Special Author Interview: International bestselling Scottish crime writer, Alex Gray!

Still Dark book cover
Author Alex Gray in Central Library, taken from her twitter account @alexincrimeland

Central Library recently had the unexpected pleasure of a visit from the hugely popular Scottish crime writer, Alex Gray. Alex has published fifteen novels featuring DCI Lorimer, and his psychological profiler Solomon Brightman, and are mainly set on the gritty streets of Glasgow. Alex is also one of the co-founders (with Lin Anderson) of the renown Bloody Scotland festival — Scotland’s biggest crime festival. Alex had been visiting New Zealand for Rotorua Noir: New Zealand’s first crime festival, so we took the golden opportunity to ask Alex about her life and work. This is what she had to say for herself…

Q: Were there any major differences between Rotorua Noir (the New Zealand crime writing festival you’ve just been at) and Bloody Scotland the Scottish crime festival you organize and run?

A: Yes, there were major differences between Rotorua Noir and Bloody Scotland, mainly due to scale. In Stirling, where Bloody Scotland is held, we have the Albert Halls, a theatre holding an audience of around 800 plus the ballroom in The Golden Lion Hotel and a church hall that seats about 100. At most times of the programme three events run concurrently whereas Rotorua Noir had one at a time over two days. One thing the two festivals do have in common, though, is a desire to promote budding writers and on the Friday of each respective weekend masterclasses are held. We normally attract about 55 students for that full day.

Q: Are there any new upcoming crime writers whose works that you were particularly excited about? And why? You mentioned Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare.

A: I chair an event each year that is billed as ‘Alex Gray’s new blood’ and at this time of year I am reading lots of debut novels. I did attend J.P. Pomare’s debut launch and had that lovely shivery feeling of being in at the start of something that was going to be really special. I intend to read his novel once I return to Scotland so watch this space!

Q: We feel Glasgow exists as a character in your novels. How do you go about creating a place as a character? And are we likely to see any places in New Zealand turning up in this context ?

A: Glasgow as a character really owes much to its people, folk who are blessed with natural good humour, friendliness and energy. Sometimes that energy is channeled into not such good places: our crime stats are nothing to be proud of. Yet it is a city with a warm heart, both cultured and couthy. In some ways it sums up the Scottish psyche; a split personality that has light and dark growing together. I would love to return to NZ but as yet there are no thoughts of using it in a future novel. Never say never, though.

Q: Have you read a lot of New Zealand crime fiction?  If so do you feel it is different Scottish crime fiction? Is it that different from Scottish crime fiction? Does it have a distinctive national flavour for example?

A: I haven’t read a lot of contemporary NZ crime fiction. Reading mostly Liam McIlvanney recently. However Ngaio Marsh was one of my favourite crime writers when I was younger. Sorry, no real basis to compare Scottish and NZ crime but have to say our writers are pretty similar in outlook. We are the pussycats of the literary world!

Q: Could you perhaps go way back and tell us about the creative origins of your main protagonists Chief Inspector Lorimer and Solomon Brightman? Where did the roots of their characters originate.

A: How did Lorimer and Solly come to be? Well, Lorimer began as a very tall, rather remote person, very seriously involved in a major case. He was always dedicated and driven but I deliberately wanted to portray him as a normal man, so no hang ups, no chip on the shoulder, alcoholism etc and happily married (as I am). I think he owes a lot to a real life senior detective who helped me a lot in the early days called Ronnie Beattie. A nice, normal guy with exceptional talent and who commanded the respect of his fellow officers. Lorimer grew as a character over the books, unlike Solomon Brightman. I used to hear some writers claim their characters just appeared in a flash and I was derisory about this… till it happened to me! Solly did come fully formed in appearance, character and back story, much to my amazement. Years later I analysed where his name came from and I figured out Solomon the wise, bright man! I love them both dearly but am not above throwing some terrible things at them both. Kind of like real life, eh?

Q: How do you use social media to promote yourself, your work and Bloody Scotland.

A: Social media just Twitter @alexincrimeland and Facebook under my married name, Sandra McGruther. My middle name really is Gray and my late mother wanted me called Alexandra so it is shortened to Sandra for everyday use and Alex when I am being a book person. I do love Alex in crimeland as it reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, another character that plunged down into a rabbit hole full of interesting characters! I don’t have a blog but I do some blogspots to promote books, particularly my US titles. I love it when readers get in touch to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed a particular book: it makes all the hard work of writing so worthwhile.

P.S. promoting Bloody Scotland is mainly by Twitter but I talk about it a lot and have ‘trained’ audiences to say “hurrah!” henever I mention Bloody Scotland out loud. I love them for that!

Q: Who are your favourite authors and why? Crime or otherwise.

A: Favourite authors include Louise Penny, Ann Cleeves, Chris Brookmyre, Alexander McCall Smith. I do enjoy the latter’s sense of humour plus his refreshing take on life. Reading any of Sandy’s books is a tonic. Please spread the word about Louise Penny: begin with Still Life and read the books in chronological order since there is an overarching plot to them. Beautiful writer! Ann’s two series are great but I have to confess to a very soft spot for her Shetland series especially after driving through the island with her! Chris Brookmyre is a genius, simple as that! First of his books that I read, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, had me laughing so hard at his black humour that I literally fell off my sunbed onto the grass. That incident made him two other fans: my late Mum and my husband who wanted to know for themselves what made me crease myself with laughter! Incidentally my Mum was nursed in her final days by Chris’s aunt. Small world indeed. Nowadays I am really happy to call these four writers my pals! A privilege indeed.

Q: What did you enjoy most about your visit to New Zealand.

A: Most enjoyable aspect of visiting NZ is the people. What a nice, friendly bunch you are! Highlights include the Powhiri at Rotorua Noir, seeing lots of dolphins in the Bay of Islands, spending time in the nicest B&B’s in Coromandel and Lake Taupo. And, of course, all the wildlife and scenery. I so want to come back!

Q: What did you like best about Wellington Central Library and how do you think public libraries and authors can work best together to build a mutual reading community?

A: Wellington City library is perfectly located right at the Civic Square. I loved the user friendly displays of books, so easy to find titles. And of course it was a joy to find my books. Yippee! Meeting Neil Johnstone was great of course!

All of Alex’s fifteen works are available to borrow from the library. Below is a review of just one of her terrific books.

Thank you Alex.

Syndetics book coverStill dark / Alex Gray.
“‘Alex Gray brings Glasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin evokes Edinburgh’ Daily Mail New Year’s Eve should be a time for celebrating. But for Detective Superintendent William Lorimer, this is one night he will never forget… Called to a house after gunshots are reported, the carnage Lorimer finds there leaves him traumatised and questioning his future with Police Scotland. Meanwhile, the body count is rising on Glasgow’s streets. A number of known addicts are dying from accidental overdoses, but something’s not adding up. Where would the city’s poorest residents get hold of high-quality morphine?” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)

 

Take a look at our Tartan Noir

Scottish crime novels cover a wide diversity of styles and themes. Ranging from gritty neo-realistic urban crime novels, exemplified by writers like Stuart McBride, to a much more genteel pastoral style from M. C. Beaton and Joyce Holm. There are also mavericks in the genre, people like Christopher Brookmyre, who taps into a rich and deep vein of black Scottish satirical humour in his thrilling works. Another person who explores different aspects of the genre is Paul Johnson, whose body politic merges the genres of crime and science fiction in a peculiarly Scottish fashion. Perhaps one of the best indicators for the popularity is the large variety of works translated into film and television series, such as M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. 

If you’d like to give these authors a try, check out our Tartan Noir display in the Fiction area at Central Library on the ground floor. Our displays change around frequently, so now is the perfect time to come and browse these Scottish crime authors all in one place.

Keen to try some of these authors online? Wellington City Libraries’ collection on Overdrive has a Tartan Noir list with audiobooks and eBooks free to download or listen to online.

Wellington is welcoming Scottish crime author Denise Minain a LitCrawl event in early September. This will be a chance to hear one of Scotland’s great contemporary writers, don’t miss out!


Bloody Scotland
“A collection of crime stories set in iconic Scottish structures.” (Catalogue)
From Edinburgh Castle to the Fourth Bridge these short stories from a range of authors will introduce you to well known Scottish places through the voices of Scottish crime writers including Val McDermid, Doug Johnstone, Stuart MacBride and more.

Death of a nurse / Beaton, M. C
“James Harrison has recently moved to a restored hunting lodge in Sutherland with his gorgeous private nurse Gloria Dainty. When Hamish visits Mr Harrison to welcome him to the neighbourhood, the old man treats him very rudely. Gloria apologises for her employer’s behaviour, and Hamish invites her out for dinner. Hamish waits for Gloria at the appointed restaurant. And waits. But Gloria never shows up. Four days later, her body washes up on the beach near Braikie. Hamish must find out who killed the beautiful new resident of Sutherland, and why, before the murderer strikes again.” (Catalogue)

Want you gone / Brookmyre, Christopher
“What if all your secrets were put online? Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online. Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Thrown together by a mutual enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope.” (Catalogue)

Missing link / Holms, Joyce
“A puzzling new case for sparkling detective duo Fizz and Buchanan. Always in search of a good story, Fizz Fitzgerald finds it hard to hide her impatience when elderly Mrs. Sullivan is shown into her office. Genteel and motherly, Mrs. Sullivan can only spell one thing: boredom. Fizz is more than shocked, therefore, when Mrs. Sullivan asks Fizz to help prove her guilty of murder. Could this story be too good to be true? Fizz is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery and ropes in long-suffering partner-in-crime, Tam Buchanan.” (Catalogue)

Skeleton blues : a Quint Dalrymple mystery / Johnston, Paul
“Independent Edinburgh, spring 2034. The weather’s balmy, there’s a referendum on whether to join a reconstituted Scotland coming up — and a tourist is found garotted. As usual, maverick detective Quint Dalrymple is called in to do the Council of City Guardians’ dirty work. For the first time in his career, Quint is stumped by the complexity of the case. An explosion at the City Zoo is followed by the discovery of another body, and the prime suspect is nowhere to be found.” (Catalogue)

The long drop : a novel / Mina, Denise
“William Watt’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law are dead, slaughtered in their own home in a brutal crime that scandalized Glasgow. Despite an ironclad alibi, police zero in on Watt as the primary suspect, but he maintains his innocence. Distraught and desperate to clear his name, Watt puts out a bounty for information that will lead him to the real killer. Based on true events, The long drop is an explosive, unsettling novel about guilt, innocence and the power of a good story to hide the difference.” (Catalogue)

Wellington author interview: Pip Adam

Author image by Victoria Birkinshaw

Spacious open plan living. Nest or invest. Classy urban retreat. If you’ve spent a bit of time browsing real estate brochures, you’ve probably read these words before. But there’s another, darker story of renting and home ownership in New Zealand, one without floor plans or glossy full-page photos: The New Animals, by Pip Adam.

Adam’s work has appeared in a range of journals and anthologies, with her short story collection Everything We Hoped For published in 2010 and her debut novel I’m Working on a Building in 2013. She’s been described as “the woman who is making literature subversive fun in this country again… The most wired-in to the seething discontent below the housing bubble.” So put down the brochure and get a copy of The New Animals today!

The blurb for The New Animals references intergenerational tension, however the story also looks at tensions of class, wealth and gender. What was it like shaping a story around these conflicts?

I always think conflict and complexity give ‘life’ to stories. It seems like a boringly obvious thing to say but it is also constantly a surprise to me. I often use writing to sort out things that confuse me about life and I guess confusion is often a state of conflict for me – one idea against another, or maybe things acting in ways that don’t gel with my world view that cause a disruption to the things I believe and understand. For me it is always scary writing about people who I am not, but I have always loved the idea of trying to imagine myself into a mindset that seems confusing to me. Like often I might see someone do something and I have this idea that people always act in ways they see as ‘good’ or ‘right’. I’ve met lots of people and no one ever seems to make decisions by thinking ‘this is wrong thing to do’, even people who have broken the law. So yeah, I am always interested in trying to imagine myself into a mindset that would see decisions I see as odd as the ‘right’ decision.​ I enjoyed it particularly in this work because it was a bit like Sudoko or those tile puzzles, where someone would act and there would be a domino tumble of other people being forced to act.

You recently talked about your relationship with fashion – its power and ability to answer societal questions, but also its environmental impact. How did you approach this in The New Animals, especially with fashion playing such a large role in the story?

I am really interested in design of all types, particularly the form and function, or form versus function. Before I started the book I had this love of fashion which I think was a hangover from my hairdressing days. Like I loved seeing how fashion changed and yeah, also I really like looking at beautiful things. For this book I started taking a more intense interest. I became a rampant foll​ower of fashionable people and people in the fashion industry. I just consumed everything I could. I visited shops as well, touched the clothes, saw them on the hangar and on people. I was also really interested in the history of fashion and some of the theories around fashion. I am especially obsessed with the work of Rei Kawakubo and the way she deconstructs the human form. I love the play of her work but also the real seriousness and almost horror of some of her work. I am also quite obsessed with Alexander McQueen’s life and work – in a lot of cases the violence of it. One of the hard things about writing about fashion is that it is often talked about in quite ‘light’ ways. I had to read very deeply to find the language that had weight and importance. There is a risk that fashion can seem shallow because, I think, it is ephemeral and seems to be about adornment when often it is about so much more.

The New Animals is very grounded in Auckland. How do you think the city’s geography helped with the story?

I really love Auckland. I grew up there and I visit a lot.​ It’s interesting you ask about geography because I think it is a really interesting city that way. Like you have that massive volcanic basin that is the harbour and then you have that network of volcanoes that have formed Mt Wellington and Mt Eden and, yeah, I often think of Auckland as this volatile place. My parents live close to Stonefields which is a development built on the site of an old quarry. Auckland has this feeling for me of land acted on. Land in flux, land in change and to me this book is a lot about that, about change and fluidity and evolution and I think walking around Auckland, travelling over it which I did heaps of for this book it’s impossible not to feel that. For instance, the train I catch a lot from Glen Innes travels over the Orakei Basin, this incredibly changeable place. If the tide is in, it looks like a body of water, but when the tide is out it transforms into this muddy almost wasteland. Everything that was covered by the water is exposed. I like that as an image as well, the way things can be exposed by changes in environment. Tides are a big part of my thinking around this book. The way the moon pulls these huge bodies of water around, the way they kind of create these weather patterns deep below us. And then don’t even get me started about how humans began as fish, how the ocean must have some strange pull on us still.

One aspect that really stood out was the friendship between Carla and Duey, with the contrast between their interactions and their personal thoughts, and their awareness of the friendship’s decline. Was this relationship a difficult one to write?

For a long time, in the writing process, Carla and Duey had been lovers and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. We so often place the ‘sex’ relation above all other intimate relationships. I am really interested in friendship. I find it so interesting. What keeps friendships alive is so complicated but also so purely unselfish. I liked the idea that Carla and Duey were at a stage where the relationship (as if it were a separate thing from the two people in it) was in decline, like despite all their care and thought for each other nothing was going to save it. It was difficult to write because I don’t read many books about friendships that are like that, so in a way the models I had were very much about love and sex relationships. So it took some sorting out, like some real close work. The other thing that I loved about writing that relationship is that I think it is pretty cool how humans can think one thing and then act in a better way. I love how we do that for each other. I guess also, finally, I was interested in deconstructing some of the ‘work’ we do in human relationships. Like, I find people pretty confusing sometimes, a lot of the relating stuff doesn’t come automatically to me. So, I am often thinking a lot about what the right thing to say is or what a person is saying (like actually saying). It was fun to make some of that work apparent, to sort of uncover that and show it.

Reviews of The New Animals have generated some discussion about New Zealand literature and the reviewing process. What has it been like seeing the passion your work has brought out in people?

Writing is a weird thing. I really like the part of writing that takes place in a room by myself. I love working on something, like really working on something – crafting it and messing it up and having to fix it and ​living with it. I find I get so ‘into’ that work (like I literally feel like I climb inside the story) that I forget that other people will read it. So yeah, sometimes publication is a bit of a shock. Like I remember after my first book was published someone I didn’t know said to me, ‘I read your book,’ and I was like, ‘I never said you could.’ I just forget that people will read it. So, it’s pretty amazing when people I respect say they like what I’ve written. People will email me and tell me in person and it means heaps because I’ve sort of ‘shown my hand’ as a human. I’ve said, ‘I made this. I think this is how life is awesome,’ and when someone says, ‘I see what you’ve made and it made me think this is how I think life is awesome,’ that is just incredible. I love how art can do that and I’m not sure much else can. I put a lot of stake in passion. I love the way, in my life, I have been granted the opportunity to come into contact with many people who make me feel passionate and I just get fired up about the idea that our work sort of sparks off each other. Like no matter what is going on. No matter what other people are saying about our work, we can sustain ourselves. It’s like the biggest collaboration. Because although I love those times by myself working, I am never far from the work of others, I will be reading those writers to keep me going, to keep me passionate.

Pip Adam's The New Animals