Nigel Bird is an original voice in crime who’s found a home at Blasted Heath, Scotland’s first digital-only publisher. We’ve already profiled Blasted Heath for New Talent November 2014 – and Nigel is the author of their latest eBook, Southsiders, the story of a 12-year-old boy unwittingly abandoned by his parents in Edinburgh. This concise, powerful novel features rock ‘n’ roll, domestic violence with a difference and lives spiralling out of control. Nigel says his writing takes him “into dark territories where sad or terrible things happen”, which is particularly true of his Blasted Heath novella Smoke (“Grim, but really good,” according to Ian Rankin). We asked Nigel to explain his approach to crime fiction…
Music plays a big role in Southsiders: father and son share a passion for 50s rock ’n’ roll. What does that musical era – of Elvis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly – mean to you and this story?
I love the music. It’s what I liked to listen to when I was growing up and it still gives me a lot of pleasure now. It’s full of energy, rebellion and power, not to mention a rhythm that’s impossible to resist. In terms of the novel, the music was my way into the characters and it should allow a reader to immediately identify Jesse and Ray as outsiders.
Domestic violence is also an element in this novel, but it comes with a twist – a man is the victim. Why did you decide to make the abuser a violent, heavy-drinking wife?
In part, I imagine I was trying to turn things on their head. Sticking with the obvious isn’t something I want to do. That said, it’s an aspect of domestic abuse that doesn’t get enough of a profile in the media and I hope I’m redressing the balance in a very small way.
Jesse’s had to grow up too soon within a troubled family, and he ends up home alone. What were the challenges of writing from a child’s point of view in Southsiders?
There was something about Jesse that made him easy to understand and write about. While I was working on the first draft, it flowed without me having to think too much about it. The challenges became more evident afterwards. I had to go through a process of asking myself how a 12-year-old might react and alter some of the actions and words accordingly.
With your day job as a Support for Learning teacher in Scotland, do you feel drawn to putting children and young people in your stories?
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many wonderful children. Some of those youngsters were damaged by their lives outside of school to the point where the classroom became their safe haven. For me, one of the biggest crimes out there is the abuse of children, whether that’s through total neglect or direct violence and violation. As soon as I start telling stories about young people who are victims, I’m dropped right into the middle of a crime scene and I work outwards from there.
Southsiders is a crime novel where crimes are hinted at: a mystery package, a domestic stabbing, organised crime connections in a pawnbroker’s. Were you deliberately trying to focus on the human drama rather than the crime drama?
Great question. I wasn’t deliberately focussing on anything other than the directions the characters took me. Some aspects of the violence were part of the back-story and, though I didn’t want to lose that entirely, I didn’t want it to block the arteries of the novel. I see the crime elements and the human drama as being intertwined. It’s the characters’ reactions to situations that I’m generally interested in and that applies whether it’s in the build-up to committing a crime, during the act or among the ripples of the after effect.
Your novella Smoke features dog fighting and a character who’s lost limbs in a violent incident. It’s grim yet leavened with humour. Is that a combination you strive for in your fiction?
It’s a great marriage. A lot of my favourite British authors use a good deal of humour and the more subtly they use it, the more successful I feel it is. I do have to focus upon controlling the urge to add something that I find funny to a scene as I do have a natural inclination to make a joke when things are going extremely badly. Perhaps it’s my way of turning the unpalatable into something I can cope with – a kind of gallows humour.
Who are the authors that inspired you?
Inspiration is all over the place. I find it in a variety of media and believe it’s really important to get out and about and to soak things up. I like to read the work of those who really understand their craft in the hope that some of their talent rubs off on me. I also like to mix it up a little, so I’ll check out a range of styles and forms so that I remain sharp. In terms of this novel, the inspiration was probably varied. I think Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn set the ball rolling, that SE Hinton’s Rumble Fish and The Outsiders may have been in the back of my mind somewhere and that Willy Vlautin’s Lean On Pete steered me in the right direction.
How is it working with a publisher – Allan Guthrie – who’s also a celebrated Scottish crime writer?
I first came across Allan when he was launching his debut novel Two Way Split. It was a great evening and I knew right away that I was in the presence of a talented man. I’ve followed his work since and every one of his novels and novellas is top-notch. Getting together with Blasted Heath is a real honour. I get an editor in Allan Guthrie who is incredible in terms of his suggestions, vision and knowledge of writing technique.
Kyle MacRae brings in other valuable elements. His cover design is great, he’s IT savvy and he has a natural acumen when it comes to creative projects. Together they had the courage and the wisdom to head out into the world of publishing as an eBook only company and were way ahead of their time in that respect. And I get to call myself a Heathen (it doesn’t get much better than that). If you’re reading this interview and haven’t yet sampled anything from Blasted Heath, you really should change that now.
What’s next for Nigel Bird? Are there any more stories featuring Jesse or his dad Ray?
I’ve recently completed the follow-up novel. It has an Elvis song title and carries on directly from Southsiders. I also have the bare bones of a third and I’m really looking forward to fleshing that one out in the near future.
Read our round-up of Blasted Heath titles here.