Granite Noir Crime Writing Festival
by Anita Markoff
courtesy of Aberdeen Performing Arts
Having never been to an author’s talk before, which is almost heretical to admit as an English literature student, I was unsure what to expect from the Q&A with crime writer Stuart MacBride. I saw that he was being questioned by writer and comedian Susan Calman, and thought that would add a vivacious spin to the discussion. However, I was more curious about what he would have to say about crime fiction, a genre designed to leave the listener or reader in suspense. How would he be able to discuss his novels while remaining mysterious?
What I should not have been surprised to discover is how big of a personality this author has. Writing is a solitary job, and by his and Susan Calman’s own admission, we discover that there are days when their sole source of activity is walking the few steps to their kettle and back. It would not be unreasonable to assume this would result in introversion, yet both were lively and full of quick-witted jokes. They were very comfortable with each other, talking like old friends, and sending regular waves of laughter through the audience. She sat cross legged in her chair, adding fuel to the common Twitter assertion that gays don’t know how to sit straight. MacBride did a delightful fake German accent which Calman described as “campy”, and entertained us all with details of his exploits as a pantomime actor in response to a question about how he wrote such an accurate lesbian character. After having the question repeated to him, he answered in a more serious manner: “I just thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote her like a person?” If more bestselling authors could take a leaf out of his book when writing characters they haven’t been in the headspace of, the world would be a better place.
In between jokes about their cats and occasional thoughts of faking their deaths, Calman quizzed MacBride on the specificities of his experience as an author. It was encouraging to hear that the first book he managed to published was his fifth. When asked to comment on what went wrong with the first four, he said: “My first book, you’ll have to excuse my technical language and use of jargon here, but it was shit.” His third was eventually published after he began the rise to fame with the fifth; but this was a good reminder to every budding author out there that it is possible to have a breakthrough after a long period of perseverance. He also gave some tips for character building, saying that he thinks it’s important not to spoon feed the readers. Long introductions that spell out a person’s entire back story and appearance are in his opinion insulting - the reader should be able to figure these things out from their actions.
After discussing his thoughts on audiobooks, a period when he wrote for 32 hours straight, and what it felt like to live with his characters in his head for 13 years; Calman and MacBride came full circle to the comical start of the night by delving into the subject of humour and its place in crime fiction. Referring to his particular genre of writing as ‘tartan noire’, he said that although they are dealing with morbid subject matter, he sees a lot of Scottish crime writers writing jokes into their dialogue. When asked if anyone had ever found that offensive, he replied that humour is what we use to cope in difficult times. This statement was met with nods from the audience, and a whispered “it’s true” from a middle aged man sitting in front of me to his wife. After the event concluded, we all filed out into the twilight with our spirits lifted, reminded that in life as in crime fiction, a difficult time of year can be brightened by a little laughter.
On Sunday I was excited to repeat the experience with a female crime writer. Sophie Hannah used a slightly different format in her talk on the experience of reinventing the character of Hercule Poirot in her continuation novels. She stood up and began to tell the tale of the peculiar turn of events which led to the Christie family giving her the rights to write Poirot and this anecdote alone made me want to buy one of her novels. Her prowess as a storyteller was immediately obvious; she had the audience hooked. What would ordinarily, from anyone else, be a boring PR ramble to listen to over a lengthy dinner, became in her hands a gripping account which had us all riveted. No one stirred in their seats or made a sound, except to laugh at the story’s multiple wild twists and turns. I would recommend hearing her speak if the chance ever arises, as her stage presence is truly amazing. After concluding her speech, she read from a small section of her novel ‘The Monogram Murders’, and did a brief Q&A with the audience. Just like MacBride, she also gave some writing tips and her best piece of advice was to do an extensively detailed plan of each chapter before writing a book. Ensuring the story construction and plot points are all watertight means the editing gets done at the planning stage. This method has certainly worked for her, as when she writes a novel it only requires three days of editing afterwards. Both talks took me by surprise with their vibrancy, and experiencing these authors in the flesh certainly piqued my interest for crime writing again, a genre I was resigned to leave behind in my childhood.