This is an edited transcript of an interview with Denise Mina at the Dundee Literary Festival 25th October 2013. The full audio recording can be heard by clicking HERE.
Alex Henry: I am delighted on behalf of DURA as well as the University in general to welcome award-winning writer Denise DM to our interview room here at the Dundee Literary Festival. Denise has enjoyed a very successful career since publishing her debut novel in 1998, Garnethill, which won the John Crecy Dagger for best first crime novel. She has become one of Scotland’s leading crime writers. All this… [in addition to] lending her considerable talents to such diverse projects as “A Drunk Woman Looks at The Thistle”, based upon Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist poem… to other projects such as running as lead writer [for a spell] on the dark horror/fantasy graphic novel series Hellblazer… By way of introduction if you would like to tell us some of the context of your writing, maybe your background before publication?
Denise Mina: I did Law at Glasgow. I was doing a PhD in the ascription of mental illness to female offenders at Strathclyde so all of the ideas from that thesis are in my first books. I realised that nobody would read my thesis but if I could put it in a crime novel, people would read to find out who had done the crime. It seemed like a much better way to disseminate ideas in the PhD which were… really interesting. A crime novel would be a more entertaining, personal and engaging way to disseminate what are political ideas.
AH: Yes, I think that definitely comes through in the psychological ideas [present] in your novels. When did you first self-identify as a writer, was it before or after you were published?
DM: It was about six books in, because before that I just felt like it was such an arrogant thing to say about yourself… It’s such a high social status thing; you haven’t changed, you go from being the fat waitress that nobody really wanted to employ to being a “Writer”…. After I had six books published I had to get a new passport and I said “you know, just put writer” and then I thought “I’m going to regret that”…. It was a long time before [I said I was a writer] and I still feel like a phoney. I think that’s a sign that you’re grateful.
DM: No, I’d written maybe six chapters of a book before and I showed it to someone and they said it needs [to be] re-written. I didn’t write anything for three years. I think one of the problems with publishing… is that I was very quick and eager to believe bad reviews about myself…. I still think “do you know my mum or something?” if I get a good review. I think a lot of new writers are getting lost in the melee. Garnethill I hadn’t finished. I wrote about the first hundred pages… I was about 32 years old… but wasn’t very committed to [my profession then as] an academic. I felt I was [just] doing this legal research. In my head I thought “just try it – stop having this phoney fantasy second life”. So I sent it [100 pages] off to four agents and said I had finished this book, which I hadn’t …and one of them wrote back and said can we see the rest of it? So I had to sit down and write the rest of it in three months…
AH: I wanted to talk about the latest novel, The Red Road. Was it much of a different experience writing it? It is larger in scope than most things that you’ve done in the past in terms of its timescale. You start in a very definite place in 1997 with the night that Diana died…
DM: It was a great book to write… . I think the more you write, the more assured you become…. It felt like a much more confident book, I knew what I was doing, where I was going with it and how it was supposed to come out. Using real crime, because I’ve always used real crimes in my books, but using real historical events and a particular geographical area give real believability.
AH: Your novels have a real connection to Glasgow. Is it important to you to have that kind of Glaswegian authenticity to your novels? You are very often introduced as a Glaswegian crime writer. Is that a pigeon hole you want to avoid or is that just something that naturally happened?
DM: Well actually I’m not from Glasgow. I grew up in Harris and Norway and I lived in south London when I was a teenager. I came to Glasgow because I ran out of money. I happened to have the Glaswegian accent because my parents were Glaswegian but when I came to Glasgow I just sort of fell in love with it. I don’t see Glasgow as a small backwater. I see it as a universal city. I think all cities are universal. If it is London or New York you tend to think of it as a universal city; but if it… isn’t one of those capital cities, you tend to think it’s that small strange region,… an “Other”…. Anywhere that you don’t live is “Other”. But because I live in Glasgow I think it is a really interesting microcosm of all cities. It’s a good size because you can walk across it and everybody talks to each other. Those are the unique things about it.
AH: Yes, the sense of familiarity. Connected to that, this idea of “Tartan Noir” keeps coming up. It is possibly the most unspecific [label used]… Ian Rankin talks about it as being a positive thing in that it brings this new attention to Scottish crime fiction but it is lumping you all in to the same bandwagon. Whereas something like Scandinavian Noir is something very specific that has been developed by the popularity of the Steig Larsson novels and… like The Killing which you have mentioned. So, “Tartan Noir”, what’s your take on it?
DM: You know, it is such a broad church now. I can think off the top of my head of twenty writers that are writing crime fiction set in Scotland. There was a period about five years ago where I thought if I threw a brick on Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday, I’d hit someone who is writing a crime novel. But that’s brilliant because it means that publishers are looking for the next big seller. They are focussed on Scottish crime fiction. I think actually, maybe, it does have a bit more in common than we suppose; we’re too up close to the glass to see it really. It’s quite urban, it’s quite noir, and we are quite obsessed with politics… in our everyday lives. If you go somewhere like London, people do not talk about politics; they say Boris Johnson is funny, they don’t really have that culture of pub arguments where people disagree… and debate things, so I think those things are quite Scottish. It’s interesting that so many people in Scotland feel like that’s a form that’s usable for them. There are lots and lots of us but who will be remembered we don’t know. Maybe… it’ll just be McIlvanney; history is replete with million seller crime fiction books that no one remembers.
AH: Speaking of being “remembered”, literary prizes are something that you talked about at the [Dundee Literary Festival] event earlier, …You didn’t think crime writers should be put onto the Booker Prize List because of the massive disparity in sales and profits. Do they have any real effect on your day-to-day or how you think people view your work, having yourself won multiple awards for The End of the Wasp Season?
DM: I think… [winning prizes] makes you much more confident about your work but then ultimately makes you feel a wee bit cheap because… it means that people whom you have never met approve of you… It’s quite a fraught process but I think what it’s really about is… making things that you really love and… taking them to a market which is a sort of juncture which people are very unaware of. The important is to make things with integrity in the first place. It’s just the game. The game is you go to lots of literary festivals and you feel like a fool when nobody comes to your event and you don’t sell books, and the book that you really love everyone hates. Then you win a prize and then there is a consensus of opinion. I don’t think I’m writing for a million people, I think I’m writing for a small group of people. I did a reading in LA once and there were four people at that reading and I’m still in touch with all of those people. It was the best reading that I had ever done… sometimes when I’m sitting in front of five hundred I think, “those four people are in there somewhere and they’ll be too shy to come up and talk to me at the end”.
AH: Well you’re probably going to hate me for asking this question. I’ve seen a few different people ask you this question and you seem to come up with a different answer every time which is quite interesting… what is your favourite [novel] really? Be honest.
DM: Oh, well it’s different every day. Today it’s actually the last one [The Red Road] and that’s partly because I found out yesterday from my publisher that I don’t have to hand the next one in in two months…. So I feel like I can sit and enjoy that book. But one of my favourite books was Sanctum which everyone hated… which I’ve got a real soft spot for. In America it did brilliantly. I think you have to lose your audience every so often if you’re moving on as a writer rather than writing the same book over and over again… You’re supposed to develop and I know writers who haven’t moved on and they’re still writing the same book… But there’s a lot of money in crime writing and the business side of it wants you to keep making the money [by writing]… the same books and chang[ing] the names. Some people don’t have the courage of their work….
AH: Well that’s not a trap that you’ve been caught in because you’ve done a lot of things outside of the genre. You’ve done graphic novels, plays….
DM: That really helps keep you fresh and it really helps you feel a sense of ownership because if you’ve sold four books ahead that means you’ve got to write four books for them. You don’t really feel like you own those books while you’re writing them; but if you do other projects it keeps you on your toes and you think “no, this is my thing”. It’s not just a career it’s a real vocation.
AH: In terms of you keeping things fresh… The Alex Morrow books – she is in them all but as you’ve said yourself she’s maybe only in about a third of each book. When you start a series like that which has an arc, do you have that arc in mind at the start and then little things happen along the way… or is that arc always in mind?
DM: Well for the Alex Morrow books I didn’t because I didn’t really think that she was going to be in very many books but I really like her and I really like that form. But with the Garnethill books with Maureen O’Donnell there was a very definite sense of the arc. With Paddy Meehan I haven’t finished. There are supposed to be five of those books and there are only three so far [but]… I’ve got a very strong sense of where that arc is going. I know in my head what is going to happen to her. I think those finite series are lovely because actually it’s a book that fat [gestures] really when you join them altogether.
AH: Alex Morrow, Paddy Meehan [are]… female characters. You’ve said in the past that when you started writing people were almost aghast that you had lead female protagonists; but reading your novels – at least for me – it feels very natural, almost incidental that she’s female… Is that a fair comment?
DM: No, I think you’re right. But I think for people of your generation it’s not startling to see women in an active role… When I was young it was different … When I was a girl in the 80s, your husband could legally rape you and you had no recourse to law: he could legally beat you. People would say to wee girls “do you want to get married?” or “bet you can’t wait to get married” and when I was a wee girl I thought “I am not fucking getting married”. We’ve come such a long way and people forget that.
AH: The idea of you using real cases in your novels – is that an organic process that you use to fictionalise a real case? Do you find it particularly fruitful to take that nugget of truth and turn it into something fictional that you can work with?
DM: I think partly it’s about having too much work to do and not being able to think things up, really. Dickens did that, Shakespeare did that, it’s common for writers who are crafting, who work a lot, produce a lot of stuff, to… use real life scenarios and disguise them thinly… Then the cases get forgotten and you just remember the story.
AH: I also wanted to talk about adaptation, which is something you’ve been involved in quite a lot with your own work and also doing it to other people’s work, starting with The Field of Blood which was taken by the BBC. You’ve been quite vocally supportive of that… do you really think it’s better than your novel?
DM: I think the core story about GCHQ is better; there’s a lot of cocaine stuff in there which doesn’t really make much sense to people now… There are so many political situations in the world now whereas at that time everything was about Northern Ireland. The whole of the West of Scotland was about the Northern Ireland [situation]. I think people now are oblivious, I don’t think it has that kind of resonance anymore; people don’t really remember it that well. I think a lot of that… is about Davy Kane the writer… he is a brilliant writer.
AH: How early did you hear that he was going to be involved? Did the cast names reassure you as to the quality?
DM: Not really because there are so many variables … Until you actually see the thing you don’t know… I was amazed that it was good and I feel so lucky because lots of people don’t have that experience…. [Alex Morrow] is also in development, but it’s only in development so it might never happen. But they want to develop a great big long Sopranos -type story line about Alex and Danny and about the whole city, so it’s not going to be a crime solved every night but a sprawling look at how the city works and all the different power pockets.
AH: Moving on to [graphic novel] adaptation that you’ve done yourself, you’ve already done Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has already been released. Was that a very different experience for you because you have to work very closely with the artist (it is a visual medium)… so how was that?
DM: You just try and visualise it and you write a very tight script and send it to the artists and they come back and forth with all their different panels and you comment on them and then the lettering happens. So it’s a very long process with lots and lots of people you’ve got the artist, the colourist, the lettering, and the editing… it’s a bit chaotic. I still don’t know how it all works.
DM: Hellblazer was just one artist, this is two artists and a lot of money is involved so everybody… wants to get their neb in. But [with] Hellblazer… at that point DC Comics weren’t cool, so a guy at DC said “I really like your books and I’m probably going to leave soon, do you want to write Hellblazer for a year?” And so they just let me do whatever I wanted…
AH: Sticking with Constantine, you took him into Glasgow, again, was that a conscious thing [to go]… back to something that you knew was authentic and that you could represent, knowing that you had to think about the visual art as well?
DM: No, it was really conscious because I think Glasgow is very unseen visually, I think Scotland is very unseen, Dundee is very unseen. Go somewhere like New York and its familiar already. But Scotland is very startling and very odd. Visually Glasgow is very startling and a very strange kind of city… that view when you come over the Kingston Bridge and it looks as if everything is pressed up as if the whole city is tumbling towards you…I just wanted to use somewhere that a lot of people wouldn’t really know.
AH: If we just backtrack a little to talk about your use of language. I’m from Ayrshire so I’m interested in the way that you use colloquialisms and get the right dialect for your character. Does that feed into the same idea of representing something that you know?
DM: A wee bit. When I came to live in Glasgow from London one of the things I loved was the lyrical way that people spoke, I don’t think people are aware of how lyrically they speak or the emphasis on rhythm in [their speech]… Particularly on the west coast, the rhythms that people use are Gaelic rhythms, “how are you yourself?” is a direct translation from Gaelic and I really wanted to capture that. If you watch something like The Wire, what’s really interesting about [the series]… is how people inject rhythm through swearing or just the way they order phrases. That’s so regionally specific but it’s something that you don’t see represented too much and it’s very beautiful…
AH: Well thank you Denise, it’s been a pleasure having you here.