Graeme Macrae Burnet Q&A: ‘Like most writers I’m a dreadful procrastinator’
‘I think the success of His Bloody Project shows that readers are willing to engage with something a little bit out of the ordinary,’ says Man Booker Prize shortlisted author
Graeme Macrae Burnet: I really like doing research. For His Bloody Project I looked into the history and way of life of Scottish crofting communities; nineteenth-century criminal anthropology and psychology; and the Scots legal system of the time. Of course, you can get a lot from the internet, but I love to be in an archive where you can dig out yellowed, hand-written documents tied up with ribbons – you can smell the reek of history!
Can you tell us about your latest work and how it came about, the story behind the story?
His Bloody Project tells the story of a triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. The story is told through a series of “found documents” – police statements, medical and psychiatric reports and the like – but the heart of the novel is the prison memoir of the 17-year-old murderer, Roddy Macrae. The book is an exploration of why Roddy committed his dark deeds and on the nature of sanity and criminal responsibility. It was inspired by reading about some real-life historical murder cases and by my own family background in Wester Ross.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
By complete chance I came across Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 or 16. I was captivated from the very first lines – “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. Until that point I thought novels were about someone else or somewhere else. I didn’t know they could speak directly to me. I felt that I was Holden Caulfield; that he spoke with my voice, said the things I wanted to say.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Dr Dolittle books.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
To name but a few: Crime and Punishment, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Trial, La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, The Little Man from Archangel by Georges Simenon, Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon.
What is your favourite quotation?
“At the time one takes them for quite ordinary hours, and it is only later on, in retrospect, one knows they were momentous.” Georges Simenon, Newhaven-Dieppe
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment)
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I think that’s more one for you than me. My favourite Irish writers are Beckett and Edna O’Brien, but neither is exactly what you’d call under-rated.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
What’s an ebook?
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I love good cover art. It’s a really important and pleasurable part of the browsing experience. I love Romek Marber’s designs for Penguin’s 1950s Georges Simenon titles – graphically striking and evocative.
Where and how do you write?
Like most writers I’m a dreadful procrastinator, so I usually go to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to get away from the distractions of home. Going to the library feels like going to work. I like to have some sort of aim in mind for the day. If I’m on first draft stage that might be 1,000-1,200 words, or if I’m editing, a couple of scenes I want to redraft. If I hit my target, I go home happy; if I don’t, I leave in a fug of self-loathing.
What books changed the way you think about fiction?
Lots: books by Kundera, Robbe-Grillet, The Unfortunates by BS Johnson, all of Simenon, Edna O’Brien, Houellebecq, Orwell.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I really like doing research. For His Bloody Project I looked into the history and way of life of Scottish crofting communities; nineteenth-century criminal anthropology and psychology; and the Scots legal system of the time. Of course, you can get a lot from the internet, but I love to be in an archive where you can dig out yellowed, hand-written documents tied up with ribbons – you can smell the reek of history!
What book influenced you the most?
Maybe The Outsider by Camus
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
What are you saying? I am young!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Stay away from all those lists of tips – do it your own way!
What weight do you give reviews?
I do read reviews, at least the good ones, and I’m often impressed by the seriousness and erudition reviewers bring to the task, but I try not to let anything that I’ve read about my work influence me.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
The death of the novel and the printed book has been predicted for years. But they’re still here. People like stories and they like being taken to a different place, and novels can do this in a way that no other medium can. I think the success of His Bloody Project shows that readers are willing to engage with something a little bit out of the ordinary. So if I could wish for one thing, it would be for a thriving independent sector in which books are published because someone feels passionately about them, rather than because they fit a corporate marketing plan.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I don’t read much contemporary fiction.
What has being a writer taught you?
Until I published my first book I thought I was completely normal.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
George Orwell, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Václav Havel, Edna O’Brien.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Orwell is by far the most laugh-out-loud writer I’ve read. The scene in Keep the Aspidistra Flying in which Gordon and Rosemary have to buy lunch in a pretentious country hotel (“We must be firm and just say bread and cheese.”) is excruciating and hilarious.
What is your favourite word?
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I don’t think pride is a very productive emotion for a writer, but if you’re twisting my arm, I’m reasonably happy with this, from The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau: “His participation in the weekly game had already assumed the weight of tradition.”
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
There’s a scene in La Femme de Gilles when Elisa’s husband returns from a tryst with his lover. He has brought her back a bag of caramels and for a moment she feels that everything will be all right. Heartbreaking.
His Bloody Project (Contraband, £8.99) is shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, which will be announced on October 25th. Eileen Battersby reviews it in The Irish Times on October 15th