This week we're sitting down to chat with Bill Kirton, author of satirical crime thrillers, including his latest, The Sparrow Conundrum.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Bill. For those who haven't yet had a chance to enjoy your work, please tell us a little about yourself and what we can expect.
I took early retirement from university teaching to concentrate on writing. I've also done a few other jobs – acting, directing, voice-overs, TV presenting, writing fellowships. As far as my novels go, the main output is the series of 5 mysteries featuring DCI Jack Carston. They’re set in North East Scotland and follow the whodunit and/or whydunnit pattern but I’ve tried to avoid genre clichés. Carston, for example, is happily married and there’s usually a coda at the end of the books suggesting that, while this particular case has been solved, crime is a constant aspect of life. I also write satire, humour, historical crime/romance and children’s stories. I’m classed as a crime writer but I’d rather just be a writer. I’d like readers to laugh a lot but also to think about some of the things that crop up in the narratives.
Q: The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one, even in the era of small presses and digital publishing. When did you begin writing, and what has the journey to publication been like?
I’ve been writing for decades. My first broadcast output was radio drama on the BBC and Australian BC and stage plays which were performed in Scotland and the USA. I’ve no idea why I changed to novels but back in the 90s I sent my first one to an agent who liked it and took me on. She sent my book to Piatkus, who also liked it but wanted police procedurals instead, so I wrote one (Material Evidence) and they published it. Since then I’ve been traditionally published in the USA and, when the publisher had to close, I followed the Indie route and published my 9 novels as ebooks and paperbacks. The process was surprisingly easy and certainly quick and cheap. I’m happy, though, to be part of the Thorstruck family now and will be transferring most, if not all my books to them. Being an Indie gives you almost total freedom but having also to do marketing and PR means you lose a lot of writing time.
Q: In terms of writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?
Blurbs and titles take far longer then they should. I mean, when you’ve written a story of 90,000 words, reducing it to a couple of hundred – or even fewer – is very hard. As for the book itself, it’s often slow going at the beginning, not because I’m striving for the perfect, attention-grabbing opener but because some of the characters haven’t yet formed and need to say and do a few things before they have any substance. Once they’ve done that, though, I can usually rely on them to take the story where it needs to go. Occasionally, I get stuck because they’ve taken me to an impasse but that’s usually the cue to rethink the plot. Sometimes, the person I thought was guilty turns out to be the good guy and an apparently innocent one has done the killing. Whenever that happens, the result is always better than my original instinct. That doesn’t happen, though, with the satire/humour books. Once the characters are up and running, I just enjoy being with them and get plenty of laughs from what they do.
Q: Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when developing a series that touches on multiple genres. Were there any twists or turns in your writing that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans for the story?
Ooops, I realise I’ve just answered this question. For me, it’s not a question of ‘sometimes’ but ‘always’. I was chairing a panel at the Edinburgh book festival one year and one of the panellists said ‘You’ve got to give your characters room to dance’. That was a beautiful way of summing up how the process works. In an early radio play, I used the characters to illustrate some imagery of expansion and contraction that, to me, fitted the play’s theme. The problem was that I then began forcing them to say things I wanted to say rather than letting them be themselves. A review of the play in a national magazine began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’ and I agreed completely with that assessment. I hadn’t given them room to dance or to be themselves.
Q: When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?
One bit of basic advice I give when asked is that you should separate the functions of writer and editor. When you write the first draft, don’t worry too much about technical things – spelling, grammar, etc. – just let the story flow. But then, having set it aside for as long as possible, come back to it as an editor (and reader) and start polishing it and getting rid of anything that gets in the way of reading pleasure. There’s definitely satisfaction in getting the rhythms of prose right or of twisting the story to create surprise and, most of all, there’s enormous pleasure in reading reviews which have lots of LOL references. Negative reviews are useful except when they arise from the reviewers’ prejudices rather than anything that happens in the book. Writing with readers or reviewers in mind would never work for me. It has to be just me and the characters – anyone else would destroy the fiction.
Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've encountered to -date?
Two things. In one of my books, there’s a rape scene. I asked my wife to check it from the woman’s point of view and she made some great suggestions of reactions which would never have occurred to me. The book was reviewed in The Sunday Telegraph by a top crime reviewer, who praised it and acknowledged that the rape scene wasn’t gratuitous but essential to the plot resolution. An Amazon reviewer, however, was shocked by it (fair enough) but then said that when you read that sort of thing you have to ‘"question the author’s psyche’.
Another Amazon review of a different book was entitled ‘What's the Weather Forecast?’ and this is it:
‘An interesting story overall, but really - what is it about British authors that make them write extensively about the terrain and the weather - and not only that, but the history of the weather and the weather in relation to surrounding areas and different seasons. A simple "It was raining." would do. The story could have been cut quite a bit shorter without all of the weather and rolling hills.’
The fact is that the story opens on an offshore installation, where weather is always a significant factor in whatever’s happening. There are 2 paragraphs establishing what a dangerous place it is, especially in a gale which throws hailstones at you. And that’s it. I checked the manuscript to see what had upset the reviewer so much and, in over 86,000 words, the word ‘weather’ occurs 4 times and, overall, there are 9 references to things such as rain and wind – each of them one-liners. As for the ‘rolling hills’ – the expression never appears and there are only 2 references to ‘hills’ which, since it’s set in Scotland, seems very restrained to me.
Q: To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?
I've always written so I don’t think I can say that any particular writer got me started, but I enjoy reading writers such as Tom Sharpe, Terry Pratchett, Carl Hiaasen and others that I’d like to emulate them. That’s what The Sparrow Conundrum is aimed at. When I taught, though, I had to give lectures and tutorials on French literature, especially the great 19th century novelists and I learned so much from them. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve read Madame Bovary, for example, but I still enjoy it. I sometimes just read a couple of pages to remind myself of the importance of choosing exactly the right word, getting the right rhythms, and making the gaps between events as important as the events themselves. We’re always learning.
Q: Assuming you had total creative control over the production, who would you cast as the leading roles, were your work to be optioned for the big screen?
In fact, a Los Angeles company has optioned one of my short stories for the screen. I won’t have any say in the casting (that’s if it ever happens) but it’s nice to know that someone thinks the story’s interesting enough to want to film it. My ideal casting for, say, Jack Carston and his wife Kath might be Alan Rickman and Olivia Coleman, but I’d be happy to leave that to the director. Film and theatre are great collaborative media and the things they produce differ greatly from the books on which they’re based, so I think the director would know better than the writer what would work best.
Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there another story yet to be told in your latest world, or perhaps something completely different on the horizon?
I’m writing the sequel to my historical novel The Figurehead at the moment but recently I've been feeling I’d maybe like to get back to drama, so that’s a possibility. But I’ve also started a sequel to The Sparrow Conundrum and I want to write the last in the Carston series, so plenty for me to look forward to. And, of course, I’m now with Thorstruck so who knows what that will bring?
About the Author
He’s also been a TV presenter, a voice-over artist, and a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and the universities of Dundee and St Andrews. His non-fiction output includes Just Write, co-written with Kathleen McMillan and five books in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series: Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essay, Brilliant Dissertation, Brilliant Work Skills and Brilliant Academic Writing.
His novels, two of which have won awards, are set in the north east of Scotland. Material Evidence, Rough Justice, The Darkness, Shadow Selves and Unsafe Acts all feature DCI Jack Carston. The Figurehead is a historical novel set in Aberdeen in 1840, The Sparrow Conundrum is a satirical crime spoof and Alternative Dimension is a satirical look at the online worlds where virtual and real overlap. He’s also written a children’s novel, The Loch Ewe Mystery and some other children’s stories. His short stories have appeared in the Crime Writers’ Association annual anthology in 1999, 2005 and 2006 and one was chosen as one of the Best British Crime Stories, Vol. 7, a 2010 anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowsky.
About the Book
The Sparrow Conundrum by Bill Kirton
Published June 26th 2014 by Thorstruck Press
Chris Machin may think he’s just a teacher but the bottom feeders in Aberdeen squabbling over North Sea oil and gas contracts prefer to use his code-name – Sparrow. When his garden explodes, he takes flight, unleashing various forms of Scottish mayhem.
More complications are added by his ex girl friend and a sociopathic policeman whose hobbies are violence, making arrests and, best of all, combining the two. Several murders later, two wrestlers, a road trip to Inverness, a fishing trawler, a Russian factory ship, and some fragments of a postman complete the enigma of…
… The Sparrow Conundrum.