James Oswald is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling Inspector McLean series of Edinburgh-based detective novels. Book eight, The Gathering Dark, was published in January 2018 by Penguin in the UK. As J D Oswald, he is the author of the fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro, also published by Penguin. Released in July 2018, No Time To Cry is the first in an ongoing new series featuring Detective Constable Constance Fairchild, published by Wildfire. When he’s not tied to his desk, James runs a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland cows and New Zealand Romney sheep.
SR: No Time To Cry will be your 14th book published. How does that feel?
JO: At the same time unremarkable and utterly bizarre. It took me twenty years and more to get a novel published, and now I’ve had fourteen come out in a little over five years! I’m delighted at how popular they seem to be, but at the same time my life has become one endless round of writing and editing. When a book comes out I’m so far into the next one, or the one after that, I’ve sort of forgotten about it and find it hard to get too excited any more. Which is rather sad, in a way.
SR: Give us the elevator sales pitch for this book.
JO: I’m rubbish at these! Constance Fairchild is a detective constable in a special unit in London’s Metropolitan Police, working deep undercover to infiltrate organised crime gangs. When her boss’s cover is blown and he is murdered, she is the one who finds his body. Expecting support from her team, she instead finds herself suspected of being involved. Her world turned upside down, she must fight to save her name, and to save her life.
SR: You’re introducing a new lead character in this book. Tell us a little about where the idea for Constance Fairchild came from.
JO: It started with the name Constance. I remember a conversation from many years ago with a fellow writer, Vincent Holland-Keen. Constance would, ironically, be a flighty individual, quite unable to concentrate on anything for any length of time. I recently moved publisher – from Penguin imprint Michael Joseph to the new Headline imprint, Wildfire – and my new editor there (who, confusingly, was my first editor at Michael Joseph – isn’t publishing fun!) wanted a new series to complement the ongoing Inspector McLean books. I initially thought Constance might be a private eye, but that suggestion didn’t meet with much enthusiasm.
SR: How did you feel about telling this story from a female perspective?
JO: I like the challenge. Writing is all about empathy – understanding the world from another person’s point of view. Constance is thirty and female, two things I’m not. Fortunately I know a few thirty-something women (my agent included), who could read the manuscript and correct my more egregious errors.
Social media has been a huge help here, too. It’s very evident from reading tweets and facebook posts of my female friends exactly the sort of everyday sexism that angers and frustrates them. These are the sort of things Constance faces too.
I’ve never been one to go in for much physical description of characters, especially not when the story is told almost entirely from their point of view, so I’ve managed to avoid the more obvious errors male writers sometimes make when describing the female form.
SR: The catalyst for No Time To Cry is an undercover investigation that’s gone bad. How much research did you do to learn about undercover investigations and how they’re conducted?
JO: None whatsoever. I do very little procedural research for any of my books. I’m really not interested in the veracity of it, so long as it’s plausible. One of these days this approach will bite me hard, but so far I seem to have got away with it.
There are two main reasons for this approach. First, I find detail-heavy writing to be quite dull. I’m far more interested in character interactions than whether they used the exact correct procedure at any given point. The vast majority of readers have no idea how undercover investigations work either, so laborious explanations get in the way of the story.
SR: I have to be honest – I went to school with Steve Benson for 10 years of my life so one part of this story was a little disconcerting for me! Seriously, do you ever consider the possibility of someone coming up to you and thanking you for killing off their ex or an in-law in your fiction? How do you deal with character names?
JO: Poor Steve! That was just a made up name, obviously, but there’s only so many names you can come up with before someone appears who shares it. For characters like Steve, who doesn’t do anything particularly heinous, it’s not really a problem. I worry more about Roger DeVilliers, the villain of the piece. I did a quick google search to make sure there weren’t any famous men with that name who might take offence and sue.
On the other hand, the bad guy in the last Tony McLean book is Alan Lewis, who is someone I worked with a long time ago. He got in touch after my books started to sell well, and asked if he could be a villain. I still had to think long and hard about just how evil I could make him, though.
Nobody’s ever thanked me for killing someone they know (in one of my books, obviously), but I have vented some of my frustrations through my fiction in the past. I’ve been building a house here on the farm for the past four years, and the main reason it’s taken that long is a couple of rogue builders. It will come as little surprise to those who know me that the property developers and builders in Prayer for the Dead, who come to an unpleasantly sticky end, are based just ever so slightly on characters I’ve dealt with in the trade.
SR: Your Inspector McLean series is anchored in Edinburgh but for No Time To Cry you’ve moved us to London. How familiar are you with London? Did you feel you needed to research any of the settings you used?
JO: The London I know is from (ouch) thirty years ago, when I worked there as a temp during my university vacations. I know the centre reasonably well, but I’m not all that well clued up on where people are living these days – all the places I remember from my temping days are way out of the price range of a detective constable now. In the same way that I never actually name the police station where Tony McLean works (because it’s made up), I never exactly pinpoint where Constance lives, focusing instead on the type of building and the neighbours she interacts with. For me, the actual location is unimportant. It’s what happens there – the people, the businesses – that gives it colour.
SR: What were the advantages and disadvantages of setting the book in London?
JO: Setting the story, at least initially, in London is perhaps a bit cynical. The Inspector McLean books have been very well received in Scotland, but I struggle to be recognised further afield. Hopefully Constance will be my ambassador beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The disadvantage is that I am not a Londoner, so risk the wrath of those who are.
SR: I got to read this manuscript quite a few months ago and I was struck by how timely it was. I know you had to have been working on the manuscript for many months prior to that – probably going back at least a year, and yet this book is coming out in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. No Time To Cry doesn’t shy away from dealing with misogyny or sexual assault. What was it that made you want to write about these issues? As a man did you have any worries about tackling those topics through Con and your story?
JO: The thing that bothered me most when the Harvey Weinstein news broke and the #MeToo movement started to build momentum was that none of it really surprised me. I had no direct experience of that kind of sexual harassment, but I’d heard stories, I knew it happened. Not to me, of course, but to women I knew, women I’d worked with. It was just a part of life, and because it didn’t directly affect me and I’d never personally harassed any woman, I just accepted that was the way things were. I don’t know if I’d even have had the nerve to confront someone who was harassing a woman I knew – I’m not that kind of person. And that bothered me. My silence was complicity.
I hope that addressing those topics through Con and the stories I want to write for her going forward will help others to understand just how bad things are.
SR: Now, since this is book #14, let’s talk about how your writing process has evolved. Do you set specific challenges for yourself when you work on a new book?
JO: Just get the damned thing finished! I am rubbish at plotting, and usually writing to some insane deadline that means I don’t have the luxury of planning things out in fine detail anyway. I like to have a good opening scene to set everything up, and then I just write my way through until the end. My first drafts tend to be a bit disjointed in that if I think of something that needs changing, I’ll make a note and then carry on writing as if the change has been made. I rarely do any rewriting or editing until the first draft is out, though.
Being a livestock farmer is a seven day a week job, so I treat writing the same. I try to do something every day, and if I’m writing the first draft of a new book that means anything between one and three thousand words. There are days when nothing gets done, but I’ve learned not to beat myself up about them. I’ve also learned that there will come a point in the manuscript when I just want to give up and walk away. Sometimes I do, but only for a day or two. What feels like the worst prose since letters were invented can be surprisingly good when you’ve got a few weeks distance from it.
SR: You’ve had a rather unusual path to publication success. What was your first big breakthrough and how did that help you?
JO: I’ve been writing for thirty years or more, always trying to get published but never quite making it. Natural Causes, the first Inspector McLean novel, actually started life as a short story written in late 2005 and published by Spinetingler Magazine. The novel version was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2007, and its sequel, The Book of Souls, made the shortlist in 2008. Publishers liked the writing and McLean’s character, but didn’t like how I blended elements of the supernatural into what were police procedural stories, and so they were rejected over and over again.
Eventually I self-published them as ebooks, at the start of the kindle revolution. I discovered another author who had made the first book in his series free as a way of tempting in readers, and thought that might be worth a try. It worked spectacularly well, with Natural Causes being downloaded more than 250,000 times in a six month period. The Book of Souls sold very well on the back of it, and then the publishers who had rejected the series before started to take interest. I didn’t have the time to write the books and self-publish them effectively, so moving to a big publisher was a no-brainer for me.
SR: What’s the most surreal experience that you’ve had as an author?
JO: You’d have to go a long way to beat appearing on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Being interviewed by a BBC reporter while a Highland cow chews thoughtfully in the background is quite surreal though.
SR: Am I wrong in saying that your origins are really more in fantasy? You’ve had 5 books in The Ballad of Sir Benfro series published. Is your writing process for those books different than for your crime fiction books?
JO: I started off writing comics – my first ever paid-for story was a Tharg’s Future Shock in 2000AD comic magazine in December 1993. The fantasy series was something I’d started long before turning my hand to crime, as it were. Three of the five books were written before I started on the McLean series. It was interesting coming back to them, not least because there’d been a ten year gap between finishing The Golden Cage and starting The Broken World. When I started the series, I had no end in sight. All I had was two characters and a world that grew as I wrote it. Back then I had little thought of being published, I just did it because it beat watching telly (this was before Netflix, by the way. Back in the days when you had to wait a week for the next episode of your favourite show).
In terms of approach to writing them, I perhaps did a little more plotting with the last two books in the fantasy series, but not a lot. When Penguin bought the series I was already under contract with them to write two Inspector McLean novels a year. There really wasn’t time to think too long and hard about the plot.
SR: Who are your literary influences for fantasy? For crime fiction? Other genres?
JO: I sort of stumbled accidentally into writing crime, so don’t have any major influences there. That said, my old friend Stuart MacBride was the one who first told me to stop writing about dragons and turn my hand to crime. His early Logan McRae books gave me a template to work to, if nothing else.
In fantasy, my major influences would be Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, although it was discovering Robin Hobb that made me want to try writing an epic fantasy series myself. The author who influenced me more than any other though is Iain Banks. His skill as a storyteller is second to none, and his attitude towards the restrictions of genre is one I agree with completely.
SR: How does writing across genre lines benefit you as an author?
JO: A bit like reading out of your normal genre, or reading non-fiction for a change, it helps to broaden the mind. I also find that writing more than two novels in the same series back to back does my head in. I get to the point where I’m writing a scene and can’t shake the feeling I’ve already written it before (usually because I have, but not necessarily in that novel). Switching between genres (and hopefully between characters with the new Constance Fairchild series) gives my brain a bit of breathing space.
SR: Do you have any plans for more fantasy fiction in the future? How about sci fi?
JO: The first novel I ever wrote was the first part of an intended SF epic series, that blended elements of fantasy in with spaceships and aliens. While the writing is very amateurish, I still love the story and need to find time to rewrite it. Having said which, if leaving ten years between books three and four of the Ballad of Sir Benfro series was bad, how will I cope with leaving more than twenty between books one and two of the Charybdis Sequence?
I had a wonderful idea for another story in Benfro’s world, too, but as ever it’s finding the time to write them that’s the problem. I’ve also got the first twenty thousand words of a ghost story set in Wales I started a while back and had to put to one side. That’s another one I need to finish some time.
Oh, and I’d love to have a chance to write some more comics, too…
SR: Which contemporary authors do you think more people should be reading?
JO: I really don’t know. People should read what they enjoy, not what I think they should enjoy!
SR: What does a typical writing day for you look like?
JO: I’m not sure I have a typical writing day. I run a livestock farm as a day job, and that sometimes allows me time to write during that day. Mostly I write in the evenings, from about eight to midnight, if I’m on a first draft. I don’t plot much – just a whiteboard for spitballing ideas and flow-charting individual scenes. Mostly it’s all in my head and a series of A4 notepads I scribble in as I’m going. I use Scrivener for early drafts and structural edits, but only so I can chunk the story up into individual scenes and quickly see what’s going on or find bits. I only use about 1% of the functionality of the program, and that’s all I need. I am probably the most disorganised person you will ever meet. It’s remarkable I function at all.
SR: Do you think Inspector McLean would be more likely to read a Sir Benfro book or a Con Fairchild story?
JO: He’s a workaholic, when would he have time to read? Actually, there is a reference to a book in the most recent book in the series, The Gathering Dark, that suggests the kind of fiction Inspector McLean might like. He is facing impending fatherhood, and picks up an old copy of Treasure Island that his own father read to him when he was very young. I think he would far prefer to lose himself in a fantasy world than read fictionalised accounts of the work he does on a daily basis.