The Edinburgh Dead is a superb modern horror novel, set in Edinburgh in the early 19th Century. Mixing suspense and the supernatural brilliantly, I thought it was reminiscent of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde in flavour and atmosphere. I highly recommend it to all fans of horror, fantasy, macabre and also thriller fiction.
While reading the novel, I contacted Brian to see if he might be interested in an interview. Luckily, Brian had some free time, and was kind enough to answer my questions about writing and his novels. Read on to find out more, and discover two of the author’s hidden talents…
Your latest novel, The Edinburgh Dead, was recently published by Orbit. How would you introduce the book to new readers?
As a pulse-pounding supernatural crime thriller set in 19th century Scotland, featuring real historical characters, dark magics, a sinister murder mystery and a troubled war veteran as the main character. How does that sound?
A lot of people have heard of Burke and Hare, Edinburgh’s famous bodysnatchers who went on a two-man murder spree to provide corpses for the city’s anatomists to use in educational demonstrations (i.e. dissections!). Well, The Edinburgh Dead basically asks the question: what if the anatomists weren’t the only people who could find a use for a fresh corpse? What if dark magics were in play, combining with all that medical science? And what if it fell to one man – a police sergeant damaged, both physically and psychologically, by his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars – to figure it all out?
What inspired you to write The Edinburgh Dead, and where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The specific inspiration for The Edinburgh Dead was the city itself, and its history. It’s my hometown, and I know it as well as I do anywhere on Earth. It’s got some pretty … interesting, I guess you’d call them … little nuggets of oddness in its history, so it felt pretty natural to take some of that and make a novel out of it.
More generally, I get my inspiration the same place most other writers do: anywhere and everywhere. Just being alive, so long as you’re paying a reasonable amount of attention to the experience, is the equivalent of living in a constant blizzard of little story inspirations. If you read books, watch TV, surf the internet, get out and about and visit people and places – and have the sort of mind that is inclined towards making stories up – you’re never likely to run short of ideas.
The hard bit – the really hard bit – of writing isn’t coming up with ideas: it’s sorting the promising from the not-so-promising and figuring out how to turn inspiration into actual text, complete with proper characters and structure and plot. If there was a magic pill that would make all that stuff easy, I’d happily trade a good chunk of my inspirations for it.
All children who read, or are read to, tend to be introduced to speculative fiction from the very start. A very high proportion of kids’ books are fantastical, it’s just that lots of people seem to decide they’ve ‘grown out of it’ once they’re old enough to fully control their own reading choices. I just never ‘grew out of it’. I don’t really think anyone does, it’s just that so many people associate the fantastic with childhood escapism (as if that a bad thing!), and assume it’s time to leave it behind once they’re a bit older.
I devoured books as a child, and the speculative was an entirely natural part of the mix: The Hobbit, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books, all that sort of stuff. Just kept reading it as I got older, and never stopped.
The Edinburgh Dead is very different to your previous trilogy, The Godless World, which was epic fantasy. What made you decide to shift genre, and how did the shift alter your approach to writing?
In a way, the slight shift is accidental. After finishing that big trilogy, the idea of embarking on another epic, extended story didn’t really appeal to me all that much. I liked the idea of doing something a bit shorter and sharper, and fortunately my publisher was of the same mind.
One of the luxuries of having a few published books under your belt is that you can pitch new books in relatively concise form – like, a couple of pages of concept and outline – so I worked up a handful of ideas for stand-alone novels into vaguely presentable form and sent them off. To be honest, I included the proposal for The Edinburgh Dead as something of an afterthought: the idea was there in my head, and I really liked it, so I figured I might as well run it past the publisher, even though it was the most different of all the proposals from what I had been writing before, so I wasn’t sure how it would received.
As it turned out, everyone involved – i.e. me, my agent and the publisher – thought The Edinburgh Dead was the most interesting of all the ideas I was coming up with, so that’s the deal that was done. Just goes to show, it’s always worth floating an idea, even if you suspect someone might torpedo it …
As to how my approach to writing changed: not all that much, except that with a short, stand-alone novel as opposed to a big fat trilogy, there’s a bit more of a need to constantly focus on plot and progression and things like that. It’s actually a discipline that I think my writing benefited from, and although I’ve still got plenty to learn, I think my writerly education took a step or two forwards while working on The Edinburgh Dead.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Interesting question. More interesting than some of my answers would be, anyway: I think my working, writing and researching practices are tediously conventional, so might skip over that bit.
But do I enjoy being a writer? Sure. Getting paid to write stuff you like to write is a fine and fortunate thing. A bit of a privilege, considering how many other people long to do it. It’d be kind of mean-spirited to moan about it, wouldn’t it?
But the bit about the publishing industry’s the really interesting bit right now. Safe to say the industry’s in a state of flux, and that’s putting it more mildly (and probably more politely) than it deserves. E-books, the internet, the decline of bookstores, the Amazon global conquest program etc, etc. Being – in my own small way – a participant, and getting to watch the changes from up close and personal is fascinating, quite exciting, quite alarming.
I don’t know what the future holds – it might be all bright and smiley, but there’s at least a chance it’s not going to be a pretty picture for either writers or, in the long run, readers – but it’ll be interesting to see. I take nothing for granted, so whether I’ll be a part of that future or not, who knows?
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I believe my first substantial foray into writing was a sci-fi novel called The Linons that I wrote when I was about ten or eleven. It seemed like a novel to my young self, at any rate; probably not much more than a longish short story in reality.
The Linons were an evil race of alien lizard things, and some astronauts had the misfortune to land on their planet. Don’t remember much more of it than that, except that the plot – such as it was – turned upon the use and abuse of a chemical that I called hydroglyptothide ... no idea how or why. My mother, having the patience of a saint, typed the whole thing up for me.
Perhaps you mean my first serious foray into writing, though? Which depends on what you mean by ‘serious’. I tried to sell one or two short stories when I was a notably naïve teenager: in the best tradition of all young and innocent aspiring writers, they weren’t particularly good and I submitted them to entirely inappropriate publications. Astonishingly (not!), none of them were published.
I got out of the writing habit then, for quite a few years, but when I got back into it, turns out I was a bit better at it. That’s the miraculous effect getting a bit older, more experienced and perhaps a fraction wiser has. I sold a couple of stories to UK magazines, and started to wonder if I should try my hand at a novel… the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
My opinion of the genre today is... that it’s too big and diverse to have a coherent opinion about. The fact that it’s big and diverse is, of course, A Good Thing.
If you take speculative fiction as a whole, a sort of super-genre, then it contains almost as rich a diversity of elements as the rest of prose fiction put together. A lot of the books that get lumped together under the spec fic heading really don’t have much in common, and that makes it – I think, anyway – rather futile to talk about it as if it was one unified thing.
As to where my humble offerings fit in... I haven’t given it much thought to be honest. My Godless World trilogy was relatively straightforward epic secondary world fantasy, but The Edinburgh Dead is a bit more complicated in its affiliations. It’s part historical fiction, part gothic crime thriller, part dark fantasy, part urban horror.
On the whole, I suspect writers write what they want to write, and it’s up to publishers, booksellers, readers and reviewers to decide where it fits in. The relationship I’m most interested in is not that between my books and other books, or the spec fic field as a whole, but between them and readers. That’s where all the important stuff happens, both financially and creatively: in the moments an individual reader spends in the company of an individual book.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
Book currently at bedside is non-fiction: a history/biography thing of Belisarius, the most famous general of the Byzantine Empire. It’s not very good, as it happens, but diverting enough for light reading. I do like a bit of military history now and again, and I’m fascinated by Byzantium.
On the fiction front, I’ve just started Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. One of my favourite fantasy writers, and by all accounts this is some of his best work, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s promising so far.
I actually read at least as many graphic novels as prose novels at the moment. Most recent reads on that front include books or series called things like Locke & Key, Queen & Country and BPRD, which will mean nothing to anyone save my fellow comics readers. (All recommended, though, should anyone want to dip their toe into the world of graphic fiction – especially Locke & Key, which is written by Joe Hill).
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I like this kind of question, and often hope an interviewer will ask it, but now that you’ve done so I’ve got a mild dose of writer’s block. There’s all kinds of stuff that folk might be surprised to know, but which bits of it can I share without being (a) boring, (b) self-indulgent, or (c) prosecuted?
I’ll play safe and go the trivial and obscure route, with a selection of minor tidbits.
At University I was a pinball wizard. In fact, as I had the high score on more than one pinball machine for a very extended period, I’d dare to suggest that I was, at that particular time, the best pinball player in the university.
My favourite sport to play, by some distance, is – or was – squash. I can’t play it anymore because I injured my back doing so years ago and never got it properly treated. Let that be a lesson to everyone: always treat sports injuries with respect! My favourite sport to watch (in person, not on TV) is, by an equally large distance, ice hockey.
I can juggle three balls. But not four. [Me too! - CR]
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
Yikes. Who knows? Health and happiness? Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for, though I certainly would look forward to my hopes on that front being realised. So long as I’m hoping for stuff, I suppose I should add wealth, though that seems rather less likely than the other two.
Actually, aside from whatever novels I may or may not be writing in the near future, I have one or two ideas for some other writing undertakings that would be a bit different, a bit more of an exploration of the new horizons opening up with the aforementioned changes sweeping the industry. I look forward to doing some of that exploring, if and when I get around to it.