Wednesday, 30 June 2010

In conversation with...


 In 3 words describe The Figurehead.

Love and death.

Now you have another 21 words - give us some detail of the plot.

In Aberdeen in 1840, a shipwright dies and John Grant carves a figurehead, solves a mystery and starts falling in love.

Do you ever write naked?

I live in Aberdeen, ergo naked writing = hypothermia. Anyway, why let reality spoil my mental image of myself as a Lord Byron figure (without the bad leg)?

Why 1840?

I wanted it to be 19th century, near the Romantics because my PhD was on Victor Hugo’s theatre and I like all that excessive Romanticism stuff anyway. Narrowing it down was easy because Aberdeen Library had an ordnance survey map of the city in 1840. Then I discovered that the Scottish Maid, the first ship to have a clipper bow, was designed and launched in Aberdeen in 1839, exactly 100 years before my birthday. And sail was being threatened by steam, and a new-fangled thing called a propeller was being demonstrated, and emigration to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand was big business – so it’s a great time. (And there’s no DNA or CSI to worry about, either.)

Suits me. I hate all that DNA malarkey. If I want a science manual I’ll go to the non-fiction department thankyouverymuch. You've published crime and now with The Figurehead there appears to be an element of romance. You going soft on us?

This harsh exterior hides a gentle, tender soul. Anyway, The Figurehead is still a crime novel. It just so happened that the carver, John Grant, and half his model, Helen Anderson, started fancying one another so who was I to stop them? I think it’s a shame that we have to be genre-labelled, anyway. It’s inhibiting. I only became a crime writer by accident.

You have a bad leg? Awwww. What other faults would you like to tell us about?

No, no. Byron had the bad leg – club foot. It hurt like eff, so he drank hock and soda water to take his mind off it. (Works for me.)

As for my own faults, my first impulse was to claim that I’m almost flawless (‘almost’ because my generosity, compassion and modesty are excessive). But it’s hard to signal something as a joke in writing, and self-deprecation doesn’t always work. I was once very embarrassed in the USA where I directed As you like it for the URI Theater Department. After the last show, they gave me some lovely, thoughtful gifts and, in my thank you speech, I said the show had been wonderful thanks to the director. They all applauded and agreed but no doubt thought I was a wanker when all I wanted was to get a laugh.

So let’s see – there’s selfishness, laziness, occasional gluttony (eating whole tubs of Ben and Jerry’s as I watch football), impatience with politicians and an extraordinarily low attention span. Those are just a few off the top of my head – interview my wife to get the rest.

I called her. She says she’s going to keep all the good stuff until you have shuffled off this mortal coil, and then make a fortune.

When it comes to violence in fiction how far should you go?

This is a perennial problem, isn’t it? I remember writing a blog about it way back and I’m still puzzled by our appetite for (or tolerance of) it. It’s clear that lots of readers expect to find a bit of gore dripping off the pages. One psychologist/critic (can’t remember who) said crime writers ‘stylise’ murder, make it acceptable by turning it into something other than a grotesque invasion of one person by another. I don’t buy that. I think we’re satisfying some incomprehensible but very real appetite. We rubber-neck at accident scenes, the papers dwell on the gruesome details of stabbings, rape, torture, murder. Unlike with their politics, they’re not forming our tastes and opinions, they’re meeting a demand. I don’t imagine for a moment that many of us would be capable of doing any of those things ourselves but the fascination with them is definitely there.

Having said all that, I have a nagging concern that we don’t really know what we’re unleashing when we invent our nasty episodes. The arguments about video games apply to our violent scenes, too – copycat killings, kids using knives so casually, and the whole excitement and glamour of violence. It’s fine for me to sit here, sun shining on the garden outside, and decide to eviscerate someone with a blunt breadknife and wrap up the bits in cling-film. My imagination can conceive of it but I’d never be able to do it. But we don’t all share the same morality and there may well be readers who find such words and images ‘cool’. That makes me shudder more than the fictional gore-fest.

See question above and tell us what you think about any responsibility that the author might have...

I’ve sort of answered that already (even if it’s by a ‘don’t know’). But I think there’s another angle on it. Just as writers get caught up with their characters and their autonomy, so they get dragged into their motives and the situations in which they find themselves. In a way, it’s possible that the writer’s an accomplice but the real responsibility lies with the character.

OK, I need to explain that. When I wrote my first procedural, I decided it had to have some nastiness because that sells books. That sounds glib, irresponsible maybe because the scene I wrote, towards the end of the book, is quite shocking. But I didn’t sit here dreaming up torments – they all came straight out of the character involved and the motives behind the violence. It was a necessary part of that person’s psyche and essential to the plot. Mind you, it still didn’t stop my agent at the time happily introducing me to a friend as ‘a nice man who has very nasty thoughts’. When asked to do readings or give talks, I never read such passages, though, and I actually find them disturbing when I look at them now. So the writer in me writes them and enjoys the process, but the reader in me finds them hard to take. Over to you, Mr. therapist.

Hey, I’m not your therapist, dude. Although I am available for a fee and therefore happy to make some shit up to earn it...and what responsibility does someone like yourself have who is, and I quote "almost flawless"?

I knew I shouldn’t have given you that whip to beat me with (see what I did there?). It’s actually scary to think that what I write could have a consequence other than just entertaining the reader, and nowadays I don’t exploit the commercial potential of violence at all. There was a rape in my second book (which I rewrote after my wife read and commented on it and gave me insights into the victim’s responses which I hadn’t had myself). Again, it’s nasty and again it’s necessary. Luckily, when the late Susanna Yager reviewed it in the Sunday Telegraph, she acknowledged that it wasn’t ‘there to titillate, but to carry the story forward and ultimately bring about the climax to a thoughtful and thought-provoking book’. I think if I were to discover that something I wrote provoked or informed actual violence to a real person, I’d feel very guilty. So I acknowledge the responsibility – and yet I still go on writing that sort of thing when it’s necessary. Is that me copping out? Come on, you’ve reviewed umpteen crime novels, you tell me.

 I like what Stephen King says about a contract between the writer and the reader and the writer’s duty to write about his/ her character with honesty. Anywho, this isn’t about me. For once. So...moving on...when giving writerly advice, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that when writing about a frog you should inhabit your frog-ness. How do you inhabit your frogness?

The temptation to discuss my genuine Francophilia is strong but I’ll resist it. One response that your question does provoke, though, is that doing something and thinking about how you do it are distinct things. On one hand, you’re the writer – absorbed in the work, unaware of self or the passage of time, part of the fiction that’s being created – on the other, you’re stepping back from the process, analysing it objectively in full awareness of who you are and what your aims and intentions are too. So my answer is that I definitely do ‘inhabit my frogness’ but if I start trying to say how I do it, I might be inventing something which wasn’t necessarily true. (Interestingly – to me anyway – this answer reflects what I was saying about my attitudes to violence as writer and reader – the writer is wrapped up in it, part of it and can therefore do it; the reader is further from it, more capable of the necessary objectivity you need for analysis.)

Talking about Stephen King - we were, people. Keep up. What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I’ll tell you a secret. At school and university, I used to write the occasional letter to the editor and even an odd article here and there. I was too idle to actually become a student journalist or anything and writing was just for fun. So the aim was rarely serious but a couple of times I got very enthusiastic responses from teachers, lecturers, even profs. And yet no one ever suggested that I should look for a career involving writing. With hindsight, it was the obvious route for me to follow.

So some people said nice things but I don’t think I can pinpoint a specific piece of writing advice given to me personally. As a student, reading old critics such as G Wilson Knight and others made me realise for the first time how writing can have so many layers of significance (not that I’m claiming that for my stuff). And the ‘rules’ of Elmore Leonard are brilliant and spot on. I only ever give two bits of advice myself – read what you’ve written aloud to test for rhythms, gaps, mistakes, etc. and cut, cut, cut.

Are you a plotter or a pantser (as in, you fly by the seat of your pants - and if you know where that expression comes from, do tell)

As part of my slavish desire to please you, I checked the expression and it’s probably British from WW1 – planes with few or unreliable instruments, so the pilot made his judgements on how the aircraft was moving, shuddering etc. – all of which he felt through his chair. But for once, your question’s easy to answer. I’m a rudimentary plotter but, once the words start appearing, the pantser takes over. I have a general overall idea of where I want to get to but I let the characters take me there (or somewhere else if that’s what they decide). I even laugh at their jokes. Maybe authors should all be sectioned to protect society.

I’m liking this slavish desire you have to pleasing me. Now...while I come up with ways in which I can take advantage of this tell us all how to buy a copy of The Figurehead and what formats it is in.

The formats take me into new territory. It’s the first time I’ve had a book published simultaneously as e-book, e-serial and paperback. It’s already available in the USA but an ISBN number glitch has delayed it in the UK. I’m assured that’ll be cleared up very quickly. People who registered with Virtual Tales (the publishers) get the first 4 chapters free and a 40% discount on the cover price. I don’t know if that offer’s still open but all you have to do is send a blank email to to find out. The relevant web page is at Most of all, it would be nice if readers went into their local bookshop and, if it’s not on the shelves, expressed, in very loud voices and at great length, their amazement at such a shocking lapse on the part of the manager.

Like this, people... “ohmyGOD, you DON’T have a copy of The Figurehead by Bill Kirton?

If what you have read here doesn't slake your desire for all things Bill, he can be found on his blog and the link is on the right-hand side of this page. No. The other right. Or you could post a question in the comments section and as he, by his own admission, is a devoted fan of May Contain Nuts, he will spot it and reply quicker than a very quick thing.


  1. This is the first time I've done an interview in a Jacuzzi and I must confess to my curiosity about how it might turn out. My fears were baseless. Thanks Michael for a lot of fun and, when your efforts lift me into the world of the rich and famous, I shall have fond thoughts of you now and then as I sip my daiquiris on my Bermudan verandah.

  2. I shall at the very least be expecting an invite to join you on that Bermudan verandah, Bill. Thanks for putting up with my questionning style.

  3. I'd be happy to do some bellyachin at the register on my side of the ocean to get my hands on a copy of THE FIGUREHEAD. And, yes, Bill, you are almost flawless...for a guy. who writes with romantic elements. sigh...

  4. Great interview guys - interesting, irreverent, witty...etc.

    But what else can we expect from two cool dudes like Michael and Bill.

  5. Hey Michael, see them two burdz? If we play our cards right ...

  6. Interesting interview. I just have to get that book, that's for sure.

  7. Great interview! Now I must hie to my local independent bookseller and *demand*, uh, ask nicely when "The Figurehead" will be available.

  8. Bill, there's more burdz turning up by the minute. If only we were hot.

    Anneke, Rosemary, Thea, dragonlady thanks for popping in.

  9. Michael, I like this! Haven't met Bill in person yet, but we are facebook friends. Sounds like he and I share plenty ideas of writing about crime! Must have a good look around your blog!

  10. hey Story Quine - thanks for the comment and nice to have you on board.

  11. bill kirton is a chick magnet

  12. Thea, i had my suspicions and this is why I threw in the question about writing in the nude. So all you ladies could picture Bill hard at work.

  13. I heard a rumor amongst the many book circles i run with...ahem...that he is going to title the sequel 'The Maidenhead' - I guess it's true - once you add that romantic element...well, things change. Kinda adds a new twist to the crime novel. Bang bang and all that...

  14. Good one, Thea! This is like watching standup comedy. More! More! And I will get me to the local bookstore and demand my copy of the Figurehead.
    (It's what he puts in the wine of his coven...)

  15. Personally, I suspect the reason Bill is so flawless is because he's a Leo. I can't say enough good things about those Leo guys. I actually married one. (And am still married to him!)

    Great interview, guys!

  16. Thea, I'm sworn to secrecy.

    Marley, you're closer than you think. Think Jack Nicholson in Witches of Eastwick.

    Linda, my theory is that its all those hours of practise in front of the mirror going, "I love you more. No. I love YOU more,"

  17. Ah, as I sit here in my bath chair, mug of Horlicks clasped tight, slippers as cosy as old friends warming my gnarled feet, freshly-starched bib immaculate against my woolly cardigan, teeth marinading in Steradent beside me, I read these reckless, whirling thoughts of today's generation and smile at memories of courting and dancing to the strains of Glenn Miller.

  18. ever since you posted the picture of Bill frolicking on a picnic with those three russian girls, i've not been the same. call me reckless if you want, you darling Leo! Bill, may all your marinades be single malt. signed, me

  19. Bill, us young uns will try and keep you interested in life. A vicarious life is better than none at all.

    Thea, Dr Mike prescribes a cold shower.

  20. a cold shower???? don't rain on my parade, dr. strangelove

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