Putting Authors in the Picture #27: Stuart MacBride

Stuart MacBride is the No.1 Sunday Times bestselling author of the Logan McRae and Ash Henderson novels. He’s also published standalones, novellas and short stories as well as a children’s picture book.

He has been a favourite author of the LoveReading team for some time. A number of different editorial experts have reviewed his books, with Sarah Broadhurst saying in her review for the first in the Logan McRae series Cold Granite: “I think he is rather special” and Maxim Jakubowski declaring further on in the series: “this is Tartan Noir at its very best”.  Stuart's latest novel, The Coffinmaker’s Garden featuring Ash Henderson is an absolute corker of a read and a LoveReading Star Book. Stuart’s ‘about’ info on his website makes me snigger, I’m not entirely sure what is fact and what is fiction! We were excited - of the jumping up and down variety - when Stuart agreed to be our Author in the Picture for January. He has given us some fabulous photos and cracking answers, he might even have tidied up for us too!

Stuart lives in the northeast of Scotland with his wife Fiona, cats Grendel, Gherkin, Onion, and Beetroot, some hens, horses, and a vast collection of assorted weeds.

Let's dive in...

The book that made you first want to become an author.

To be honest, there isn’t one. I know that sounds strange, but I never had a burning ambition to be a writer when I was growing up – I was always happiest as a reader of anything and everything. I kind of fell into the whole writing thing by accident, when a couple of friends convinced me to give it a go.

Now the book that made me a reader, is a different thing entirely. I firmly believe that everyone who calls themselves a reader has a book lurking deep within their soul. The book that first made them think, “Bloody hell … reading is great!” a book that sparked a lifetime of reading for pleasure.  My wife, Fiona’s book is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis. She still goes back and rereads it about once a year. For me, it’s A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. I loved that book as a child, and still do. It’s my book. I’ll bet you have one too. We all do, and they are so precious. That’s why I never understand why some writers are sniffy about children’s literature – these are the books that make readers. Without them, there’d be no one around to read the stuff we write.

I used to ask people what book lived deep inside them, and sparked their love of the written word, and my favourite answer by far came from an event I did in HMP Edinburgh. When I asked, one of the guys stuck his hand up and said, “Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Which, incidentally, is why I’m in here.” And that turned out to be true…

The copy of Winnie-the-Pooh on top is my original copy, from the Pooh Bear’s Box set – like an idiot I lent the set’s House at Pooh Corner to someone when I was young and never got it back. Grrrr! On the bottom is the Folio Society edition, given to me by my lovely editor Sarah Hodgson for my fiftieth birthday. As you can see, it’s so swanky I’ve not dared take it out of the wrapping yet.

Favourite book cover to date.

Arrrrgh… This is a hard one. I’m torn between two books, though I have to admit I’m not exactly an impartial judge – I have knitted pink skin in this game. I’ve had some cracking covers over the years, and some I’ve been … let’s say, “less keen on” and leave it at that. And while I wasn’t exactly enamoured with the hardback cover of Birthdays for the Dead, the paperback is great. It has a real narrative to it, managing to be intriguing, creepy, and ominous, all at the same time. An honourable mention goes to the Japanese version of the same book, which looks like a movie poster for some really gritty noir film.

The other book in contention is The Completely Wholesome Adventures of Skeleton Bob, but that’s only because I drew it. Told you I was biased.

Image that helped focus your latest book.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2202190-some-uk-coastal-communities-may-have-to-move-because-of-climate-change/

When I first put my thinking cap on and directed its tinfoil lining towards The Coffinmaker’s Garden, this article from New Scientist kept popping up in my timeline. There’s something darkly alluring about ghost towns, but these villages falling into the sea haven’t quite died yet. The coastline becomes necrotic tissue, eating its way deeper and deeper into their body.

Plus there’s something about that feeling of disintegration and looming danger that really resonated with the story I wanted to tell. It mirrors one of the characters’ inner journey perfectly and it’s always nice when that happens.

Favourite writing spot.

I don’t know if it counts as “favourite” or not, but the spot I do most of my writing in is a small room at the front of the house. It’s south facing, so I have to have the blinds down most of the time, or I’m unable to see the screens. I had a much nicer study back at the old house, with a couch in it. Which meant, when I encountered a knotty plot point, I could summon my furry muse, Grendel, and she’d curl up on my chest and purr while I pondered murder and dismemberment. I miss that couch. 

Back in the Before Times, when we could still go places and do things, every time I had to travel for an event I’d take a little netbook with me. I’d write on trains, in airports, on planes, in hotel rooms, even in the back of a taxi. I once planned an entire short novel, on my phone, in the back of a cab going from Harrogate to Leeds Bradford Airport. As long as I’ve got headphones on and music playing, I can write anywhere.

Favourite reading spot.

This is the couch I was telling you about! It won’t fit in the study, but it does in the library (which the foolish people who owned the house before us thought was a “dining room”). The bookshelves in here are my pride and joy – they look a bit clunky and functional, but they’re proper bookshop bookshelves from an actual proper bookshop. When the Aberdeen Waterstones moved from Union Bridge to the Bon Accord Centre, a lot of the shelves were marked for the tip, so I asked if I could have a few bays from the crime section. And they said yes, as long as I dismantled them and took them away. So I did.

The bookshop was an Ottakars, before it became a Waterstones, and they just stuck new, black, cladding on the shelves when they took over. But that means these shelves were there when my first book Cold Granite was published, and as it’s the crime bays I got, the shelves in my library were the first ones my books were ever sold from.

When I tell people that story, they usually fall into two camps. Camp #1 goes, “Why didn’t you just buy new shelves from Ikea?” And Camp #2 goes, “You’ve got actual bookshop bookshelves? How cool is that!?!” Camp #2 are my kind of people.

The bookshelf you return to again and again

Not so much a bookshelf, as a bookcase. This is where I keep the books that I've either not read yet, or books I have read and think Fiona will like. It's a mixture of proofs I've been sent and books that I've bought - the former all tend to be crime fiction, the latter a more … eclectic mix.

Of course, that's not the end of mount TBR. There are more books waiting to be read in the bedrooms, study, and kitchen. But not the bathroom, because that's where I keep my copies of New Scientist. It’s vitally important to keep up to date with the latest scientific developments … while having a poop.

As an extra bonus you can see the photo of Grendel that dominates our living room.

A booky photo that makes you really smile.

Way back in the day, before audiobooks became the big thing they are now, HarperCollins would get actors in to read my books. The unabridged ones went into libraries, and another actor came in to read the abridged version for sale. And for some bizarre reason, neither set could do an Aberdonian accent to save themselves. I used to send them links to Scotland the What skits, to try and encourage something even slightly like it, but it never seemed to make much of an impact.

So, in a fit of evil cunning I decided that my next book, Blind Eye, would feature Logan McRae paying a visit to Poland, on the trail of a killer. Because that would mean whichever poor sod they got in to read it, they’d not only have to deal with Polish accents, they’d have to deal with Polish names, placenames, and having to speak actual Polish at some points.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Told you it was evil.

Then it turned out that proper Actors became too expensive to read the audiobooks, so HarperCollins asked if I’d do it instead. And forgetting that I’d already carried out my evil plan to booby trap the book, I said, “Yeah, OK.”

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAARGH! Oh sod.

So I ended up in Bath, sitting in a recording studio at Talking Issues, under the iron grip of producer extraordinaire: Jennifer Howard (that’s her there, in the headphones). It took me about a week, of ten-hour days, sat in front of that bloody microphone, reading my own words out, while Jennifer picked me up for every mistake, fluff, gurgle, and burp I made.

As you can see, by the time we got to the end of the week, we were getting a little … stir crazy, and to keep morale up, Jennifer started putting little notices on the glass for me (they’re all related to the books, she’s not just being rude, I promise).

A location that has inspired you.

This is the view out our back door. Now, it might not look all that thrilling, but the opening scene of All That’s Dead was very much inspired by being out here, in the dark, trying to get one of the cats to come in. Beetroot can be a little … independent, so there I am, wearing a headtorch, in the pitch black, trying to get her furry arse inside, so we can lock up for the night. When I hear something cracking in the woods. Two glowing eyes stared back at me from the darkness – which means it couldn’t be Beetroot, she had terrible cat flu when we rescued her and she’s partially blind in one eye and it doesn’t reflect light – and I asked whatever it was, “Are you a fox or a badger?” and the voice in my head that replied gave me the absolute willies, so I scurried inside again, and locked the door. Then used that whole thing in the book.

An object that has inspired you.

This sort of does and doesn't count as an object, depending on your view of theology and human remains.

I don't have a photograph of the 'object', because it felt disrespectful to snap away at it, as if it were nothing more than a curio (which is why you’re looking at my Lego Apollo 11 Lunar Lander), but if you follow this link you'll see what I'm on about.

It's the mummified remains of a young woman, brought back from Peru by businessman and explorer James Fletcher (probably illegally, because that’s how things worked, back then, in 1845) from Marestasse, close to the border between Peru and Bolivia. She was wrapped in cloth and placed in a cave, like many before her. Once installed she would be venerated and in return look after the village and its people. She became a god.

It's not a Peruvian mummy on display in Elgin Museum, it's a Peruvian GOD.

As soon as I saw the display, I had what I thought was a great idea for a crime novel. It was going to be called Gods of Skin and Bone and be all dark and meaty. In the end I had to change the title to A Dark so Deadly, but at 194,000 words it ended up my meatiest book so far...

The photo that best sums up your author journey.

It seems kind of weird that I’ve now published so many books that there isn’t any room on the shelf for The Coffinmaker’s Garden when it comes out. Or the book I’m writing right now. Or the two short novels I’ve completed but don’t have a publishing home yet.

When I started writing, all those years ago, I never thought I’d be published. And even if I let myself believe it might happen, my ambitions weren’t exactly stellar. I thought, if I could get enough of an advance to replace my knackered laser printer I’d be doing pretty well. So that went … differently to how I’d imagined it.

These are two of the shelves – boring Ikea ones, not exciting bookshop ones – in my study, and I keep my paperbacks and hardbacks on them so I can check things (like when readers say they’ve found a mistake, or translation queries, or publication dates, or who I’ve dedicated books to).

Most importantly these shelves also bear witness to my proudest achievement: winning the World Stovies Championship in 2014. That little chrome-plated cup is mine to keep, baby!

As you can see, I keep my collection of cat whiskers in it (when I find them lying about the house, I don’t harvest them fresh [I’m not a monster]).

Your most memorable book event.

This isn't a photo of that event - you can tell, because there are actual people there. Instead, this is a shot of the lovely crowd, gathered upstairs at the old Aberdeen Waterstones (the one I got my swanky bookshelves from), there to help celebrate the launch of my third book, Broken Skin. Your eyes might be drawn to the empty seat, but that’s because someone was having so much fun, they had to rush off to the toilet, for fear they might have an accident. It’s certainly not because the nice lady in the pink jumper (with her hand up) let rip a stinky one.

I don't have a photo of my most memorable book event, thankfully. It was a dark and stormy night (a cliché, but true) in a strip mall on the outskirts of Badger, Minnesota (hark at me, all international on tour in the US of A), and rain hammered off the bookshop roof, fog pressing thick against the window.

One guy turned up.

Normally, when there's the same number of people on stage as there are in the audience, tradition dictates adjourning to the nearest pub and just having a nice informal evening of chat. But this guy had driven fifty miles through the fog and rain and dark to come see a book event, and he didn't want an informal chat - he wanted his event, gosh darn it!

So that's what I did: a one-hour event, for one person.

I got to the Q&A bit at the end, where he asked all these weird long disconnected questions, then finally I asked if he'd like me to sign a book for him. And he said, "Naw, I'm gonna wait for the paperback." Having driven fifty miles there, and presumably going to drive fifty back again. The bookshop owner offered to lend him the cash to buy a book, but the guy politely declined, got back in his truck, and disappeared off into the fog again.

And that's my most memorable book event.

A photo that sums up your love for the written word.

Did I mention that I have actual bookshop bookshelves from an actual bookshop?

And yes, I know the image looks a bit squinky, but I had to stitch it together from individual photographs as my phone’s panorama mode kept coming out all blurry. Perhaps it’s been drinking?

Your most beloved and well-read book.

That has to be Winnie-the-Pooh (yes, I know I keep banging on about it, and yes, that is a photo of yet another copy in my “collection”). There are many others I'll read over and over, like Spike Milligan's war memoir heptalogy, or Magician by Raymond E Feist, or Larry Niven's Ringworld (or as my phone's autocorrect wants to call it "Ringworm", which would be an entirely different book), but when the chips are down (or worse: when you have no chips and have to make do with polenta, or couscous) I always come back to A.A. Milne.

And that's not just because it's like diving into a nostalgia-flavoured swimming pool, which it is, but also because it works on a different level as an adult.

Confession time: I let myself get talked into going on Celebrity Mastermind a few years ago (don't ask how it went) and I picked A.A. Milne as my specialist subject. That meant I had to swat up on not just his work, but his life too - which made me read Winnie-the-Pooh in a very different light. For example, Eeyore is based on someone Milne used to work for at Punch: Owen Seaman (probably got bullied mercilessly at school, but ended up a baronet), and Milne couldn’t stand him. Seaman was a staunch conservative, Milne a liberal, and they'd go at it like two rabid weasels in a sack.

Reading the stories as a child I just thought Eeyore was terribly sad, reading them as a grown-up I can see that he's actually a massive dick.

Your favourite reading or writing snacks and beverages.

While I drink a lot of tea (and I mean a lot), the beverage you'll most often find sitting next to me, while I'm conjuring up scenes of murder and mayhem, is water. Plain old water. I stick it in the freezer for about an hour first, but that's about as fancy pants as it gets. It is from our own borehole, though, so I guess it counts as 'artisanal'.

As for snacking, I'm partial to the occasional Haribo Tangfastic, or Rowntree’s Jelly Tot, but I don't have a hugely sweet tooth, so it really is only occasional.

If I’m very, very lucky, Fiona will appear with a hot cup of tea and a freshly baked cheese scone for me, which make me very happy indeed.

Keep up to date with Stuart MacBride

Website: www.stuartmacbride.com

Facebook: Stuart MacBride

Twitter: Stuart MacBride

If you enjoyed this, check out more titles by Stuart MacBride. You can also visit the Author Talk section of our blog to find more Author Q&As and 'Putting Authors in the Picture' features.

Recent Putting Authors in the Picture include:

#26 - Joanne Harris

#25 - Bridget Collins

#24 - Chris Hammer

#23 - Michael Robotham

#22 - Carole Matthews 

#21 - Jennifer Hillier

#20 - Charity Norman

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