Article published on April 14, 2017.
Sheila A Grant was a big fan of Graeme’s His Bloody Project (as were Phil Ramage and Claire Thomas. So when we learned that Sheila knew Graeme’s mother we asked if she might be able to talk to him about the ‘overnight success’ of his book.
SG: Your book outsold all the other nominees. Why do you think that was?
GMB: I think initially it was because of the amount of press coverage the book got. Faced with a longlist of 13 books, journalists need to find an angle and both the David & Goliath (small publisher/unknown author) and the ‘crime-novel-on-the-Booker-longlist’ angles played very well in the media. But I’d like to think that since the book has begun to find a readership, it’s continued to sell because people have responded to characters and found the story compelling.
SG: The media tended to dwell on the theme as a ‘crime novel’ and how surprising to have such a genre in the Booker list. Did that annoy you?
GMB: I think of the book as a novel about a crime, rather than a crime novel, but I don’t really object to the label. On the one hand I think it’s obvious from the opening pages that the book is certainly not a conventional whodunit or police procedural, but I think crime fiction is a pretty broad church and there’s a long tradition, going back at least as far as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which focuses more on the psychology of the criminal rather than on any ‘mystery’ elements.
SG: You’re right, it is more than a thriller – it is Scottish history – as Val McDermid said. There is a well publicised image of Scotland in the past as either wild Scotsmen in kilts waging war on other clans or in contrast the romantic heather clad hills etc theme. Would you agree with that? Did you deliberately set out to show the reality of the horrendously hard times crofters had until not all that long ago when they were completely at the mercy of land owners and their agents.?
GMB: My focus is on the psychology of the characters. Having decided to set my novel in a nineteenth-century crofting community, it was, of course, necessary to describe the way of life of the characters, but I didn’t do this out of any didactic motives – these details are there to serve the characters and plot of the novel.
SG: His Bloody Project was your second published book? Are there others lying in drawers somewhere?
GMB: In the 1990s I wrote a pretty generic crime novel set in a thinly-disguised Kilmarnock. I’m now glad it failed to find a publisher. I also wrote numerous short stories and three or four novels to about 30,000 words before abandoning them. I see this all as part of learning the craft of writing (which I’m still doing) and would certainly never try to resurrect any of them.
SG: It is an amazing feat to be nominated and to reach the shortlist with a second book. Has it sunk in yet? Tell us of some of the unexpected events you have enjoyed or been invited to attend.
GMB: The best thing about the wider attention the book has had is that it will now be published in countries all over the world and I’ve been invited to attend festivals from Adelaide to Ullapool. In the run-up to the Man Booker announcement, I did a few events with Paul Beatty, the eventual winner, and you couldn’t wish to meet a more easy-going and affable guy. It would be nice to hook up for a beer sometime, but I suspect he’s rather busy at the moment.
SG: And film rights? It would make a superb film.
GMB: We sold a screen option to a Glasgow-based independent company called Synchronicity long before the Man Booker nomination. Of course, the idea of a screen adaptation is exciting, but it’s a very long and difficult road to get anything into production, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
SG: At one time I made a point of reading the Man Booker prizewinner every year. I have to say some of them were hard going. Yours is a rattling good story, albeit a literary and well researched one. I would say that your book had a unique quality – would you agree?
GMB: It’s really not for me to say, is it? My concern is to create characters and a narrative that engage readers. I want them to feel immersed in the milieu of the book. Trying to be original or ‘unique’ never enters my head.
SG: Your first novel, also excellent, bears little resemblance to His Bloody Project. What is next?
GMB: Although The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is set in France around 1980 and is stylistically quite different, I actually think there are significant similarities between the two books. Of course, that was something I only realised after I finished His Bloody Project. I’m currently working on a second book set in Saint-Louis and featuring the detective, Georges Gorski, from The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.
SG: Did you always want to write?
GMB: I’ve been writing off-and-on since I was a teenager.
SG: Obviously we are all familiar with this recent success and it all looks so easy. I am sure it was not overnight or was it?
GMB: You’re the first person who’s said it looks easy. Aside from the apprenticeship of writing the unpublished and unfinished novels I mentioned before, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau took me about three years to write and almost another three to get published. His Bloody Project took two and a half years to write and had been out for eight months before the Man Booker brought it to a wider audience. So, more of a decade-long struggle than an overnight success.
Sheila A. Grant