This is an edited transcript of Alex Henry in conversation with Neil Broadfoot for DURA conducted at the Dundee Literary Festival, 24 October 2014. The full audio recording can be heard by clicking on the video image. Reviews of Neil Broadfoot’s two novels, Falling Fast and The Storm can also be read on DURA.
Alex Henry: I am delighted on behalf of the Dundee University Review of the Arts magazine as well as the University of Dundee to welcome Neil Broadfoot into our Interview Room here at the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival on today which is Friday 24th October. Falling Fast which is on the table there, his debut novel, was launched back in May and follows the gripping story of crime journalist, Doug McGregor a he chases down story leads involving a convicted rapist in a dramatic possible suicide from the top of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh. The book was longlisted for the Dundee International Book prize last year. So, welcome Neil. […] What have the last four months been like since the launch?
Neil Broadfoot: I get castigated for overusing the word “surreal” but… it’s been a surreal, wonderful, crazy journey – from the Book Festival last year to going on the road to publication, being published, meeting other crime writers, going to festivals, to coming back here. It’s been brilliant the entire way.
AH: Does it feel like this week is completing the circle, because you’re now here with the published version, talking about a second book [The Storm]?
NB: It does finish the first chapter. Chapter one was getting long-listed, which then led to Saraband who were looking to launch Contraband. They said, “We like it. We want to do a three-book deal with you.” […] Without Dundee and the Book Festival I wouldn’t be on the shelf. I owe my career as a crime writer to the publicity it gave me.
AH: …You worked for over fifteen years in local and national newspapers – is writing fiction different than the way you approach reporting?
NB: […] Journalism’s … the inverted pyramid of storytelling, where you tell the story in the intro, then you go through… and you’ve got the useful stuff down at the bottom. […] That pared-down, no-nonsense style has seeped into my work. I’ve always written, known this is what I wanted to do, which is why I got into journalism in the first place. It was very much a conscious decision – what can I do with words that will get me a career until I get a book deal? They’re two sides of the same coin…
AH: […] I read a line, I think in The Scotsman, where you said editing can be brutal. Do you think that helped…?
NB: Without a doubt. I was a sub-editor so I’ve done it from both sides… What that teaches you is, if it serves as the story, there’s no point in being a prima donna about it. I’ve known reporters and writers who, if you changed a comma, you’d get an email back saying, “Aggressive subbing”. The more eyes can see it, the more people can say, “Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?” – as long as it’s a collaborative process, as long as you can see the benefit of it, then you leave the ego at the door in the editing process. Because at the end of the day, you’re both trying to make a better product.
AH: Was it mainly political stuff you were looking at…?
NB: Basically, I was a news night editor, then I was the de facto Deputy Foreign Editor and News Editor on The Scotsman. I was covering all the big stories of the day, and I was helping shape the coverage of those stories, telling reporters what the Editor wanted et cetera. I’ve covered a lot of the big stories in one form or another – the fall of Gaddafi when I was on Foreign, talking to reporters who were embedded out there… the expenses scandal, when the story would break every night and we’d have to find a way to re-tell the story; the setting up of the Parliament way back when; death of Donald Dewar… all the big things for the last fifteen years, I’ve been involved somewhere along the way…
AH: […] Coming from a journalistic background.. did you have any preconceptions about what your readership would be for the novel? Did you try and make it inclusive… or was it a case of “write what you know and the audience will come…”?
NB: […] You try and make it accessible, obviously. But I wrote something that I hope people would want to read that was entertaining. I wrote the type of book I’d like to read, that has been shaped by the influences… Chandler, King, Rankin, Winslow… All the writers that have entertained me, I distilled that down into something. I didn’t think, “If I write this, it’ll appeal to this demographic”. I just wrote the story I wanted to tell….
AH: […] You’re more used to sitting where I’m sitting, asking questions – does it still feel alien to you?
NB: The Q&A part of it, talking to the audience generally is fine because that’s an extension of the interview. Any good interview’s a conversation… and evolves as you go. But standing up reading your work – this is something I wrote on my own, and having an audience looking at you going “impress us”… that’s a bit sadistic. […] The praise is obviously welcome, gratifying, but you don’t write a book because you think, “Somebody’ll say a nice thing about that”. At least, I don’t think you should. You write a book because you want to write a book, because you want to tell a good story – hopefully people will like it. […]
AH: […]You got a three-book deal off the back of the long-listing. Did you start with a larger plot then cut it down, or is each novel its own stand-alone?
NB: When I initially wrote Falling Fast it was a novel in itself. Then the three-book deal came along, my publisher Sarah said “trilogy”, and that pinged something in my head…. it’s an ongoing series. I’m plotted up to book eight and still working at it. The first three books – I’ve tightened them up to make them sit together…. things from book one inform the characters in book two. As you would expect from something as traumatic as what happens in book one. So it’s that form of trilogy. But because she said that, it’s made me think narratively: what can I do?
AH: […] Do you mean in terms of character or in terms of a larger plot? The later novels would be their own self-contained plot with the same characters… or like The Killing, one continuous case?
NB: It’s not continuous but there are references back to previous events in the future books. It’s not like at the end of every book “reset” is pressed and Doug’s his pristine self again…. The events of Falling Fast carry with him into book two as they would in real life…. The effects of that and the impact of these events are referenced in book two [The Storm] and will inform how they respond to situations…
AH: […] Setting is important, especially in this “Tartan Noir” Scottish crime genre. So, why Edinburgh? Was it a personal thing for you, writing about what you know?
NB: I’m an Edinburgh boy. I worked in Edinburgh. I was raised outside Edinburgh, a wee place called Eskbank, which is about seven miles outside Edinburgh. And I grew up in the city, working in the city. It’s a town that I know and it lends itself to crime fiction – I was wandering around looking for something I could start a book with… I saw the Scott monument, I thought “What happens if…” and it led from there.
AH: Although it’s not entirelyaccurate to say all of it’s set in Edinburgh, there are many excursions… into the country or smaller villages, … was that always the idea, to get Doug off the touristy streetsto bring this more authentic investigative journalism side to it?
NB: I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision. Again, it was driven by the story. I needed Doug to be chasing the story in a location that wasn’t central Edinburgh. Knowing the outlying areas as I do, it made sense to set it in one of these towns… or an amalgamated, fictionalised version of these towns….
AH: […] we’re sitting in the University building right now, we’re sitting in the English department. There’s a section early on from Susie’s point of view, where she says something along the lines of enjoying English at uni, but hated the format of overbearing lecturers… Is there a little bit of you in that?
NB: No, that’s her…. You don’t want characters who are cookie cutter; the woman sympathetic, the guy growly with a heart of gold. I wanted an authentic, genuine character, and it developed organically. Whether I was subconsciously exercising some opinion, I don’t think so. It was just a character.
AH: Susie’s quite an interesting case because she’s got this slightly psychologically buried past that she doesn’t want to particularly approach. And Doug’s past is almost a complete mystery. Is that something that you’ll go on to explore?
NB: Yes. Book two is involved, without saying too much, to give too much away, it’s involved with looking back at what made Doug – not his parents and stuff but who made him and who helped him become the journalist that he is.
AH: […] One of the first points you usually get in a novel is the past of that character, but you get straight into the story. He and Susie, their relationship drives the novel forward. Was there ever a point in writing it where Doug had this past and you cut it, put it into book two?
NB: No. I allude to his past, to his upbringing, in book one. I expand a bit in [The Storm ]… But I wanted to keep the narrative drive going, so that was like sketching it out.
AH: The dialogue is, in some places, very funny, but also interesting because instead of saying “Where are you?” you get “Where ur ye?”. Was that something you thought about, representing the guttural aspects of pronunciation?
NB: No. You hear the characters, the way they speak, you write it…. [I don’t] think, “Right, I will write this in the third person”… It serves the character., it serves the authenticity of the story – that’s why it gets written.
AH: […] I see that dialect in Falling Down and think “is he using that in a social sense”? Is Doug the city boy going to be saying well-enunciated questions then have these guttural responses? But it is never like that. It’s just real life as people talk, as you say.
NB: Doug’s an everyman…. If he’s talking to a ned, it’ll be “Awright, pal”. If he’s speaking to somebody like yourself, obviously the more pronounced English comes in. He can flip, as all good interviewers can.
AH: There’s also some funny digs to do with language when you’re talking about tourists pronouncing Loch Ness as “Lock Ness”, Edinburgh as “Edinbro”.
NB: Edinburgh’s a tourist city so you do hear a lot of that. […]
AH: The opposite of funny now. I thought it was interesting from a narrative point of view how you approached a horrific, sadistic rape scene near the start of the novel. It’s hardly a conventional scene because it’s told retrospectively by Doug, in this non-emotional, calculated language reading a police report. But also partly because he’s a reporter himself so it’s got that narrative distance, even though Doug interjects every so often to say “Bastard” or whatever. Was it important for you to have that distance, so you weren’t writing about these horrible things happening in real time?
NB: I wanted to do something that didn’t shy away from it. It is such a strong narrative part of the book, it informs everything that happens. You’ve got to get the full brutality of it. Sometimes looking at the facts is more brutal, clinical and traumatic than writing it in florid prose – “His heavy breath fell on her as he…” That type of stuff. That’s fine, but if you strip that out of it, present it as a bare, brutal picture, it gets it across more powerfully.
AH: […] After you’ve imparted all that information to the reader in the way you do, one of the most remarkable choices you make is to introduce Derek as a point-of-view character. He is monstrous but as I’ve said in my review of the novel, he’s this very self-aware human monster…. Was he the hardest to write about from that point of view, considering he was self-aware enough to regret it deeply? Or sadistic personalities like Charlie or even Buchan later on, are they harder to write about?
NB: I wouldn’t say they were hard, as long as you understand them. Derek’s a deeply flawed human being, but he’s not all bad. I’m not excusing for one second but, as you said, he’s self-aware… he does what he does for what we know to be monstrous motives. But in his head, he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons to him. As long as you understand the motivations of the character, no matter how monstrous and perverted they may be, you can write them. […] Sam is the collateral damage of Derek’s life. Him and Rita. Derek’s done the crime; they’re doing the time. They’re under siege by reporters; he walked into the pub, everyone knows, “Christ, that’s Derek McGinty’s dad.” They’re the embodiment of “Everything has consequences”. Derek has immediate, visceral consequences, but that ripples out.
AH: Let’s talk Hal for a minute… he’s not just a happily married gay guy by coincidence but… the Tories have actually hand-picked him to be their PR guy. He might be the best man for the job, but they’ve chosen him for this spin…. Was that something you wanted to twist in that way, so he wasn’t there by coincidence?
NB: That’s part of the drive – he’s not there by coincidence but he is good at what he does. He does have a certain lifestyle that fits what they want, but on a more personal level the fact he’s gay’s incidental. He’s a happily married man who’s got a kid. That others would see him in a different light and use that to service their own ends – well, there are people like that in the world.
AH: … Tartan Noir is interested in the relationship between political power, money, the reputation and the corruption all goes hand-in-hand. If you’re not going to talk about your own political affiliation, how important do you think it is representing politics in crime novels like this?
NB: Cimre novels, Tartan Noir as it’s called, is of its time. Given where we are – the referendum was only a month ago, the build-up of the last two, three years before – it’s only natural that [that] would seep in. People doing contemporary fiction – it’s only natural they would reflect current events, and that raised political awareness, as an exercise in engagement, like nothing we’ve ever seen. So it’s only natural that that would bleed through…
AH: […] When you mention this referendum and you read this thirty years from now, it’s not going to be horribly dated in the way maybe a film would be trying to represent the future.
I: Some authors are emphatic about their opinions of their own stuff… then you’ve got other people… who don’t commit at all to concrete assertions about what is in their novels… Do you think that is important when you’re talking about politics, to have this fairly open relationship?
NB: Yeah… comment on it lightly and let the readers make their own decision. Give people the information, then let them take from it as they will. The interpretation they take from it is for them. If they get something out of it, all the better.
AH: You are still a Communications Officer for the Scottish Government. Is fiction going to become full-time for you ever?
NB: That’s the dream, but it’s a competitive market out there. Getting a deal big enough to write full-time, or getting the royalties to such an extent, or the foreign rights or the TV deal – that’s away in the future at the moment. I’m enjoying writing work that people seem to be enjoying, I’ve got another book coming out and another beyond that. It’s for my gran – this is the culmination of a promise I made twenty-five years ago. That is an end in itself – to sit down, write, do what you love, and it gets published.
AH: If you were ever to make that transition between working nine-to-five somewhere else for other people and writing on a full-time basis, would that be a hard transition for you?
NB: No. It’s a job, but it never feels like work.
AH: […] I wish you all the best for the future and thank you for your time. It’s been a great interview.
NB: Thank you.