ABERDEEN-based Bill Kirton is more than just an author. His books have been widely published to high acclaim and read by fans across the world. His novels, in particular his award-winning Jack Carston crime series, explore some of the darker sides of life in technically perfect narrative which reveals a remarkable insight into the strengths and fragilities of the human mind. He is an author who lends his time and support in helping other authors and his advice is constructive, non-judgmental and always sincere.
1. Who do you think you are, Bill Kirton?
I can think of a variety of answers for that one. The obvious one would be ‘Yes’. Then, perhaps, ‘What’s it to you?’ or, if in pretentious mood, ‘One never IS anything, one is always BECOMING something’. Or perhaps, ‘It doesn’t matter who I think I am, other people will form their opinions and I’ll be stuck with whatever labels they choose to apply’. So, shall I compare me to a summer’s day? No probably not. I’m a bloke who writes stuff.
2. What would you say to me if I introduced you as a crime writer?
I’d sigh and reluctantly accept the label (see above) because most of my novels have at least an element of crime in them and, naturally enough, readers like to know what they’re buying into. Before I started doing novels, I used to write radio and stage plays and none of them was about crime. My interest really is in people and why they do what they do. Motives are interesting, so I suppose crime provides an extreme context for investigating behaviour. I’m not moaning about it, but it can be inhibiting. So OK, I’m a crime writer but, mainly, I’m a writer.
3. Speaking of criminal minds, some of your killers are particularly dark with very violent psychopathic predisposition, how do you get into their minds and see the world from their eyes?
You see, that’s interesting. I don’t agree with that at all. I just did a quick check and, in the 6 novels which are crime fiction, there are eight deaths, only three of which are murders. The only psychopath/sociopath I can think of is the policeman in The Sparrow Conundrum but the mayhem, violence and killings there are all so far over the top that I hope it’s clear the effect is intended to be comic. The main character in The Darkness does some horrible things (including a premeditated murder) but readers have said that they understand and sympathise, even empathise, with him. He’s definitely not a psychopath, and that’s what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to follow the thought processes of a normal ‘good’ person who contemplated and did these things.
The late Elmore Leonard said of the bad guys in his books ‘I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as normal people who get up in the morning and wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast. And they sneeze and they wonder if they should call their mother and then they rob a bank’. I think it’s much more chilling to set crime in a really ordinary context.
I admit that some of my characters are quite unpleasant people and, to answer your question more directly, I’d say that, when I find myself having to be inside their heads, I just discard my own normal restraints and let the worst aspects of me loose. I make them behave in ways I find detestable, and yet I’m the one who’s thinking up their behaviour. Weird, isn’t it?
4. And the protagonist of your crime novels, Jack Carston, has faced many psychological demons as part of his day job. In what way has this affected him across the series?
A lot. I’m not sure whether it’s obvious to readers but it is to me. I think his problem is that he, too, is interested in people and motives rather than all the CSI stuff. He’s also appalled and saddened by how some people behave. In the first couple of books, he’s doing his job (well) and getting the results. Then there’s The Darkness and it starts him thinking of the sort of things he himself might be capable of. And once he starts on that road, the whole notion of good and evil which is supposed to be at the core of crime fiction is called into question. I think the scene which confronts him near the end of The Darkness has stayed with him through the next two books. The actions of university professors in one and queer-bashing oil workers in the other confirm that morality is a flexible, unreliable concept. I suspect that the next one I write about him will be the last in the series and he’ll really break the mould of the traditional police procedural cop.
5. How much about yourself have you learned from your characters?
Wow, these are hard questions. Well, I can’t dodge the fact that I’ve put a lot of my own reactions into Carston but the interesting thing there is that, when I see and hear him doing and saying things, I can see that sometimes he’s being childish or hasty or unnecessarily sharp with someone, and I think it’s made me more likely to check myself in equivalent situations. Maybe the steam he lets off from time to time is mine.
More interesting is that, especially in The Figurehead, I’ve had to spend a lot of time inside the heads of female characters. It’s not for me to say whether the results are convincing but I was certainly aware of making myself think differently. It’s hard to explain but I’ve always thought and said that we’re all people. And yet there’s no dodging the fact that the male/female inequalities are still stark and gross in so many areas. Strangely, though, when I was writing sequences such as the scenes between Helen and Jessie, I felt a greater sense of strength, honesty and even security in how they were behaving and responding to things. These were women operating in an even more stifling social context and yet they were survivors, they put up with the injustices and rose above them. It seems men always have something to prove – Helen and Jessie didn’t.
6. Stage and radio plays, songs and sketches, flash fiction, short stories, novels, stories for children and books on effective academic essays and dissertations: your author’s repertoire is vast. How easy is it for you to switch between writing styles?
Whichever way I answer this, I’m on a hiding to nothing. If I say it’s easy, I sound boastful; if I say it’s hard, I’m a whinger and should try to do some real work for a change (see above, under ‘labels’). To be honest, though, it’s never struck me as difficult. If my four-year-old granddaughter’s on my knee wanting a story, I’m hardly going to start with ‘A long time ago, on the pavement outside a café on the Boulevard St-Germain, Jean-Paul Sartre examined the states of being and nothingness’, am I? Equally, a postgraduate student opening one of my non-fiction books wouldn’t be very impressed if it started ‘Once upon a time, down in Dingly Dell, there lived a fairy called Stanley Henderson’.
Wait a minute, though, that suggests that I write with a particular audience in mind, which isn’t true. I’ve never thought of it before but now you’ve made me do so, I realise that, even before you’ve started putting words on paper or the screen, you’ve already settled into a mindset and opened an inner dictionary of terms and a stylistic mode that are appropriate to it. When I’m writing a crime novel, for example, the Dingly Dell words are still there, but behind a closed door.
7. Would you consider your sense of humour comical or cynical?
This is like a therapy session. I bet you’re going to slap a bill on me when I’ve finished. First, I think humour is essential. There are obviously some contexts in which it doesn’t work but ninety-odd percent of the time, it fits and it’s necessary. I admit to being cynical but it’s more of a resigned cynicism than the caustic, bitter attitude the word suggests. The world and everything about it is absurd. It’s great to be alive, though, and absurdity doesn’t generate despair, it’s a source of laughter. Look at the characters in Samuel Beckett’s works – all in desperate circumstances but being presented to us in ways that make us laugh – not all the time, but a lot of it. The real cynicism is when self-important (and self-deluding) politicians pontificate about what ‘the people’ want and simultaneously take the piss out of those ‘people’ by mouthing platitudes which are insults to their intelligence. They’ll definitely go to hell.
So what’s my answer? Well, first I want people to laugh so the aim is to be comical. If the laughter makes them think, too, that’s a bonus but it’s just an add-on. It’s the laughter that counts.
8. In what way does your lifestyle affect the subjects you write about?
I’m not sure I have a ‘lifestyle’. I mean, I’ve become a comfortable middle-class git who can indulge himself in more or less anything that takes his fancy. I’m not rich but I’m definitely not poor. I’m never involved in anything dramatic so using incidents from my own days would only result in my books just crawling into the top five million on Amazon. In fact, the truth probably is that my lifestyle is my writing. It’s what I spend every day doing, either writing commercial stuff for money or books and stories. Maybe I use the books to live an alternative life, getting into situations and having conversations that’ll never happen to me in reality. I’ll be doing more socialising than usual in the next couple of months but that’s because I’m giving some talks and doing some workshops so, again, it’s about writing. I obviously need to get a life.
9. You are a published author but your more recent works are successfully self-published. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to publish their own works?
Do it. Definitely do it but, but, but…
… respect the tools you’re using. Don’t send it off until you’re absolutely certain that it’s as good as you can make it. And yes, that means grammar and spelling as well as narrative arcs, POV, and all those other things that creative writing tutors are at such pains to stress. Get other people to read it critically and give you their honest opinions. Best of all, have it edited professionally. It’ll cost you, but it’s money well spent. The old ‘Vanity Publishing’ label has vanished but in some quarters there’s still a feeling that self-published material is, by definition, rubbish. Please don’t do anything that gives ammunition to those who make such claims. There’s plenty of evidence that self-published books and those produced by independent publishers are at least as good as traditionally published ones. Equally, though, it’s so easy to self-publish nowadays that you could pick words at random from crisp and cereal packets, newspapers, gas bills, whatever, then put them in any sequence you like, call it ‘Forbidden Sex in the Jungles of East Anglia’ and get it listed on Amazon. Sadly, the title would even get you a few sales. Being a writer is more than putting words one after another.
10. What’s next in the Bill Kirton book list?
I’ve had three projects on the go for ages. One is a sequel to The Sparrow Conundrum of which I’ve written a couple of chapters so far. Another is the final Carston. I know what it’ll be about and I know how it’ll end, but I haven’t yet done the necessary research or written anything down. I’ve decided to concentrate instead on the sequel to The Figurehead and that’s proving very interesting for me because Helen is going to get involved in her father’s business, John has an unusual commission to carve a figurehead and there’s a troupe of actors arriving in Aberdeen to perform nautical melodramas. At the same time, John and Helen ended The Figurehead with what I described as ‘a lovers’ kiss’ and here we are, twelve months later, so what have they been up to in the meantime and where will their love go from here? So that’s all interesting stuff for me to be investigating. The only problem is that (see my answer to question two above) I also have to have a crime in it somewhere, and that’s the bit that’s proving tricky because I’m much more interested in all the rest.
I also quite like the idea of trying a different genre, maybe a comic sci-fi, but it’ll only happen if it happens.
Can I go now? Am I cured?
Sorry, Bill, one psychoanalytical session does not a sane man make but thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.
Find out more about Bill and his works at:
Bill’s website: http://www.bill-kirton.co.uk
On Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1100307.Bill_Kirton
Or visit his Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bill-Kirton/e/B00D918C2K