Friday, October 1, 2010

Bloody Minded: my feature on Stuart MacBride

Award-winning Scottish crime writer STUART MACBRIDE talks to CRAIG SISTERSON about profane policeman, futuristic thrillers and the advantages of peer pressure

When Stuart MacBride sat down to write what would become his first published novel, Cold Granite, he decided to try something different with his main character, DS Logan McRae. “Traditionally you have this pairing in detective fiction of the larger-than-life central character – the Morse, the Rebus, the Holmes – and this sidekick that’s a normal man,” says MacBride. “I thought I’d do it the other way around. So Logan wasn’t created to be this big hero: he’s not particularly strong, because of what’s happened in the past; he screws up about as much as he gets right - he was just meant to be this very human character.”

Instead it is the richly-drawn, eclectic, supporting cast that are larger-than-life. DI Steel, the hard-living, profanity-spewing lesbian; DI Insch, the bombastic, sweet-popping walking coronary; Colin Miller, the greasy yet layered tabloid reporter; WPC “Ball Breaker” Watson. And importantly, each is penned with a degree of complexity and depth that ensures they don’t become mere over-the-top caricatures - helping MacBride win fans amongst readers, critics, and librarians, alike - leading to his series winning the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library in 2007.

The bearded write-ist
MacBride’s reversal of the traditional hero-sidekick dynamic should come as no surprise, because he’s always done things a little differently. In fact, despite having five acclaimed novels under his belt, and a sixth, Halfhead, being released in Australia this month, he doesn’t even consider himself a ‘writer’.

‘Writer’ sounds all grand and intellectual, while ‘author’ sounds all artistic and worthy, he’s famous for saying. He prefers the term ‘write-ist’, being a person “making it up as they go along, and hoping like hell they don’t get found out”. MacBride laughs easily and often, sprinkling our conversation with such self-deprecation. There’s no pretension here.

Perhaps that’s because of the unusual beginnings to his ‘write-ist’ career. MacBride didn’t like creative writing during his school years, but then during his mid 20s, he stumbled across the inspiration to put pen to page - peer pressure. “I had a couple of friends writing fantasy novels, and they said it was a good hobby and good fun, and I should give it a shot,” he chuckles. “I think sheer bloody-mindedness took over.” Five manuscripts, and many years later, he eventually ‘broke through’ with Cold Granite, his first attempt at “a straight serial killer novel” – one that scooped the Barry Award for best crime debut.

Before the peer pressure
While MacBride wasn’t enamoured with creative writing while growing up, he did love reading. “The first books I ever took out of the library myself were the Hardy Boys books,” he recalls. “And I’d get one out and say ‘yes, yes Mum, I’ll go to bed and put out the light’, and then I’d read by torchlight until 3 o’clock in the morning, so I could take it back the next day and get out the next one in the series.”

MacBride was born in Dumbarton, near Glasgow, but his family moved to Aberdeen when he was a toddler. He later shifted to Edinburgh for university, but soon quit to work on the offshore oil rigs that fed Aberdeen industry. Then came working in graphic design, then various IT jobs; a process he describes as drifting down through the career spiral.

“I became a project manager, which really was the most appalling career move I ever made,” he says. “It was the most awful job. I’ve cleaned toilets offshore, and that was a better job than being a project manager.” It was during this period that the peer pressure arose and MacBride began his hobby writing. “When I was writing Cold Granite, a lot of that comes from sitting in meetings with people thinking ‘I really would like to kill you’ and then going home and writing,” he laughs.

Darkly funny
That combination of death and humour threads throughout MacBride’s books; police camaraderie is built on mercilessly taking the piss, and gallows humour eases tension at gruesome crime scenes. It takes a talented writer to have you chuckling a few pages after someone’s had their eyes gouged out, but MacBride manages it. “All though my life I’ve always worked in big teams,” he says. “And all I did with writing the police officers, was I thought they’d behave in just the same way… you’re people, you’re going to make fun of each other, make jokes in poor humour, you could say politely.”

Not that MacBride is known for politeness in his writing. Instead he chooses to be more authentic; a steady drizzle of curse words sprinkles the pages, turning into a veritable flood whenever DI Steel is around. “I don’t know a single person who if they hit their thumb with a hammer, would go ‘oh darn’,” he says.

Put simply; reality rules. MacBride later heard from a retired police officer from Ontario, who’d read his books, who confessed that being a police officer was exactly like that – full of ribbing and off-colour jokes.

Writing Aberdeen
That same drive for authenticity stretches to the hometown setting. “Most of the places are real,” he says. MacBride has been praised for his accurate portrayals of Aberdonian language and locales, and his website includes photos of real settings used in his debut. He’s also cultivated close relationships with Aberdonian police, and a senior technician at the local morgue. “I’m trying to make books that are as realistic as possible - which sounds daft because if they were I’d be saying the northeast of Scotland was littered with dead bodies, but yeah, you know what I mean,” he laughs.

That authenticity included addressing, in Blind Eye, the growing influx of Polish immigrants shifting to ‘the Granite City’ for oil industry jobs; a surge that’s tested Aberdeen’s reputation as a secular and tolerant city. We started having [ethnic tensions] in Aberdeen that we’d never really had before,” says MacBride. Some locals spread misinformation about immigrants, who were in fact happy to interact. “I should say it’s not widespread,” says MacBride. “But there were these tensions that certain people were stirring up.”

Future crime
In contrast, MacBride’s newest novel is far less concerned with authenticity. Halfhead does involve a vicious serial killer, but it’s set in a Glasgow of the future; a future of overcrowded super high-rise slums, militaristic police, and a new method for dealing with criminals. Serious offenders suffer half-heading; lobotomized and their lower jaw removed, they’re put to work as mindless drones cleaning public areas. However one murderous half-head ‘wakes up’ after six years, and sets out for revenge. She’s pursued by William Hunter, Assistant Director of the ‘Network’, who discovers his investigation is linked to a conspiracy to fuel violence amongst the underclass.

MacBride actually wrote the original manuscript for Halfhead prior to Cold Granite. At the time, after winning a local science fiction short story competition he’d entered as a laugh, he’d focused on futuristic thrillers. The manuscript got some publisher attention, but it wasn’t until his agent suggested he try “a straight serial killer novel” that MacBride made the leap to published ‘write-ist’.

But he shuns the ‘sci-fi’ label some place on his new book. “If you write a crime novel and set it in Ancient Greece, it’s historical crime fiction. You do a bank heist in Victorian times, it’s historical crime fiction. All the way up to today, it’s ‘something’ crime fiction. Set it even five years in the future, and ‘woah, it’s science fiction’.”

Instead, MacBride sees Halfhead as an extension of his crime writing, just in a new setting. “It’s a thriller,” he says. “Serial killers, explosions, automatic weapons – it’s just set say 70 years in the future... let’s call it a new future crime thriller.”

After all, he is a crime ‘write-ist’.


This feature interview with Stuart MacBride was originally published in print in the October 2009 issue of Good Reading magazine, a great books-focused magazine in Australia, and is published here online for the first time. 


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