Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scottish/Kiwi writer Liam McIlvanney featured in today's WEEKEND HERALD

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

Earlier this month I interviewed Scotsman Liam McIlvanney, who has moved to Dunedin, New Zealand with his family to take up a Professorship at the University of Otago. After writing academic articles and non-fiction books about Scottish literature and historic society, McIlvanney recently had his debut novel, ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN, published by Faber & Faber in both the UK (released in August) and New Zealand/Australia (released in late September).

ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN centres on Glasgow political journo Gerry Conway, who receives a tip-off about the unsavoury past of the Scottish Justice Minister, one of his best sources. Initially unimpressed, Conway is eventually drawn into a journey from Glasgow to Belfast, attempting to uncover a shocking story laced with sectarian violence and dangerous secrets.

The book has received some great reviews thusfar, and McIlvanney is currently working on his second thriller starring Gerry Conway. He also mentioned that future thrillers (not the next one, but after that) are likely to be set in New Zealand, as his protagonist might just follow McIlvanney's own path, immigrating south.

If you are in northern 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 37 of the Canvas magazine insert (the lifestyle/features mag in the weekend edition of the newspaper) - see picture to the left. The cool b/w photo of McIlvanney in an Otago Uni quad was actually taken by another Kiwi crime writer, Vanda Symon (thanks Vanda).

I'm pretty happy with the published article overall (although a key paragraph was cut, which makes the flow seem a little clunky at one point), and it's great to get some coverage of local (well, adopted Kiwi in McIlvanney's case) crime/thriller writers in our biggest newspaper.

Unfortunately, Canvas magazine articles generally 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 McIlvanney here, that couldn't make it into the article due to wordcount constraints:

Talking about sectarianism in Scotland (the paragraph cut from the article):
“Unlike Northern Ireland, there is no segregation in terms of housing, and job discrimination is a thing of the past, but the attitudes that were ingrained because of sectarianism are still ingrained to some extent,” he says, noting All the Colours of the Town explores the aftershocks and ongoing effects of The Troubles, including from a Scottish perspective.

“It is a slightly unexplored aspect of contemporary Scotland, which is one of the reasons I found it useful to write a crime novel,” says McIlvanney. “We have so many ties to Northern Ireland in terms of family, and cultural links… there’s an interesting Scottish experience, so I wanted to explore that… some of the issues that are being discussed at a policy level in Scotland.”

On his early reading experiences:
"I always did read pretty heavily… the first author I remember really grabbing me was Ray Bradbury… THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, SOEMTHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES were the first books that really grabbed me. And I sort of sat down, probably in much the same way that kids today work their way through the Harry Potter books, and worked my way through the Ray Bradbury stories..."

On fitting in reading 'for fun' amongst all his academic reading requirements:
"I think you’re dead intellectually if you don’t have a book on the go that you’re not obliged to be reading. And so I always have something I’m reading that I’m not ‘supposed’ to be reading – just reading for pure fun."

On a novel he's read lately and enjoyed:
"I read an excellent thriller from a guy in Ireland, Stuart Neville, called THE TWELVE, which had a terrific premise; this former IRA hitman is haunted by the ghosts of his victims, who encourage him to take revenge, to seek revenge for them on the sort of paramilitary kingpins who directed his activities. It’s a terrific premise; done fantastically… it really is terrific.

I’m also reading Ian Rankin’s new one, THE COMPLAINTS …"

On whether New Zealand's reputation as a (relatively) safe country would make it harder/less believable to set crime fiction here:
"To me, New Zealand would seem like a very fertile place for crime fiction. A couple of months ago there was this sort of think tank where someone announced that New Zealand was now the safest place on the planet – so can you right noir fiction about [such a safe place], well in some respects that’s the best place about which to write noir fiction…

...there’s an Italian literary critic called Franco Moretti who did quite an entertaining thing a few years ago where he wrote what he called an atlas of the European novel, and in it he has a map of London where he charts where the crimes occurred for Sherlock Holmes, and he compares this to a contemporary map of the same period which charts the regions of crime and depravity of London [at that time], and there was absolutely no overlap whatsoever. All the real crime happens in the East End and all the fictional crime happens in the West End. It’s because it’s got to be an enigma, it’s got to be a surprise. Nobody is surprised if crime takes place in Whitechapel or some of these impoverished quarters of the East End of London. But people are intrigued and surprised when it takes place somewhere you don’t expect, in Chelsea or wherever."

On reading widely:
"Someone I hadn’t read until a couple of years ago, but have [now] worked my way through is Graham Greene… he’s not really thought of as a writer of entertainment, but he’s absolutely phenomenal. His novel THE QUIET AMERICAN is for me almost a perfect work of art. I tend to read people like Graham Greene while I’m writing as well, just trying to keep the sentences up to scratch."

On the fact New Zealand has a population relatively similar to Scotland's, and yet is (as yet) far behind in terms of numbers of books and writers, and more particularly support, encouragement and celebratation of local crime/thriller fiction writing:
"It is interesting isn’t it... I think it’s partly that it generates its own momentum... I tend to think it’s two things principally; one is that as I mentioned crime fiction in Scotland fulfilled this social/political need in the absence of a national parliament, it was sort of a fertile forum for airing sort of pressing social issues. I think the other significant factor in the Scottish case is the very long tradition of involvement in mass market fiction – you think of Arthur Conan Doyle with the detective novel, Stevenson with the thriller... that lead on to Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean and so on.

... I think we have had a longstanding tradition of Scottish writers being involved in popular fiction. There’s less sort of social and critical stigma about popular fiction, and there’s more inspiration for writers to draw on. And I think there is also a large element of coincidence, that a large crop of crime writers has sort of appeared…

… I suppose you’ve also got in the Scottish case, a strong tradition of gothic literature. You know someone like Ian Rankin will always reference James Hogg's great novel, THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER, and you’ve got that whole sort of Scottish gothic ballad tradition, which is all very dark and macabre, and so that’s another strong influence on contemporary crime fiction."


Thoughts? Comments? Have you read ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN? What do you think? Do contemporary thrillers with strong ties to the real-life past interest you? Do you like your crime novels to include some social issues?

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