Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Child’s View of Scottish Crime Fiction

(Editor’s note: Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, is set to take place in the ancient town of Stirling--equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh--beginning tomorrow, September 13, and concluding this Sunday, the 15th. Among the attendees will be Nancie Clare, co-founder of Noir Magazine and the former editor-in-chief of LA, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, who will send The Rap Sheet reports from that convention. Her first contribution is below: an interview with Lee Child [born Jim Grant], author of the award-winning Jack Reacher series.)

Lee Child is packing his bags for Scotland (although where he keeps luggage in his elegant, minimalist New York City apartment--featured in a recent New York Times piece--is a, um, mystery to me) to attend this weekend’s second-annual Bloody Scotland. He is scheduled to close that festival on Sunday night with a sold-out event titled “At the Top of His Game,” a look at Never Go Back, his 18th book featuring the redoubtable Jack Reacher.

Although Reacher is most certainly an American; Child (born in the West Midlands town of Coventry) is not. He never took out U.S. citizenship, saying, “I identify more now with the U.S. But in principle I like the feeling of not really belonging anywhere. I’ve grown addicted to the feeling of being an outsider wherever I am. I feel at home more in New York than anywhere else. But ultimately I prefer not to feel at home anywhere.” And if it seems a stretch that Lee Child, an English author who writes about his American character Jack Reacher in New York City, should be traveling to Scotland, consider this: According to Child, “Reacher is part of the American military culture and American military culture, especially the Army and the Marine Corps, is a very Scots-Irish culture. Scots-Irish are generally the world’s most belligerent people. And this is my own heritage.” And, of course, fans of crime fiction are everywhere.

I spoke by phone with Child about a week before his departure for Scotland.

Nancie Clare: Which Scottish writers do you read, have you read, and/or do you want to read?

Lee Child: It’s always about the new people for me even more than the established people. I read the big three: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina. I like them very much as writers and people. But what I always try to do is find the new guys; this tsunami of talent that is always chasing after the established people. For me it’s always about finding someone with his first book out. Those are the ones that are always fun to meet, because you can be looking at a lifetime of reading pleasure right there. There’s one in particular, Malcolm Mackay. I don’t know whether or not he’s going to Bloody Scotland. I believe he’s from the Orkney Islands. He’s written a great book about Glasgow that I enjoyed very much.

[Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye has been nominated for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year 2013. The winner will be announced on Saturday, September 14, during the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award Dinner. Mackay is in some pretty exalted company--he’s competing against Child’s “big three”: McDermid, Mina, and Rankin, as well as Ann Cleeves and Gordon Ferris.]

NC: Which if any Scottish writers, mystery or otherwise, have influenced you?

LC: Well, the obvious one is Alistair MacLean. For a thriller writer of my generation, my background, Alistair McLean was essential. A bit of an object lesson as well. He moved to Switzerland and became a drunkard. That’s always something to avoid.

NC: So he was an influence and a cautionary tale.

LC: Yeah, both. ’Cause influence can be negative or positive; often both at the same time.

NC: Last year at the inaugural Bloody Scotland, Val McDermid and Craig Robertson both, independent of each other, made the point that Scottish crime writers--“Tartan Noir” practitioners--see themselves as completely separate from their English counterparts.

LC: Scotland is a completely separate country and it is a completely separate culture, and they’ve had a long-simmering colonial relationship with London. I think it’s the north of England as a whole. England is not monolithic; England is basically London when you talk about cultural dominance or political dominance or economic dominance.

Scotland comes out of a different place in its heritage and that shows up in the crime fiction ... [It] has bred two strands that coexist: there is the wildly lyrical poetic imagination [and] also a very pragmatic, practical people.

NC: McDermid also said that Tartan Noir writers see their line of descent through James Hogg, [Arthur] Conan Doyle, and William McIlvanney and not the middle-class sensibilities of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

LC: My father’s Scots-Irish and I identify with that far more than I would do with Agatha Christie. In fact, I’ve never read Agatha Christie. I’ve never been a fan or interested. I’ve read Dorothy Sayers extensively, but as a cultural document--I think the books are fine stories, of course, but they are far more interesting as slices of history; she was writing about a very particular time and place.

NC: This year, like last year, there is a healthy representation at Bloody Scotland of Scandinavian crime writers--Arne Dahl and Jo Nesbø, to name two. One of the running comments last year was that “Edinburgh is closer to Oslo than London.” And the point was made that there was a close kinship between Tartan and Nordic Noir.

LC: I honestly don’t think there is. Yeah, obviously Scotland is remote and northerly, you can get to Oslo quicker than you can get to London, but I don’t think that necessarily proves or really provides much of a cultural link. I think that in two different ways. First of all, Scottish crime fiction has progressed dramatically. It’s a very healthy, wise tradition especially at the moment and in the last, say, 20 years where you are seeing exciting new voices. (By the way, in the same way I think we’re going to see, very soon, crime fiction coming out of Northern Ireland.) The Scandinavians--and this might be a jaundiced opinion on my part--I don’t think they’ve shown the same progression. Forty, almost 50 years ago, there were two tremendous Scandinavian crime writers from Sweden, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They wrote the 10-book series about Martin Beck. That was such a great series that I think it would be pretty difficult to argue that there’s been much progression since then. I think Scandinavian crime fiction is less lively than it’s made out to be. And their concerns are different than Scottish concerns. I think what is common, especially to the Swedish and Norwegian crime fiction, is that they have these very well-developed welfare states. The Scandinavian idea of “stateism” is very different, very much earlier, than the British idea. And so much of that fiction is about one’s relationship to the state: the welfare state, the government. That’s where the fascination of Scandinavian crime fiction is, the tension and the dilemmas and the conflicts are “what is the state doing?” “What is the government doing?” “How are they controlling our lives?” And that’s never really been a feature of Scottish crime fiction. Scottish crime fiction has depended on a much more free-form, lawless society where the government is either corrupt or nonexistent and the fascination is about the criminal element among dense populations. So I see it as a completely different feel, completely different lineage, really not very much relationship at all.

Plus, and I don’t know if this is suitable for the piece, but there’s an issue with the cultural acceptance of Scandinavian crime fiction in Britain and America. It’s about people who are somehow ashamed of reading the genre, [but who] think there’s some extra merit--it gives them a “get out of jail” card or something--if it’s Scandinavian. There is some kind of middle-class acceptability about it. They really want to be reading Ian Rankin, but somehow that’s too down market, so they have to find an alternative to Ian Rankin that is somehow approved by the newspapers, let’s say.

That disappoints me. I think people should get over that and read what they want to.

NC: But nowadays with e-readers and iPads, often you have no idea what people are reading because you can’t see the covers.

LC: That’s the truth and it really ... it’s definitely helped me, because I fall into that same category: people are ashamed to be seen reading one of my books, even though they love them and enjoy them. People are so insecure, image-wise. And, of course, e-readers mean they can do that in anonymity.

NC: Lyndsay Faye [Seven for a Secret] told me a funny story about a question you answered at the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate about combating writer’s block. You said, “I’ll tell you how to combat writer’s block. Don’t be such a pretentious wanker. That’s how you combat writer’s block. What? Do truck drivers get ‘driver’s block’? ‘I don’t feel like driving my truck today.’” I wanted you to comment on that.

LC: Yeah, that’s how I feel. It’s difficult to talk about [writing] as a job, because people want to hear that it’s wonderfully joyful and creative and spontaneous and you just pluck this stuff out of the air. Which absolutely you do, and it absolutely is a wonderful, creative, just fabulous thing to do. But it is also a job and you have to take it seriously; you have to show up and do it. If you waited around for the muse to strike, you would be waiting around forever. There are many days when you don’t really feel like going to work--we’re all in the same boat. And my point was: everyone has a job, everyone has days when they don’t really want to go and do it, but you have to. A truck driver who doesn’t really feel like working today has no alternative. So he goes and gets in his truck and he starts the motor, clips his seat belt on, and those muscle memories kick in and off he goes. It’s the same thing for a writer. There are some days when you feel bad, you don’t want to do it, but you sit down, you boot up your computer, you open the file and the muscle memory gets you into it and you do your work.

Yeah, I feel people who talk about the muse and writer’s block and all these airy-fairy things ... they’re not serious. Especially for genre professionals, like us who are doing a book a year. It is a job and you have to do it. You’ve got to deliver. To complain about writer’s block is self-indulgent and, to some extent, pretentious.

NC: So, it’s off to Scotland for you then ...

LC: I’m looking forward to being there, and hopefully I’ll take away something good to read.

1 comment:

Kelly Robinson said...

That writer's block line is a hoot. And it's so true! I freelance from home for a living, and while I'm certainly no Lee Child, I can't afford to not feel like writing. I like food and shelter a little too much.