What first drew you to the mystery/suspense genre?
I love reading mysteries; I especially love novels that give a sense of time and place. My favorites are too many to mention but Donna Leon, Mala Nunn, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, and Laura Lipman are wonderful. I love mysteries that immerse the reader in another culture so I am a fan of Scandinavian and Icelandic crime writers and the Aurelio Zen stories set in Sicily.
Is there a different process to writing a suspense novel than writing other types of fiction?
Writing a suspense novel makes the reader (and the writer) try to puzzle out what is going on, so a writer can use this curiosity to explore themes that interest them. For example, small town newspapers are a true reflection of a community, every town has at least one and they haven't changed much in sixty years. What have changed are national newspapers and magazinesfor better or worse is a matter of conjecture. So the writing process doesn't change, but the opportunity to reflect while plotting or solving the mystery are more.
A Small Death in the Great Glen has a large cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own thoughts and feelings. Was it difficult to develop so many characters in one book?
Sitting in cafés, traveling by train or bus, watching people as they go about everyday life, I find myself constantly imaging their inner lives. I give them family and friends, but more than that, I imagine their dreams. Sometimes this habit gets me into trouble; when I am telling a story, I have to stop and think, did this really happen or was it something I made up? People, characters, everyday life is fascinating and complex, much more so that big events.
Which character in your book do you admire most, and why?
What a tough question! I think Jenny McPhee would be my choice; she is who she is, with no doubts, no questions. She is sure of her history, her family, and she can move around the country whenever the fancy takes her. I love strong women. Most of all I envy her singing voice.
Malla Nunn, author of A Beautiful Place to Die, commended you for your "intimate knowledge of the Scottish Highlands." Besides having grown up there, did you conduct any special research to add to the authenticity of your story's setting?
I have a detailed, large scale, contour map of the area printed in 1954. The colors are beautiful and the shades of green and brown and blue are a wonderful 'aide memoire' to my childhood. Also, when I was at school we went everywhere by bicycle, often long distances, this is the best way to know and remember a place. In those days, even a nine-year-old could wander off on her own. A sense of smell is also important. Close your eyes, think of the time of year and remember what is smells like. This always works for me.
When did you first learn of "hoodie crow," and why did you choose to reference it in your novel?
Hoodie cows were (are) scary creatures. The first time I remember encountering them was innocently watching newborn lambs cavorting in a field of snow. Then, seeing blood and a dead lamb, the farmer told us it had been attacked by hoodies. Horrible! The hooded crow, to give it its proper name, is associated with the faeries and there are numerous references to them in myths, legend, and folk tales. Twa Corbies (Two Crows) is a famous Scottish poem or song where the crows sit on a dyke discussing dining on a slain knight lying beneath them. These are the tales and songs we grew up on.
Many characters in your novel are considered outcasts by the community, whether it be for their gender, occupation, or nationality. Can you discuss this theme and why it is so important to the book?
Another hard questionand a rather revealing one. Perhaps it is because I was one of those children who drove adults crazy, always asking questions, never content with the answer, always attracted to anything unusual, never to the safe and normal and, to me, boring town.
Which writers have had the most significant effect on your own writing? How did their work affect your own?
Robert Louis Stevenson (RSL) to us Scots; he is the novelist above all others. One of my ambitions is to visit his grave in Samoa and say 'Thank You.' Coorying under the quilt on a stormy, rainy, or snowy night and reading Kidnapped or Treasure Island, scaring myself, losing myself, in warm Caribbean waters or the windswept stormy Minch, every sentence was magic to me. He also showed me a life beyond a small town in Scotland and opened up the idea of living a life of possibilities.
What's next for the staff of the Highland Gazette?
In the next book the Highland Gazette starts to change and all I can say is that it is more of the same, but very different. As the Gazette expands, McAllister hires some outlandish new contributors, and the scene is set more on the east coast than out west. The theme came to me from the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful." There is one character in the new book that absolutely fascinates me and the more I explore this person the more intrigued I become. There are also new characters that touch on Scotland's part in strange and exotic events in the Far East in the nineteenth century.
A Small Death in the Great Glen is your first published novel. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for aspiring novelists?
Just give it a go, with no expectations other than the joy of writing, of creating. If you really want to write, write every day, a few words, a few lines, but commit to it wholeheartedly. Above all, read; read everything, anything, read voraciously, give up everything else to read, read, read
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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