This interview with Sara Sheridan and Lin Anderson took place on 26 October 2012. Having recently completed my Ph.D. on contemporary Scottish crime fiction, and having written a review of Sheridan’s latest novel for DURA (http://www.dura-dundee.org.uk/Fiction/belle.html), I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask the two authors a few questions about perceptions of crime fiction, Scottishness, and the challenges involved in writing the kind of fiction that they do. Sheridan has written fiction spanning many genres and set in many different countries, but her latest novel Brighton Belle is a “cosy noir” set in post-war Brighton. Anderson has built up her reputation for dark, character-driven crime novels set in and around Glasgow featuring her iconic forensic investigator Rhona McLeod. The latest of her novels is Picture Her Dead, which entwines narratives of espionage and a gothic murder scene that explores Glasgow’s history as a “cinema city”. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Christopher Kydd: Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed…. You are giving a half-day seminar for The Society of Authors on “A Guide to the Writer’s Virtual World”. I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about that.
Sara Sheridan: Well, Lin is the chair-person of The Society of Authors in Scotland, and one of the things that we decided to do on the committee was to encourage our members to take their backlists, for example, and put them online themselves. I think a lot of our members as well perhaps aren’t quite as up-to-date with a lot of the information about communicating with their readers directly online via social media and how their rights work on Amazon and other digital platforms so we decided to do some seminars….
CK: Do you feel that there’s an increased pressure to use social media as writers?
Lin Anderson: You know that old thing: “it’s not a problem, it’s a challenge”. But, with the opportunities it offers for authors to get out there, I think it’s good.
SS: There’s a whole new reader-writer relationship emerging that’s possible. It’s never ever been possible before, and it’s possible because of digital platforms, because of social media, and that’s really exciting. You never used to get any feedback. You used to get two weird letters. One from a guy who liked your author photo. And one from someone who would say, “Actually, on page ninety-seven …”
LA: “… you made a mistake”.
SS: What’s lovely now is you go onto Twitter, you go onto Facebook, and people come back every day and say I’m reading your book, and I’m interested, and I like it.
CK: I’d like to ask you both about the role and the place of crime fiction…. How do you feel about the increasing academic interest in crime fiction? How do you feel about your work being studied?
LA: It’s fascinating…. [Crime fiction tells us a lot about] the social context. Ian Rankin said at Bloody Scotland recently that if he’s going to any country, the first thing he does to try and find a translated crime author because actually you learn so much about the fabric of society from a crime book.
CK: There seem to be an endless number of sub-genres now. The press release for Brighton Belle describes it as a “cosy noir”…. It’s sort of an oxymoron but it seems really appropriate to the novel.
SS: I think cosy crime’s a bit maligned. People read Agatha Christie now and they think that’s a bit tame. But, in its day, as contemporary crime, Agatha Christie was really cutting-edge and she was shocking. She had characters who were divorcees, and all kinds of stuff going on. Love affairs and all sorts of things that were genuinely shocking at the time. And people writing cosy [detective fiction] now don’t seem to understand that that was edgy, and I wanted to bring the edge back to cosy crime. And the stuff… from the fifties that’s really shocking [for us] now is the sexism, is the racism, is some of the social conditions. And that’s why I called it “cosy noir”, because I thought it was a great, short-hand way to communicate what I was trying to do to a modern audience.
LA: I just think “crime” is such an incredibly wide umbrella… It’s a great area to write in. It allows you to do so many things…. There’s a sort of “literati” who look down on crime. Ian Rankin said… “They don’t want us so we have our own little gang”. So, I’m slightly nervous about being incorporated into that academic gang because it wouldn’t be our little radical gang – we will have been assimilated by the Borg!…
SS: It’s not just crime actually. I think it’s all commercial writing. There’s a real division between the way commercial writers are treated and the way literary writers are treated. Actually, one of the great things about some of the digital stuff that’s happening is that it’s throwing a lot of that up in the air….
LA: And it didn’t used to be. I did an event with Michel Faber recently, and he was just saying that, in the past, when you go to the Dickens era, you didn’t differentiate, you didn’t decide these people are literary. I mean, would we have decided that Dickens was literary, or just a teller of great stories, often with murder at their heart? …
CK: In terms of the different sub-genres that you’re often categorized or marketed as, do you have a reader in mind when you write cosy noir (SS) or forensic crime fiction with a gothic edge (LA)?
LA: I have to say, for me, the whole thing is just the story. I don’t think who, in essence, is going to read this? I come up with an idea of what I think is a gripping, interesting, psychological story. I got into forensics in a slightly strange fashion. I didn’t wake up one morning and think I will write a book about a forensic scientist…. That’s the other thing, when you start off writing, you shouldn’t worry too much about what you don’t know. It just happened that the scenario that I came up with meant that a woman would appear at the scene of a crime and the seventeen-year-old victim she thinks might be the son that she gave up for adoption because he looks so like her so I had to give her reason for being there. She could have been an ordinary person turning up at the scene of a crime, but one of my former pupils had been a forensic scientist. It was just a serendipity moment. And fortunately for me it was great because I became really interested in it, so I was writing and learning as I went along….. I wasn’t thinking about who was going to be reading that! And I didn’t realise it was going to be a series. I thought it was going to be a one-off book… if I was starting again with a different character, I would think about these things a bit more…
SS: … I am aware of readers because I speak to them all the time and do… [many] events, and I am very available on social media to talk to readers so I am aware of them. But when you’re writing, it’s quite a stream-line process and a book for me is just a story delivery system from my brain into somebody else’s brain. That’s how I think of it…. you’re aware that there’s going to be someone at the other side experiencing that story, and that’s the joy of it for me!… but I don’t think “Ooh, I bet they’ll like this, or I bet they’ll like that!” You’re too busy with the story….
LA: …and in someone else’s life! … I think the thing that’s important to point out here is – a crime book is like any other book, in that it’s about the characters. It’s not actually about the crime. I think that’s the biggest misconception. You can only sustain a series of books because of characters. People go back for those characters again and again and again. It’s all about your characters in action, and your audience are the ones that decide [if] they love those characters. And you have to be careful because if you mess with them, they get cross…
CK: I wanted to ask about the way that crime fiction is often categorized by nation (e.g. the American hard-boiled tradition or the English golden-age tradition). This often refers to the nationality of the author or the setting that’s used. Obviously, your crime fiction is quite different in this regard. It maybe makes more sense to start with you Lin since your work is set in Scotland. How important would you say a sense of Scottishness is for the Rhona McLeod novels?
LA: I think that when I started off, I didn’t really realise that, apart from the fact that I came up with that scenario that I described, and it seemed to me that, because I am a west-coaster, I went to university in Glasgow that I felt more comfortable with creating the world that I knew…. [Rhona McLeod] works out of Glasgow University. Incidentally, she has the view of the Principal of Glasgow University. So, she doesn’t work out where she would, which is in Pitt Street in Glasgow, which has no view. As any writer will tell you, a character does have to have a moment of reflection, and they often look out of the window, unless they are in a Stieg Larsson book where they will drink copious amounts of coffee, or if they’re in a Stuart MacBride book, the rain comes on in Aberdeen… But there are those moments where you need to contemplate the world. So, for me, Glasgow became a huge character in the books because of the locations – I have spread it out a bit across the west – so, I think the Scottishness for the Rhona McLeod books is important. The one that I’m working on at the moment has a big part set in Orkney, because I lived in Orkney for a while. You work with the feeling and the places you know.
CK: But it’s not necessarily deliberately built into it. It just comes naturally?
LA: You walk the walk and you touch the stones and you use the voices and you use the locations that become part of the story.
SS: I was introduced as an English crime writer the other day and I got up and I could see everyone thinking “That’s not an English crime writer!” which is really interesting because the book’s set in Brighton and in London. I think, for me, the character was where I started. I started with this woman who had been through the war and had done amazing things and really deserved a bit of an easy time and then was unjustly bereaved. In that situation, when you’re a bit depressed, because bereavement takes a long time to get over, your world contracts. And, if you’ve spent the war in London, Brighton is smaller and it was somewhere safe. You’d go there for safety. That’s why I picked Brighton and because there’s a bit of an edge to Brighton. They say that if you turn Britain on its side, all the loose stuff falls to Brighton, and I liked that about Brighton, having spent a bit of time there. I’m much less tied to places I know. In my other series of historical novels, the first one was set in China, the second one was set in the Arabian desert, and the one I’m writing at the moment is set in Brazil. So, I don’t necessarily write places I know personally. I work through archive material a lot of the time to create that landscape. Any story is a character moving through a landscape. The key things are the character and the landscape, and they’ve got to work together. Brighton did that for me – it worked for Mirabelle. Throughout the series, I want her world to expand. The first book is very much Brighton-based with a little flash of London, but the second one which I’ve finished has much more of London, because her world is getting bigger as she uses this new hobby of hers to haul herself out of the after effects of the war.
CK: When you use these other places in your novels – England, Northern Ireland, Europe, Hong Kong – do you still see your novels as being Scottish?
SS: Well, I’m Scottish. There’s no question of that. Just because I’m Scottish – it’s not that I wouldn’t set something in Scotland or think that was a bad idea – but I’m allowed to travel. I think I’m a citizen of the world and the main thing for me is that the story has resonance…. I’m allowed to go where the story belongs.
CK: I wanted to ask both of you about the challenges involved in writing fiction that is set in a series. Lin, you’re on book nine now.
LA: When I first started writing Driftnet, I didn’t realise I would be writing a series, therefore I didn’t know what I was stepping into. I found it really great fun to be able to continue with a group of characters’ lives. As you develop your skills… you end up with parallel stories that are running through these lives that beat off one another periodically, so you have got threads that are running on. I did decide with Picture Her Dead – that was the eighth in the main novel series – that it was important for me that her life had changed. I wanted to tie up some of the things that began way back book one and march out into the next one with a clean slate just the way our own lives do change over the years. So, I purposely did do that with that one. I think that was important because it’s quite hard to remember what you’ve done with them, but your readers remember everything. They really do remember everything, and they will cast it up to you, because they know the characters really intimately. And I don’t have a really good filing system – so if I can’t remember I have to go back and I do a search of the book manuscript to remind myself what I called somebody’s child or whatever, because I don’t keep copious amounts of notes. But the most important thing, when you finish one book and start the next, you have to think where was your character emotionally and psychologically, because that’s the most important thing in starting the next story….
CK: Sara, it’s an eleven-part series that starts with Brighton Belle. How do you feel about that?
SS: I’m really excited about it. It’s exactly as you say, Lin, about being able to go back to characters and play with them over a much longer, larger landscape. It’s exciting. For me, the decision came from the history, though, because just as Mirabelle is recovering from the war, Britain is recovering from the war, and that was a really long process. 1951 to 1961 was kind of when it happened. They haven’t commissioned them yet, but I’d also like to do three prequels about Mirabelle during the war and at the end of the war, after I’ve finished the series. But, yeah, that eleven-book series came from the idea that this was a really interesting historical era and she could kind of mirror the changes that were going on more generally in society. I want her to be able to fall in love again – she’s lost Jack and Jack was just amazing – I want to be able to find somebody that she can be with and be emotionally open with again and it’s going to take that because bereavement takes a long time.
CK: Using that period, how much research do you have to do, and how much research do you use?
SS: I am a swot. That is without any question. I love archives and libraries and things, so I do quite a lot. What’s interesting is the other set of books that I write are set in 1820-1840 and obviously, there is no-one around that remembers 1820-1840, but what I’m discovering with the 1950s is that people remember the 1950s but they don’t [always] remember it the way it was…. A little old lady came up to me at the end of an event recently and she was American and she said “Honey, for you it’s history, for me it’s nostalgia”. So you have people that remember that era, but they only know what it was like for them. That’s what I’m discovering….
CK: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.