Christopher Brookmyre is the author of thirteen brilliant novels to date, the latest being ‘Pandaemonium’, an earthly battle between science and the supernatural, philosophy and faith, civilisation and savagery set in the Scottish Highlands. Our friends at Byker Books spoke with Brookmyre about screenplays, swearing and St Mirren:
Interview with Christopher Brookmyre
You know how it is – you’re walking aimlessly along the road in one of Britain’s Spa towns, you’re miles from home and feeling like a fish out of water when you catch the faint tinkle of a Northern accent. You strain your ears to the point of bursting their drums just to work out where it’s coming from and rapidly come to the conclusion that it’s over there. Near that bookshop with the picture of mega famous Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre in the window and a sign about some appearance that day.
You get jostled by the crowds of people waiting outside with books in their hands and head for the chip shop next door where the voice came from. Ten minutes later and with yet another star interview safely under your belt you locate the train station and head back to civilisation. The editor will be pleased and it only cost you a deep fried mars bar.
So, Chris, new book and the return of Angelique de Xavia (am I pronouncing her name right?) what can you tell us about her?
Christopher Brookmyre: (laughs) I’m not really sure how to pronounce her name myself – it only exists in the written word! I initially thought of her as an iconic Lara Croft style character who saved the day late on (in ‘A Big Boy did it and ran away’ – Ed) and came up with ‘De Xavier’ because it rhymed with saviour. I realised there was a much bigger story for her and a chance to find out who she was so I came up with the Sacred art of Stealing. Then I always planned to have the two main characters meet up again a year later only it took me five or six years to come up with agood enough story!
You seem to have a penchant for creating likeable rogues. Your protagonists generally have some naughty features about them but are always the type of person you’d like to go for a drink with (personally I‘d love to go on the lash with Jack Parlabane) – How do you make them so believable?
Brookmyre: I’ve never liked my heroes to be squeaky clean or to be too clean cut, I think the best crime fiction always exists in a kind of moral borderland. I like my villains to be strangely likeable and my heroes to be slightly untrustworthy or just to have an edge to them. I got bored by a lot of British crime writing years ago simply because the main characters were so miserable, they tried to make them as plausible as possible but that also made them really dull. You wouldn’t want to go for a drink with the any of them as they’d just go on about their failed marriages and drink problems.
When I came up with Parlabane I wanted a guy who gets to say all the smartarse remarks you couldn’t remember at the time. A lot of the American crime fiction wasn’t self conscious about that and people like Carl Hiassen came up with wisecracking characters that you enjoyed reading about.
As well as the novels you’ve also written a screenplay – is there anything we should be looking out for soon?
Brookmyre: No it only got so far and the production company even had a director attached but, due to the capricious nature of the industry, by the time they were ready to go no-one was into horror any more so it kind of hit the wall. It won’t go to waste though as I’m coming back to the idea for my next book.
It’ll probably come round again though…
Brookmyre: Aye, I’m thinking the film idea will take off on the back of the book ironically enough as it’s easier to get publicity for a book and then get a production company interested.
Your books have entertained a few of us up here in the frozen North but who or what would you say was responsible for motivating young Chris to take up the pen initially?
Brookmyre: Just myself really from a very young age. I was literally writing stories for my own amusement from about six or seven. I can’t point to anything but it’s just something that’s always been part of my make up. It probably helped that the part of town I lived in there was no one really to play with – there was a couple of wee boys across the road but they were busy burgling houses when they were about ten so I was discouraged from playing with them…or rather I was too terrified!
It’s bloody hard work getting a publisher (or an agent!) these days – how did you manage it?
Brookmyre: It was the usual combination of perseverance and getting a bit of luck. I wrote four books and I was aware while writing them that it was a learning process. None of them that got rejected did I think it was an injustice. I’d get frustrated at times when a ‘celeb’ would get a ghostwritten ‘novel’ published but I was aware that what I was writing was getting better all the time.
It probably didn’t help that I was writing what I thought publishers would publish rather than for my own entertainment. So I was writing quite ‘straight’ crime fiction because that was what I thought they’d publish. It was only after that a friend of mine said why don’t you write something funny cos I was writing fanzines and a column for ‘The Pink’ (football results paper – Ed). So I thought yeah I’ll just write what I want to read and make it as daft and as in tune with my sense of humour as anything else I’ve written. At that time I was working on ‘The Scotsman’ as well and got friendly with the theatre critic and it turned out his cousin was an agent. She gave my stuff the once over and liked it. It was a question of luck in that I made the connection but if I’d been offered the introduction two or three books previous I wouldn’t have made the most of it because the books weren’t good enough.
So, in conclusion, a wee bit of perserverance mixed with luck but the main part of the luck was in the timing.
What are you reading at the minute then (apart from Radgepacket obviously)?
Brookmyre: I’ve just finished reading Neil Stephenson’s new book Anathem. It’s out at the end of September – I don’t usually do book reviews but the Guardian asked me to and I like his work – mind you as it’s him it’s the usual thousand pages of head twisting stuff.
You seem to complete and publish top ranking novels very regularly – how do you manage to combine both the quantity and the quality?
Brookmyre: I don’t really consider the quality. I just think of a story and write it. I don’t feel the pressure of one a year as that’s the output I comfortably manage anyway. I’m actually useless when I’ve got nothing to do – I need to be busy. I’ve never been put under pressure to hit a deadline either, if I need extra time I always get it but I’ve never taken the piss with regards to deadlines and generally do get them in when they’re expected.
What have you lashed all the millions on then – Executive box at St Mirren, Irn Bru and deep fried mars bars or champagne and caviar?
Brookmyre: (laughs) There’s no been any millions…an executive box at St Mirren wouldn’t cost very much!
I usually pay three hundred quid at the annual Saints day where you basically pay to play on the pitch and the manager gets involved as well. I’ve actually scored a few goals at Love Street…..probably more than the strikers!
We have a number of literary heroes here at BB towers – who would you say yours were and why?
Brookmyre: Neil Stephenson again, I think his three books – the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World-Ed) for me are the stand out achievement in fiction in the twenty first century. They’re just a staggering piece of work about the history of modern thought, modern commerce and ultimately computers but for all the historical gravitas they’re still really funny swashbuckling adventures. This bloke, I think, makes all of your endeavours seem small next to his.
Another hero is Robertson Davies the late Canadian author from whom I stole the names Jack Paralabane and Simon Harcourt. So using them was like a nod in his direction.
Any advice you could give the millions of writers and authors out there who never get a sniff of publication?
Brookmyre: Other than perserverance, always write what excites and interests you, even if you think you’re being self indulgent. Basically, if it’s not fun to write it won’t be fun to read. I always find I enjoy my writing most when I’ve tapped into something I enjoy talking about. If you’re into football then write a story about football, just tap into your own enthusiasm.
You’re renowned, amongst us anyway, for your swearing (which we positively fucking relish) and the way your books are set in the real world (which we also love) – but did you find that any kind of barrier when you were starting out?
Brookmyre: My editors have been, if anything, encouraging me to turn it up. There’s never been any request to tone it down. At the start of ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ the original draft of the opening chapter started with a policeman running out of the flat, skidding on vomit, hitting the bannister of the close at midriff level and puking on two other coppers coming up the stairs. My editor said that she thought that was one puke too far but that’s the only thing she’s ever asked me to tone down. They’ve never asked me to tone down the language or anything.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
Brookmyre: Some kind of CGI effect rather than an actor I think…there’s no one that looks like me.
Brookmyre: (Big Laughs) No…too tall.
And what sort of soundtrack would you like playing?
Brookmyre: Probably ‘Everclear’ (American band). I’d like to have said something like the Afghan Whigs….
How do you see your career panning out – will you stick with novels or think that maybe you’ve nailed that and start getting more into screenplays, scripts etc?
Brookmyre: No, the novels will always be the most satisfying format to write in. You don’t have to worry about budget constraints or other peoples ego’s or anything. You can create your own worlds, the only thing I’m likely to change is that on my next book I’m venturing tentatively towards science fiction and that’s going to let me unleash my mind from the constraints of writing about ‘the real world’. Someone said to me recently I’ve always been writing science fiction as I tend to write about a world that’s familiar but not quite real (laughs).
And finally…your titles tend to break all the rules of what many publishers consider the ‘norm’ in that they’re long and usually amusing – was that initially a conscious decision in order to stand out (in conjunction with the highly original covers) or something you’ve grown into?
Brookmyre: I’ve always thought the title is crucial and has a certain manic energy to it as long as it’s not kicking the arse out of it and doesn’t end up ungainly. I’ve always liked long titles as well as they have a certain rhythm to them and my publisher’s position has always been the stranger the better.
The one book I wrote without a title was ‘A tale etched in blood’ and that was originally the ‘shout’ line underneath the title. It was going to be called ‘Peter Pan got shot down over Paisley’ but the Peter Pan books are a registered trademark and there would have been all sorts of issues with it. The publishers actually preferred ‘A tale etched in blood’ so we went with that and I think it worked better in the end anyway.
Buy Pandaemonium from the Dear Scotland Shop by clicking the cover below:
Byker Books promote writers who are ignored elsewhere, writers who don’t fit into rigid ‘genres’, writers who are new and uncertain, writers who hail from working class backgrounds and most of all, writers who live in the real world and know that it’s not fair. They put together quarterly collections and ensure that copies get dropped on to the desks of literary agents up and down the UK. More at Byker Books and their work at Radgepacket online.
More on Scottish literature on the first Monday of every month from Alistair Braidwood.
Next month ‘Boyracers’ by Alan Bissett. Perfect summer reading. Buy it from the Dear Scotland Shop too:
More from Christopher at www.brookmyre.co.uk
Photo Credit: Broad Daylight