(Editor’s note: The Rap Sheet has enjoyed a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship over the last few years with Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black. In 2010 he debuted an original short story on this page, “Last Orders,” featuring his series character, journalist-cum-detective Gus Dury. Two years later, we featured an excerpt from Miracle Mile, his second novel about Edinburgh Detective Inspector Rob Brennan. And then last year, we were pleased to host Black’s long-hoped-for interview with William McIlvanney, still best known for his 1977 series debut,Laidlaw[which is now back in print]. In addition to having a new novel out in Britain, Artefacts of the Dead, Black has also released Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers, a collection of interviews he’s conducted with accomplished modern contributors to the crime and mystery genre. Below, he briefly explains his intentions with that work.)
Writing, as everyone knows, is a tough business. Just when you think you’ve got on top of the tricky craft aspects along comes the even trickier feat of finding an agent. Then a publisher. Then the industry changes and you find yourself doing the agent and publisher’s job too.
If I was to track the bumps in the road to calling myself an author, I wouldn’t know where to start. I had about 10 years in the wilderness and five novels gathering dust before I got a break with Random House. Twelve books later, the only thing I’m sure about is that it’s a constant learning process … and, nothing like what I thought it might be.
I’ve spoken with dozens of writers about the business of putting words on a page and always found that it’s a familiar tale; precious few have it easy. The path to publication is filled with face-slaps and rejections. We all have our horror stories. My personal favorite is being told by two separate London publishers, on the same day, “We’re not looking for a Scottish writer” and “We have a Scottish writer.” There was also an American agent who wanted to turn my breakthrough novel’s protagonist, Gus Dury, into a “bonnie Scotch lassie,” but I simply stored that away in the “insane/hilarious shit” file.
Writers trade this stuff like football stickers. Once, at a gig with Russel D. McLean (The Lost Sister, Mothers of the Disappeared), he regaled the audience with a tale of one manuscript coming back covered in crayon, and a note attached saying, “As you can see, my child didn’t rate it much either.” Appalled? You should be. But in an industry where the upheaval has been seismic recently--giving everyone with an Internet connection a voice--writers get used to it. Opinions are like arseholes: everybody has them.
I like Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s attitude toward critics, which he outlines in one of three interviews I’ve conducted with him, all featured in Hard Truths: “If they were any good, they would have done it themselves and be selling truckloads. But they ain’t, and I am. I know this, they do too. Enough said.”
Black talks with fellow novelist McIlvanney about his writing and the crime-fiction genre, in general.
Another Scottish author, William McIlvanney, recounted for me the halcyon days of gentlemen reviewers, who thought twice about “annihilating an author” because they generally had a book of their own on the way.
The wisdom of these wordsmiths--and that of many more like them--is gold. And crime writers like to share. It’s said they’re the nicest of the writing bunch, because they get all their angst out on the page; for the opposite reason, romance writers are the ones to watch, allegedly.
When I started interviewing the crime writers featured in this collection, a few years ago, it was a way of providing content for the nascent Webzine Pulp Pusher. That was it, plain and simple; the idea of gathering their collected wisdom wasn’t on my mind. But, slowly, I found myself quoting back the interviewees’ responses to reading groups, students, my own interviewers, and just about anyone else who would listen. So, I asked myself, why? The answer was obvious, and I thought, well worth sharing.
Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers features my exchanges with the likes of Ian Rankin, Andrew Vachss, Stuart MacBride, Ken Bruen, and a long list of others. The book clocks in at about 85,000 words--and being the words of the best in the business, you can rely on the quality of every one of them.
(Editor’s note: Over the last few years, I’ve talked with Tony Black several times about the
possibility of his interviewing fellow Scottish crime novelist William McIlvanney,
who’s best known for penning the cop novel Laidlaw (1977) and its two sequels. Tony--the author of such works asPaying for It,Murder Mile, andLast Orders[that third book an expansion of a short story that ran originally in The Rap Sheet]--repeatedly expressed great interest in such a project. However, he always seemed too busy to approach the elder McIvanney, or else he was having trouble arranging time to speak with him. So imagine my surprise and delight, when Tony recently told me that he would finally be sending me part of an exchange he’d had with Laidlaw’s author, for posting in The Rap Sheet. What follows is that excerpt, taken from a longer piece in Black’s new e-book collection of interviews, Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers [UK link here, U.S. link here].)
(Right) William McIlvanney, photo by Ian Atkinson
is something of a legend in Scottish crime-writing circles. I choose my words
carefully here, for the man himself has described the term Tartan noir as “ersatz.” And who am I to argue with the author of the novel that started the phenomenon?
A good friend of mine recently described McIlvanney as “like meeting a statue
that’s come to life,” and that does kind of sum up the reverence with which
he’s treated in his home country. But crime writers didn’t always attract such
When McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw, back in the late 1970s, Scotland was not well-known for its crime fiction--something he was to change singlehandedly.
McIlvanney’s curmudgeonly cop, Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw,
provided the imprimatur for the Scottish best-sellers lists, and our
longest-running television drama, Taggart, is a very heavy homage to the work.
This Godfather of Tartan Noir has never been out of fashion, but when his books fell out of print it was definitely time for a revival. I spoke with the 76-year-old
McIlvanney on the eve of Edinburgh-based Canongate’s re-publication of his ground-breaking Laidlaw
Tony Black: You were writing literary fiction and changed to
genre fiction with Laidlaw. It’s an accepted career path now--everybody does it--but when you did it, nobody did. What were you thinking?
William Mcilvanney: I suppose I didn’t give a shit. I just thought that I had written Docherty (1975),which was about the first quarter of the 20th century, and I was desperate to reconnect with contemporary life again and I didn't know what I was going to do, but I had this character--who turned out to be Laidlaw--who was persistently hanging about in my head. And I’d always wanted to write about Glasgow--I’m a convert, I come from Ayrshire--so I had the intensity of a convert for Glasgow, I loved it and wanted to write about that. I had to make this character Glaswegian and he's got to go to bad places so he’s got to be a cop. But I didn’t think, I will now write a detective novel; I came upon the necessity to write a detective novel because I wanted to write about Glasgow and I wanted this abrasive character to be part of it, so I kind of stumbled into the fact that he’s got to be a detective.
TB: So Laidlaw could have been acompletely different person--say, a journalist or a paramedic, just somebody who touches different echelons of society?
WM: Oh, absolutely. I was fortunate to know a guy from Kilmarnock, Robbie McInness, who was a detective from Glasgow. [He] told me things about the kind of ambiance the guy would work in, and putting all these things together it’s got to be a detective novel about Glasgow, but I didn’t think it was going to be a game-changer. I’ve always felt that detective novels can fight as middle-weight and quite often fight as fly-weight, so I wasn’t deterred by saying this is a detective novel; this was a character I cared about and the story I wanted to write.
TB: You’re on the record as saying “good writing occurs where it occurs”--you don’t put it in a ghetto if it’s genre fiction.
WM: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t read much detective fiction, but I knew that when I read about [Philip] Marlowe I thought this is serious writing, he can write. I never had that--well, coming from my background you wouldn’t--snobbishness that says you have to write “literature.” It’s all books, and if they work they work and that’s it.
TB: I believe you don’t buy into the Agatha Christie style of crime fiction. You’ve said it gives you “reality starvation.”
WM: That’s right. She’s also one of the most successful writers in the world and I respect that, she did what she did. But certainly it’s not for me, finding dead bodies in the library and all that, I just cannot believe it when I read it. Maybe it works as a puzzle, but it connects to no kind of sense of life that I understand, and what I try to [do when I] write is to connect with the real life that I know and the people I know.
TB: English crime fiction and Scottish crime fiction are completely different, aren’t they?
WM: I would hope so. I don’t think it’s a national thing, it’s about the way you look at books. I mean, why should I be cheeky to Agatha Christie, who’s far more successful than I could dream of being? But for me it was the book as a puzzle. I think Scottish writing’s always been a bit more serious than that, a bit more solemn. I didn’t want to pass two hours on the train, I wanted to relate to the kind of society I live in and encourage people to do that. [Poet John] Keats said a great
thing, that when you’re writing you must “load the rifts with ore.” Don’t just
go where you’re going, but give the reader observation, presence along the way.
A detective story--if you get it right, you’ll have a plot that’s going to make
people read on, but along the way give them serious observation and a sense of
the society the novel is passing through, and that’s what I wanted to do with Laidlaw. I thought, what you’ve got here is a great form; if you get it right, folk are going to read it to the end. But you can also do the thing of saying here’s the reality of the story by giving them bonuses of observation and reality along the way, and I thought that’s what Laidlaw could do.
TB: But you subverted the traditional structure with Laidlaw by revealing the murderer on page one …
WM:That’s right. I think if you say it’s a whodunit, the puzzle takes over. It dominates the reader’s concentration throughout, and I thought I don’t want to do that. So if I say, this is the man who did it, then in the process of this story I’ve got to produce something else, because you know already who did it, so it’s a why-dunnit and it’s [about] what will result from his having done it. And you’ve still got a hook, but as well as the hook I wanted to say, OK, this is the crime and eventually we’ll get to the core of why it happened, but along the way what about this for a place? Look what’s around us.
TB: It’s a literary writer’s approach to crime fiction. You obviously want your characters and setting to drive the novel, it’s not about ladling in lots of
WM: Absolutely. It’s about Laidlaw, it’s about the boy who [committed the crime] and the strange nature of him and why he did it. It just seemed to me that it was a great form.
Gore Vidal said a great thing once in an essay, he said that we should colonize the genre, we should take genre [works] and try to people them with serious
reality--so if it’s a detective story, make something happen to make it real,
and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to take a form that people would like
reading, hopefully, and follow it to the end, but almost below their
consciousness you would be giving them the presence of observation and a sense
of reality. If you can put that all together, to me, you’ve got an utterly
TB: Inspector Laidlaw is a bit of a curmudgeon--do protagonists in fiction need to be sympathetic?
MW: It’s advice I’ve never followed. I like him, he’s a pain in the arse in many ways, but I think we all are. I’d absolutely go for several pints with him.
TB: You stated early on that you weren’t interested in a man who was a cop, and Laidlaw had to be a cop who was also a man.
WM: Yeah, you’re not defined by your job, you redefine your job by your humanity in the way you handle it. Laidlaw happens to be a cop, but he’s much more than that and he brings the much-more-than-that to the job. If you’re defined by your job, you’re pathetic, you might as well give up. But you can approach the job in such a way that you redefine the job by the humanity you bring to it, and that’s what I think Laidlaw does; he’s aggressive, he’s a pain in the arse, but he’s serious and he
TB: A lot of characters in crime fiction do tend to be quite one-dimensional, but he’s got a hinterland ...
WM: I could sit here and pontificate about how I created him, but I’m not sure how I did it. It was putting a man who was interesting in situations that would test his nature and that’s about that. He’s a guy I like and I think that all the folk I like can be a bit of a pain in the arse at times. I don’t want to meet folk that are so bland that all you do is exchange the same kinds of platitudes. Laidlaw’s not a platitudes person, he keeps his reactions real and I think that’s important, because when that happens the situation becomes real. I mean, if you think
about it, you can go to a party and think, Christ, I might not as well have
gone at all, it was all so platitudinously pleasant. And a wee bit of frisson of
angst or argument; I love that, Laidlaw brings that to every situation. He
doesn’t go in and play a role, he becomes himself.
TB: I heard a rumor that the voice of Jack Laidlaw had come back to you recently. Does that mean there is another novel on the cards, or is that just wishful thinking on my part?
WM: I don’t know. I don’t want to
get too melodramatic, but I am still slightly haunted by him. I have got some
ideas, but I don’t know if they’ll come to fruition. I’ve got an idea for a Laidlaw
prequel, with Laidlaw as a younger man, perhaps before he became quite so
aggressive. I’ve also got an idea for a twilight Laidlaw--where he’s out of the police--that I’ve had for a while. [Sean] Connery once phoned me and said, “I have a window,” and I thought, I’ve got several windows, but what he meant was that in his career there was a gap and could I write a treatment and let him see it. I
wrote about 18 pages of a story in which Laidlaw becomes involved after he’s
packed up the police. I won’t elaborate on the idea--I know you wouldn’t
steal it, Tony, but somebody might--[but] I sent it to him and he said his
secretary really likes it, but he thought it was a book not a film. And I think he was probably right. It strikes me that it’s an idea that could be
(Right) Hard Truths, the source of this interview excerpt.
TB: Laidlaw, of course, operates in Glasgow--that city does get a bad
reputation. It’s a cliché, but it is No Mean City ...
WM: Do you know a city that isn’t
hard? I mean, I lived in Paris for a little while and it’s possibly my favorite
city, but I remember walking into certain places and thinking, I’d better get
out of here. It’s a hard place, I mean, Parisian crime is hard stuff and I
think Glasgow has a reputation which is not unearned, but which is exaggerated.
Besides being a hard town, it’s a terrifically warm town, I think. It’s a place,
as I once said, where Greta Garbo wouldn’t have been alone--she’d have been in
a pub somewhere and somebody would shout out, “Hey, you in the funny hat, come
over and have a Blue Lagoon!”
Glasgow has a terrific quality of engaging you. I’ve had a lot of people who know about the books, approaching me. I went into the Horseshoe Bar once and ordered a
drink, and as I lifted it to my lips a guy said, “It was Friday night in the
city of the stare ...” And I thought, Christ, I wrote that, and we went on to
have a terrific conversation. I didn’t ask if he’d went beyond the first
sentence, though, I didn’t want to spoil a sweet moment.
For several years now, Len’s website, The Crime of it All, has provided fans of top-notch crime fiction a venue for some of the most insightful, interesting and informative author interviews and book reviews available anywhere.
To give a little insight into Len’s interviewing style, here’s a particularly intriguing question he’s put to more than one guinea pig—um, I mean, subject (including guess who):
Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored?
Well, I had nothing so wonderfully off-kilter in mind when I decided to turn the tables. I just wanted Len to have a chance to speak for himself for a change. Here’s where we got to:
* * * * *
This is your second set of author interviews. How does this one differ from the first—simply in the authors included, or did you have a different perspective or purpose in mind for these?
Both, I hope, but let me start by saying ‘thank you’ for offering me a role reversal and ‘sorry’ to your readers for accepting your offer. Who cares about the interviewer, eh? Well, let me give you my version of: “Enough about me, back to me.”
Speaking of role reversals, long before I started doing interviews, I walked in on Ian Rankin doing a television interview in his favourite pub. He was surrounded by preoccupied men, chained to their purpose by microphones thirsty for answers, and more preoccupied men still, chained to their pints by questions no longer relevant. We had never met, but I fit the bill. The director asked me to stand beside Ian to make him look of average height and sobriety. He turned around and I introduced myself: “You don’t know me, but I’m doing a PhD on you.” Classy. Acknowledging the unintended nerd-flirt with a laugh, he replied: “Is that what it’s come to?” Classier.
A few years later, I decided to extend my dissertation to the work of 30 Scottish crime writers. Interviewing them seemed like a good idea, so I read every interview I could find and questioned about 300 authors, including yourself, about their techniques and topics. When I thought I was ready, Ian gave me an interview for my first collection. Now he’s written the foreword for my second collection. Along the way, I came to appreciate The Paris Review Interviews and my ambition extended beyond academia. I’ve since tried to make The Crime Interviews do for crime fiction what The Paris Review Interviews have done for literature at large.
Why don’t you give our readers an idea of which authors are included in the first book and then this most recent book. How did you decide which authors to pursue and include?
The line-up for volume one is: Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Chris Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie, and Louise Welsh.
The line-up for volume two is: William McIlvanney, Tony Black, Doug Johnstone, Helen FitzGerald, Quintin Jardine, Gordon Ferris, Craig Russell, Douglas Lindsay, Ray Banks, and Denise Mina.
I’m working on a third volume with another dozen writers, to be published later in the year. In each volume I’ve tried to include big names as well as big talents to represent the depth and breadth of contemporary Scottish literature. International bestsellers like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Quintin Jardine, and Denise Mina are well known without being known well, so I’ve interviewed them in the company of their peers, which I hope to offer an introduction to your new favourite writers as well as an in-depth reunion with those you thought you already knew.
You have become the interviewer of choice for authors hoping for a more in-depth examination of their work. Why do you think that is?
You’re very kind to say so, David, but a guess is the best I can offer you in answer to the first part of your question. Perhaps the authors you refer to can tell that my purpose is not to catch interviewees off guard, but to capture the fullest possible account of their writing lives: Who they are, what they have done, and how they do what they do best. I offer an occasion beyond their own books where a writer with something to say can hope to be heard, be it to create the definitive portrait of the artist or a deft contribution to his or her ultimate portrait. And since I try not to answer my questions myself, my interviewees may have the added satisfaction of creating, to a large extent, self-portraits.
I think unless you love conversation, you may unintentionally turn your interview into a questionnaire and your interviewee into a statistic. If I deserve your praise, I credit my family’s Streitkultur, which, in the absence of an English translation, is sometimes paraphrased as the ‘atmosphere of constructive debate’. I’d like to think I’ve since come to appreciate the implied meaning, which is to embrace the courage of your doubts.
You make writers feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of their work that may feel unclear or uncertain even to them—and these are often the most fascinating parts of the interviews. Writers seem to feel free to conjecture, imagine, correct themselves, and generally explore. Has this just been because of the unique rapport you have with these authors, or do you deliberately try to let them know they can let down their guard and speak openly and freely?
Again, the first part of your question is hard to answer without asking the interviewees you think have shown such faith in me. So David, why did you feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of your work about which you may feel unclear or uncertain?
(Answer: Not to be cheeky, but no one has ever asked me questions like that before, and I felt compelled to give thoughtful responses, which took me to places I just hadn’t thought about all that specifically before. I felt grateful for the opportunity.)
As for the second part of this question, I’d like to think that mutual interest, genuine curiosity, and sustained attention combined let most people speak openly and freely, but a lot depends on rhythm, which is why I try to build interviews, rather than be seen to dominate them. Perhaps the 20 interviewees in my collections were aware of our shared concerns: character development, narrative arcs, and unexpected turns.
You also go into greater depth concerning the artistic ambitions, the sociological implications, and the political nuances of each writer’s work than a great many other interviewers even attempt. Why do you think others shun these sorts of subjects, and why do you so consistently pursue them?
Because those who consistently pursue them don’t get a lot of by-lines. Newspapers, whether off- or online, give pride of place to exposés, Q&As, and reworded press releases, rather than artistic ambitions, sociological implications, and political nuances. Following hot on the heels of market forces, the audience’s expectation has dropped so low Pierce Morgan has his own TV show. The alternative, as ever, is publication in book form, but I suspect few interviewers are tempted by the extra effort and lack of financial rewards.
I certainly wasn’t. I was tempted by the prospect of impressing my lady friend, who is doing a PhD in Anthropology. I still am.
It’s clear that you believe the crime novel has more to offer than a ripping good yarn or the proverbial brisk read. What is it about the crime novel that you think lends itself to a deeper understanding of current events, how did you come to this viewpoint, and which authors do you think are particularly good at it?
Let me answer this question with a quote from a recent review I wrote:
“Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.”
(Note: The interviewer is blushing.)
How did I come to this viewpoint? I read a lot.
Which authors do I think have advanced the crime novel? My list includes William McIlvanney, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Michael Chabon, David Corbett, James Sallis, Ken Bruen, and Louise Welsh.
Do any of these most recent interviews, or parts of the interviews, stand out in your mind as particularly gratifying or interesting?
They all stand out in my mind, because I found out why…
- William McIlvanney likes Montaigne, the passion of commitment without offence, and a place where the attempt at intellectuality cohabits with the utterly banal – dislikes using computers, boring himself, and the Scottish moment of being found out.
- Tony Black likes ladies’ race cars, men’s men, and exams – dislikes symbolism, bagpipes, and interviews.
- Doug Johnstone likes strong women, strong whisky, and strongly worded reviews – dislikes long books, literary ponderfests, and having his picture taken while playing his guitar on Portobello beach.
- Helen FitzGerald likes Allan Guthrie’s ovaries, complicated women, and the kind of unhappy family Tolstoy wrote about – dislikes the Catholic Church, learning Italian, and being called ‘Mrs’ Fitzy.
- Quintin Jardine likes cowboy hats, director’s cuts, and Spider-Man – dislikes writers’ conventions, dead chauffeurs, and splitting infinitives.
- Gordon Ferris likes e-books, libraries, and emails from readers – dislikes whodunits, CSI, and the ending of Casablanca.
- Craig Russell likes the year 1956, German music, and touching his research – dislikes over-writing, German eBay, and eavesdropping waiters.
- Douglas Lindsay likes barbershops, Bob Dylan, and Dyson air blades – dislikes jumping the shark, early Christmas festivities, and society.
- Ray Banks likes transgressive writing, The Big Issue, and Jacques Barzun – dislikes community theatre, performance art, and (other) circle jerks.
- Denise Mina likes conflicting her readers, family days out with political protest groups, and the clown army – dislikes Derrida, prize committees, and protagonists who are right.
So Murderateros: Is there a question you’d like to put to Len?
Is there an author you’d like to suggest for an interview, or a particular interview you’ve read that you found particularly gratifying?
Do you think crime fiction is the transvestite cousin …?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed selection over to Len this week, and he chose this mini-film for James Grant's "My Father's Coat," complete with appearances by William McIlvanney and tartan noir superstar Tony Black, both of whom are interviewed in Len's most recent collection: