Interview: Alex Gray

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(c) Charlie HopkinsonScottish author Alex Gray has been writing professionally since 1992, and her DCI Lorimer books are said to bring Glasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin’s have brought Edinburgh to prominence. She has won the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing, and is the co-founder of the new Scottish crime fiction festival Bloody Scotland, which kicked off last year in Stirling. In the past, we’ve reviewed her book Sleep Like the Dead, and now she’s back with her 10th Lorimer novel, The Swedish Girl. So we decided to ask her about the new book.

Tell usa bit about yourself?
I am a keen lover of books, always have been from the time I could read and, with what my parents termed ‘an overactive imagination’ , I guess that a career as a writer was always a possibility. Even my teacher at primary school said I would grow up to be an author. Maybe all that gazing out of the classroom window finally paid off! I have had other careers though and did enjoy my time as a secondary school teacher of English, trying to encourage a love of literature into tender young minds. Nowadays I live in a country cottage with my husband and our cat, not too far from Glasgow, the background for the Lorimer books.

How would you introduce new readers to The Swedish Girl, and Detective Lorimer?
New readers could easily begin meeting Lorimer in any of my books but if they wanted to see the development of the relationships of my key characters then they might wish to start with Never Somewhere Else and follow the series. The Swedish Girl sees Lorimer at a stage in his career where he is an established senior officer but there are other characters like Kirsty Wilson who appear for the first time. Eva, the title character, is such an intriguing person that the mystery is not just what happens to her but who she really is beneath the surface.

What makes Lorimer different from the run-of-the-mill fictional policeman?
Lorimer is different because he is normal! I never tire of telling people that normal doesn’t mean boring! He is happily married, though childless, and he has no huge chips on his shoulder that one finds in so many fictional detectives. He is well educated and cultured like many real life senior cops I have met, and he enjoys a nice whisky when he can, though not to excess. Like myself, Lorimer is a keen bird watcher and I enjoy describing moments when he sees the natural world as a foil for the darkness he encounters in many of his cases.

swedishgirlCritics say you bring Gasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin evokes Edinburgh. What’s your reaction to that?
Ah, I agree with that comment and I expect Ian would as well! We both see our respective cities as backdrops for our stories and like to weave in real locations. I think  many writers have a keen eye for setting a scene and enjoy actually going out and recording bits of our cities. As my friend crime writer Alanna Knight always says, she has to ‘walk the paths and touch the stones’ to bring a story to life. Ian and I both do that, I believe.

What is it about Scotland that makes it such a good setting for a great crime novels?
Scotland is tremendously varied. There are the urban places like Glasgow where the crime rate is higher than in other parts, and then the wonderful west coast landscapes and my beloved Hebrides. Contrast is a great thing. Just a quick 20-minute drive from the city takes one down the road towards Loch Lomond and spectacular scenery. Perhaps crime writers enjoy juxtaposing such contrasting backdrops? But you know, crime can happen anywhere and I don’t think Scotland is especially suited to crime fiction more than other small countries. It is rather a case that many of our good writers just happen to be exponents of this particuar genre. Perhaps our traditional education system has given rise to that? I was certainly exposed to a vast amount of both English and Scottish literature growing up. And there is a lot of truth that there is a dark thread that runs through much of the latter.

Your first job was as a visiting officer for the Department of Social Security in the Govan area of Glasgow. Did that experience provide material for your stories?
Oh yes, I reckon that my time as a DSS officer was a bit like a post graduate education in social awareness! Meeting people from different walks of life was an eye opener – from the wee fly men who worked the system, alcoholics who drank away the money needed to feed and clothe their families, to the old pensioners who battled on, denying themselves their right to financial benefits lest it seemed like charity! I learned a lot in that job and some of the characters I encountered must have provided material for my stories later on.

What prompted you to set up Bloody Scotland?
I could say a couple of bottles of Prosecco! My pal Lin Anderson and I were at a Crime Writers Association  conference enjoying our after dinner drinks and chatting about how many really good crime writers lived and worked north of the border. It was a simple step to suggesting we begin our own crime writing festival, a sort of ‘Harrogate of the North’ as Lin put it. I offered the name Bloody Scotland out of a sense of fun – imagine asking a crime writing pal if they are going to Bloody Scotland next year! And so our idea took root and flourished.

What’s next?
Finishing book eleven, a story set against the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that takes place in summer 2014. Then this year’s Bloody Scotland from September 13 to 15 in Stirling. We have a magnificent line-up of authors again. I will also be taking part in other Scottish festivals like Glasgow’s Aye Write in April and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

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