A walk on the Dark side
One of the prominent names at this year’s The Script Road was Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet whose most recent book His Bloody Project (2015) was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. A dark tale about a triple murder in 1869, narrated by the perpetrator himself, Roderick Macrae, it has received critical acclaim and glowing reviews, and according to the author is soon to be translated into Chinese.
This is only your second novel and in a way it seems you’ve come to writing a bit later in life. How did that career change come about?
People sometimes do ask why the late start, but somebody in Australia told me recently that the average age for a first novel is 42, and I was 46, so I’m not that late a starter. It just took me that time to really commit to it; knowing that I would die happy if I published a novel. I’ve been writing since I was a student. I wrote a full novel in the 90’s that wasn’t published and started three or four others that petered out because I didn’t know where I was taking them. The only thing I’d ever wanted to do was to publish a novel. Even when I wrote His Bloody Project I still wasn’t a full-time writer, but since the Booker came along, I think for the foreseeable future I will be a full-time writer, which is amazing, fantastic. It’s very, very difficult to make a living just from the sale of books because you have to sell huge numbers to make even an average income or basic wage. It’s tough.
Does the success of your novels surprise you?
No, not really. You don’t publish a book thinking that your book isn’t good. Maybe it does seem a little bit arrogant, but I don’t think I should be surprised if I get a good review because I work really, really hard on my books. The reviews of His Bloody Project have been universally positive. I was waiting for the one that said ‘yeah it’s ok but it shouldn’t be on the booker shortlist’, but it never came. In order to finish a novel, you have to have faith in the idea, and that’s the hardest thing when writing, is keeping faith with the idea. I’m very luck I have a great relationship with my publisher, who shows faith in me and allows me to do what I want, which not every publisher is so keen on. But the Booker has been a transformative life changing experience for me.
Do you feel that puts pressure on you now going forward?
A lot of people have said that and it was one of my first thoughts too, but again it goes back to the positive relationship I have with my publisher. And you just have to put it out of your mind, because it doesn’t help. As a writer, the actual process of writing for me has remained exactly the same. I go to a library in Glasgow to work. I sit there for as many hours as it takes to do something productive, and the process is still sort of torturous, unpleasant, horrible and slow. You just have to blank out all the external factors and do your best with the piece of work you’re producing.
I think a lot of struggling, aspiring writers will be happy to hear you describe the process like that…
Well, it’s not that long since I was a struggling, aspiring writer. Because my publisher is really small, that kind of David and Goliath story played really well in the press around the Booker time. A lot of people enjoyed that story, because it appears that you’ve come from nowhere, and we’re taking on the big boys, and the big boys want to be on that Booker short list. It’s only when you’re involved in it that you realize what a massive thing in the publishing industry it is.
The lastest novel His Bloody Project is a very dark tale, the story of a triple murder that happens in the Scottish highlands in 1869. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
The idea for the book came about 25 years ago. I came across a book I, Pierre Riviére, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother, a true story about a French peasant who killed his mother, sister and brother and then wrote a memoir about it. So I remained totally fascinated by the idea of somebody committing this very violent murder and then having the ability to write an eloquent account of it.
Some people get a bit confused when reading your books as to whether they are actually fiction or non-fiction. Is that something you do intentionally?
Well, I’m not out to fool anyone, but some people do think that it’s a true crime book. I was aware this might happen, so on the title page I put the words ‘A Novel’ because although I go to great lengths to make it seem that it’s real, I want the book to be understood as a work of fiction. When people think it’s real, I take it as a complement to the writing, because it’s quite a technical challenge to write in the first person, especially as a 19th Century crofter, because you have to stick very rigidly to the kind of language they would use.
Did you have any trouble getting into that type of dark character to write in first person? Is it a bit like the process an actor might go through getting in to character?
That’s an interesting comparison actually. I think the book is dark and Roddy has a dark side. When I’m writing his account in first person, I’m as much as I can be, inside his head, seeing the world from his point of view, so maybe there’s a sort of comparison to acting. I don’t make a judgement about the characters when I’m writing at all, that’s not my job. But yes, the book is dark, very dark.
You say that you try to treat writing like a normal job, but how do you deal with writer’s block or a part that you’re struggling with?
I am inclined to push on, but sometimes, if you’re not getting certain scenes right, sometimes it’s better to leave it and move on with another scene. If I’m really stuck with a scene, rather than edit the draft, I’ll start from scratch again, and I’m more than happy to throw stuff away that’s not working. I’ll throw away 10,000 words like that. I’d rather do that, than it ends up in the book and I don’t like it. It’s a learning process. You learn that if you’re not happy with something, don’t just leave it there lingering, you get in there and kill it, get it out. You’ve got to be quite ruthless. To me writing, it’s not something about inspiration. I work in a library, I go to work, I do treat it like a job. Of course I still waste a lot of time in the library staring into space, but I’m there to work and I try to push through the problems that come along.
And how about your next writing project?
I’m close to finishing the third book, which is a sequel to my first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau; the plan was for a trilogy. I was actually writing the final scene this very afternoon. It’s in its final stages and being looked at by a publisher. It’s called The Accident on the 835. I can’t say when it will be published, but hopefully in the not too distant future.
How do you feel about coming to literary festivals like this?
I think writers like to get together and talk about writing. I do like hanging out with other writers and I’m always interested to hear other people go about the actual business of writing, and there’s definitely no right way to do it. I’m very pig-headed, I don’t take kindly to advice about how to write. I’ve never been to a creative writing class, I’ve never been to a workshop. But it’s amazing that my book about a 19th Century crofter, written with no commercial aspirations whatsoever has brought me here. From having lunch in Taipa in a little neighborhood Portuguese restaurant with rustic food, to walking around all the unbelievable glitz of the casinos, it’s just mind-blowing. Macau is nuts, but it’s really exciting to have a chance to see somewhere like this.