Finn wants to get off Orkney but a chance meeting with Maddie in the departure lounge bar breaks the tedium, and boredom is soon far from his mind. Survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress and libido make for a murderous mix against a brutal landscape in Crash Land (Faber & Faber £12.99/ Audible, £15.99).
It’s only been a year since we last heard from you. Has that time been spent studiously writing Crash Land or have you had chance to wear any of your other hats – journalist, musician, nuclear physicist, etc?
Well, I’ve mostly been writing Crash Land, or re-drafting it, or editing it, or starting to write the next novel, which I’ve just finished the first draft of. I’ve always got some fiction on the go, to be honest, and I’ve managed a novel a year for the last six years, so it seems to be working. Having said that, I do a number of other things to help pay the bills, including journalism. I also do manuscript assessment for aspiring writers and I’m a Royal Literary Fund consultant fellow, which sounds posh but just means I go into universities and schools and help students and staff with academic writing. The music is always happening in the background as a stress relief as much as anything, but I haven’t dabbled in nuclear physics in a long, long time, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As a wee aside, I also organise the Scotland Writers Football Club, and play in midfield, which is another way to let off steam, and kick other writers!
How much do those other interests and areas of expertise inform your novel writing?
I was a freelance journalist before I was a published author, and I think that experience has played a big part in my novels. Not necessarily subject matter, although I have had a couple of books with journalists as main characters. But in terms of my prose style, which is stripped back, no nonsense, the less-is-more ethos of journalism is definitely there. Also, the dedication to just keep writing stems from that background too. No journalist ever got writer’s block. If they did they would get sacked asap. The music also feeds into the writing, and vice versa. On one level, I’ve written stories about scenarios in songs, or based around music or bands, and I’ve also written music that loosely ties in with the books, so I see them feeding off each other, definitely. And hopefully the prose in my writing has a rhythm to it that maybe is influenced by my musical background.
Does your experience as a book critic for The Big Issue make you a more careful writer? And what do you think of reviews of your own books?
As a critic I get to read tons of books, obviously, but I don’t think it makes me a more careful writer, in fact, it might be just the opposite. Maybe I’m mistaking cautious for careful, but it strikes me that being cautious or careful only produces mediocre fiction writing. You have to go in there all guns blazing, take chances, write about the stuff that obsesses you, and do it with as much passion and WTFuckery as you can muster! As for reviews of my own books, I realise it’s only one person’s opinion and you can’t please everyone all the time. As a result, I don’t pay much attention to reviews, to be honest. If you want to believe the rave ones, you also have to believe the slaggings. I read each review once, never comment on it, then post it up online so others can see. If you waste your time worrying about reviews it can suck out all your energy and leave you a nervous, fidgeting husk of a writer.
How important is landscape to Crash Land?
I think it’s crucial. Landscape and setting are always important in my books, but Orkney especially lends itself to drama and mystery. There is a real sense of the continuity of humanity up there, that the past is intermingled with the present, and that’s a great backdrop for a thriller, using those resonances to add to your story. The book is set in December, when the Orcadian weather is pretty forbidding, so I used all of that as much as possible, especially in the climactic scenes.
I noticed your disclaimer at the beginning of the novel about creative license with the setting – was it difficult to write simultaneously for people in and outside Orkney?
No, I don’t think it was particularly hard. You don’t want to upset any locals, and you want to get as much of the local detail right as you can, and that can only be good for anyone reading the book, Orcadian or not, because it hopefully adds to the veracity of the storyline. I have Orcadian friends who checked things for me, turns of phrase and local quirks, but they didn’t change too much. I think I had done my research well enough. As for the disclaimer, I needed a few things to happen for dramatic and conflict purposes that I was aware couldn’t happen in reality, so that was really me saying sorry to the locals. It was my get-out clause.
Maddy has something of Amy Dunne about her – were you not tempted to put “Girl” in the title to guarantee a bestseller?
God no! Every book seems to have “Girl” in the title at the moment, I’m sick of it! As an aside, for an earlier book of mine, Gone Again, I had a big list of possible titles, one of which was Girl Gone – this was before Gone Girl had come out! Can you imagine? It’s interesting you equate Maddie with Amy Dunne from that book, though. The main difference is that you never get inside Maddie’s head, whereas you do with Amy in Gone Girl. That was deliberate on my part. I wanted Maddie to remain enigmatic, something of a mystery to Finn, who follows her into all sorts of trouble without realising it.
Did you set out to subvert the damsel in distress narrative from the start?
I certainly wanted to play with both the damsel in distress archetype and the femme fatale one. The truth of Maddie, hopefully, is somewhere in the complexity in between the two. They’re both ridiculous extremes, and I wanted to create a character somewhere in between, yet also to keep them at arm’s length, the way she does with Finn, using him sometimes, but also seeming to be vulnerable at other times. Of course all this is mixed up with survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress and libido, so it’s a right old mess. But hopefully an engaging mess, nonetheless.