The Crime Fiction Insider: Duncan Campbell's Writing Life

One of the great pleasures of life as a writer is being paired with interesting authors when you speak at book fairs. (It's also an occasional rough ride when you find yourself stuck with a bum who can't write, but I'm being nice here so I won't go into any of those.) The most delightful fellow I've ever met in this way is Duncan Campbell, with whom I was paired at the book fair in his native Edinburgh two years ago. He also happens to be the British crime writer with the best knowledge of the UK's criminal fraternity -- which he covered for three decades for The Guardian, famously managing to be liked by all the old lags he wrote about. His latest novel, "If It Bleeds," focuses on the nexus of crime and crime journalism. It's hilarious and rather chilling -- particularly so for an ex-journalist such as myself whose nightmares are far more prone to unfold in a newsroom than in criminal haunts. Duncan's previous novel "The Paradise Trail" drew on his experience of the "hippie trail" in India in the early 1970s. Like "If It Bleeds," it drew on his own experiences, but had much more than mere authenticity -- drugs, dirt, noise and hippie naivete -- to recommend it. In a review, my esteemed fellow Welshman (and former hashish kingpin) Howard Marks wrote: "The the wittiest I have read in any work of fiction, including Catch-22, my hitherto favourite. The fascinating historical and cultural context is unobtrusively drip-fed, and the whodunit suspense masterfully created." He also said the drug stuff was on the money. Here's Duncan on writing and the life he lives around it:

How long did it take you to get published?
I was lucky. I had written an article about Billy Connolly, the terrific Scottish comedian, in Time Out magazine. It was 1975 and he was just about to become very big so Pan, the publishers, wanted a speedy book about him. They asked me if I would like to go on tour with him and write it, with his cooperation. You kidding?
Would you recommend any books on writing?
George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language. The Guardian (where I worked for 22 years, ) Style Book is very helpful.

What’s a typical writing day?
When I was a carefree, young freelance journalist, I would write until the early hours of the morning, with music playing in the background. Now I do all my ‘best work’ ho, ho, in the morning. When I wrote my two novels, I worked a five-day week and aimed for 2000 words a day. I thought this was impressive but an old pal, Jim McClure, who very sadly died a couple of years ago, told me that when he wrote his great prize-winning South African crime novels, he would work from 9 am till 5 am every day for two weeks and have a book at the end of it. He was South African but, obviously, with Scottish Calvinist roots.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
It’s called If It Bleeds, (Headline) which is taken from the old newsroom motto - ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, i.e., if it’s about murder and gore, it goes on the front page or at the top of a news bulletin. It’s about a 50-something crime reporter called Laurie Lane who is asked by an old London gangster, Old Man Hook, to ghost his autobiography. Soon after that, the gangster is shot dead. Laurie has his own problems as his country singer wife has left him for an older man, his teenage daughter is meant to be doing her A levels and he is being investigated by his digitally-snooty news editor for fiddling his expenses. (I promise you, it’s not autobiographical.) Can Laurie find out who killed the gangster and save his job? Could it be the Russian hoods who want a slice of the Hooks’ clubland business? The gangster’s own family? Bent coppers? What’s the Thailand connection? So it’s about crime and crime reporting and bad jokes told by a veteran crime reporter called ‘the Vicar’. Now read on...

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.
I think most of us are slaves - or at least indentured labour - to the genres in which we work. My earliest ‘grown up’ reading was Agatha Christie and I read as many of her as I could. I went on to lots of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Their ghosts must hover somewhere.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
Anything by Groucho Marx on a good day.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
John Kennedy Toole creates some spectacular images in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Someone just gave me an old copy of James Cameron’s Point of Departure, which I had not read for a while. He writes with lucidity, grace, humour. Quite a feat. Scottish, of course. I know he’s dead but his copy is as alive as ever.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Gosh. Tempted to say Alistair Campbell (no relation.) John le Carre?

How much research is involved in each of your books?
I’ve written three non-fiction books on crime: That Was Business, This Is Personal; The Underworld; and A Stranger and Afraid. They all required quite a lot of research which I - mostly - enjoyed. The two novels, The Paradise Trail and If It Bleeds, were both the result of decades and decades of diligent research which I imagined, at the time, was life.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
Pathetically, the main characters in both novels have a lot of me in them.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
I think if I had had a more painful childhood, I might have been a better writer. But who do you complain to?

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
If you are a journalist working for a publication, you can always try and persuade the features department to run a piece to coincide with a book’s publication. Fortunately, the places I have worked have had the sweetest, most decent and, I would say, the most perceptive of people working in those departments.

What’s your experience with being translated?
If I could speak a word of Swedish or Norwegian, I would let you know.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I have always lived off my ‘writing’ but that has mainly been journalism. I don’t know many people who make a living solely from books.

How many books did you write before you were published?
I wrote a book called The Walking Wounded in 1972, which was based in Calcutta and which was sensibly rejected by a publisher in San Francisco at the time. I hung on to the manuscript for 32 years and used it as source material for The Paradise Trail. Waste not, want not.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I can’t say at the moment because I want to make use of it, in a slightly shameful way, in a book which I have yet to write.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
I’d like to do a graphic novel about crime but am hampered by the fact that I can’t draw.

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