Sunday, September 6, 2009

Author Interview with BILL KIRTON

Bill Kirton is not only a prolific and accomplished author, he's a very funny man. We met serendipitously online and, since he lives in Scotland and I live in Montana, USA, we've never met. He is always accessible via his terrific blog, however, and I never pass up the opportunity to "chat" with him. You'll understand why after reading his interview!


You’ve written in a number of genres--mystery fiction, short stories, radio plays, children’s stories, and non-fiction, to name a few. What’s your favorite thing to write, and why?

Let’s get the boring bit of the answer out of the way at the start. I actually just love writing almost anything. Even the commercial stuff I do always poses some challenge which it’s fun trying to meet. But that’s sort of dodging the question, so I’ll try to sketch what I get from each and maybe then I’ll be able to answer you.

Non-fiction would come bottom of the list. I enjoy it, but there are more constraints than with fiction. Depending on what it is, you need to do lots of research and make sure you don’t distort the facts. It’s still good when you find the right expression, the right rhythms in your prose, but there’s not the freedom, the loss of self that happens with fiction.

Children’s stories are a joy because you know the readers will accept almost anything you offer them. I’m not suggesting they’re not critical or that they’ll tolerate rubbish, but they’re more willing to join you in flights of fancy, weird associations, narratives that climb way beyond ‘reality.’ So when I’m writing for them, I feel very free. Children are very sophisticated readers.

Radio plays are fascinating and even though I’ve written several, I’m still learning about the genre. My last one featured a blind woman. I wrote it partly because it occurred to me that there are lots of blind listeners for whom the radio is (for obvious reasons) the preferred medium. But it was only when I was at rehearsals at the BBC that the script posed a couple of problems. The director said to me, ‘D’you realize how difficult it is to convey blindness on radio?’ I’m ashamed to say the question had never occurred to me.

But the intensity of writing something which relies entirely on dialogue is very absorbing. You enter a world of disembodied voices. They may describe the things around them but mostly it’s the directness of their interactions that creates the drama. Difficult to imagine a medium which focuses more tightly on people. It really puts you in touch with your characters. In fact, my initial reaction to the question was that radio drama was what I enjoyed writing most but I think, on balance, that it has to be the fiction – both short stories and novels, with perhaps a slight leaning towards the short story.

With a novel, you set a coherent, self-contained ‘reality’ in motion then, every time you sit at the computer, you reopen that world and step into it amongst familiar people, whose impulses and motives you know far better than you know even your close friends and family. Some people think of it as an escape from reality. On the contrary, I think it’s a more intense experience of how people are, of the forces that mould, liberate, constrict them. My characters are constantly teaching me things.

With a series, when the same characters return in book after book, that experience extends even further. When I finish a book, even if I then go off and do other things for a while, as soon as I start the next in the series, it’s as if I’m coming home to a group of acquaintances who’ve just been waiting there for me.

But maybe in the end, the short story has it, simply because of its completeness. In a novel, you have time and space to explore themes, test opposing arguments and, as long as you don’t bore or lose the reader, more or less indulge yourself. The short story demands a tighter discipline and a lighter touch. It’s a small, self-contained world, with a coherent structure and a logical resolution, and yet it carries resonances that spread way beyond its apparent scope. It leaves the reader wanting more. When it works, it’s the perfect reading experience.

How long have you been writing? Do you have a schedule, like X number of pages or words per day?

I’ve always written. Recent clear-outs unearthed stuff I’d written as a kid: complete plays which covered maybe 3 or 4 pages, silly stories and things which I actually remember enjoying writing – parodies of famous speeches or poems (‘To smoke or not to smoke’, Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ except my version had dogs rather than ships). So writing was just something I did. I suppose the first real attempts to write things which others might read or see were the early radio plays. I still have copies and some of them are rather embarrassing, but the BBC in those days was a great patron of writers, even nobodies such as me. They’d return scripts but always find something positive to say about them – praising the dialogue, the humor, the characterization, etc. And the effect of that was to convince you that you did have some sort of talent, so you tried again. And, eventually it paid off. And I learned new things from each play of mine that was broadcast or performed.

I don’t have a schedule. As with almost everything in life, I prefer unpredictability. The cliché is ‘the dead hand of routine.’ I have my routines, my working methods, but I don’t set targets. All I can say is that once I’m into a work and the characters have begun to form, I spend lots of time in their company. I watch them, listen to them, and write down what they do and say, and it’s often so enthralling that I’m unaware of the passage of time. My usual writing day is about 9 to 5.30ish with a very short lunch break, but some of the time’s spent answering emails, writing my blog, and generally finding more and more displacement activities. When the juices are flowing, I sometimes write until I’m just too tired to go on. But it rarely feels like work. That search for the right word or turn of phrase is always absorbing.

Who is your favorite author and why do you like his/her work?

That is such a hard question to answer. In classical terms it has to be Flaubert. He was so meticulous in his quest for ‘le mot juste’ and the more you read him, the more you find, not just in the characters and the events but also in the gaps between them. He has a way of making imagery an essential part of understanding his books. There’s so much going on, even in his simpler sentences.

In modern terms, William Boyd makes it all seem effortless, but perhaps the achievements and variations of David Mitchell make him the one I admire the most. His Cloud Atlas is an experimental novel. Yes, I know – as soon as I hear such an expression, I want to run away, but that book is an amazing succession of layers which unfold, then wrap back around one another and just keep you hooked. It’s like four or five books in one – not in terms of length but structure, themes, people. But there are others – ‘literary’ and genre writers (although I don’t subscribe to that distinction) – who keep me deep in their books. If it’s true that the present generation are losing the reading habit, I think their lives will be immeasurably poorer for it. For me, nothing compares with the intimacy and commitment you feel when you’re reading a great story. It’s just you and that reality.

You were born in England but lived most of your life in Scotland. Any comments or thoughts about how mystery/crime novels are different on opposite sides of the Atlantic?

I actually wrote a wee article about that. It’s at It’s interesting that one of the top thriller writers in the USA now is a Brit, Lee Child. It’s extraordinary because he’s obviously researched the language and the places so well that he seems ultra-American. But usually, even though the USA and the UK share genres – police-based, private investigators, one-off thrillers, humorous mysteries – the differences are there. I don’t know of a British writer who’s mastered the killing one-liner style of Chandler but over there you have plenty who are his heirs, such as Robert B. Parker and Janet Evanovich. On the other hand, I don’t know an American who’s combined the gentility and underlying horror of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, but there are some who vie with her over here, such as Frances Fyfield and Minette Walters.

It’s obviously a cultural thing because on both sides of the Atlantic there are great examples of mysteries set in small towns with their typical claustrophobia; it’s just that the claustrophobia has different national characteristics. Scotland has a very strong mystery presence nowadays – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, and many others. Sherlock Holmes was quintessentially English, but his creator was born in Edinburgh.

What is the title of your most recently published book? Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.

My latest book is The Darkness. It’s been many years in the making and has gone through several, very different drafts, with personnel changing and the emphasis shifting between the extremes of the law and justice, revenge and compassion. Usually, vigilante behavior is associated with a perhaps crazed individual. In this case, even though it’s extreme, it’s perpetrated by a good, caring doctor, whose days are spent helping patients but whose evenings are filled with very different pursuits. The problem is that the policeman investigating the various cases finds that he’s in favor of what’s happening. It’s a whodunit and a whydunnit. It’s available from the main online outlets and can be ordered from bookstores or from the publishers at

What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?

I have two more in my police procedural series written but I intend to rewrite them to develop themes begun in The Darkness. After that, I’ll write what will be the last in my series. I know the plot and structure of it already and its conclusion will be even darker than that of The Darkness. I have a historical crime novel, The Figurehead, being published later this year and I’m just starting to research a sequel to it. It’s set in Aberdeen in 1840. And there are always short stories and little jokey parodies to be written. Oh, and I have a comic crime novel I’ve rewritten recently and it would be nice to get that in print. Only problem is, humor’s a variable concept and things I find funny may be indigestible to agents or publishers. As for their availability, The Figurehead will be out in the next couple of months, but for the rest, well, that’s in the hands of the publishers and the market.

Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?

I’m always happy to discuss things with others and try to encourage people to write. But a single tip? Well, I suppose it would be ‘Trust your own voice.’ People sometimes get inhibited because they think they don’t have the posh words or the vocabulary that’s needed. But if the urge to tell a story’s there, tell it. In your own words. I have an American friend who’s had a few traumatic experiences. I encouraged her to write some of them down. She was dismissive, said she couldn’t, said she wasn’t educated enough, etc. I pushed and she’s now written several pieces which are simple, direct and very, very powerful. She doesn’t go in for fancy metaphors and such but the sincerity and the naturalness of the narrative achieves effects that professionals would have to work hard to replicate.

Do you find that writer’s groups and online networking has helped your writing career?

You have a way of asking seemingly simple questions which, in fact, call for long consideration. Networking has certainly helped. There’s no doubt that, amongst all the dross on Facebook, Twitter, and so on, there are interesting postings. I find that, if I mention a new blog, the hits go up significantly. Whether that translates into readers I don’t yet know, but it certainly makes contacts and opens up avenues I wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

Writers’ groups are helpful in a different way. I’m active in four (I think) and belong to some others, but rarely contribute to them. A lot of the exchanges take the form of ‘I’ve got a new book out,’ but even then there’s a comradeship and shared experiences that are very refreshing. I’ve actually made very good friends through them. And there’s always the fact that writing is such a strange, solitary pursuit. It helps to know that others are doing it and they seem to be perfectly normal people.

What are your thoughts about the future of eBooks?

With no real experience of reading one yet, I just have to go with what I hear. It seems that they’re really catching on in the USA. For the moment, they’re still relatively rare over here. There’s little doubt, though, that they’re a real force. I’m old-fashioned in that I like the feel of a book as an object. When I received the first copy of my first published novel, I carried it about like a newborn. I still reckon it’s the nearest a man can come to having a baby (although obviously not nearly as painful and with none of the downsides of colic, night feeding, nappies/diapers, and the rest). The non-fiction book I co-wrote, Just Write, is now apparently available in e-book form and The Figurehead will appear as e-book, e-serial, and paperback. I think when the prices of e-readers start dropping, more and more people will choose them. And I’d support any technology which kept making reading available.

Here’s your opportunity to tell us anything else you care to share.

Well first, thank you for inviting me here, and just that it’s a privilege to be doing this job. Self-promotion is part of it but the point I always try to make is that writers get their talent from some genetic accident or other and I consider myself lucky to have been dealt this particular hand.

What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):


  1. Good questions -- good answers! Bill, I've had a quick look at your blog and am intrigued. I like your writing and will look for your books.

  2. Thanks Bill and Linda for another interesting interview, and more books to add to my To Be Read list.

  3. First, thank you again Linda for the opportunity. And thanks Vicki and Patricia for your kind comments. I think the fascinating thing about interviews is that, at the time you give the fullest answers possible but then, when you read to finsihed article, there are always other things that occur and you think 'Damn, I wish I'd said ... (whatever)'. But I think in this case, you've probed me very expertly Linda. (No double entendre intended.)

  4. Well, Bill, you can always save up the other things that occurred to you and we can do another interview in the future!

  5. Linda, I think the nature of the beast is that the answers will depend on whatever is preoccupying the interviewee that partiocular week. I don't mean there'll be contradictory ideas, but just different emphases. But thanks for the offer. I may remind you of it some time.

  6. Wonderful interview! I'm really impressed with the scope of the genres you've written in. And I like that you don't have a schedule. It makes me feel a lot more normal! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Thank you Elizabeth - but I'd hate to encourage anyone to feel normal. Feel extraordinary - it makes everything more interesting. (Having said which, I'll settle back into my cosy normality again.)

  8. fascinating stuff as usual, Bill. You are a clever man. However, one of the benefits of giving a literary birth you failed to mention is that your perineum is still intact.

  9. Lovely interview, you two. I always enjoy your bloggings," Bill, as well as your outlook on life. :) (My favorite Scottish philosopher.)

  10. Michael, your awareness of the condition of my perineum does suggest a level of intimacy I'd rather keep from the world. It also surprises me. Did you take advantage of me that time the Buckfast kicked in?

    I much prefer Jean's gentility and, Jean, I shall pay handsomely if you continue to spread the news that I'm a philosopher.