An Interview with Denise Mina

Article published on September 23, 2013.Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Denise Mina was born in Glasgow in 1966. Because of her father’s job as an engineer, her family moved twenty-one times in eighteen years from Paris to the Hague, London, Scotland and Bergen. After leaving school at sixteen and a run of poorly paid jobs, she went on to study Law at Glasgow University and researched a PhD thesis at Strathclyde. Misusing her grant, she stayed at home and wrote her first novel,Garnethill, which was published in 1998 and won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasy Dagger for best first crime novel. Since 1998 she has written ten further novels, including most recently, The Red Road. Denise also writes short stories, plays and comics, including writing Hellblazer, the John Constantine series for Vertigo, for a year. Since 2012 she has been adapting the Steig Larsson Millennium Trilogy as graphic novels. She is a regular contributor to TV and radio. In 2012The End of the Wasp Season won the prestigious Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award.

Mike Stafford asks the questions:

You’ve won two Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year awards on the bounce now. Are your hopes high for ‘The Red Road’ making it three?

I think the other writers might kill me and eat me if that happens. I honestly do. And I might help them by running slowly. There are so many great books out there, it’d be a shame really.

In your work, you tend to give a voice to the powerless and marginalised. Do you see yourself as a crusader?

More of a busybody. I think what’s interesting is all the voices we never hear. William McIlvanney said something along the lines of ‘if fiction is about examining the human experience, 80% of the witnesses have never been called.” I love to read about things that feel fresh and unknown.

In an interview with fellow crime writer Doug Johnstone, you mentioned you were interested in crime from the point of view of “following the ripples.” There’s more than a whiff of ‘Laidlaw’ to that; are we right in seeing the influence of William McIlvanney?

You know, very probably. I wrote the answer the question above before reading this one. I think empathy is one of the lovely things that happens as you get older: you start to see how everything is connected and you understand all the common graces and foibles. Ironically this happens just at the time when no one wants to listen to you because you’re old.

‘The Red Road’ captures the collective madness following the death of Princess Diana brilliantly. Do you think there was a permanent, fundamental shift in the British national character that day, or was it just an anomaly?

No, I think it was mass projection of sadness about other things. That’s what real great celebrities do: they remain blanks for us to project our own assumptions onto. Diana, the Queen, Kyle, they never really say anything. I think that overwhelming sadness was probably about as many things as there are people, but that doesn’t mean it was insincere or mistaken. It was perfectly genuine. Looking back it seems odd and disproportionate but that’s because we’re assuming it really was about Diana.

You’re resolutely opposed to traditional whodunnits. Is the crime novel increasingly becoming the social novel? And if so, would you consider yourself as being at the vanguard of any movement in that direction?

I think the chase-the-killer book is very much an American model and the crime as social novel is more of a European tradition. I sort of see myself more in a European mould. But you probably don’t want writers to tell you what they’re doing. We’re really responding to a compulsion and it’s for other, brighter minds to tell us what the hell we’re up to.

You avoid the binary good / evil distinction in your books, and ‘The Red Road’ is no different. How often in life do you think we’re presented with situations where the ‘right’ course of action is easy to identify and to follow?

Well, I always think the Malcolm Bradbury title -“eating People is Wrong’ is about as absolute as you can get. But then, if you were in an open boat on the Pacific for forty days…..

In ‘The Red Road,’ you touch on private sector encroachment into the justice system. As a political writer with an interest in justice, can you think of anything more alarming than the current “reforms” of the criminal justice system?

The reforms of the NHS. Why do we keep hearing stories in the press about the NHS ‘failing’? It isn’t. These stories are heralding something.

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