Friday, August 08, 2014

Listening to the Experts

(Editor’s note: The Rap Sheet has enjoyed a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship over the last few years with Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black. In 2010 he debuted an original short story on this page, “Last Orders,” featuring his series character, journalist-cum-detective Gus Dury. Two years later, we featured an excerpt from Miracle Mile, his second novel about Edinburgh Detective Inspector Rob Brennan. And then last year, we were pleased to host Black’s long-hoped-for interview with William McIlvanney, still best known for his 1977 series debut, Laidlaw [which is now back in print]. In addition to having a new novel out in Britain, Artefacts of the Dead, Black has also released Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers, a collection of interviews he’s conducted with accomplished modern contributors to the crime and mystery genre. Below, he briefly explains his intentions with that work.)

Writing, as everyone knows, is a tough business. Just when you think you’ve got on top of the tricky craft aspects along comes the even trickier feat of finding an agent. Then a publisher. Then the industry changes and you find yourself doing the agent and publisher’s job too.

If I was to track the bumps in the road to calling myself an author, I wouldn’t know where to start. I had about 10 years in the wilderness and five novels gathering dust before I got a break with Random House. Twelve books later, the only thing I’m sure about is that it’s a constant learning process … and, nothing like what I thought it might be.

I’ve spoken with dozens of writers about the business of putting words on a page and always found that it’s a familiar tale; precious few have it easy. The path to publication is filled with face-slaps and rejections. We all have our horror stories. My personal favorite is being told by two separate London publishers, on the same day, “We’re not looking for a Scottish writer” and “We have a Scottish writer.” There was also an American agent who wanted to turn my breakthrough novel’s protagonist, Gus Dury, into a “bonnie Scotch lassie,” but I simply stored that away in the “insane/hilarious shit” file.

Writers trade this stuff like football stickers. Once, at a gig with Russel D. McLean (The Lost Sister, Mothers of the Disappeared), he regaled the audience with a tale of one manuscript coming back covered in crayon, and a note attached saying, “As you can see, my child didn’t rate it much either.” Appalled? You should be. But in an industry where the upheaval has been seismic recently--giving everyone with an Internet connection a voice--writers get used to it. Opinions are like arseholes: everybody has them.

I like Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s attitude toward critics, which he outlines in one of three interviews I’ve conducted with him, all featured in Hard Truths: “If they were any good, they would have done it themselves and be selling truckloads. But they ain’t, and I am. I know this, they do too. Enough said.”

Black talks with fellow novelist McIlvanney about his writing and the crime-fiction genre, in general.

Another Scottish author, William McIlvanney, recounted for me the halcyon days of gentlemen reviewers, who thought twice about “annihilating an author” because they generally had a book of their own on the way.

The wisdom of these wordsmiths--and that of many more like them--is gold. And crime writers like to share. It’s said they’re the nicest of the writing bunch, because they get all their angst out on the page; for the opposite reason, romance writers are the ones to watch, allegedly.

When I started interviewing the crime writers featured in this collection, a few years ago, it was a way of providing content for the nascent Webzine Pulp Pusher. That was it, plain and simple; the idea of gathering their collected wisdom wasn’t on my mind. But, slowly, I found myself quoting back the interviewees’ responses to reading groups, students, my own interviewers, and just about anyone else who would listen. So, I asked myself, why? The answer was obvious, and I thought, well worth sharing.

Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers features my exchanges with the likes of Ian Rankin, Andrew Vachss, Stuart MacBride, Ken Bruen, and a long list of others. The book clocks in at about 85,000 words--and being the words of the best in the business, you can rely on the quality of every one of them.

READ MORE:Steve Jovanoski Interviews Tony Black” (Crimeculture).

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