Saturday, August 21, 2010
A Visit with Bill Kirton
Bill Kirton began his career as an English actor, playwright and broadcast script writer. He now balances his police procedural novels with promotional work for North Sea oil companies at his home in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Bill, Tell us about your latest book.
My efforts recently have been going into writing three books for students in a series of ‘Brilliant’ books published by Pearson. They’re called Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essays and Brilliant Dissertations. The titles (I hope) are self-explanatory. But the latest novel to appear was The Figurehead. It’s a historical crime novel set in Aberdeen in 1840. It came about because a friend said to me one day ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver. I had no idea why he said that but, since my PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo and I love the whole revolutionary period of the 1830s and 1840s, I did some research and found I loved it. Readers of crime are very sophisticated and know all about DNA and other arcane forensic processes, so it’s good to set a crime novel at a time before we enjoyed such refinements.
My research involved lots of reading of contemporary newspapers and so on, but also I wanted to know how it felt to carve a figurehead so I joined a woodcarving class and that became a hobby of mine. I also signed on as part of the crew of the beautiful Norwegian square rigger Christian Radich and sailed from Oslo to Leith for the Tall Ships Festival. That was a very special experience.
When did you know you were a writer? Did you receive any encouragement along the way?
I think there’s a difference between when I knew I was a writer and when I heard other people say I was. I knew it from very early days–probably when I was around 11 years old, because I used to enjoy writing things–mainly funny stories but also playlets (awful, awful things–I found one a few years back and while I suppose it was OK for someone of that age, it definitely didn’t show any early promise).
As for encouragement, I don’t remember that with specific reference to writing, but Dad was a great reader and my brothers, sisters and I were all encouraged to do all sorts of things. But I was in my mid-twenties when I was invited to the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer, on the strength of some scripts I’d sent him, had told the director, the late Tony Church, that I was a playwright. Tony showed me round the place and we met one of his production team. Tony introduced me with the words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ I’d never heard it said before and I haven’t forgotten the pleasure it gave me.
When did you sell your first piece and to whom?
I wrote parodies of poetry for the school magazine and a couple of articles for the university newspaper but I think the first piece I got paid for was a radio play ‘An Old Man and Some People’ which was broadcast on Radio 3 and Radio 4 by the BBC in 1971, so I was 32. I’ve had several more broadcast since but, strangely, I think that was probably my best one.
Do you write full-time or do you have a "day job?"
I write full-time because writing is also my day-job. I used to be a lecturer in the French department of Aberdeen University, but I also did some TV and radio work. This led to me writing scripts for safety programmes and documentaries and then on into brochures, promotional and educational material and more or less all types of commercial documents and programmes. I live in Aberdeen, remember, so the oil industry always needed scripts and press releases. I was getting so much of that to do that I eventually took early retirement to concentrate on my writing.
This balancing of writing fiction and hard commercial fact is interesting. I’m always aware that the commercial work is what earns the money but I’m always happier when I’m writing what I call my own stuff. The commercial material has its own rewards. Most companies want to say the same things about themselves (i.e. how brilliant, safe and environmentally responsible they are), so there’s a challenge in finding new ways of saying it.
The worst part of it is when the management of a company (and this has happened with the biggest oil majors as well as smaller outfits), can’t be bothered to give a specific briefing about what they want and instead, hand you a bunch of technical manuals or their last dozen brochures and say ‘It’s all in there’. This means I’m not only a writer, I have to second-guess which parts of the manual or brochures is still relevant, needs to be stressed, etc. It takes ages, costs them more money because of the extra time I have to spend on it, and almost always needs rewriting because they realise that they’d forgotten to tell me to include X or Y or something.
But still, the fact that I can sit at home and make a living that way is far preferable to most other jobs I can think of.
What attracted you to mystery writing (police procedurals) and which author most influenced your own writing?
It seems as if all my answers are indirect because I didn’t really have this mystical thing which whispered to me ‘you must write a police procedural’. It was much more prosaic than that. I’d written mainly stage and radio plays and the occasional short story and one day I read of a novel-writing competition. So I started writing a novel. And that in itself was interesting because, like most other people, I thought ‘Wow, a novel. That’s long. Quite an undertaking.’ But I soon realised the perhaps obvious truth–that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write a few sentences, some paragraphs and, at the end of each day, the pile of pages is that much bigger.
And, if you’re enjoying it, you eventually see that it’s actually looking quite a substantial heap, so you’re determined to finish it. I did finish that one. It was a spoof crime novel and, in fact, I’m reworking it at present in the hope that a publisher might like it.
Having done that, I was ready to write another and that one (which eventually became The Darkness was triggered by a chance remark made by a waiter at a local restaurant. He had an English West Country accent. I said ‘You’re a long way from home’ and he told me he’d chosen to come as far away from his home as possible because his wife and two daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d spent just six months of his sentence in jail and was then released. ‘Two months for each life’, as the waiter said. It affected me very deeply and I retained it. It eventually grew into my second novel, which was a stand-alone thriller. My then agent sent it to Piatkus, an independent publisher in London, who said ‘we like it but we’re not doing thrillers at the moment. Has he got any police procedurals?’
I didn’t have but I immediately set about writing one, Material Evidence, which featured DCI Jack Carston. I actually invented a town for the setting. It’s called Cairnburgh and it’s not far from Aberdeen. My thinking was that I didn’t want to set it in Aberdeen in case I wanted to say nasty things about the police. As it happened, the year after it was published, some events in the Grampian force exceeded any fictional plots I could have imagined.
It was published in hardback, followed the next year by Rough Justice, also in hardback, and they’ve both now been published in paperback in the USA as part of the Bloody Brits series. I rewrote The Darkness to turn it into a Carston novel. It was published in December 2008, and there are two others completed and ready for final edits.
What's your writing schedule like? Would you rather write than watch a football game or other sporting event?
I work from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, with maybe fifteen minutes for lunch, and the time rarely drags. If I’m really into it, I go back for more in the evening, too.
Watching football is my relaxation from writing and, when it’s a good game, no, I’d rather watch the game. Because I’m basically lazy. But I do love writing. When I’m into a novel, I’m completely absorbed by it. I have no notion of the passage of time, or of self or surroundings or anything. It’s a great privilege to be able to lose oneself so completely in an activity.
What are the best and worst aspects of writing? And how long does a book take to finish?
The best part of writing is the loss of self in the process, the feeling of a reality (albeit fictional) unfolding as I write, the way the characters do what they want and often surprise me and the occasional feeling that a particular sentence–-even a simple, un-poetic one–-has exactly the right words and rhythms in it.
Another best part is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books and I know that they mean it. Often, it’s just a polite thing to say, of course, but sometimes their enthusiasm shows that they really have read it and thought about it. That’s very special.
The ‘How long’ question is hard. The idea for a book appears and disappears, then I remember it and think about how to treat it. The time all that takes is difficult to assess because it depends on so many variables. But when I’m ready to start writing, the process is fairly regular and I reckon an 80-90,000 word novel takes about six months. After that, it’ll get lots of tinkering, but the bulk of the work’s over in that time frame.
How do you feel about the current publishing market? Is it in the doldrums in the UK as well?
I know that, as a writer, I should be able to quote statistics and examples to show the state of publishing today, but I can’t. Not because I’m not interested but because I have no control over it all and I prefer to focus on my own writing and making sure it’s as good as I can make it. But I can’t help but know that publishing is in a pretty poor state. Scotland has been lucky in a way–no, not lucky, canny. Canongate, for example, in Edinburgh, published Barack Obama’s early works, and there’s a strong literary community in Scotland which is producing all sorts of interesting and powerful poetry, plays and novels.
But the market dictates to all, and it’s rather depressing to see best sellers chosen because they bear a celebrity name rather than the name of a real writer.
Are ebooks well accepted in the British Isles and do they sell well? Are there many publishers in Scotland who produce books in multi format?
I’m fascinated to know what’ll happen with e-books.You read a lot about them but I don’t think I know anyone yet who has a reader or who downloads e-serials. The arguments in favour of them are clear but equally the book as object is still doggedly admired and needed. Somehow, a book has a notion of permanence, endurance, whereas words on a screen are ephemeral, when you ‘turn the page’ they disappear. The big publishers are recognising the need to produce multi-format books, but the smaller ones either don’t have the expertise or perhaps the desire to branch out in that direction.
I also think that, for readers, the directness of the experience of reading a book in the conventional format is qualitatively different from reading from a screen. I don’t know what it is but, for example, when I edit, I often miss things on screen which I pick up when I print something out. I think for readers there’s an intimacy about ‘curling up with a good book’ that’s very special and can’t be replicated with an electronic version. I hope I’m wrong there and that the e-book will become as personal an object as a paperback, because I think e-publishing has helped to keep a decent market, especially for genre fiction.
Which American genres and authors are popular in Scotland? And which Scottish authors are bestsellers?
American crime writers are very popular here. I rarely look at the romance, fantasy or sci-fi shelves, so I’m not sure how well the USA is represented there. But crime, boosted even more perhaps by the popularity of TV series such as CSI and The Wire, has a strong presence on the shelves. As for authors, I think the ones we go for are the ones who are bestsellers for you, too–Lee Childs (who’s British, I know, but he writes distinctly American thrillers), Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain–well, you can fill in all the other names for yourself.
I think the same’s true for bestselling Scots too. Ian Rankin is obviously the top man, Val McDermid the top woman, and then there are many, many others writing good crime. One who deserves particular mention is Denise Mina. Her novels are full of compassion, humour, pain and the reality of life in today’s Glasgow.
Why do you write?
The simple answer is that I write because I can. I love words, what they do, how they sound, how they fit together. I consider myself lucky to have received, in my genetic make-up, an ability with words. That’s not a boast. In fact, I always quote something an artist friend of mine once said. We sometimes sat at meetings together and, by way of doodling, he’d draw wonderful pencil sketches of the people round the table. One day, I looked at one and said ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that.’ His reply was ‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t.’ It’s such a simple way of saying that having a specific talent isn’t a cause for self-congratulation; it’s something that comes as naturally as breathing. And we’re lucky to have been dealt such a hand.
Anything else you'd like to discuss?
Not really. I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you? There are more ramblings on my website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk. Thanks for letting me blether on like this.
Bill’s website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk
His blogsite: http://livingwritingandotherstuff.blogspot.com/