNee, I think I’m writing a sequence more than a series. Remember how I said I have last scenes of books in my mind? Well I know almost exactly how I want book 5 to end. And after that I’m writing at least a few different books before even thinking about coming back to McNee.
ZS: Are you easily amused and what was the last thing that amused you?
RDM: I think I am easily amused and yet you know this is the question that has caused me the most problems. I’m a magpie of humour, constantly distracted by shiny things and quick witticisms.
And of course, being a bookseller and an author, I will always have space to laugh at Black Books. Whenever something goes bad in terms of my writing, I always tend to watch this little skit to make myself feel better:
ZS: You’re a bookseller at Waterstone’s in Dundee in your other life. Does being surrounded by all those other books have an effect on your writing?
RDM: Off the top of my head, these other authors also worked for Big W:
And I’m sure there’s loads more. But there’s something in the water there. Although it should be noted that technically when I was first published I was working for another booksellers … (I’ve now worked for three different companies, three wildly different experiences).
But yes it’s a great thing. And despite what people may think I’m the last person to trumpet my author credentials in store. But you get to keep up on the market, see what’s what and obsessively check your sales figures in the company (but never when I’m doing any other task…)
ZS: What are you working on now? And are you going to stick to the family connection in the titles? Do you ever foresee a time when you might be writing THE SLIGHTLY PISSED OFF THIRD COUSIN (BY MARRIAGE) TWICE REMOVED?
RDM: A couple of hush-hush projects that may or may not come to fruition. And redrafting McNee #3 for submission to the interested parties. It does indeed continue the family theme and currently goes under the title FATHER CONFESSOR.
Luckily I plan on writing a sequence not a series so I have enough family members to write the books I want with McNee. And then I’m in trouble…
ZS: Now you’re published in the States, did any of the Scottish dialect words cause problems for your American readers?
RDM: In THE GOOD SON we had a bit of back and forth about the word “Jocks” which of course is a southern England nickname for Scotsmen and a US term for an athletically inclined individual, generally of High School age. So there was some discussion about using it as an insult. In the end I got to put in some naughty words in its place.
But strangely, that one incident, the language barrier hasn’t been much of an issue. I think because rather than write in something approaching Scots, like Chris Brookmyre, I’m using rhythm to suggest dialect a lot of the time. And most of the slang is obvious through usage. I think readers are far smarter than some folks give ‘em credit for.
[McNee and McLean both drink at The Phoenix pub]
ZS: Who’s the first person to read your work as you write, or after you’ve written?
RDM: It has to be finished to my standards before anyone sees it. Generally the first person to see a vaguely readable draft is my agent. I cannot let anyone I’m close to read it. Don’t ask me why. It’s the same as with touring, I always prefer entertaining crowds of strangers compared to people I know intimately. Maybe because I know they’ve heard all my good jokes…
ZS: Published writers are, it seems, under increasing pressure to act as their own publicists. Have you experienced this, and how does it impact on your ability to get on with the important business of writing your novels?
RDM: I’ve had to do a lot of my own publicity over the years. That’s not too bad a thing because working in the trade I kind of know what I’m doing. I have connections that helped with last year’s US tour and in getting space on blogs like this to talk about what I’m doing. But its tough out there and sometimes I do feel lost at sea. I can only imagine how someone who doesn’t know the trade must feel.
I think publicity is a big problem because it’s tough enough writing a book never mind selling yourself to sell the book. You can become distracted by the whole publicity machine, too. It can eat up a lot of time and there are some authors I believe could benefit from less time publicising and more time writing, but then, would their sales figures dry up? It’s an impossible question to answer. I think you have to try to work with your publishers on things. Talk to them. Suggest ideas. Work together not against each other. Yes, they may not have as much time for you as, say, James Patterson, but if you can show willing I think you can get results.
In this business, as I’ve always said, no one knows anything. You have to find your ground. What you’re comfortable doing. What works for you. This blog tour was instigated at the behest of my publishers, and it’s something new for me. I’m having fun so far. Although I’d love to do another physical tour across the US like I did last year for THE GOOD SON. That was an absolute blast. Getting out there and meeting readers. Works for me, certainly.
ZS: In THE LOST SISTER McNee feels ‘I was starting to wonder whether I really had more in common with these thugs and monsters than with anyone close to normal.’ Would you ever want to meet your protagonist in person? if so, what would you say to him?
RDM: When he wasn’t on a case, maybe. But I think he’d be a pretty intense kind of guy. He’s not exactly into opening up to other people. Which is why I find him fascinating as a character. I tried to interview him once. The results were… intriguing…
ZS: Describe yourself in three words.
RDM: Beardy (is that a word?). Geeky. Distracted.
You can tell I’d do well on an internet dating site.
ZS: Do you have a favourite word, swearword, or phrase?
RDM: I have a bundle of favourite words. But I’m coming more and more to love Scottish slang that I grew up with. I think I’ve told you this before, but one of my personal favourites is “stocious*” as in, drunk. It’s one I use rather a lot when talking about writers cons like Harrogate or Bouchercon. Should I be worried by that?
As to swearing, I adore the versatility of “fuck” (hence my contribution to the anthology EXPLETIVE DELETED, an ode to that most wonderful of words). (Which Publishers Weekly described as “awesomely dark” by the way – ZS) And of course, I introduced the word “cuntybaws” to many Americans on my last tour, although full credit for that one goes to my agent.
Of course some people don’t agree with my occasional use of naughty words. I’m not going to get into the sweary debate here, but can we maybe get that clip of Billy Connolly talking about swearing up since he’s far more eloquent than I. (Your wish is my command, oh master – ZS)
As to phrases, I’m not sure so sure on that front. I probably have many that I overuse, to be fair. Certainly my agent would agree with that assessment…
ZS: What is it with you and badgers? Was it the music that first attracted you to them?
Ahhh … the badgers. It all started as an in-joke on my blog. For some reason I was compared to a badger. I think it’s my burrowing forearms and notorious temper when cornered. And then someone sent me the Badger Song and well, it went from there.
My friend Beccy, when I first started getting paid for publication, made me a T-Shirt that proclaimed:
Badger Badger Badger
I still wear it, years later. (and just so it makes sense, I hold a degree in philosophy)
Plus, badgers are just pretty damn cool. ‘nuff said, I think.
ZS: ‘Nuff said indeed. Russel, it’s been a pleasure. Let the questions roll!