Graeme Macrae Burnet
An Award-winning Novelist
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022
The Interview : Graeme Macrae Burnet
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Graeme Macrae Burnet )
The Wise Owl talks to Graeme Macrae Burnet, a Scottish writer, whose novels have won and been nominated for several awards. He has authored four novels, namely The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, His Bloody Project, The Accident on the A35 and Case Study (2021). His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, earned him the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award in 2013, and his second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. It was also winner of the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year 2016, Winner Vrij Nederland Thriller of the Year 2017 and was shortlisted for the LA Times Mystery Book of the Year 2017 and European Crime Fiction Prize 2017. It has been published in 20 languages including German, Russian, Chinese, French, Spanish, Farsi and Estonian. His third novel, The Accident on the A35, is a sequel to The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. In 2017, he won the Author of the Year category in the Sunday herald Culture Awards. In July 2022, Burnet's novel Case Study (2021) was named on the longlist of the Booker Prize. It has also been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly International Crime Prize and for the Gordon Burn Prize.
Graeme has appeared in festivals and events in Edinburgh, Seoul, Los Angeles, New York, Adelaide, Macau, Estonia, Moscow, Berlin, London, to name a few. He also writes occasionally for The Guardian, The Observer and Le Monde. His story Wolverine Blues or a Case of Defiance Neurosis, based on a case of history by Alphonse Maeder, is currently on BBC Sounds.
Thanks Graeme, for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We are delighted and excited to talk to you.
RS: Your novels have won a lot of awards and accolades. In one of your interviews, you said that your only ambition in life was to publish a novel. Please tell our readers a little about your journey as a novelist. When did you first pick up a pen to weave a story? When did you decide to write a novel? Why psychological thrillers? Were there any creative mentors in your life who encouraged you to follow your Muse?
GMB: First of all, thanks for inviting me to talk to The Wise Owl. I started writing when I was at secondary school in Kilmarnock (an industrial town in the west of Scotland) after I read The Catcher in the Rye and Albert Camus’ The Outsider. These books captured my teenage imagination and from that moment I knew I wanted to write. I continued to write as a student at Glasgow University and then for many years while I worked in various other jobs. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 46, but I don’t think any of the stuff I wrote before that was wasted. I was learning the craft of writing. I very much believe that good writing comes from practice and hard work – by doing it, so I’m a little bit impatient with the idea of ‘following your muse’. If you wait for your ‘muse’ to come along, you will never finish writing a novel! I can’t say I ever decided that I was going to write ‘psychological thrillers’, and I don’t think of my books as thrillers. These kind of labels are mostly attached to your novels by other people (critics, publishers etc). I just think I’m writing novels.
RS: Your novels are more than just psychological thrillers or novels of crime fiction. They depart from the traditional form and structure of the novel. They are almost like a discourse between the reader, the characters and the novelist. It gives the reader leeway to form his own opinion and judgement. Our readers would like to know what makes you experiment with this genre.
GMB: Actually I kind of disagree with the premise of your question. I don’t think my novels depart from the traditional form of the novel at all. In fact, they are very traditional. The kind of techniques I use have been around since the very beginning on the novel. Don Quixote is a fake translation. Robinson Crusoe, the first novel in English, was originally published as a found document novel written not by Daniel Defoe, but by Robinson Crusoe himself. In the nineteenth century, it was very commonplace to tell the story using different narrators, letters and journals and so on – think of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, Confessions of a Justified Sinner or many others. So really, I’m just using the traditional tools available to all novelists to try to tell the story in a way that is engaging to readers; that is, in a way that pushes readers to try to decide on the truth of what may or may not have happened for themselves. To me, as a reader, that’s a very exciting process. I hate being told what to think or how to interpret what I’m reading, so as a writer I will never tell my readers what to think.
RS: Your novels have been described as ‘false true crime.’ To make your novels credible and authentic you would need to do a lot of research. In your novel ‘His Bloody Project’ you have created a very authentic 19th Century Scottish Crofting community background. What sources do you tap to create credibility in your novels?
GMB: I think that label can only really be applied His Bloody Project, but it’s true that I go to great lengths to make my novels authentic and credible and that novel did indeed demand a lot of research, specifically in three areas: the way of life of crofting people at the time; the Scottish legal system; and contemporary ideas about criminal psychology. Wherever possible – whatever I’m researching – I try to use primary sources as much as I can. So, for example, I spent time in the National Archive of Scotland in Edinburgh, where you can view the original handwritten documents relating to nineteenth century criminal cases. These included witness statements, psychiatric assessments of prisoners, post-mortem reports and even letters written by prisoners themselves. All these documents directly influenced the writing of the book and especially the language used. I think getting the style of language and vocabulary correct is crucial to creating the feeling of authenticity, and I feel that it’s a kind of achievement that so many readers have thought that His Bloody Project was based on a real case.
RS: Please share with our readers your creative process- how you decide the subject of your novel, how you structure your plot, your characters etc. I’m sure upcoming novelists would love to hear about this.
GMB: I never plan anything. In fact I have a horror of planning, because I want the story to develop organically from the behaviour of the characters. I never want to write anything with the aim of reaching a specific destination. Which means that when I sit down to write I often have no idea how things are going to develop that day. I want to remain open to the story going in direction that I didn’t foresee.
RS: One of the perspectives in your novels is that of the ‘criminal.’ To make the character credible, you need to ‘inhabit the mind of the character’ (here I am quoting you). Our readers would be curious to know (as I am) how you do that.
GMB: It doesn’t matter to me whether I am writing from the perspective of a character who might be regarded as a criminal or otherwise. My objective is to try and see the world as he or she might see it. What are their concerns? What is the vocabulary they use to describe the world around them. How do I do that? I’m not sure. It’s a combination of research and, I suppose, an act of imagination, maybe even of empathy. Also, I never stand outside the character and pass judgement on them. In His Bloody Project, Roderick Macrae has committed some appalling acts of violence, but I (as the author) don’t judge him – I’m trying to see the world as he sees it.
RS: Your book His Bloody Project is the memoir of one Roderick Macrae and his murders. I believe, it is based on a book ‘I, Pierre Riviére, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.’ What was the basis of the story of your book ‘Case Study’ which is longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022? Tell us a little about the genesis of this novel.
GMB: The genesis of Case Study really came from reading many psychiatric case studies over the years. I find these kind of case studies quite fascinating, but the more I read, the more I came to doubt the veracity of what I was reading. I realised that they are highly subjective and selective accounts, written by, often flawed, individuals propounding a certain theory. I began to wonder how these encounters in the therapist’s office would be described by the other participant – the patient. So that’s how it began, and I started to seek out accounts of therapy, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, written those who had undergone various kinds of ‘therapy’.
The other major influence on the book was a book called The Divided Self by Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. In this book he discusses the various personae people adopt in different situations of their lives and how this might become problematic. It’s no coincidence that in Case Study the central characters are both ‘divided’ and to some extent present ‘false’ personas to the world.
RS: You have said that you treat writing a novel like a job. How do you switch off your train of thought as a novelist immersed in a story or plot? Don’t the characters stay with you all the time- from their inception to the time they are fully formed?
GMB: I have no problem ‘switching off’ either from my characters or the plot of whatever I’m working on. If I’m not actually sitting in front of my laptop or notebook, I don’t think about it. I’ve never solved a narrative problem or developed a character by thinking about it in the abstract. That stuff only happens for me when I’m actually in the process of writing words. Having said that, sometime if I’m out and about I might see something – a tiny observation about someone’s behaviour – that I can include in whatever I’m writing. Or something I’m reading might trigger a thought about my own characters, so I try to keep a notebook close to hand. The worst thing (especially as one gets older) is remembering that you had an idea, but not remembering what that idea was.
RS: Our readers would be eager to know what book you are working on now. Tell us a little about it. When is it likely to hit the bookstores?
GMB: Two of my novels The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau and The Accident on the A35 are sort of crime novels set in the small French town of Saint-Louis. I’m currently (very slowly) writing what will be the final part of this trilogy. When will it appear? I’m not sure. I was hoping that this was something I could write relatively quickly (in a year), but I probably actually started writing it around 2018.
RS: You are a master storyteller and at the same time a novelist that loves to experiment with the novel genre. What advice would you give upcoming writers who are writing crime fiction?
GMB: The internet is awash with lists of ‘writing tips’, and there are, I’m sure, hundreds of books devoted to “How To Write a Novel”. My advice is to ignore all that stuff. Instead, go back to the books you love. Re-read them and re-read them again. Read them aloud. How does the writer achieve the effects that appeal to you? Above all: write. You will never learn how to write by reading about it, or by talking about, or by thinking about it. You can only learn how to write by doing it.
Thank you so much Graeme, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. It was indeed a delight to speak to you about your craft and creativity. We wish you the best in your creative pursuits and hope that you win more international accolades.