I think my granny was instrumental in nurturing my love of books and reading. By the time I came along she was an old woman and not in good health, so she had lots of time to read me stories. I can see her yet, beside the coal fire in our house in Campbeltown, reading to me, or telling tales of her own. Though she was born in Machrihanish, she ended up as head cook, working for the Lord Mayor of Hull, where she met my grandfather, who was his chauffeur. She remembered being in floods of tears as the Black Watch marched through the city on the way to war, the pipes skirling and in full highland fig; she described this as the most homesick moment of her life. Apart from London, Hull was the most bombed city in Britain, so she had many harrowing tales of the blitz. In common with many writers, I was also encouraged by some teachers; curiously, I met one of them, Morag Allan, who taught me in primary school, at a function I spoke at recently. It was great to see her. I remember Mrs Henderson and Anna McIntyre, who also taught me at Castlehill Primary School, as being particularly inspiring, too. I don’t think the value of good primary education can be emphasised enough; in the first few years of a child’s life, they should be encouraged in all they excel at. Too often in education now, children are forced to learn as part of over-arching government initiatives, which owe more to doctrinaire politics, than to the worth and importance of learning. Finally, as always, I must mention Kintyre author and broadcaster, the late Angus MacVicar. I interviewed Angus for the school magazine when I was thirteen. I sent him a copy of the publication, to which he replied with a lovely letter, praising my youthful efforts and asking to see more of my work. He told me shortly thereafter that I should be a writer. I have never forgotten this, or his help and encouragement, then and later on in my life.
2. What keeps you motivated as a writer?
I think it’s wonderful when those who have read my work take the time to contact me and tell me how much they enjoyed it. This certainly spurs me on to keep sitting down at the laptop. Of course, it’s a fundamental question; why do humans want to tell stories from the past, present or future? I have a few books in my head just now that the rest of me is trying to catch up with and actually write. It’s also great to be signed by Polygon, the help, encouragement and advice I’ve received since becoming part of the Birlinn family, is motivation enough to keep going. The thought that my work can be read as widely as possible is a thrill.
3. What’s your favourite book, and why?
Wow, that’s a hard question to answer! I admire so many authors and love so many books, that it’s virtually impossible to narrow it down to one. Since I have to, though, I’ll opt for one that isn’t really a solitary book at all, since it comes in various volumes: The Gulag Archipelagoby Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I’ve been fascinated with Russia and politics in general since I was in school, so this book is a natural choice. It exemplifies all that is important about the written word and its power to inform and move those who read it; that and to act as a catalyst for change; I’m not saying that The Gulag Archipelago brought about the end of Stalinism alone, however it did its bit to inspire the people who did, to act. The struggles of those condemned to misery by such a pernicious political credo, stands this book up as one of the great literary lessons of all time; as compelling as it is harrowing.
4. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (ie silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?)
I like to get on with what I’m doing first-thing, so I prefer to write in the morning, as early as possible. As I reach the latter stages of a book especially, I tend to get up in the wee small hours to have the chance to write in peace. I suppose I should say that I prefer to pen my magnum opi whilst being gently wafted by lightly-oiled nymphs, luxuriating on a far-flung tropical shore. Instead, I usually write, cross-legged on the couch, which doesn’t create the same mental picture, somehow. I love listening to the radio, however I just can’t concentrate to write with Radio 4 on in the background, so I quite often stick on some classical music; that, or silence. I’ve just realised that I sound like a right old buffer! Something my family will, no doubt, ratify.
5. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer?
I think for anyone who has a dream, or ambition, be it writing, or anything else, the key is to hang onto it. Practise writing skills: language, grammar, punctuation, the mechanics of story-telling – anything that will help hone what you want others to read. I’m learning all the time, as I’m sure all writers are. Also, be honest with yourself; let those you trust and whose judgement you value comment on your writing and try to learn from what they say – good, or bad. Be prepared for disappointment and criticism, too; everyone who ever picked up a pen with an ambition to become a writer, has had to suffer these emotions. If you believe, if you truly believe you have something to say, have faith and be persistent. Tenacity normally garners its own reward.
6. How easy was it for you to find a publisher?
I must say, I was lucky; like everyone else, I read the apocryphal tales of mass rejection and frustration suffered by so many putative authors. In my case, I started sending out my first book to publishers and agents in April, and I was offered a publishing contract in late July. For various reasons, I wish I had taken more time before signing up with the first company who offered me a deal, however, regret is like resentment, pointless. Now with Polygon, these worries are at an end.
7. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book?
Are we back to the lightly-oiled nymphs again? Just after starting work on The Last Witness, I received a lovely letter from an old lady, who lived in Clydebank and told me how much she had enjoyed my first book. It reminded her of time she had spent in Campbeltown (the real Kinloch) after the war; it was really heartening to read. Also, as I was just about to finish the final version of the book, I appeared at the inaugural Tarbert Literary Festival; I was really touched to discover so many of my old teachers had taken the trouble to come and hear me speak – it was most humbling, not to say strange, since during my school days, they were always telling me to shut up! This and the continued love and support of my lovely family, which is always a good experience.
8. Who are you generally writing for?
I suppose I should say posterity, or something profound like that; the real answer is less ambitious, and perhaps selfish; for me. To have even the tiny measure of success I have experienced has been fantastic. To finally achieve a lifetime’s ambition is even better. Trust me, not all of my endeavours have gone this well; at the risk of sounding like a Masterchef contestant, having my work published has changed my life. When I say that I write for ‘me’, I write for the perpetuation of that feeling of accomplishment; that, combined with the realisation that I am, at last, not falling short of what was expected of me, or letting myself down. Along the winding road of life, we accumulate many who help us, but also many detractors; to the former, you have my profound thanks and appreciation; to the latter, I say, paraphrasing DS Scott, ‘get it right up ye.’
9. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I spent a lot of time involved in some business or other, so I suppose I would gravitate towards that. When I was young, as well as literary ambitions, I harboured musical ones. Is it too late…? Probably, yes.
10. What one thing would improve your life?
I’m going to be boring and say, better health. Sadly, I suffered a period of illness a few years’ ago, that has left me with some problems. To wake up in the morning ‘pain free’ would be wonderful. Having said this, I know of so many people who are so much worse-off than me, so I thank God for what I have. When we were young, and perhaps didn’t fancy another plate of mince and potatoes, my mother gave us the ubiquitous ‘They’re starving in China’ speech, which most children of my vintage must have endured. Our answer then was simple; ‘I don’t care, can we have a Chinese carry-out, instead?’ As time rolls on, though, I think one’s empathy gene begins to work much more effectively; one look at the news is enough to remind us all, that even though our lives could be improved, they could be a bloody site worse.
11. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world?
That’s easy; the Tuscan coast. It is beautiful; only a forensic examination of my soul could reveal how I feel about this land.
12. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know?
My wife tells me that I display aspects of many characters from my books – even the nice ones. In reality, I suppose most of those who live their lives between the pages of my novels owe their creation to the wonderful mish-mash of people I’ve known. Despite what they would tell you in Campbeltown, only one character in my first book was a direct lift from a real person; a cameo, if you like, a tribute to someone who I’m very fond of and helped me when I was down. They know who they are. Again, having said all that, I hope the wonderfully warm and unique spirit of Campbletown and its people, shines through in the populace of its fictitious counterpart, Kinloch, for that is the real inspiration.
13. If you could swop lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
None of them, haha; down to me, they all have so many problems and personality defects, I feel for them. Maybe Hamish, who has achieved Zen-like wisdom- well, in his head, anyway – I can see myself a bit like that.
14. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it?
Since I’ve only written two books, I think the endings of both are wonderful, but I would say that. Certainly, there are bits and pieces I would change in my first book, Whisky from Small Glasses. Now with Polygon, and having had an insight into how a proper editorial team works and can improve a book, I wish I had had the benefit of same the first time round. Mind you, as I said earlier, I’m not big on regrets; just as well, really.
15. If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘dream’ occupation be?
No problem there; I would love to have been a musician, of the Sting, Paul McCartney, David Bowie variety. I don’t suppose there are too many from my era who didn’t fancy a go at that, at one time or another. Failing that, a test cricketer, for cricket is surely the most noble and compelling game humanity has yet to produce. I fear that both of these notions are likely to remain just as your question depicts, dreams.
16. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character?
Now, there has been much discussion on this subject. The conclusion is, most probably a fattened-up Gerard Butler, to play Jim Daley. He happens to be the right age, height and appearance to play the character; he’ll just have to get knocked into the pies if he wants the part. As it happens, I think Brian McCardie, the Scottish actor who played Liam Neeson’s sidekick in Rob Roy and starred in the UK version of ‘Low Winter Sun’, would be perfect in the role of his namesake, Brian Scott. I wonder who’ll agree – thoughts, please.
17. Why are books important in your opinion?
Despite the advances in digital technology, even TV, radio and film, books are still the best way to impart a story. What one of us has read a book, then seen a film of the same tale and thought the latter was better? Books stimulate a part of the brain that is being left to lie increasingly dormant, as we all stare blankly at screens, in this shiny, paper-free, modern world. Books broaden the mind and alert it to the endless possibilities life can reward us with, if it is managed in the correct way. Books bring light, that’s why the peddlers of darkness have been so keen to destroy them over centuries. I despise what is being done to our library network in this country in the name of ‘austerity’. To me, it is a most calamitous policy to remove the written word from those, who by force of circumstance, can least afford to lose it. Books provide an immersive experience that informs, entertains and enlightens; maybe most important of all, books allow us to understand ourselves. Our lives would be so much poorer for their loss.
18. What are you reading right now?
The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks. Quite simply, I think Banks is one of the greatest literary talents Scotland has ever produced; his imagination was boundless, and he had the good sense never to omit humour from his work. As I wrote in a recent article; many rivers will flow, under many bridges, before we see his like again.
19. Which authors do you particularly admire?
As mentioned, Banks and Solzhenitsyn, are wonderful. George Orwell inspired me in my teens; as did Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Asimov, Hardy, Buchan, Powell, McIllvanney, Grey, Massie and so many, many more. I love the writing of Patrick O’Brian and George MacDonald Fraser, now, like so many, lost to us in person, but still with us in words.
20. If you had a superpower what would it be?
Flight; then it would be up, up and away for Tuscany, and the well-oiled nymphs.