[In September, Scots crime writer Christopher Brookmyre spoke to Louise Welsh at Glasgow Uni as part of their Creative Conversations series. This article was originally written following that talk on 19/09/17]
‘“A” is for Alibi, “B” is for Burglar… she must be dreading that day when she has to write a book about xylophones,’ says Christopher Brookmyre about Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series of crime novels. (Grafton’s currently on “Y” is for Yesterday, and sidestepped the tricky letter X in 2015 by calling that book simply “X”.)
Brookmyre is the first author to take part in this academic year’s Creative Conversations talks by the University of Glasgow and is in discussion with fellow crime writer and uni professor Louise Welsh – who herself won the Creasy Dagger for her brilliant debut, The Cutting Room, in 2002.
The subject of Sue Grafton comes up because Brookmyre himself is popularly known for his novels’ zany titles – he’s authored such marvels as The Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, Boiling a Frog, and A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away – though laments that with the pressures of marketing books online, he has less leeway over his titles as he did when he began his fiction career twenty years ago. Indeed, since the late 2000s his books sound more like the usual crime fare. For example, 2013’s Flesh Wounds, 2015’s Black Widow, and his most recent book, Want You Gone.
The content is anything but standard fare though, and his addition of humour (a particularly black Glasgow humour with patter to match) to the generally po-faced crime genre has kept him in good stead for decades. Although best known for his Jack Parlabane series – beginning with Quite Ugly One Morning back in 1996 – he has often strayed into sci-fi and horror too.
In a wide-ranging talk, Brookmyre discusses his writing processes (long walks), his love of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (whose Ford Prefect was the inspiration behind Jack Parlabane – ‘I loved the idea of a character who cheerfully wandered into dangerous situations and effortlessly made them much worse,’ he says), and diversity in fiction.
Welsh – who likes to reverse old-fashioned tropes of ‘otherness’ based on homophobia and racism that were once common in crime fiction – brings this topic up because Brookmyre often writes characters well outside his own experience, with recurring characters like counterterrorism officer Angelique de Xavia. ‘Cultural appropriation isn’t an idea that will get much traction with me,’ he says, pointing out that fiction is one of the best ways of understanding other people’s situations and values, although warning that writing about other cultures must be done with the best intentions and thorough research to avoid stereotypes and clichés.
On the related subject of strong female characters, he asks, ‘Why just strong? Why not three-dimensional, multi-layered female characters?’
Brookmyre also recounts the influence of computer games on his work, particularly evident in his ode to nineties shoot ‘em ups, Bedlam, which was also made into a low-budget video game – an experience he describes as ‘more creatively rewarding than financially’.
With his latest Jack Parlabane novel released in April and a film adaptation of his 2009 horror story Pandaemonium in the works, it looks like there’s no slowing down for the Glasgow author.
Creative Conversations continues with free talks on Mondays at the university chapel (1-2pm – you’re reminded to bring your lunch) and include a big-name line-up of authors including Alasdair Grey and Christopher Priest.
Photo: By TimDuncan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons