A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mr. Excitement: The Interview with Wild Bill Kirton

Introduction: What's the skinny on Bill Kirton, in 71 words or less?
Born and raised in Plymouth, England. Primary school? Loved it. Seconday school? Hated it. First attempt to get into university? Failed. Thereafter? Got my PhD and was a lecturer at Aberdeen University from 1968 to 1989. After that? Retired to concentrate on writing. Three children, eight grandchildren. I sit at a computer, keep our garden in check. carve wood, ride by bike, enjoy food and wine and generally have a great time.

1) You have a strong academic and classical background. You've written and directed plays, a historical novel, mysteries and children's books...translated Moliere...been a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow...Yet you're best known for your Jack Carston mysteries. How did you come to the genre? And what do you get out of it?
Like most things, it was an accident. My agent sent a standalone novel to a publisher. They liked it but were more interested in publishing police procedurals and asked if I'd written one. I hadn't but when you get an offer like that you can't refuse, so I wrote Material Evidence and they published it. It was my third novel and I liked the fact that the genre had rules which I had to follow. By that I mean obvious things--the need for a crime (probably a murder), a culprit, clues, red herrings and a solution. So, in a way, it gave me a recipe but I could choose and adapt the ingredients and focus on the things that interest me most--why people do things, how they interact, their external appearances, internal shadows and the areas where the two overlap.

2) Your books are available as ebooks. Have you published traditionally as well?
My first two Carston novels were published as hardbacks in the UK and paperbacks in the US (by a different company). But today publishers come and go, and I've been with 2 others in America. Last year I published all my own fiction as both ebooks and paperbacks but two of my satirical novels are now with a new publisher. I've also written five books for students on study, work, and writing skills for a big educational publisher, so I've been on both sides of the fence (still am).

3) Has the ebook experience, overall, been positive for you? If so, in what ways?
Definitely. The old, traditional system took ages. You could wait for months with no idea whether your manuscript was being read or had slipped down the back of a radiator. It could take up two years from submission to receiving the first proofs. And all these apparently creative people asked the same question. No, not 'Is the book any good?' but 'Will it sell?' I suppose in the commercial world that's understandable but I'm naive enough to think the two may be connected.
    You were at the mercy of agents, publishers, editors. (Don't get me wrong, good editors are invaluable and I've had two truly excellent ones but, as in all walks of life, there are the professionals and then the rest.)

4) What limitations have you had to overcome in order to succeed?
Thanks for assuming I've 'succeeded', Reb. If you're asking about my personal limitations, there's my congenital laziness. But if you mean limitations in the whole submitting, self-publishing, formatting process...Well, Amazon's made it fairly easy to get books formatted and listed but that's also a drawback because more and more people are doing it and the reader's now faced with bucket loads of titles.
    So you need a good marketing strategy. And that isn't a skill all of us have. There's plenty of advice out there, and you blog, Tweet and pester all your Facebook friends, most of whom are also writers, to buy your latest world-beater. If anyone has the solution to this conundrum, I'd be grateful to hear it.

5) Many writers insist that Twitter and social media in general are either useless or over-rated. Yet I came to your writing only after discovering you online--and engaging with you through Tweets or quips on Authors Electric (the collective UK online blog). Is social media savvy a natural talent or did you have to develop it?
I think whoever I seem to be online depends on who I'm interacting with. I don't tend to initiate much, I react. People interest me, which is normal for a writer. I'm curious about them and online I can be that without transgressing any social norms. So I have lots of genuine friends there.
    Also, like you, my online contacts have introduced me to books I might not normally have read but which I've enjoyed. So I guess I'm saying that I think the online world has enriched my experience of writing and of people. We're all characters in the Facebook fiction.

6) What special gifts do you bring to the table as a mystery writer? And, by extension, what is a Bill Kirton book?
Well, I wouldn't call them 'gifts', but there are things I try to do which don't necessarily conform to the rules I mentioned earlier. When I first started sending stuff away I chose radio drama because writing dialogue helps keep me from over-elaborate or too precious prose. Plus, dialogue lets the characters reveal who are they are without me intervening. 
    More generally, when faced with seemingly antisocial behavior, I'm more interested in asking why it's happening than in  judging it. What is it in someone that allows them to do outrageous, hurtful or just plain embarrassing things without conscience or self-awareness? I don't think there's an easy dividing line between good and bad. Sometimes it may be okay to sympathize with a 'baddie' or feel that a crime is justified.
    Also, at the end of each book, when the mystery's been solved, I always add a very short coda featuring one or more of the characters. Why? To remind the reader that the world's back in balance as far as this crime's concerned, but there are still new injustices and pain around.
    But the thing I enjoy most is when a readers finds funny bits in the books. Humor's essential everywhere.

7) Who are your favorite authors, mystery and other?
A lot of my favorites are authors who make me laugh: Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Tom Sharpe, Michael Frayne, Terry Pratchett and umpteen others. Then there are those that make me realize I still have a long way to go: David Mitchell, William Boyd, Julian Barnes and, again, countless others. And, of course, the biggies, many of whom I studied in depth as part of my job: Hugo, Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Beckett, Moliere, Racine, etc.
    And in the crime/mystery genre? Well, there are the usual suspects in the USA and, living in Scotland, I'm spoiled for choice. But the standout writer (and person) here is William McIlvanney. He's at last being feted as the founder of Tartan Noir but for me he's always just been a great novelist.

8) Do you agree with the Gospel according to Elmore Leonard: no adjectives or adverbs...no flashbacks...no fine writing...no back story...etc.?
I quote him all the time. I know his 'Gospel' was a tongue-in-cheek offering but it's very persuasive and I'm conscious of it a lot of the time when I'm writing. It's all too easy to indulge in fancy turns of phrase or extend sentences with brackets, sub-clauses and stylistic flourishes. The 'proof' of the legitimacy of what Leonard said lies in his own books--not a word wasted, everything in the right place, perfect pitch and pacing.

9) Which long gone masters would you have most liked to meet?
Beckett's not 'long gone' but he's top of the list. I think for him, even though he was meticulous in his choice of words and in the instructions he gave with regard to his plays, his writing reflected exactly how he thought. By that I mean there'd be no diatribes on abstractions of literary theory; he'd speak about how it is. And there'd be plenty of laughs.
    The trouble is that the fact that their being 'masters' might mean they'd take themselves too seriously. My admiration might wane if they turned out to be too po-faced and heavy.

10) Which skills came most naturally? Dialogue should be one, with your theater experience.
Yes, that still seems to me the best way of avoiding some of the worst excesses of writing. It presents material in digestible chunks, avoids (or should avoid) 'writerliness', and leaves it to the characters to show you who they are. If I'm speaking as character A or B, Bill Kirton's kept out of the equation. It doesn't matter what he thinks. It's also interesting to realize that characters do tend to choose their own vocabulary and tone and seem to differentiate themselves from one another without me being aware of it. The only problem arises when something renders a character literally speechless. But even then, if he/she's been chatting away quite happily before, the silence becomes expressive.

11) Any quirks or character traits at odds with your image as the consummate writing pro?
I'm flattered that you (and by implication, others) have such an idea of me. However, it's a construct which I recognize but over which I have no real control. For example, I've frequently revealed how lazy I am, but people choose not to believe it. They say, 'You've written all those plays and books', etc. But I've been doing it since the early Sixties (and before, for that matter); so, in fact, I should have written a lot more.
    A short anecdote may answer you better. Many years ago, I was having coffee with a French student who was spending a year at Aberdeen university. We were talking about precisely this topic--selfhood and image, the inner 'me' and the outer appearance, etc. At one point he asked, "Est-ce que tu as conscience de l'espace que tu occupes?" (Are you conscious of the physical space you occupy?) Since then, I've once or twice been in situations (such as the present) which have caused me to tell the anecdote and each time his question has been interpreted in different ways--the best two being that it meant 'You're invading my personal space' and, more directly, 'Do you realize how fat you are?'
    All of which is to say that this particular 'consummate writing pro' is as flawed, boring, inadequate, self-deluded (and all the other adjectives Elmore Leonard would delete) as the next person.

12) Have you done anything that your hero, Jack Carston, would draw the line at doing?
Now you're getting embarrassing. Of course I have but I'm not telling you about them. He's no innocent but I'm far worse.

13) How has your taste for the classics impacted your mystery work?
Reading the greats critically, seeing how they use words not just to convey their surface meanings but also to evoke echoes, resonances, deeper narrative levels and also insinuate themselves into the reader's thought processes--all that opens up aspects of writing that are rarely apparent if you're doing is reading the 'story'. I've heard students say 'Why do we have to spoil the book by analyzing it?'. But it's very satisfying when, after a while, they realize that the book they didn't want 'spoiled' is still intact but that underneath the story other things are happening, things they'd missed by staying on the surface. It turns out to be an even better book than they realized.
    So, does any of that find its way into my books? I wish.

14) Do books by Bill Kirton put hair on the chest?
As an ex-academic, I'd need objective evidence to give you a valid answer. So I shall be calling upon reader volunteers, male and female, to take part in an exhaustive survey at my private laboratory.

15) What question have I failed to ask that you'd like to answer?
'To which address should I send the check?'

Now that you've met Bill Kirton, here are the links to his books. Curdle up for some bloody good, good bloody fun.

U.S.: http://www.amazon.com/Bill-Kirton/e/B00D918C2K/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1406373380&sr=8-1

U.K.: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bill-Kirton/e/B00D918C2K/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1406373443&sr=8-1

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