(This is a lightly edited transcript of the interview; to view the whole interview, please click image above)
Edward Small: Hello. I’m Eddie Small. I lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee and we’re here today to do an interview with one of our past students on behalf of DURA, Dundee University Review of the Arts. Claire MacLeary, who I’m going to introduce you to, is a past student of ours and she’s only just been published. And we are here today to talk about her book and hear some of the passages from the book itself. So hello, Claire, how are you?
Claire MacLeary: Hello, Eddie. Lovely to be back in the town and to see you again.
ES: It’s lovely to see you. And I’m sitting here with a real sense of pride because we bask in the success that all our students have, and particularly because you and I go back quite a long way in many ways. Tell me about this book of yours. What’s it like to be a published author? What does it feel like when you get your book and it’s in your hand?
CM: … My book’s called Cross Purpose and it’s a crime duo so it has two major protagonists and it’s published by Saraband under their Contraband imprint, which is their crime imprint. I think, actually, when I finally got the book in my hand, I felt more exhausted than excited. In fact, when I got the first copies in a box, I had to sit down because I felt absolutely nauseous; I had to sit for a wee while before I could open it because if I hadn’t liked the finished cover, after all those years’ work, I would have been absolutely ill.
ES: Well, let’s have the cover. How much input did you have as first-time writer, first-time published writer, into the cover of the book that you wrote?
CM: Well, I always assumed that the publisher chose the cover – in fact, almost imposed it on you. But Sara Hunt, my publisher at Saraband, is not only very savvy but very thoughtful and vey kind to her debut authors. So, she first of all came up with two covers… the first covers were kind of dark blue and a bit kind of “muzzy”. As somebody who’d been in business, I wanted to do this sort of black and red and great big bold letters. So we went back and forth. Sara asked me to download some covers that I liked. We did come up with one cover with a figure on it. I was very again [ambivalent] because Lin Anderson… once said that she didn’t describe her protagonist in any great detail because she wanted to leave that to the reader’s imagination. So I [tend towards]… the same way. I’m very happy with the cover that we ended up with because it shows this rather grimy window, and through the window you can see these multi-storey blocks which is where a lot of the book is set.
ES: So I remember when you came here to start your Master of Letters at the University and I can remember on very first meeting you… you made a declaration that you were here to become a published author…. How much pressure did that put on you as a writer?
CM: Well, I think I put pressure on myself because I’m very driven. I was driven in business; I’m driven in, really, everything that I do…. I started off at part-time classes and then met Kirsty and she egged me on to do the MLitt. But once I knew you could get a distinction in MLitt, I wanted that as well. So I really set my sights high. And yes, I did drive myself hard because I knew I only had this one year of concentrated writing and I really made the most of it.
ES: Driven people tend to have quite single-track minds. How well did you take to criticism and comment from Kirsty and others on this?
CM: I found it really, as an older woman and as a woman who is judged perhaps to be relatively successful in the things I’ve done in life, I found it quite hard being the brownie but that’s life, you know? In all kinds of situations, you start again at the bottom. You go through primary school and you’re top dog and then suddenly you’re first year at senior school and so on through life…. [On] the one hand, I was receptive to criticism and open to everything – eager for everything. On the other hand, I did actually have to button my lip quite a lot. But I now see, in retrospect, there’s a lot of the things that Kirsty Gunn said to me – for example… she would write, “One more thing?” And I thought, “What the hell does she mean, ‘One more thing?’ I’ve done it for God’s sake!” Or she would say, “Make every word count.” Well that was a bit more understandable. And then I actually wrote the first scene of this book as part of my first semester’s writing folio, and Kirsty gave me a word of warning which was that I shouldn’t let the diktats of the crime genre swallow my voice. That it was really important to maintain my writing style. So all these bons mots come back at me again and again.
ES: That’s really interesting. I’ve read your book. It’s a fascinating book. I really do like the book. I love the characters in the book. The story itself: how easy was it for you to plot the whole thing out? Or did you?
CM: I knew how it started because I knew I was going to write this scene that I wrote in November 2009. I reckoned I knew how it ended. I really hadn’t a clue what was going to happen in the middle. This is what Lin Anderson calls “the muddle in the middle” and, believe me, it is a muddle. I kind of knew what my plot strands were but then once you come to an edit, all that goes out the window. Indeed, one of my characters, Zak, who was a god-send in that he was a psychopath, my final editor asked me to drop. And I found that really hard. One, because Zak was dear to my heart. I thought he was a wonderful creation; and secondly, because it wasn’t just a case of cutting two or three scenes. He was woven all through the book and I had to take it apart and put it together again. So that was hard.
ES: And does hindsight tell you that was a good move?
CM: Yes, it did. But having said that, Zak’s filed away and he’s going to reappear, come hell or high water.
ES: The psychopath returns. There are many strong characters in here but the main two protagonists are Wilma and Maggie, of course. Tell me a little bit about Wilma. Where did she come from?
CM: Wilma: she’s a big girl. Big in stature and big-hearted. And she comes from Torry which is on the other side of the river. It’s the original fishing village, if you like, for those of you who don’t know Aberdeen. And she comes from a big extended family and she’s a bit kind of rough and ready. She’s a bit “coors” as they say in Aberdeen. And also, she’s a bit kind of dodgy. Her extended family are known to the police and so on… she’s divorced and remarried this chap called Ian and she moves into this semi-detached bungalow next door to my other protagonist, Maggie Laird.
ES: Right. Could you give us a reading now that would bring a sense of these characters or one of these characters?
CM: Yes, well, I’d like, first of all, to introduce you to Maggie who is my protagonist. And Maggie, unlike Wilma, Maggie’s as straight as a die. She comes from really a very narrow, Presbyterian, introverted farming background out in the agricultural hinterland of Aberdeen, near Old Meldrum, in a place called Meslick. And she’s been married to George, stay-at-home mum, two kids in their teens and she’s very traditional, conservative, quite unlike Wilma. So the book opens on the day when Maggie Laird’s hitherto sheltered and comfortable life falls apart.
[McLeary Reads from Cross Purpose]
ES: That’s lovely Claire, that really is lovely. That smacks of a bit of research. You get the feeling that this writer knows what they’re writing about. Tell me, the level of research you went to for this particular scene, for example.
CM: Well, I think for this particular scene, a lot of the credit goes to you. The reason is that we were supposed to have a visit to the dissection room at Life Sciences during the year that I did the MLitt, but that didn’t happen because of circumstances and you very kindly wangled me an intro on the back of the next year’s intake. And that was really a terrific experience. I learned a huge amount. And then, also one day, my husband was going up to Aberdeen to a meeting and I begged a lift and, you know, he said, “Well, will I drop you at Marks”, thinking “Maybe going shopping or whatever” and I said, “No, no! Going to the mortuary, if you just drop me round the corner.” So I have to say that the mortuary staff at the Council mortuary in Aberdeen and the pathologist there were kindness itself.
ES: It comes through very clearly in the book. And I think that’s what makes it such a strong read. You feel there’s a reality and an authenticity in there that’s really strong. The idea of bringing these two women together who haven’t done this kind of job before, how did that come about in your imagination?
CM: I think first of all, when I did my research, I read a vast amount of crime writing. Mainly Scottish but also Scandi, Italian and French. And it seemed to me that there were predominantly tortured male detectives with drink problems, divorces behind them, whatever. Also a fair smattering of very well qualified forensic scientists. So I really looked to, if you like, to subvert this. My starting premise was, “What if somebody wrote a crime novel in which nobody was qualified for anything and, indeed, taking this on, the crime didn’t happen?” So that’s where it started from.
ES: So you have a crime book where there’s no real crime in it at all.
ES: Hugely interesting. There’s a lot of touching on the drugs scene in Aberdeen. Tell me about research for that. How do you manage to find out ..
CM: Well, first thing I would say is I have a mole within what is now Police Scotland in Aberdeen. I also have a contact who’s a private investigator in Aberdeen. I had already done some research – I think as a mum, you need to be drugs aware, particularly when your children are teenagers. I think the problem is it’s very difficult now to keep up with the substances, particularly the manufactured substances. So it really is just a case of reading and googling and doing your homework there.
ES: I love Wilma, I must be honest. Maggie’s straight. Wilma’s just an incredible character. Is she mirrored on somebody or would you like to read me something that lets me know more about this Wilma?
CM: Yes, she’s partly mirrored on someone. My first business in Aberdeen, after I had been an antique dealer for some years, was – well, it was going to be a wee store but it turned out to be a poor wee sandwich shop. And it actually grew into quite a big catering business. And my colleagues there were all then quite young mums like me who all had children at primary school. And when we did a big catering “do”, like lunch for 200 in an empty office block, I had to say to everybody, “Anybody got a friend, an upstairs neighbour, whoever” and we would just garner people. And these women were would have worked part-time if the part-time jobs had been there. But they were all, to an extent lonely, a wee bit isolated; these women would turn out for perhaps three hours’ pin money and they were absolutely magnificent. And they weren’t just waitressing. They were making decisions on the spot. Using their initiative. So really Wilma is based on, is really in tribute to these faceless women who lose confidence sometimes when they’re at home like Maggie or who’re juggling low paid, pretty menial part-time jobs like Wilma.
ES: And have their own own mind. Could you give us another reading now of your choice?
CM: Yes. So this is introducing Wilma.. I’ve told you Wilma’s a big girl. This is a bit later on the same day that Maggie goes to the mortuary and Maggie hasn’t had a lot to do with Wilma up until now. For one thing, as I’ve said, Wilma is a bit rough and ready and to go on with, because her family are known to the Police. George hasn’t been very keen to develop relations and nor has Wilma’s husband, Ian. So this is the evening of that day, Wilma and Ian are sitting at their tea and Wilma’s saying, “Poor Maggie Laird, I would really like to support her.” [Claire McLeary reads from Cross Purpose.]
ES: That’s a lovely piece. What that piece brings to mind, for me, is this lovely warm narrator’s voice for a crime story especially, that wends its way all the way through it. But there’s a complicity between the narrator and the characters. There’s a real sense that the narrator knows these characters well. Is that something you deliberately play for? Is it just the natural way you write?
CM: I think it kind of happened. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had favourable reviews. I’ve yet to get the stinker and have the nervous breakdown; one reviewer called the book a “tartan noir meets happy valley” and I think that really encapsulates it because these are two very ordinary although very different women thrown together by circumstance, and they grow and develop together; the friendship gels. But I think, really, the weird thing about writing is that your characters kind of take you over. And the down side is that I wake up at 5 in the morning with dialogue running through my head and sometimes Wilma gets a bit full-on and I have to rein her back. And sometimes Maggie gets a bit too uptight and I have to have her loosen up a bit. So, I think it’s just an instinctive thing.
ES: That’s wonderful. People need to buy this book. People need to read this book. But the other thing I want to speak to you is the next book because I do know that Saraband have talked to you about doing a sequel – is that the word for it? How do you feel about that and what pressures does that put on you as a writer?
CM: Well, the upside is I have a two-book deal. So the second book is hopefully already sold and I don’t have to go through the awful touting round, trying to find a buyer bit. The down side is, one’s publisher has expectations of you and, indeed, last Autumn I was up north for a week which was good thinking and writing time, and I got an email from Sara Hunt about ten in the morning. I was actually lying in my bed doing a crossword. And I got this email to say she was giving a presentation next morning to sales reps and film people and could I send her the synopsis for the next book and my thoughts on the couple of books after that. And I did have a wee nervous breakdown. So I had a synopsis for the second book but I had to kind of think, “Huhh”, because the problem with, I think, a debut novel is you tend to put everything in it and then you think, “Nyuhh, well, where do I go from here?” Happily, I have a pretty fertile imagination so the next book, Burn Out, is about domestic abuse but where the slant on it is that it’s white collar domestic abuse so hopefully it’s a bit more subtle and insidious than simply somebody getting a doing and ending up in Aberdeen in the ERI.
ES: Let me finish by asking you the last bit of this circle is the life you now lead. I know you’ve had several launches and I know you were at Waterstones in St. Andrews yesterday; you’re going up to Waterstones in Dundee today or Perth or wherever. How has this changed your life and is it tolerable or is it quite accepted?
CM: I think it’s a bit of both. I think publishers nowadays expect a debut author to have an online presence so there is a bit of a slog of tweeting a couple of times a day and keeping up to date with that; developing a website; having a Facebook author page… all these things. It is exciting doing events, particularly your launch if you have friends come and it’s lovely to see “kent” faces in a group or to see a huddle of people who are all avid readers and who’ve bought your book or potentially could buy your book, and they’ve taken time out of their day to come and support you. And every writer really appreciates that. So it is a bit of a balancing act between the events and then finding time to write this next book.
ES: Great. Well, you’re the latest in a string of people who’ve been published out of our University. We bask in the glory of every one of them and I’m basking in yours right now. Claire, thank you very much.
CM: Thank you, Eddie.