Alex Gray has written eight crime novels, her latest being A Pound of Flesh. I chatted to Alex yesterday during the day before her event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the evening. I want to thank Alex, again, for her time and honesty and just for being so charming – and for the invitation to join her at the Crime Writer’s Association (in Scotland) lunch. Alex is also a “femmes fatales”, one of three of Scotland’s most notoriously good crime writers, the other’s being Lin Anderson and Alanna Knight.
All three “femmes” were at yesterday’s lunch, where I met Alex. It was only as I was leaving the building that I realised I’d missed a brilliant opportunity to interview them together – I blame the glass of white wine!
By the way, do not be fooled by the “butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth” appearance of these lovely women. Not only are they three of Scotland’s best crime writers, Lin and Alex are the brains behind Scotland’s very first ever, international, crime writing festival Bloody Scotland in September! Yeh hey!
Back to the interview …
Q: The American writer Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would describe it essentially as an act of courage.” Do you think it takes courage to write and if so, how much courage did it take you to start writing?
I don’t think it did take me a lot of courage because I started writing as a little girl and being courageous and that sort of thing didn’t occur to me. I had this impulse to write that just wouldn’t go away. So, I just did it. When you are older and published and have an established readership, then it takes courage because you have an awareness of the readers out there. You get emails from around the world and then it takes courage because you can feel the people listening while you’re writing. When I first came to writing I think I had no fear, I suppose I had the typical innocence of a child. When I was eight years old my primary four teacher told my parents I was going to grow up to be an “author” – her words, because I was always writing.
Oh? Em? Anywhere? Any time? Yes, that would have to be to the time of Christ. Who wouldn’t want to be in the presence of Christ. Imagine listening to one of his parables, actually being there, hearing his voice, that would be the most amazing thing, I think.
Q: Did you like school?
Not particularly. No. I don’t think I was very happy at school. I went to an all girls school and until my sixth year, when I was a complete rebel, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was very, very academic and I wasn’t particularly academic. I wasn’t one of the creme de la creme so I was really discounted. One or two teachers did see the talent that was latent in me and fostered that. You know, some of them encouraged and pushed me and they have a lot to do with my love of literature and my love of art, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.
Oh yes, very much so. My art teacher taught me how to see. That was one of the biggest things that anyone ever gave me, my ability to be able to see.
Q: Do you have a favourite fictional character?
Oh, yes, lots and lots and lots of different ones but I think I’ve read Lord of The Rings more times than any other book in my life. So, Frodo Baggins would be my favourite character. I mean, who couldn’t love somebody who said: ‘I will bear the ring but I do not know the way.’ ? You know, I think Scottish people love an underdog. They love a reluctant and an unlikely hero and I think that’s one of the reasons this little hobbit came to me. He has hidden depths. That’s one of the things writers love to do: scratch the surface and find hidden depths.
Q: Any regrets?
I wished I’d learnt gaelic. I’d loved to have read Seán Clárach (Mac Domhnaill) poetry in the original gaelic, and Aonghas MacNeacail‘s poetry. Yes, I wished I’d learnt as a young person. And I don’t think I will now. I have a smattering, a few words here and there, but that’s all.
Q: What are you most proud?
My children. My son and daughter. Two lovely human beings. I am very. very proud of them.
Q: Do changes in forensic technology impact on your writing (as a crime writer)?
Oh yes, they make an impact because you have to keep up with them and they’re changing all the time. I have friends in the police force and forensic science departments who I can go to for advice and they are very helpful. I also took a forensic science course to keep up. It’s important to know what is current. You have to be up to date with forensic knowledge. It gives authenticity to what you’re writing. Of course, it’s fiction, but it needs to be grounded in reality.
A thank you to Clicket and the EIBF for the ticket to Alex’s event, which she shared with Mons Kallentoft and which was chaired by Clare English (of BBC Radio Scotland’s Book Café fame). While there books seem very different, Alex and Mons seemed to share a morbid curiosity in death and both their protagonists seem to have a strong sense of social conscience, care deeply for their victims and seeing justice done. When asked where their ideas come from, they both said that, for them, the idea for a story started with an image, or a scene: “stories found them.” Alex said she’d once been to a post mortem. It didn’t have an impact on her immediately, but the next day she felt swamped by dread and gloom. She didn’t do it again. She loves reading and does a lot of research for her novels. Alex gets so involved with her characters when she’s writing, she can be moved to tears. When describing her writing, she said she prefers to suggest her violence rather than describe it in detail: she referred to Guy de Maupassant’s novel Vendetta as a gripping example of this. Alex read from her latest novel, A Pound of Flesh and you could have heard a pin drop. She has a lovely sing-sing voice and was captivating. My only tiny quibble was with Clare English, who seemed to be intent on suggesting Alex was very respectable looking. It seemed a little bizarre. I’m not sure what point she wanted to make – and what happened to not judging a book by its cover? (maybe that was her point?)