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Saturday 13 December 2014

T F Muir - Interview

Lynne Patrick talks with T F Muir

To many people of a certain age, the name Frank Muir brings to mind a tall, urbane, moustachioed quintessentially English gentleman, who partnered Denis Norden on panel games and radio shows.
This isn’t that Frank Muir.
This Frank Muir, or T F Muir as he is better known to crime fiction
aficionados, has no moustache and he certainly isn’t English – and I’m not sure he’d thank me for calling him urbane. He has become a denizen of the burgeoning world of ‘tartan noir’, and his is a name which is being spoken alongside the likes of Christopher Brookmyre, Quintin Jardine and Caro Ramsay, and may soon aspire to the bestselling ranks of
McDermid, Mina, Rankin and McBride.
His DCI Andy Gilchrist series is now into its fifth volume and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s set in the deceptively sleepy seaside town of
St Andrews, in general more famous for golf and a venerable university than violent crime – which was one of the things that intrigued me.
But first, what about the man behind the books? Who is T F Muir?

Lynne: Your website biography is a tad vague and mysterious about your life before your writing career, except to say that much of it was spent abroad. Do you mind filling in the gaps there, or does vague and mysterious suit you better?
Frank: In my prior life, I was a civil engineer, a profession I hated, and in which I should never have become
involved. I am often asked how I became an author, and it’s taken me some time to understand that the question should really be how in the hell did I ever become a civil engineer?
I have deliberately kept my pre-author days vague, because I worry that readers might have the misperception that engineers can’t write. They can, and some of the brightest people I have ever met were engineers.

Lynne: You were born in Scotland, live there and set your books there – but you have dual US and UK
citizenship. How did that come about?
Frank: The one good thing about civil engineering was, that it gave me the opportunity to work overseas, and as soon as I graduated I was off – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, then finally to the USA, where I worked and lived for over 20 years. I resisted applying for US citizenship, because back then, doing so meant that I would have to revoke my British citizenship. But US immigration laws changed circa 1999, and I promptly applied for dual US/UK citizenship. My intention at that time was to continue to work and live in the States, but as Rabbie Burns said – ‘the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay’ – and I ended up returning to Scotland to be with the
woman I should have married forty years ago.

Lynne:  What brought you to detective fiction when you’d already pursued one very different career?
Frank:  For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. As a young child, I read voraciously, and as a teenager I read every action and adventure story I could get my hands on – every Biggles book in the series, ditto for James Bond; Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, She, Allan Quatermain; the Pan Book of Horror Stories – remember these? In my first year of secondary education, I was introduced to Greek mythology, which just blew me away – women with snakes for hair and eyes that could turn you to stone, one-eyed giants that ate humans, three-headed dogs with lion’s claws, and creatures with the body of a man and the head of a bull – I mean, you couldn’t make it up. And then… in my second year, I was introduced to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen, for crying out loud. They might be regarded as the best writers on the planet, but I was a fourteen-year-old boy who had read nothing but action and adventure, horror and mythology all of my life, and they completely destroyed my love of reading. Consequently, my interest in English declined with corresponding failing grades, and I found that I could score much better in mathematics – you worked through the logic of an algebraic equation, and you got the correct answer. In the end, I breezed maths, failed English, and went to university to study civil engineering.

But once I was overseas, I picked up my love of reading again, and devoured Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, and all the thriller and suspense books I could find. Then one morning in my late 30s, I woke up and realized that I didn’t want to reach old age and look back on my life and wish I had tried to become an author. So that same day, I set a goal to write a novel and get it published. My first manuscript was a sprawling international

thriller that I almost sold to a major New York publisher 20 years ago. My next several manuscripts – thrillers (2), suspense (3), WWII crime story, contemporary love/suspense, sci-fi screenplay – were all rejected. I’d come close, and had an agent in London, who asked me if I had anything else I was working on. I told her I had about 100 pages of a detective story, but I wasn’t sure if I could finish it, as I’d never written one before. She asked for the first 100 pages, liked it, and asked to see the final manuscript. Five years later, Eye for an Eye was published, and next thing I know, I’m a crime novelist with a detective series set in St Andrews.

Lynne:  What is it about St Andrews? To most people it seems such a peaceful place; the UK’s next-but-one monarch was sent there to study, and they don’t normally place royalty in the way of gangsters and serial killers. But that peaceful surface clearly isn’t how you perceive it. What are other people not seeing?
Frank:  My wife and I visit St Andrews frequently, and just love the place. I remember the moment of epiphany, when we were walking back from the pub one night, and I was struck with the realization that St Andrews would make a terrific setting for a crime series. For me, the ‘auld grey toon’ has all the ingredients that a crime series needs – old cemeteries, castle and cathedral ruins, old stone buildings, cobbled streets, narrow lanes – on top of which it has wonderful countryside with golf courses, beaches, and in particular, gorse bushes you can hide bodies in, cliff faces you can push them over, and the Fife Coastal Trail running through it in which you can hide a body for weeks in the winter. And with that cold and miserable Scottish weather battering the place senseless, it was a perfect setting to fire up my imagination.

Lynne:  Your name gets mentioned under the ‘tartan noir’ banner along with some of the big hitters in crime fiction. Did you set out to emulate the likes of Rankin, McDermid and McBride?
Frank:  Not at all. My intention was – and still is – to write the kind of book that I like to read, which is suspenseful, page-turning, well-written, evocatively gruesome – but not gratuitous, or overly done – with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, and most important of all, full of conflict, conflict, conflict.

Lynne:  So far your books have all revolved around the same detective inspector. Is there a secret to ringing the changes?
Frank:  I don’t know if it’s a secret or not, but what I try to do is give my detective, DCI Andy Gilchrist, conflict in his personal life, while also trying to solve the case of the week, which more often than not puts him in a life-threatening situation. I’ve also introduced some new characters – forensic pathologist, Dr Rebecca Cooper, who took over when old Bert Mackie retired, and with whom Gilchrist is having an affair; and DS Jessie Janes, who has moved to Fife Constabulary from Strathclyde Police, and brings along a ton of her own personal baggage. Trying to rack up the personal conflict for, and between, the characters helps to keep every new story fresh for the reader – I hope.

Lynne:  Any plans to move away from Andy Gilchrist with a standalone or maybe a new series?
Frank:  I tried to convince my publisher to take on one Gilchrist a year, plus another novel in an offshoot crime series, publishing them six months apart, but they wanted Gilchrist only. So, for the time being, it’s Gilchrist with Constable Crime. However, I’ve written several standalone thrillers, a couple of which have me really excited, but which need some more work on them before they reach the final draft stage. I’ll be sending Gilchrist #6, Blood Torment, to my agent this week, after which I’m planning to focus on one of the standalones. After that, it’s just the simple task of trying to convince my publisher to take it on board.  

Lynne:  Authors have to work hard to market their books these days. Is it hard to find time to do the actual writing when attending conventions and visiting bookshops takes up so much time?
Frank:  For me, writing comes first. I’m a morning person, so I write mostly in the mornings, leaving emails and all that other stuff until later in the day. And if I’m on a deadline, the world can take a back seat for a while. So it’s really harder for me to find time to do the marketing and publicizing stuff than it is to find time to write. Having said that, marketing and publicizing by the author is now an essential part of the writing process. It’s all very well having written a terrific book, but if no one knows about it, regrettably it will sink like a brick.

Lynne:  Do you remember the moment when you first held your book as a book, rather than as a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Frank: I had seen and held an advance copy of my debut novel, but it didn’t really feel like the real deal until held the final published version at my debut book launch. Only then did it feel as if I had actually accomplished what I had set out to do all these years ago. Strange as it may sound, I have never sat down and read any of my published books from start to finish – I have promised myself to do that one day.

Lynne:  Who do you write for? Who is the reader in your mind when you start a new novel?
Frank:  My novels are clearly aimed at the adult market, and I’ve done a couple of signings in which I’ve told a reader not to purchase the book if they’re thinking of giving it to their children as a gift. But when I’m writing a new novel, I don’t really think of anyone or any group of readers to target – other than adults. All I am trying to do is to write the kind of book I like to read, and to make it as compelling a read as I possibly can, one that any reader can hopefully enjoy.  

Lynne:  How do you go about it? Do you work from a synopsis, or do you just dive straight in? Do you know how it ends before you sit down to begin? And how do you begin? Where does each new book come from?
Frank:  I used to answer this question with – No, I don’t do a detailed synopsis; I start with a sliver of an idea, which could be the beginning or the ending, or something anywhere in between, and I work with that sliver of an idea in mind, and just keep writing until it’s finished. It has taken me some time to realize that I do in fact write a synopsis – it’s just that my synopsis happens to be 100,000+ words long, and is effectively my first draft.
In my debut novel, Eye for an Eye, I found myself working through that first draft with a vague idea of who I thought the killer should be, only to have a different idea come to me as I closed in on the ending. Of course, this necessitated a considerable rewrite, but that’s what writing is all about: fine-tuning, revising, rewriting until you’ve just about had enough of the story, but all the while improving it. In my third novel, Tooth for a Tooth,  I literally had no idea who the killer was until I approached the end, necessitating another massive rewrite. But I believe both of these stories are all the better for that.

Mostly, my ideas for a story come to me from something I see, hear or read. For example, the idea for my most recent novel, The Meating Room, came to me when I was watching a news report about historical sexual abuse allegations, and I found myself asking the question: What if a number of women hated this particular guy so badly, that they decided to conspire and fabricate a case against him for historical sexual abuse? That was the spark that got my writing mind fired up. My publisher had asked me to come up with a synopsis and a title, and out of nowhere, The Meating Room popped into my mind. I found as I wrote my way through the first draft, that I had no idea what the meating room was, what it meant, how it affected the characters – all I knew was that I loved the title. So as I worked through that first draft, I found myself adjusting my initial idea into something different to match the title, and I ended up with a story of which I am immensely proud, and believe is my best yet. 

Lynne:  Your books are pretty heavy on violence, bodycount and bloodletting; you’re clearly comfortable with the trend towards graphic descriptions. Do you think, though, that we’re reaching saturation point? How much further can it go without completely losing credibility?
Frank:  As long as the violence and the killings are not gratuitous, and not just added into the story to kind of spice it up a touch, I think the readers will accept the scenes, and believe the author, and be pulled into the story. In a police procedural, the reader doesn’t want to read a story about a detective trying to find out who stole someone’s knitting, but wants the vicarious sense of disgust or thrill of ‘seeing’ gruesome scenes close up. I try to emphasize the horror of it all by having Gilchrist suffer a visceral reaction to scenes of mutilation, but knowing that in order for him to solve the crime, he has to force himself to study the scene and look for clues – in a way, almost forcing the reader to read the gory bits.

I don’t know if we’ll ever reach saturation point with respect to violence. It’s worrying to see how younger kids are more readily exposed to scenes of violence and sex by way of the Internet, for example, and what was once thought of as being too violent, or too sexually explicit, is now becoming the norm.

Lynne:  Is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
Frank:  I draw the line at mutilation of children, and won’t be writing about that any time soon.

The Meating Room, the fifth and latest of T F Muir’s Andy Gilchrist series is out now, published in paperback and eBook by Constable Crime.
Earlier Books in the series are:
 Eye for an Eye
Hand for a Hand
Tooth for a Tooth

Life for a Life.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Always fascinating to know how other writers work, and what makes them tick. Thank you Lynne and Frank for an excellent, enjoyable interview.