Saturday, September 5, 2009

My interview with Craig Russell

One of the coolest things about being a crime fiction reviewer and features writer is having the opportunity to interview some fascinating authors.

Recently I interviewed Scottish crime writer Craig Russell, who is famous for his Hamburg-set series of Jan Fabel books; contemporary serial killer tales infused with lots of mythology and history, and a great sense of setting. In fact, so authentic are his settings that early on some media thought he might be a German writer publishing under an Anglo pseudonym. He's a bestseller in Germany (where his books are about to be made into a series of TV movies by Germany's state broadcaster), and has won the CWA Dagger in the Library for the series.

This year he's released his first UK-set crime novel; LENNOX - a gritty neo-noir private eye story that evokes the classic hardbitten detective stories of Chandler, Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. I thought LENNOX was a great read, and I'm glad to hear it's the start of a new series (Russell will continue the Fabel series as well, with the latest in that series, THE VALKYRIE SONG, released last month). He is currently working on THE LONG GLASGOW KISS, the second in the 'Lennox' series.

If you are in New Zealand, you can read my feature article based on our interview in this weekend's issue of the Weekend Herald (the biggest circulation newspaper in the country). It's on page 38 of the Canvas magazine insert (the lifestyle/features mag in the weekend edition of the newspaper). Unfortunately, Canvas magazine articles aren't available online. As always, however, when you interview someone interesting, you get waaaaay more material than you can actually use in a feature - so I thought I'd include a couple of comments from Russell here, that couldn't make it into the article due to wordcount constraints:

On whether he has visited New Zealand:
No, I’ve not. But I’ve always been intrigued by it because I was very nearly a New Zealander. If my father had not taken ill, he was going to be posted to the Admiral’s staff there at the end of the Second World War. He took ill, and someone else was given the posting instead, so that meant I was born in Fife (laughing).

On the post-war dislocation felt by Lennox, and others:
But I think that’s something I really wanted to explore, because that was my father’s generation – and there were a lot of men, young men, who came back from the war, and weren’t the people they were meant to be.

On his interest in Germany, and why he chose to set his first books in Hamburg:
Ah, it’s a strange thing, and I’ve got to be careful because I can bore Britain on this subject … but I’ve always been interested in what links people, what unites people...

... Fabel actually speaks a dialect which is actually quite close to Old Scots – Middle English basically, which was brought over by the Angles and the Saxons… So there’s this cultural bridge I saw existing between the UK and Europe, and what I wanted to do was set a series somewhere outside of the UK, somewhere in Europe where you could take a British reader and they would be aware they were somewhere foreign, but they would feel disconcertingly at home at the same time. And Denmark, Northern Germany, or the Netherlands are the places you can do that.

... Hamburg they say is the most British city in Europe outside of the UK, so it was a very easy place to immerse myself as it were…

On the strong threads of history/mythology running through his Fabel books, and the historic setting of the Lennox books:
That is something that I just find fascinating... we tend to think we’re our own people, that we forge our own way in life, and we become who we are because that’s who we’re destined to be. But we are all the product of our history and events that have gone before us.

For example, me writing about a character in 1950s Glasgow has a lot to do with the fact that you know I grew up 11 years after the end of the Second World War, and was aware of that. So I think history tends to effect us in ways that we don’t really think about a lot, and the culture we grew up in tends to be all kinds of elements in there that you can trace back to things that happened a long time ago – and I find that fascinating...

And that’s why there tends to be in Fabel books, three time periods that need exploring – there is something in the distant past, there’s the contemporary environment that the characters are living in, and then there is usually something in the not-too-distant past, in the fairly-recent past – so there’s two historical periods having some kind of influence on where everything is for Fabel and the characters in the book… there’s always two historical threads running through it at least…

I think one of the things I try to do, is just try to write about the things that interest me, you know I’m not trying to hit the reader over the head with some kind of education, but I really do enjoy exploring these things through the books – and I like to give them more depth.

On the rise of Scottish crime writing:
I have a lot of theories about this… and I think the Calvinistic culture of Scotland is very similar to the Lutheran culture of Scandinavia. And I think it’s very interesting that both these areas have produced, and have a reputation of producing, crime writing of quality … there is something in the Scottish psyche that is very much attuned to the dark existing with the light… I think there is something that Jekyll & Hyde could only have been written by a Scottish author…

I think when it comes to writing crime, that cultural background is a huge influence. I mean if you look at Scottish folk tales, there’s always stories of the deal, the devil waiting for you at the corner trying to entice you into a game of cards for your soul, and that kind of thing. And I think that’s all in there. Let’s be honest, we [Scots] are not renowned for our sunny personalities – we enjoy the darker side of things, and that’s probably why we have a natural tendency towards writing crime.

I think there is a strong sense of “North” if you like – the Northern European [cultural similarities]… again it goes back, the whole thing with me being very interested in what links us and what separates us – I have a sort of kinship with Scandinavians, and that’s something to do with a shared Teutonic culture I think, and I think it’s revealed through writing…

On having his work in translation, and the importance of good translators:I’ve got a network of German friends. I have a very odd relationship with my German translator – he is from Hamburg [but now lives in Glasgow] … he reads the manuscripts in English before I submit them, so he can make sure there are not any howling cultural errors, but also that if there is anything that could [prove difficult] when he comes to translate into German, then [changes are made to the English version]… so the English and the German versions are very, very close.

Also, with the humour in Lennox. It can be very, very difficult to translate Glasgow humour [especially into German], but because my translator [for the Fabel books] lives in Glasgow, you know he is going to be a natural choice for that – I have that kind of back-up as well...

Thoughts? Comments? Have you read any of Craig Russell's books? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. We can't get the Herald down here. Too close to Antarctica, I believe.