Questions and Answers
You were born in Scotland. Is your Scottish
identity important to you?
Yes, of course! I've always seen myself as Scots
first and British second - most Scots do. The culture and the history
is very different from those of the rest of the UK. Since the mid-90s,
Scottish devolution and the way Scots define themselves have been
major political issues. I was fortunate to return to Edinburgh at
that time. Body Politic was substantially rewritten when I was living
in the city and I'm sure that gave the novel at least some of the
resonance it's had with readers.
Did having a father who was a writer make you
I don't know whether writers are born or made
- it's the old nature/ nurture debate. I'm sure that growing up
with a writer and meeting famous writers were factors in my eventual
career choice. I always liked the freedom that the profession gives
its practitioners - no bosses hassling you, no commute to work,
no early morning start if you don't want it (and I definitely don't).
But you have to be keen on solitude and introspection to be a writer.
That can be both a blessing and a curse in terms of the effects
on people close to writers.
The rumour is that you were at school with
British prime minister Tony Blair. True or false?
I made the mistake of mentioning that Tony Blair
and I were at Fettes College in the first magazine interview I ever
did, back in 1997. Since then it's become an albatross round my
neck, one that journalists are perpetually fascinated by. In fact
the venerable Blair was four years ahead of me and in a different
house, so I had nothing to do with him. All I remember about him
was that he was a very good actor. Nuff said.
Why did you choose to study Greek?
Difficult one. I came across the old Penguin translation
of Homer's Odyssey when I was six or seven and immediately got into
it. Any child with an imagination would. The Cyclops, the journey
to the underworld, the return of the hero to his home - the epic
is full of archetypal characters, plots and themes. Then I got it
into my head that I wanted to study ancient Greek. Not many schools
in Scotland offered the subject so, as my father was flush from
his writing at the time, I ended up at Fettes. The fact that, even
there, Greek was a minority interest was another factor. I've never
been one for running with the pack.
As a child, were you a reader or a doer?
Both. I always enjoyed sport, especially rugby
and athletics, and I was an inveterate tree climber and hill walker.
But I was always into reading, could read before I started primary
school, and I can still remember the books I read as a child.
Apart from the Odyssey, what were they?
Most significant of all for my future career,
Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. I was completely taken up
by the Great Detective's world and reread the stories endlessly.
Conan Doyle is still one of my greatest idols - he's a much darker
and deeper writer than he's given credit for. Apart from that, I
used to read a lot of non-fiction - war stories (that's what boys
did back then), natural history, exploration and so on. I never
got into children's fiction and was reading adult thrillers by the
time I was eleven or twelve.
Why did you choose to go to university in Oxford?
I wanted to study classics and Oxford is about
as good a place to do that as there is. In fact, by the time I got
there I had already experienced a major conversion. I worked in
Greece for six months as a tourist guide and I suddenly realised
that I was more interested in the modern language and culture than
the ancient (which is not to say that I've lost interest in the
ancient world, just that the contemporary is more vibrant and engaging).
Fortunately there's a small sub-faculty of modern Greek at Oxford,
so I was able to change course.
You changed tack again when you left university.
My father had been in the Merchant Navy, but that
wasn't really a factor. I wanted a job that would entail travel
and I wanted to use my Greek. Both duly came to pass, but I didn't
enjoy the shipping industry - it was cut-throat and very soulless.
However, my experience of business has been useful in handling the
commercial side of being an author.
You moved to Greece in 1987. Was that the fulfilment
of a long-held ambition?
Yes, I'd always wanted to have a holiday home
in Greece. When the American company I was working for went spectacularly
bankrupt, dropping out of the rat race (another ambition) was too
tempting to pass up. By that time I was itching to write and was
sure, in the irritatingly certain way that some would-be writers
have, that this was my destiny. Living in Greece was relatively
cheap back then and by working as a part-time teacher I could spend
hours every day writing.
It took you seven years to get a publishing
contract. How did you manage to keep going?
God knows. Sheer bloody-mindedness, probably.
Looking back at that time, I really don't understand how I kept
at it. I had an agent for three years so I suppose that was a vote
of confidence in my novice abilities, but she walked away a year
before I finally made good. I suppose the point is that unpublished
writers are writing primarily for themselves, so not getting a contract
isn't the end of the world - at least that's what they tell themselves.
I'm not complaining. There are plenty of writers who spend much
longer than I did knocking at the door.
Did you spend those seven years writing crime
No, the first three (still unpublished and probably
unpublishable) novels I wrote were "literary", whatever
that means. They did have elements of crime in them, so the decision
to write something more mainstream wasn't a complete change of direction.
My academic time had pushed me towards literary fiction, but my
family background and my own reading helped to draw me back into
the fold of mass market writing.
Body Politic made quite a splash (newspaper
serialisation, a lot of reviews, the Creasey Dagger for best first
crime novel of 1997). Were you prepared for that?
Not really. Publishing is still a very volatile
business despite the big conglomerates and bookstores. Until a book
hits the reviewers' desks and the shops, no one really knows what's
going to happen. The fact that Body Politic appeared two months
before the devolution referendum in Scotland definitely helped.
I was lucky that I had business experience, so making presentations
and doing interviews weren't as terrifying as they might have been.
The Quint series numbers five novels now. Is
it going to continue?
Maybe. I've used up a lot of my Scottish (and
Oxford) knowledge and experience in the books, which is why I'm
starting a new series based in Greece. If people want more Quints,
all they have to do is let me know.
You had a house on a small island in Greece.
Why didn't you use Antiparos as a location for the first book in
the Mavros series?
You must be joking! The local population would
either have demanded why they weren't in the book, or would have
complained that I hadn't done them justice. It was much easier,
and a lot more fun, to invent my own island, Trigono.
The Mavros series seems to have stopped after
three books, with the central question - what happened to Alex's
brother Andonis? - unresolved. Why?
To be brutally honest, because not enough
people bought the books.- I still have hopes of coming back to Mavros, and the republication of the first three books in May 2009 might well kick-start the series.
You've started a new series featuring
crime writer Matt Wells. Do you have other ideas on the back-burner?
I have numerous plans on my jumbo-sized Aga. Some
I can't write about for commercial reasons. But I can give you a
few pointers. I have longstanding interests in the late Victorian
and Edwardian periods, the First World War, the Second World War,
the future, and my native country Scotland. Let's see how many of
those appear in upcoming books…
You’ve now written four novels featuring Matt Wells. How does it feel having a crime writer as your protagonist?
You mean, would I like to have a life like Matt Wells’s? Well, I guess there’s a degree of wish fulfillment. What crime novelist wouldn’t like to beat up a bad guy, fire a gun, order law enforcement personnel around? But, really, Wells is a character like any other. He’s the product of my imagination, not an extension of my personality. When I’ve had enough of him, he’ll be dropped like a stone. So cruel…
Are you excited by the prospect of returning to Alex Mavros?
Yes! And scared! It’s weird going back to a character whose brain I last entered seven
years ago. I’ve changed so he will have done so too (though not too much, as there
won’t be much of a gap in time since his previous case). I’ve still got a lot to say about Greece and plenty of plans for Alex. Since the last book, my son Alexander has been born. It’ll be strange using his name in a novel all the time…