I was lucky enough to catch up with Louise Welsh on the phone recently and chat to her on behalf of the local Sisters in Crime chapter. We talked about her latest book - NAMING THE BONES, crime fiction, education and that ongoing question - so what is it about Scotland and all those fantastic writers (amongst a lot of other things).
NAMING THE BONES is the latest book from Louise Welsh and it is ostensibly the story of Murray Watson and his research into the life of poet Archie Lunan. More than that, this is a book about obsession, closed societies and family relationships.
One of the elements that readers of Louise's books will notice is that there is always a strong sense of place and character. Louise believes very much in creating a visual sense, often a very contained world, and the art of taking a character and a reader into that place. In NAMING THE BONES the closed society is a combination of a university and an island.
In this book Murray's childhood is in his mind because of the death of his father and Murray's unresolved guilt / anger at his father. As Louise puts it, an author often has a backwards view of events. This is something that comes out very clearly in the structure of the story in NAMING THE BONES. The way that Murray's life moves forward against a constant backward pull is palpable.
Given the intensity of all of Louise's subject matter, I was interested to see if the writing was an emotional rollercoaster. Whilst trying leave it at her desk, walk away and shake the story off, it is often writing the smaller things, for example, a libretto for an opera, that can be even more emotional. Perhaps because there is less time to rationalise what she is happening to a character?
What was particularly interesting was the amount of thought and consideration that goes into so many of the scenes in the books. There is an example in NAMING THE BONES where Murray is slogging through a lot of mud in an attempt to get to a particular geographical place, that is also leading to considerable emotional impact for him. Louise described the process of developing that scene - thinking through how it would feel to be in that place, the technical implications of what he had to do at the end of the journey, how he would be feeling physically, emotionally, and so on. Louise believes that writers need a particular kind of stamina. They need to practice the craft, work it, think about it all the time. Summed up best in her own version of a Jodi Picoult quote "I have days when it is awful, but at least I can edit something awful, you can't edit a blank page". (The exact quote from Picoult's website is "... if it's writing time, I write. I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can't edit a blank page.")
Louise didn't particularly start out to be a "crime writer" as such, but appreciates the way this group of writers keep their feet firmly on the ground. Although not a fan of the "travel" bit of travelling, hanging out with readers and other writers is the bonus at the end of the trip, as well as being immensely grateful for the chance to visit places she would never have expected to be. As most of her books have been set in and around Scotland or areas that she knows, I did take the opportunity to ask about locations. Whilst Louise has dabbled with other places, such as Berlin, ultimately bringing the story and the characters "home" is important. Possibly that is part of the reason why the sense of place works so well in these books - the place is as familiar to the writer as it becomes to the reader?
Inevitably, when considering the waves of excellent crime fiction coming from specific locations, the question of "what is it about Scotland" comes up. Here we wandered into some absolutely fascinating territory. Being so closely connected to Scandinavia (Norway in particular), there is a sense of shared sensibility between the locations - and there is excellent crime fiction coming out of both locations. Social issues being explored is a common thread, although there is difference sense of humour in Scottish fiction, slightly edgy possibly harsh to those readers not used to it. Louise also made the observation that education is highly regarded in Scotland, and this creates immense opportunities for everyone, with a feeling that you can be anything you want. This possibly gives rise to a larger percentage of writers from different backgrounds, with a a different sensibility, viewpoint and life experience. There is also a strong desire and tradition of story telling in Scotland, as it is in Ireland. Here we got into a very interesting area of discussion as to why there is less of a push from Wales, for example, ultimately musing whether or not it was a question of preserving cultural heritage. Wales does it through their own language, their music and poetry. Scotland and Ireland through their story-telling, and a need to preserve tradition orally, combined with that sense of humour (not to say that any culture has less of any of those individual elements!). All in all it was a very thought-provoking discussion. Perhaps it's not just something in the Scottish water - it's something in the Gaelic sense of tradition.
Louise also sees how pleasing it is for readers to get a sense of validation of their own culture and experience - the pleasure you have on seeing or "hearing" someone or something in a story that you can immediately identify with. Good fiction, crime fiction in this case, also allows a reader to walk in somebody elses shoes - probably in an area that most readers will never have an opportunity (or the desire) to do in real life. For Louise to present that good crime fiction, she is always trying to be slightly different, to improve, change, adapt her story-telling style. She is also generous with her readers, believing it is a privilege to meet readers at festivals and events who knows the books better than she does.
At present there does seem to be a propensity for publishers to push for series books / characters / scenarios yet none of Louise's books are in any way connected to the earlier ones. Never having encountered any pressure from her publishers in any way, Louise goes to them with the synopsis or idea behind the next book, they don't come to her with any specifics. Which is just as well as she doesn't necessarily know what the next project will be until she's started it. In fact she tries very hard not to get too comfortable, too ahead of herself as she does not want to lose the edge that the unexpected gives her.
We actually started off this interview talking generally about the notion of genre fiction. Louise says (and I'd have to agree) that genre readers are often open to a range of different styles - be it crime, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy etc. This makes for a readership that is frequently in search of strong narratives and good solid characterisations. And as she also pointed out, writers are almost invariably readers first.
We ended up the interview back talking about NAMING THE BONES. Not just a book about obsession and closed societies, Louise was exploring the nature of families and the relationships within all the different sorts of families. As she puts it, they are the people you are most likely to fall out with, because you know they will take you back.
Louise's books are gothic, dark, unexpected, thought-provoking and often emotional. And they are well worth reading.
Books so far are:
The Cutting Room (2002)
Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)
The Bullet Trick (2006)
Naming the Bones (2010)
Louise Welsh will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September. Stand by for news of the Sisters in Crime events she will be attending as well. Do make sure you catch up with her books, and with any of the sessions that she's speaking at.