When I went to Bloody Scotland a few days after arriving in the UK last year, one author that I heard a lot of buzz about was James Oswald. James was a Scottish farmer who'd become a crime writing smash-hit online, selling 350,000 copies of his ebooks, before being picked up by Penguin after a fierce bidding war. A lot of people I met at the festival raved about the quality of his writing and storytelling, and it was a pleasure to meet him and have a chat. We've since caught up at Iceland Noir, and last week at the Penguin Crime Drinks in London.
Today, I'm very pleased to share my interview with James Oswald, the 106th and latest instalment in the 9mm series here on Crime Watch.
9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES OSWALD
|James Oswald with Craig Sisterson at the|
Penguin Crime Drinks in London, March 2015
Perhaps a slightly odd answer here, as I didn't come to writing crime fiction from a long history of reading it. I grew up with comics and began writing them, moving on to SF and Fantasy novels before finally moving to the dark side with crime on the advice of my friend and sometimes comics collaborator Stuart MacBride. I’d have to say that my favourite (and maybe most influential) hero and sometime detective who more or less fits a crime writing label would be John Constantine from the long-running comics series Hellblazer (and perhaps less favourably the Keanu Reeves movie).
If you absolutely insist on a crime fiction detective, then Detective Inspector ‘Jack’ Frost in the books by R D Wingfield. So much better than the character as portrayed by David Jason in the TV series. Again I have to blame Stuart for recommending them to me, and I can’t urge people enough to go and read them.
2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I loved the Hardy Boys books, and read all the Biggles novels when I was bed-ridden with chicken pox as a young boy, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what they were about beyond adventure. Oddly enough, when I was about ten my grandfather gave me a copy of The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I don’t think he’d read it himself, and thought it was a children’s book because of the title. I read it and enjoyed it, even if it was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It wasn’t until very recently that I picked up some more of their books and realised what I’d stumbled upon all those years ago.
What I loved most of all growing up was comics. My parents used to buy us (myself and my two brothers) Look and Learn magazine, because it was educational (apparently). It had boring articles about insects and geography and how to make thermonuclear weapons in your kitchen, but we always went first to the comic strip ‘The Trigan Empire’, which was basically Romans in Space, lovingly drawn by Don Lawrence. Every holiday I’d spend any money I had on Commando and Starblazer comics, and then I discovered 2000AD. I picked up my first American comic - a random edition of the New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez in the early 80s. It’s been a downhill slope ever since.
3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
My first ever professionally published story was a Tharg’s Future Shock comic script in 2000AD comic magazine that came out in December 1993. I was writing comics scripts at the time, and it was around then I met a talented young artist by the name of Stuart MacBride. We collaborated on a story that was to appear in an Aberbeen-based SF, Comics, RPG and anything else we could think of Fanzine called From The Sublime… that both of us were involved in. Sadly our brilliant satire of a favourite children’s television series failed to find an audience. I moved to Edinburgh shortly afterwards and started writing novels, short stories and more comic scripts. Before I wrote Natural Causes - the first of the Inspector McLean series - I had written a travel book, half a dozen SF and Fantasy novels and innumerable short stories. Most of these are rubbish - part of the learning process of becoming a writer - but there are one or two books I think have merit enough to be reworked and hopefully find a publisher some day.
4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
What is this thing you call ‘leisure’? In my day job I run a livestock farm, raising Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep. I write in the evenings and read whenever I can find a spare moment. There is no time for anything else.
5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I don’t really have a home town as such, living as I do in the middle of nowhere. Any visitor to Fife will be directed to St Andrews by the tourist office, but on their way there, they should consider stopping in Cupar, my nearest town, and visiting ‘Luvians - The Bottle Shop.’ There they will find the best ice cream in Scotland (the chocolate ice cream is a perfect hangover cure), a delicatessen with only the finest foods, and a selection of wines that you would have to work hard to find anywhere else. But most importantly they will find the biggest collection of single malt whiskies I have ever seen. I spend far too much money in there, and don’t regret a penny of it.
6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
It’s such a long time since I watched TV, and I get to see movies so infrequently, that I really don’t know that many actors, especially not those young enough to play me. Anyone offered the job would have to be very good at conveying emotion by sitting still and staring vacantly into the middle distance for hours on end. And they’d need to be good with animals. No name springs to mind.
The smart answer is my next book, because the one you’ve not written yet is always the best. The true answer is my fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro (now published by Penguin!) It began as a stupid comment my partner Barbara made when we were living in Wales in the early 2000s. We took evening classes to learn Welsh, as we were both working in Agricultural Research, meeting farmers on a daily basis and found the best way to get a friendly reception was to at least try and speak a bit of their native tongue. The county name Pembrokeshire is ‘Sir Benfro’, with the ‘Sir’ pronounced more like ‘seer’ and the f of Benfro pronounced as a v. Barbara turned to me as we were repeating the county names and said ‘Sir Benfro. That’d be a really good name for a dragon!’ From that tiny acorn the massive oak of half a million words and counting has grown.
8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a online or physical bookseller’s shelf?
When I got the call from my agent about the first Penguin deal for my Inspector McLean books, I was in a field, in a snowstorm, mending a fence after chasing my cows back out of the neighbour’s woods. I couldn’t really blame them for going in there, the weather was truly foul. My initial reaction was ‘Excellent. Now I can pay someone else to mend my fences in a snowstorm.’ At the time though I just had to get back to it.
Seeing the first book in a bookshop was indeed wonderful, but the best moment of my entire writing career was a couple of months later. I’d been down in London meeting with my publishers and got the train back to Scotland from King’s Cross Station. Sitting across the aisle from me, a lady was reading a copy of Natural Causes. I wasn’t sure whether to introduce myself - what if she hated the book and was just struggling to finish it? About an hour into the journey, she did finish it and handed it to her husband sitting opposite, saying ‘there you can read it now.’ I took the opportunity, and asked her if she’d enjoyed it - figuring that if she said no, then I could always pretend a friend had recommended it but I wouldn’t bother now. She said she had enjoyed it a great deal, so I introduced myself. Both her and her husband were delighted to have met me, I signed the book for them and we chatted on an off for the rest of the journey to Edinburgh.
9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Natural Causes, the first book in the series, only came out in May of last year, so I’ve not had a lot of experience of signing, events and festivals. Being a farmer who first self-published and then landed a large deal with a major publisher has meant that the press have been very interested in my story though. I’ve had the BBC come and film me at the farm twice, once for the news, and a longer piece for their rural affairs programme, Landward. Both were quite surreal, but the oddest was probably at the book launch for Natural Causes. Early May is the tail end of lambing at the farm and I’d not had more than a couple of hours consecutive sleep for about three weeks before publication day. I’d heard that the BBC were coming to the launch, and thought they would just record a piece for the morning news the next day. You can imagine my surprise then when they delayed the launch by fifteen minutes so that they could interview me, live, on the main national news. Fortunately I’d not set the DVR, so I have no idea how much like a brain-dead zombie I looked. My nephew had come to the launch, and was in shot, in the audience, behind me as I was being interviewed. For the rest of the launch he kept getting texts from his school friends saying they’d seen him on the telly. He dined out on that for a long time afterwards.
A couple of days after the launch I was in my local supermarket doing the weekly shop and a little old lady wheeled her trolley up alongside mine, tapped me on the elbow and said ‘You’re that writer chappie I saw on the telly, aren’t you?’, then added ‘Well done’ when I admitted I was. She trundled off and I never saw her again.
Thank you James. We appreciate you taking the time to talk to Crime Watch.
You can read more about James Oswald and his books here:
- "How a Scottish farmer became crime fiction's next big thing" - feature in The Telegraph
- "Bestselling detective novelist spends advance on new tractor" - feature in the Daily Mail
- Richard and Judy Book Club page for Natural Causes
- Author website