The interview with Scottish author Tony Black took place in the bar of the cozy Scandic Hotel in Berlin in January during the bleakest and coldest days of the winter. Tony Black was there for a literary event that had the authors reading from their books in yurts especially built up at the Potsdamer Platz. The fact thta there was only limited space and only lower numbers of people could attend made those readings special and very informal.
Black was enthusiastic enough roaming through the streets in his free time despite of the freezing cold. He was photographing a guy carrying stuff out of an apartment and when that man approached him demanding to know why Black had taken pictures of him Black made it clear he was only a visitor in this city doing the tourist thing. The man seemed to be calmed by that but later it dawned on Black that the guy might have looted the stuff he was carrying.
So, even away from his former home Edinburgh and his new turf, Ayr, Black had to learn there is crime all around providing constant inspiration.
Black’s most popular books are probably the ones in the Gus Dury series. The character Gus is maybe not to everyone’s liking but he is a refreshing, disrespectful and intriguing diversion to all the Detective Inspectors and Detective Sergeants being the protagonists in so many crime fiction books.
Having stated that, Black also gave life to DI Rob Brennan in the recent Murder Mile and its predecessor Truth Lies Bleeding, both highly recommended for some uneasy and gloomy reading.
His Father’s Son, Black’s latest novel, is out now, is a turn from Black’s usual path but with his ability to create memorable characters and his great way of writing it is definitely a book worth reading!
Black’s collection of author interviews that he has done over the years, called Hard Truths, gives a lot of insight into the mind and working process of numerous crime authors. It can be consumed wholly at once or in individual doses and it’s a great read for everyone who likes crime fiction!
What everyday situation drives you mad?
Oh, there are so many. Just now I’m getting really angry watching the news cause I used to be a journalist. The standards of BBC news are such shit it just boils my piss to watch, you’ve got quite esteemed journalists reading out the news as if it was some tabloid newspaper. I am just waiting for some female news presenter to be asked to read the news with her tits out ‘cause it’s that bad. It really annoys me.
Your favourite music and the best live concert you’ve ever been to?
I am really loving David Bowie’s new album ‘Where Are We Now’, there’s an Edinburgh band, the Stagger Rats which feature in Long Way Down and the Scottish Band Love & Money. Greatest gig I’ve ever been to, I actually went to see James Grant, the lead singer of Love & Money, doing a solo tour at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, it was an outstanding performance.
Are there colours you’d never wear?
Purple…(thinks about it)…no, just purple.
Name three things that are currently or usually in your fridge.
Tropicana orange juice, fresh and low milk and quorn veggie rashers.
Name three books that made you want to become an author.
Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Ulysses by James Joyce and crime, maybe The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.
Oh, shit, I forgot the standard crap questions that are What scares you? and Where do you get your ideas from? No, just joking.
Hey, but I’ve got standard crap answers for them. (laughs)
Okay, then let me hear the answer to the ‘where do you get your ideas from’ part.
I really don’t know where they come from. But there’s a great line from Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones and when he was asked about that, he said (doing a coarse Keith Richards voice) ‘Nobody writes songs, man, you just pluck ‘em out of the air!’ (laughs)
It’s movie night. Which movies do you watch with your friends?
Okay, this is where I have to be pretentious and not say anything like Star Trek? Oh, it’s got to be Citizen Kane, maybe The Trial. You know what, I’d watch Terminator and Terminator 2 ‘cause I just love big dumb action flicks. If I was being a bit wankier I’d say something from Jean Luc Godard.
Your idea of a perfect holiday?
I like cities. I get really uncomfortable with nothing to do like on a beach. It is great being in Berlin just now. I wandered around this morning being shouted at by the locals ‘cause I was taking pictures of them.
Your favourite literary and/or movie villain?
Dick Dastardly. Listen to the name, it tells you all you need to know. It’s probably where I get my fear of purple from, deep psychological scarring from watching Dick Dastardly and his fiendish hound Muttley. (smiles)
Your favourite Hitchcock movie?
Rear Window! I like Rope as well but Rear Window is definitely my favourite.
Okay, on to the questions about your books. And first question has to be about Gus Dury…
He’s a cunt, you wanna say he is a cunt, right?
No actually not. Most characters in crime fiction are still policemen but Gus is a great and unusual character, a chav and an arsehole but he’s also got the best heart ever, he would do everything for his friends and he is such a terrier when it comes to justice and helping people.
You’ve said it all, there’s nothing else for me to say (laughs).
How did you come up with that character? Do you know somebody like that? Were you inspired by anyone?
No, when I started writing I wasn’t writing crime fiction at all, I was writing what was called ‘lad lit’ and I wrote a book called The Gob which featured a character called Gus and he’s pretty much Gus Dury. By the time I had written about four or five books that hadn’t sold my agent said ‘You gotta try something that’s more commercial, try writing crime’ so I kind of went back to Gus from the first book and altered him slightly to make him more of a crime character. The way the character was he couldn’t be a policeman or ex-army or something like that. I had to give him some kind of qualification for the investigative work to make him able to do that so I made him an investigative journalist. Of course he’d have some family baggage and all that so that is where he kind of grow from. I hadn’t read a lot of crime when I started writing him so I didn’t have a lot to draw on so that’s why he is probably a little bit different.
What strikes me as odd is that normally when you ask any writer about advise on how to start writing most would say ‘Write what’s on your mind, write what you’d want to read.’ But you just said your agent kind of told you to write for a special market in a certain genre.
I mean that was my experience but probably a lot of people have made that experience in this industry. Ten years ago, I was writing for about seven years before I got a publishing deal and there was no Amazon Direct, you had to get an agent, you had to go down the traditional path and had to get an agent to sell to a publishing house. You had to have an eye on the commercial market or you weren’t going to get picked up. It’s almost as Amazon having taken over the slush pile from all unpublished authors and the publishers are watching what is being sold and then they buy it. Nobody knows what the market wants, it’s all hit and miss, it’s why they buy the same stuff over and over again because they think it spells success and they’ll keep buying it until the market gets so fed up they can’t sell anymore of it. But that’s all changed now with authors going straight to Amazon, they can pretty much write whatever they want and they are in control and have as much of a chance of making it a big success as a big publishing house has.
Back to Gus Dury. In Long Time Dead I couldn’t shake the feeling you were actually thinking of letting Gus die but now he has already been back in two new novellas you’ve written:
When I was writing Long Time Dead I was totally utterly and completely fed up with Gus and during the whole writing I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to kill him off. Actually I just got past the half way mark and put the book down, I really couldn’t face it. I had about three months left to finish it and my publisher was like ‘Where the hell is this fucking book?’ They had already done covers for it and I was thinking ‘Something is not right if they’ve actually done the cover images and I am not writing that thing’ so I actually went away, my mum’s got this kind of a granny flat at the side of her house and I locked myself away there and finished it. And as I finished it I still didn’t know if he was going to survive or not right up until the last page. My publisher thought it was the best book in the Gus series and then Richard Jobson wanted to make a movie of it, I was shocked and stunned and I still had absolutely no intention of going back to Gus at all. And then, just out of the blue, within the last few months, a lot of people have been asking me ‘When is the next Gus Dury coming out?’ even Irvine Welsh asked me about it.
Tell me a little more about the movie of Long Time Dead. Will it happen this year?
Well, it looks like that, it was stalled last year because the director didn’t like the screenplay, he’s got a new screenwriter now and it’s looking like it’s happening this year. It’ll have a really nice soundtrack, too. At the moment it looks like Dougray Scott will be playing the character of Gus. I think he’d be a great Gus actually. He’s certainly Richard Jobson’s top choice and Richard has worked with him before and every other idea he’s had for the movie has been spot on. I can’t wait to see what he does with the movie.
The stories about Gus are all set in Edinburgh and you always describe Edinburgh as very dark, grim and full of crime and now you moved to Ayr in the countryside but just yesterday you said you’d like to move back to Edinburgh.
Yeah, because Ayr’s fucking worse. It really is, seriously.
Are you making Edinburgh deliberately worse in your books?
Definitely not, I wouldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be true to the city. It’s the Edinburgh that I know and the Edinburgh that I see and it’s the same with Ayr, every place in a book or story of mine is accurate how I see it. It might not be accurate at how other people see it. Edinburgh is like Jekyll and Hyde, there’s a definite Trainspotting side and there’s a definite Miss Jean Brodie side.
Back to Gus again, I always had the feeling you used his character to make a statement and point out through his character what is wrong with politics and what is generally wrong in society. Was that a conscious thing you did?
No, not in particular. I think that’s what everybody does when they write a book, they try to make sense of life, they try to make sense of the world around them, I think any author does that…but Gus is a character, he’s has his own opinion, his own lifestyle and it’s not mine for sure. I lead quite a middle class lifestyle now and if I was to put some of my own opinions into Gus, for example about what I think about the press at the moment and what have you it probably wouldn’t work. I think some of the basic thoughts of Gus could be mine as I come from a working class background and Gus is working class and I can give him those opinions. It’s quite common. William McIlvanney did that with Laidlaw, he said Laidlaw was like him with a few adjustments to the head and the heart and maybe a facelift (laughs) – McIlvanney said that, not me, I’m just repeating it.
You changed from Gus to Rob Brennan who couldn’t be more different to Gus. He’s a DI, he’s having trouble with about every female in his life, may it be his wife or his boss. Was it hard for you to switch into an entire other mind?
No, that’s part of the reason why I did want to write about Rob Brennan because he is the complete opposite of Gus. He is a family man, he’s got children, he’s a public servant and he has to abide by the law. I was going from one extreme to another but I just had to get away from Dury ‘cause I was absolutely fucking sick of him and that’s why I started with a black slate.
You started out as a journalist, like many writers did, and you said it took you like seven years before you were published?
I never wanted to be a journalist. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. One strength I had was imagination and in journalism there is absolutely no utilizing imagination. I dropped out of university in my final year and I never got my degree. So when I got home without a degree my dad was absolutely pissed and he demanded I get a job straight away. And the one I was even remotely qualified to do was to write so I went to the local newspaper and begged them for work experience and they very kindly let me work there for six months for no pay (grins). Six months later I got a job at another newspaper up north and then I had some way of paying the bills but I never liked journalism. The plan was always to pay the bills and write so I wrote for about seven, eight years. I was ridiculously lucky to get an agent right away by jut sending my very first page. So few months later when the book was finished she came back to me and said ‘Well, you can definitely write but basically it’s a heap of shit. You got no concept of plot, of character – go away and try again.’ I did just that and after a lot of false starts, Random House bought Paying for It.
You’re next novel, His Father’s Son, published in early September, is a big leap away from crime and you said it is semi-autobiographical. Can you tell us a bit more about the story?
It’s been a labour of love, this one. Where would I start? Well, it begins in Australia then moves onto Ireland and it’s about family break-up, the ghosts of the past haunting the present and, mainly, fathers and sons.
It’s semi-autobiographical in the sense that I was born in Australia and grew up in Ireland – a bit like the narrator, Marti Driscol, but the similarities end there. I did cannibalise much of my childhood for the setting and a few scenes but it’s a novel through and through. I love Ireland and I love Australia but they’re two very different countries, perfect settings for a novel full of contrast and tension.
But your back is not turned to crime fiction for long as you already have another character waiting to see the light of day, called Bob Valentine. Can you tell us more about him and can you already give a bit away of the story?
Well, I don’t know how much more crime fiction I will write; Artefacts of the Dead, the book you mention, was written last year and is on submission as we speak. It’s slightly different to my usual crime fare in that there’s a supernatural layer to this one. I think, for now anyway, I’ve said all I can say about the mean streets of Scotland and I’d like to try something different. I’m a daddy now too, so maybe it’ll be children’s books. Who knows?