I’m absolutely honored and thrilled to be able to kick off the Bloody Scotland Crime Festival, Mcilvanney Prize 2021 Blog Tour by asking one of the Nominees, Author of the brilliant The Coffinmakers Garden, which is a finalist, Stuart MacBride, some questions!
What was it like growing up in Aberdeen, and were you a good schoolboy? It was your fairly-standard-seventies-growing-up-in-suburbia experience, I suppose. Our housing development was at the western edge of the city, so we had fields behind our house, with pylons to be electrocuted on and a vast quarry that would kill you if you played there or swam in The Very Big Hole. So, of course, that’s what we did. As for school boyhood, I was OK, I think. I’m notorious for having very little memory of that time in my life. I remember winning a prize for painting a picture when I was wee, getting smacked with a ruler by the headmaster for something innocuous, and making a seal out of chicken wire and fake fur. You know: the usual…
If you had to pick one of your books as your favourite, which would it be and why? That’s a bit like asking a parent who their favourite child is. But, as long as no one’s going to tell the other books, my current favourite hasn’t been published yet. I wrote a couple of short novels during lockdown and they’re unashamedly fun with a nice mix of gruesome and silliness. I’ve no idea when they’ll see the light of day, but I really enjoyed writing them.
Have you ever been starstruck in the company of someone famous? Not really. The only person I think who would’ve provoked that kind of reaction from me would’ve been Spike Milligan. And I never met him.
How do you plan to write a new book? It all depends on the book. Some I plan from start to finish, some I plan the opening and closing and then see what happens as I go, and some I make up as I go along. The only consistent part is that there will probably be a mind map or three produced somewhere along the way. Oh, and I also keep notebooks stuffed full of rambling dialogues with myself, where I work through ideas about what’s going to happen next.
What are you afraid of? That I’m going to let people down.
Where do you find the inspiration for your characters? They come from all over, but in the Before Times a lot of them would be inspired by overheard snippets as I wandered slowly up and down the supermarket aisles. It used to drive my wife, Fiona, mad, but I’d visit every single aisle, even if I didn’t need anything from that section, listening in to other people’s conversations. The best ones were always when two people were going in the opposite direction, so I’d get different snippets on every aisle when I passed them, but always devoid of context. Filling in the blanks was always fun and could lead to some very dark places – which is useful when you write crime novels. But a gesture from a cashier, here, a word from a shelf-stacker, there, a strange way of walking from another shopper, and it all goes into the inspiration melting pot. Next thing you know: bingo, new character.
Your latest book, The Coffinmakers Garden is the 3rd in the Ash Henderson series, as a newcomer do these need to be read in order? I don’t think you need to read them in any sort of order – I’ve never been one for including backstory in my books, so you’ll only ever get hints about what happened in previous outings if it’s relevant to the story I’m telling at the time. If you do read the other books first, you might have a better understanding of why people are the way they are, but sometimes going backwards to previous books to uncover these things is part of the fun.
Which do you prefer cats or dogs? I’m a massive cat person. I gave DS Logan McRae (from my other series) a cat as an excuse to write about my beloved little girl, Grendel. Ash Henderson is the complete opposite to Logan, so I had to give him a dog. That said, I gave him an Aberdeen Terrier, AKA: Scottie Dog, and if I was to have a dog, it would definitely be one of those.
If there was a film of your life, which actor (dead or alive) would you like to play you? I don’t think I’ve led an interesting enough life to warrant a film. Bearded Man Sits At Home For Sixteen Years, Making Up Lies About People Who Don’t Exist isn’t exactly going to be a summer blockbuster, is it? There are far more interesting people to make films about.
You must pick 3 things to go into a time capsule to be opened in 50 years, what would you pick and why. Does the current cabinet count as ‘one thing’? Because if it does, and the time capsule is airtight, I’d definitely have them in there. But, assuming I’m not allowed to use it to purge our government ineptocracy, but if we’re looking to sum up what life’s like at the time the capsule is buried then I’d go for a big box of soiled facemasks, a laptop that only runs Zoom, and a DVD with the most ridiculous conspiracy theories available to the gullible members of society. I think you can guess why…
Do you find writing easy, and have you ever had any lessons? I don’t think writing should be all that easy. If it is, that means you’re not stretching yourself and trying to be a better writer. The easiest thing in the world would be to just sit there churning out the same book, time after time, with slightly different character names – and I’m sure we all know writers who do that – but I would look on that as a sign I’d failed and given up.
I’ve never taken lessons, or belonged to a writing group. Now that’s not to say I have anything against them, or that they don’t work for some people, I just never felt that they would work for me. No two writers are the same, so it’s OK for us all to have different approaches. Do whatever works for you.
If you had to pick one meal as you last, what would it be? Lavish. A huge array of delicious fresh sushi that just kept on coming and coming and coming.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer, and what’s the best advice you’ve been given? The best advice I can give is: do it for the fun of it. Write because you love it. Write because playing God is really quite addictive. Don’t do it because you think it’s going to make you rich and famous. It’s possible, but it requires a phenomenal amount of luck and it’s a sad truth that very few writers are able to make a living from their writing, so you really have to love what you’re doing for the sake of it. The best advice I’ve been given is: finish the damn book. That’s what makes you a writer.
You can pick 4 famous people, dead or alive, for a dinner party, who would you pick and why? Spike Milligan, Marion Chesney, Sandi Toksvig, and my wife, Fiona. Spike, because I love the wit, warmth, and pathos of his war diaries, and I grew up on the Goon Show. Marion, who’s better known as M.C. Beaton, because she was one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to have lunch or dinner with, and an absolute firebrand who took no crap from anyone. Sandi, because I’ve been listening to her for years on the radio, and she seems really nice. And my wife, because there’s no one I’d rather have dinner with. If she gets to be there anyway, then I’d go for John Finnemore to fill the fourth seat, for much the same reason as Sandi.
Which book of yours would you like made into a film? The book I’d love to see as a big blockbuster film is Halfhead, my near-future thriller set in a semi-dystopian Glasgow. It’s not that I’ve got anything against any of my other books, but if you were filming Halfhead you’d need a shedload of special effects and fancy props and it would be so incredibly cool to see all the stuff that came from my imagination turned into reality.
Who is your favourite band/artist? Right now it’s a fifty-fifty split between Frightened Rabbit and the Foo Fighters. Though I listened to nothing but Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen while I was writing The Coffinmaker’s Garden. Make of that what you will.
What piece of culture or trend that has died out, would you like to see come back? People not being arseholes online to people they’ve never met, nor ever will meet.
You’ve been given an elephant, you can’t get rid of it, what would you do with it? Look after it as best I could. Why can’t I get rid of it? Is there some sort of worldwide elephant glut going on? Has someone flooded the market with cheap elephants and now everyone’s got one and no one wants to take my perfectly good second-hand elephant? What kind of weird world are we living in where there’s no takers for a free elephant?
What would be the perfect crime? Pretty much anything committed by a senior politician – there don’t seem to be any repercussions or consequences for them any more, so they get away with whatever they fancy then tell everyone that nobody’s interested and it’s time to move on.
If you could go back to one historical event to witness it, what would it be and why? Dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRR!
I’d like to say a huge Thank You to Stuart MacBride for taking the time to answer my questions, and wish him the best of luck with The Coffinmakers Garden in the McIlvanney Prize 2021. Also thank you to Fiona Brownlee for giving me the chance of a lifetime on my humble blog!
Stuart MacBride is the Author of the Ash Henderson Series, Birthdays For The Dead, A Song For The Dying & The Coffin Makers Garden
Stuart MacBride is also author of The Logan McRae Series, plus several short story’s and standalones including Halfhead A Dark So Deadly and Now We Are Dead (A Roberta Steel Novel)
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