William McIlvanney at Bloody Scotland

It was the inaugural Scottish crime writing festival and very fitting that one of the main events showcased the man who Ian Rankin and Val McDermid both cite as a major influence in their early writing career. McIlvanney was interviewed by Len Wanner, whose introduction to the man himself was fulsome and considered. Comments such as ... created an archetype with an all access pass ... seen as the source for tartan noir ...the genre debt to him is remarkable.

When Len paused for a response, Willie joked he should now leave, that anything else would be an anti-climax.

Len’s first question, almost inevitably – because it’s what I wanted to know, was why did he turn to crime?

After writing his critically acclaimed novel, Docherty, Willie felt what he described as contemporary starvation. He want to connect with his peers and on further deliberation he said he heard a voice. This voice in his head was abrasive ... it was clearly Scottish and he deliberately made him a policeman because he wanted him to deal with the bad stuff in society.

He went on to say that he was more than pleasantly surprised with the impact.

He argued that he shouldn’t take sole credit for beginning a genre. What he experienced was a hunger for contemporary life and Laidlaw gave him a vehicle for re-connecting. He loved Glasgow and he wanted to write without restriction, to bring his writing into the then present.

The book was of course a huge success and his agent counselled him saying that that if he wrote one of these each year he would soon become a millionaire. Of course, he didn’t and one sensed that any regret that flavoured the words was simply playing to the gallery.

The previous night, Ian Rankin cited McIlvanney as one of his early influences a comment that humbled and delighted him. He said, “Crime writers are a generous species, at other more literary gatherings, he joked, you can often see the glint of knives in the shadows.”

He went on to say that as he explored Laidlaw on the page the character fascinated him. He is of course from Kilmarnock, but a convert to Glasgow and a big part of the element of the Laidlaw books for him is it allows him to demonstrate his respect for Glasgow, you don’t pay homage to the city, he said, you meet it on equal terms.

Len asked if his achievement was equal to his ambition.
After a pause, Willie answered by saying that he wanted to write a genealogy of the Scottish working class. He decided early on in life that he wanted to write about ordinary people. He came from a talkative family, he lived in what he described as a “verbal house” and he savoured the stories he heard from everyone around him. He was tired of literature that talked about the ruling classes and he wanted to commemorate the ordinary citizen. For him there is a serious historical tradition in the working class that deserves enormous respect and with his work he wanted to celebrate where he came from.

Someone asked – it may have been Len - what do you think is the artists' role? His answer was that this comes down to the choice of the artist. In his view politics have always mattered, in his view the world has become a monopoly board for the world of finance – capital rules the world and governments are secondary and he wants to understand that.

A question from the floor – what advice would you give to students?
He answered, “Write about what you love – to thine oneself be true, as the quote says. Try to sustain the energy of your commitment.” He went on to say that publication should not be viewed as the be all and end all. “It’s perfectly valid to write and clarify your own thoughts and feelings, even if you don’t achieve publication. You can understand yourself, your own nature and impulses. Do it for yourself ... and if publication happens good on you.”

The last question was from Len and he asked was there going to be another Laidlaw?

Willie told us that Canongate are going to re-publish his Laidlaw books and since this has been agreed he feels like a born again writer. Laidlaw has been spinning around his head again and he thinks he would like to write another one.

Here’s one McIlvanney fan waiting with bated breath.

A Murderous Weekend at 'Bloody Scotland'

“The stakes are high ...” this is how Jenny Brown, Literary Agent introduces the session. And how.

The organisers invited pitches from aspiring crime writers. Describe your novel in 100 words was their task and they flooded in from all corners of the UK. Lin Anderson and Jenny Brown were given the difficult task of sifting through them to find the final 7 talented (and brave) souls who would get the opportunity to pitch their novels to a panel comprised of commissioning editors and a literary agent.

The panel comprised of industry experts ...
Liz Small (Waverley Books), Rachel Rayner (Transworld Books) Maxine Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster) and Jenny Brown (Chair of Bloody Scotland and Literary Agent)

The Pitchers ...
Colin Vaines
Sharon Birch
Joe Knobs
Alan Gillespie
Kirsty Logan
Mark Leggatt
Calum Macleod

Colin Vaines – a headless corpse in Loch Ness – the home of Aleister Crowley

The panel's comments: well chosen topic – try to get over possible comical associations - maintain energy and pace at the beginning – a clear sense of influence and direction for your audience – universal appeal of Loch Ness – sounds well developed

Sharon Birch – Who’s Body is it Anyway? Remote cottage in the highlands – body found of someone who was thought to have been cremated 3 years earlier.

The panel's comments – title misleading, could mean anything – focus on the aspect of secrets – pitcher introduced great credentials and authenticity which is appealing to a publisher. Potential for a series is also attractive, as is location. Mistaken identity always a good start – as are dark secrets – we all identify with this. Crime is an interactive genre – we are all armchair detectives. Comparative references to Kate Atkinson worked.

Joseph Knobs – Death Bed Conversion – serial killer and an unfound 7th grave – was an innocent man convicted – was the real killer never found – did the 7th victim survive – killer, victim and detective collide.

The panel's comments – powerful pitch – confident approach – moors connection will resonate with public – great twist subverts our expectations – make maverick cop empathic

Alan Gillespie – Interview with a Murderous Lesbian Cannibal – in Leglock Prison - a character of deep flaws – bizarre sexual negotiations – Silence of the Lambs with a Scottish accent.

The panel's comments – loved the pitch – good introduction – brought in strong comparisons – not sure if book is a comedy – hard to pull off comedy with horrific elements – extremely strong characters – would have to see how it is developed – lots of fun – female serial killer is underdone – tricky title, but eye-grabbing.

Kirsty Logan – Little Dead Boys – Angela Carter meets Lousie Welsh – gothic novel.

The panel's comments – great credentials from the author – great title – familiar but different – find something different with wide appeal – past and present – urban legends – liked the atmosphere.

Mark Leggett – Closure – conspiracy – angst-ridden a driven by morality – journalist wife is murdered – chasing the murderer, his son is at increased risk – drug cartels – Mossad – a chase through Europe and North Africa.

The panel's comments – intrigued about how character will overcome the odds stacked up against him – will need tenacity to ensure character isn’t overwhelmed – felt it might have too much going on – two panellist loved it – wanted to know character was well-rounded enough – feels there is a good market for this kind of book – emotional heart is young son being in danger – achieves empathy.

Calum Macleod– the Song of Alan Breck – no one ever named a film called “Lowlander” – set after 1745 rebellion – character flees to Paris – clues that his father might be a traitor to the cause.

The Panel's comments: intriguing premise – a real family secret – huge appeal – historic novel needs convincing details – stronger title perhaps?

And the winners ... JOE KNOBS and SHARON BIRCH

(Michael J. Malone)


Other events: