Scottish journalist turned crime writer Craig Robertson travelled the world as a reporter before turning his hand to fiction with the gritty crime thriller `Random’. His latest book, `Murderabilia’, was published last month. Here he talks about his varied career, and the influences that have shaped his writing.
What attracted you into journalism as a career?
I’d wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. I’ve always enjoyed writing and using words so the chance to make a living out of doing was always a huge attraction. I had all these idealistic preconceptions about what journalism was like and, of course, very few of them turned out to be anything like reality. But some of the things that I thought would make it interesting did, thankfully, match up to my pipe dreams. You can do so many varied things, meet so many different people in so many different walks of life. Very few other careers can offer that.
What’s the most memorable story you worked on as a reporter?
It’s hard to pick one as I was lucky enough to cover some of the biggest stories of the day including the September 11 attacks, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the Omagh bombings and the Dunblane shootings. I was able to travel the world, as well as interviewing Prime Ministers and a prisoner on Death Row in the US. But I’ll cheat a little if I can and pick two that probably had the most effect on me personally.
I flew to the US to interview a couple whose son was on the first jet flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in 2001. It was a hugely emotional interview, as you’d expect, but out of that grew a friendship that has endured. They came to visit me in Scotland and stayed in my house, and just last year I stayed with them again in North Carolina.
The other is a campaign that my newspaper was involved in to raise money to build a new children’s hospice in Scotland. My job was to interview the families whose children had life-limiting illnesses. I must have done 20 or 30 of those and they were all as draining as they were rewarding. We raised around £5 million and it really felt like we’d achieved something worthwhile.
Why and how did you make the switch from journalism to fiction?
As much as I loved most of my time in journalism, I knew it was coming to a close and wanted out on my terms. The industry was changing and not in a way that I particularly liked so it was time to go. I’d been writing a novel on and off for about five years, frequently giving up on it then picking it up again months later, and I saw that as – hopefully – my route to a new career.
Journalism had seemed like an apprenticeship, a very good one, for being an author and I wanted to take my chance at doing that. My first book Random was published in 2010 and I’d finished writing my second around June the same year. The same month, I was offered another two book deal by my publishers and within a handful of days of that, the newspaper was looking for voluntary redundancies. If fate was trying to tell me something, then I was damn sure I was going to listen. I took the money and ran and I’ve never regretted it.
Does your background as a journalist mean you take more care than some writers about background facts and the like?
I don’t know about more care, I wouldn’t like to speculate on how much care others take but certainly I was schooled to get things right and was very aware of the consequences of not doing so. I do a lot of research and try to be as thorough as I possibly can. That’s not to say mistakes won’t still happen but putting in the hard work reduces the chances of messing up.
Journalism teaches you how to do research, who you can go to when you don’t know things, and just as importantly, what questions to ask in the first place. I really enjoy the research aspect of it though, which is probably just as well.
How difficult was it to get your first book published?
I guess that depends how you judge it. The difficult bit for me was writing it in the first place. I gave up on the book so many times and if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anyone it would be to finish the book. It’s very easy to doubt yourself and think no one will ever want to read it or publish it but see the job through. Even if it doesn’t get published, you’ll learn so much from having done it.
Once I did finish, it was probably much easier than I’d imagined. I sent the book off to an agent and although it took him a few months to read it, from the point that he finally did everything came together very quickly. Eight weeks later, we had two publishers bidding against each other for it and less than a year after that, it was a Sunday Times bestseller. The speed of it had my head whirling and it took ages to get used to the idea.
Your books are quite dark. How would you describe your own character and personality?
Oh dark, very very dark… Seriously, I’m not sure I’m best placed to judge it but it’s safe to say that most people who write dark books are not depressive maniacs. Indeed, there’s a line of thought that we’re more balanced than most because we can get any dark thoughts out of our system and down on paper.
Others would probably say I’m competitive and mischievous, creative and stubborn. I take my writing seriously but not myself.
Crime writers tend to be a very welcoming and sociable bunch (even if many are outgoing introverts). We meet regularly at different book festivals across the UK and the world and it’s always a lot of laughs, mostly at the bar into the early hours.
Scotland seems to have a thriving community of crime writers. What makes Scots so interested in the darker side of life?
For me, crime fiction offers the perfect way to explore and comment on the issues facing society today. There’s a lot of things wrong in the world and the crime novel can tackle these head on, hopefully in an entertaining, non-moralising manner.
My books are set in Glasgow and it’s an undoubtedly a confrontational, aggressive city – a great city – and it lends itself perfectly to a dark, gritty crime book. I’d no more think of setting a cosy tale in Glasgow than I would of walking up to someone and asking them what football team they support.
Scots writers seem to have a natural leaning towards the dark. From James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson to Arthur Conan Doyle and all the way through to William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, we’ve been drawn to the bleak side of human nature. Maybe it’s the weather making us miserable or, more likely, we are fired by an inquisitiveness as to the origins, depths and consequences of society’s worst behaviour.
Which of your books would you recommend as a starting point for readers new to your work?
Random was my first and there’s a case for saying start at the beginning but you can pretty much jump in anywhere and see how you like it. I write a series featuring DI Rachel Narey and scenes of crime photographer Tony Winter. Their relationship changes and develops through the books but, that apart, the books are designed that they can be read in any order without knowing what went before.
There are seven novels in all, the most recent being Murderabilia which was published in September. Six of them are set in Glasgow and the other – The Last Refuge – is set in the remote Faroe Islands.
Lots of writers use social media like Twitter and Facebook. Do you use them for help with your work as a writer, or just for keeping in touch with family and friends?
Very few writers I know don’t use social media. It’s pretty much expected of you that you will use it for publicity purposes and to engage with your readers.
I started out trying to keep Twitter for book-related stuff and leave Facebook for friends and family but it just became impossible to keep the two separate. I just got so many friend requests from readers, bloggers, reviewers and the like that I had to open up Facebook as well. It’s worked out fine though, the vast majority of people only have good things to say and it’s fun to be able to interact with readers there as well as through my website.
What’s the last book, other than one of your own, that you read? Would you recommend it?
It was Then She Was Gone by Luca Veste. It’s the fourth in his Murphy and Rossi series and I’d say it’s definitely his best yet. It’s tightly drawn, fast-paced and highly topical. If you like your crime novels to be gritty and political then I’d highly recommend it.