Christopher Brookmyre's Blood and Hard Black Pencil

You know, the psychos in your school? At the time you were just used to them being violent and unpredictable. Later you go back and ask what was going on in the background that nobody knew about?

Feature by Fraser Cardow | 14 Aug 2006

Christopher Brookmyre is a Scottish author famed for his funny, Scotland-based adventure-mysteries. His new book, 'A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil', is out now.

Skinny: How would you describe 'A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil'?
CB: It's essentially a murder mystery - a small town murder mystery. It's a departure from my previous work, which tends to be a wee bit more large scale. But the murder mystery is only one aspect of the book. The hook, if you like, is the examination of the evidence. The real information is in the past of the characters, so the book follows them from their first day in Primary One to their leaving dance at the end of fifth year, which is 20 years before this murder takes place.

Skinny: It's quite reminiscent of your previous stories, exploring the past…
CB: The difference between it and something like 'One Fine Day In the Middle of the Night' is that that explored how people are still carrying around the ghosts of their youth. In this case I wanted to show how relationships between the characters evolved from early childhood. Rather than just reminisce about it you do actually go right through school with them. It's written from the point of view of the children at the time.

Skinny: Was it easy to remember your school days and write from that point of view?
CB: I used as many real events as I could recall, sometimes incidents which were almost legendary in your school because everybody would hark back to them, like acts of rebellion. It's quite instructive as a psychological exercise to realise that some of the behaviour of the people you knew at school had motivations behind it that were maybe not what you realised. You know, the psychos in your school who, at the time you were just used to them being violent and unpredictable. Later you go back and ask what was going on in the background that nobody knew about?

Skinny: It's been said it is your funniest book so far. Would you agree with that?
CB: I certainly felt like it had the scope to be, but in the same way as it's impossible to tickle yourself, I don't think I've ever laughed at anything I've ever written.

Skinny: The books always have a crime element. Do you get up to a lot of mischief yourself?
CB: One of the problems of the job I do is that you're reliant largely upon your imagination, but also you're stuck for so much time in front of a computer that you end up being up to almost no mischief whatsoever. In this case I did my incidents and info from memory. Most of the things that happened in this book did actually happen, even some of the more bizarre ones that people would assume are made up as set-pieces - most really did happen - not that I had a hand in them happening. I've always been somebody on the sidelines taking notes rather than in the thick of it.

Skinny: Did you torture small animals as a child?
CB: (Silence)

Skinny: They did a film of 'Quite Ugly One Morning' a couple of years ago, any more films in the pipeline?
CB: The company which made it has recently renewed the option on the other Parlabane novels, so they might be interested in another one-off. The company that recently had a hit with the series Afterlife has just been commissioned to do another, and they commissioned me to write a horror movie for them which I did in the autumn.

Skinny: Is it a spoof horror?
CB: It's teenagers vs. monsters, not a psycho slasher story. It does tend to be funny in places but not in a spoof knockabout way. It's more kind of black humour in the midst of the carnage and mayhem, and they're working to develop that now.

Skinny: Is it good to allow your imagination to run more wild than normal?
CB: The good thing was that I wasn't writing about anything that had to conform to the current laws of physics and science; I could have a bit more fun in playing with the supernatural, with monsters and things on the fringes of science. It was great to write in a different genre, and to have things thrown in there for fright value rather than being responsible.

Skinny: You talk about your new book being different in perspective. Have you moved away from your previous style?
CB: I was conscious when I took on this book that it would be far more character-led and the things that would intrigue people would be to do with personal and small-scale things, but I tend to swing back and forth. I wrote this on the back of one of my most grand scale and sprawling books, and as a response to that I wanted to do something a bit more intimate, then I get to the end of something more intimate and then think I want to do something more off the wall again. So, I'm about halfway through another book now and that's fairly weird and unusual, and it's not on a huge scale, not with underground bases and so on, not character driven; it's Parlabane again and a strange mystery story.

Skinny: He seemed to grow up in his last instalment, putting away his toys and so on. Is that a reflection on you?
CB: It's kind of reflection on Parlabane. Despite the fact that he started off larger than life, one thing I've tried to do is avoid the James Bond/Oor Willie scenario where the character never actually evolves and just turns up again for another similar adventure. I think it's interesting in the way you can show that previous stories have had long-term impact on somebody, especially since these stories were fairly dramatic and out of the ordinary, and also it's probably unusual in that I've got this male character who's remained with the same woman rather than have her shunted out of the picture. So in the new one he ends up elected rector of a university, and the book deals with the study of the paranormal and psychics and the supernatural, and how it's all a load of bollocks!

Skinny: Are you up to anything else at the moment?
CB: I've got a lot of promotional events coming up because of the new book. Also I did a stand-up event at the comedy store in December to raise money for charity. They got a load of stand-ups turned writers to do stand-up, and the other gimmick was to get writers to do stand-up. It was sold to me as writers plural [laughs] when I agreed to do it. By the time I got there it was an A-list lineup with Rich Hall, Jenny Eclair, Jeff Green, Sandy Toksvic, Marc Billingham, some other professional stand-ups and then me.

Skinny: How did that go down?
CB: Fortunately I was on first, so I didn't have to go on after anybody too hilarious. I was supposed to go on and do 10 minutes, and I imagined myself getting out really quickly before they threw anything at me, but I ended up doing 15 minutes and it went down very well. I kept the lowest common denominator nob gags to the end, and went out on a high, ha! So yeah, it was good fun.

Skinny: How did you get started writing? How old?
CB: I was writing short stories for my own amusement from the age of about 6. I can remember writing short stories in Primary Two, and then on down the years, so I've always been drawn to writing fiction. So anytime it was an essay, I always wrote a short story rather than a descriptive essay. It's always been with me.

Skinny: Have you had any other careers?
CB: When I left university I went to London and worked for Screen International, a trade paper, for 4 years, as a sub editor. We did film markets in LA, the South of France and then when I moved back to Edinburgh I did a lot of freelance shifts out at the Scotsman and the Evening News, mostly at the Evening News sports desk because it was far more fun to work there, talking about football all day.

Skinny: Do you still have time to read?
CB: I've been reading a lot of science related stuff. I started off doing research into the supernatural for this horror movie and that led into a lot of pseudo science and weird beliefs and then that's led me into the borderlands of science. I've been reading 'The Universe Next Door' by Marcus Chown. I've been reading a lot about the fabric of the universe and theories of physics and other dimensions.

Skinny: Mainly light-hearted stuff then.
CB: There are a lot of strong Scottish sci-fi writers at the moment. Mr Banks and Ken Mcloud are at the forefront of that.

Skinny: Are you politically motivated? Your books are always quite scathing of authority; you seem to portray them as idiots. Is that your own stance?
CB: I think its more a question of a tendency in politics to take itself incredibly seriously and being about itself too much rather than being about the issues that it should be addressing. That's one of the things that always made me cynical in general. I've got fairly left-leaning instincts, but I get frustrated by point-scoring and automatic nay-saying from one side just because they're in opposition. We're seeing a through-the-looking-glass version of what we saw ten years ago. There's something depressingly cyclical about it. Tony Blair will go with fingernails and floorboards for sure.

Skinny: Do you get recognised?
CB: The highest profile author is less recognisable than the lowest profile soap star. The only time I get recognised is at some of the St Mirren games. At the title party game last season I was dressed as batman. I was recognised that day.

Skinny: Thanks very much Mr Brookmyre.

Christopher Brookmyre appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, RBS Main Theatre, August 13, 11:30pm & August 19, 8:00pm and also at the Language Quiz, ScottishPower Studio Theatre, August 22, 5:00pm