Acid attacks, crucifixions and a new Patricia Cornwell: Caro Ramsay's Writing Life interview

Caro Ramsay’s debut “Absolution” is one of the most disturbing thrillers you’ll ever read. It features a beautiful woman who’s the victim of an acid attack and a series of disembowelments in the “Crucifixion killings” of young women. Caro’s also from one of the roughest neighborhoods of Glasgow, where she sets her novels. Would it surprise you to learn, then, that’s she’s an extremely charming person? We met last year at an awards dinner in London (where she trained as an osteopath) and I’m delighted that she agreed to answer the questions I pose in The Writing Life. (For American readers, osteopathy is a British form of medicine involving manipulation of the muscles and bones. It hasn’t really taken off in the U.S. It’s a bit like what a U.S. chiropractor does. Although I’m sure I’ll get emails now from outraged osteopaths and critical chiropractors who disagree. In any case, it doesn’t involve crucifixion, although my mother who once had to visit an osteopath for a slipped disc said it felt like it.) Out earlier in May in the UK, Caro’s new book “Singing to the Dead” was, for many of her fans, a long time coming – not that she’s been lazy, it’s just that a year and a half is a long time to wait in the world of crime fiction! But the response from readers, who’ve already made it a bestseller in Scotland, shows that it was worth it. She’s often compared to fellow crime-writing Scot Ian Rankin – he’s Edinburgh to her Glasgow. With her own medical background, a better comparison might be the medical thrillers of Patricia Cornwell.

How long did it take you to get published?

The first thing I wrote was picked up by an agent and sold to Penguin so it was instant for me. It was never a plan of mine to become an author. I was lying in a hospital bed unable to move for a long time and wrote 250,000 words because I was so bored. Those words became two novels - Absolution and Singing To The Dead.

How long did it take you to get published?

The first typescript I sent away was accepted by an agent and subsequently sold to Penguin. My agent does do a fair bit of in-house editing and I think they saw in that first draft somebody who had a gift for writing but who had no idea how to put a novel together. But once I had learned that (very hard) lesson the book was immediately offered to Michael Joseph at Penguin and they immediately accepted. So compared to other authors I was very lucky. The lucky thing was having a very good agent!

Would you recommend any books on writing?

None that I have found really helpful. I think I found it of more benefit to read a lot in my own genre, finding out what worked for me and what didn’t. My philosophy is to write what I would want to read!

What’s a typical writing day?

Chaotic. I get up about six thirty, feed animals, do some writing, look at the next bit that needs done, go to work, think about what I am going to write next while driving etc come home at night and eat a sandwich for tea while writing the bit that has been forming and evolving in my mind during the day. I have two big writing days a week when I sit all day and type. On these days I can do 7,000 words a day easily. Plot problems tend to work themselves out when you are not sitting at the computer. I have no problems with discipline, I am obsessive about it and if don’t write every day I get withdrawal symptoms. An academic summed it up for me – creativity time and productivity time. They are not the same thing.

Plug your latest book, what’s it about? Why’s it so great?

It’s about child abduction, food tampering, the nature of celebrity, sibling rivalry, murder, death … usual every day stuff of life’s rich tapestry. As it was written at the same time, it is technically, the second half of the first book, but it has a very different flavour. It’s very up close and personal. A serial killer out on the dark streets of Glasgow in mid winter is one thing but suspecting he might be sitting next to you on the bus every morning is much more chilling!! As I write it’s sitting at number 4 in the charts (crime Scotland!) so I‘m feeling very pleased.

How much of what you do is:

a) Formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) Formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) As close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

Good question for somebody who has only written three books! I like my genre, I like my characters, so there is a very precise framework that I work within, yet within that framework I think it is possible to write books of different style and timbre. I’m not really an experienced writer at all, I’m from a medical background and I feel I need the support of my well known supporting cast to help me through. I have never felt the need to break away from my serial characters but time will tell.

I am a bit tentative about saying it because I don’t think I can look at it objectively myself but it has been reviewed as one of the best novels this year so far and a Canadian review said “crime writing does not get any better.” For some reason I already have a big following in Canada all those ex-pat Scots maybe.

What’s your favourite sentence in all literature, and why?

“I’d far rather be happy than right!” Slartiblartfast says it in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams. Great philosophy on life and it’s a fantastic closing line if losing an argument at a party. I’m having it on my gravestone.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Am I allowed the only one I remember most clearly? It’s the first paragraph of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, a fantastic book full of philosophy and wisdom re the nature of our relationship to the world around us.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

Have to say since I started writing I have no time to read, so I’ll pass on this one re the word currently. But PD James full stop!

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Nobody really stands out, I’m afraid. I know Reginald Hill’s plots are not horrifically complicated but it’s hard to see past him for plot/ character balance. As you might guess, I don’t read much American crime so apologies for that!

How much research is involved in each of your books?

A full time, demanding job means I do write about what I know so lots of medical stuff per murder. I have lots of friends in low places (cops and lawyers) who love to help out over a coffee… and the rest is done on the internet. The third book is about malignant narcissism. My training in psychology helps me to plan the book, then I very carefully research the specifics I need. Only a fine peppering of the research I do gets in the book.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

My characters tend to arrive in my head fully formed and ready to go. (This can be a sign of mental illness!) I know there is a debate as to whether characters can take over the plot … the ‘whose fingers are on the keyboard?’ argument. But in my case, they do and layers of their persona come out as the demands on the character grow (often to my surprise) but I guess that’s the creative subconscious mind working in full flow.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

No, not really. I had a very nice childhood in what would be considered the deep badlands of Govan, one of the hardest areas of inner city Glasgow. I make a conscious decision not to portray my home city in that way, it’s been done to death – pardon the pun.

I think all writers have a tendency to look on life from a slightly sideways perspective and I’ve always been aware of that. My siblings and I could view the same situation and I would walk away with a totally different interpretation of events - mine always being slightly on the dark side.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

I’m still finding my way in this writing world but I run a very successful practice outside my writing life. The same rules apply in any walk of business - give value for money, show you care, do that little extra … and they will remember you as a ‘good thing.’ I get paid a lot of money for my books so when my publisher tells me to jump, my only question is ‘how high?’

What’s your experience with being translated?

My natural language is broad Glaswegian and my editor sometimes asks to translate it into English!! But foreign transcripts have been very kind, i.e. the word ‘skelf’ is a common word for a splinter (as you would get in your fingertip from a rough piece of wood). A few translators emailed me to gauge the politeness of this word. Once I told them my 105 year old granny would use it… they were happy. In some languages I think a splinter can have a rather rude connotation! My experience of translation has been very positive.

Do you live entirely off your writing?

I could live off my writing now but I’m blessed to do a day job I love so I don’t want to give it up. I get paid lots for my hobby, but I can see a time, maybe after book four when I will have to choose. Not a decision I am looking forward to.

How many books did you write before you were published?

Got the first one published. No dusty typescripts under the bed or anything.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Ermmm, a very drunk Irish journalist had a go at me - a teetotal Glaswegian in a bar at one in the morning … (he was never going to win) and after a few choice words on both sides, we found out our granddads knew each other! After that we were the best of pals – a very Celtic thing!

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

There’s a cartoon character who appears in book two, Squidgy McMidge who is a very politically incorrect cartoon character who goes about causing chaos with his friend Bonsai McMidge. But as I write this there has already been an approach made re the copyright of Squidgy The Mighty McMidge. He even has his own theme tune now. And a Tee –shirt!

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