Malcolm Mackay lives on a remote island off the western coast of Scotland and yet has managed to become an award-winning force in the “tartan noir” genre. Short-listed for international awards, including the Edgar, the CWA Dagger and the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, his book, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with him at his home in Stornoway for these Five Questions about his craft.

STAY THIRSTY: In your newest novel, For Those Who Know The Ending, you use Glasgow, Scotland, as a principal setting. As a life-long resident of the Isle of Lewis, an island off the western coast of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides for those not in the know, and the town of Stornoway, with a population of about 8,000, how did you manage to find your way to becoming an award-winning crime novelist on the international literary scene?

MALCOLM MACKAY: It started with reading, as it always does. I was a huge fan of writers like Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett and that influenced what I wanted to write. I was fascinated by the idea of normal people doing terrible things, people choosing to follow a dark path just because easy money lay along it. I put together my first manuscript, made my way through my agents slush pile and found myself with a publisher. I’ve never been particularly tempted to write about familiar surroundings, I think it’s more important to push your own creativity and learn as you go along. Write about what you want to know, not what you already do.

STAY THIRSTY: Before For Those Who Know The Ending begins, you list 28 characters, with a brief thumbnail about each one. What gives you the confidence to believe that today’s readers will be able to deal with such a long list of players?

MALCOLM MACKAY: It’s more hope than confidence, I suppose. Over the course of the six books I’ve written there have been a lot of characters all inhabiting the same universe and I wanted to be able to give a reminder of who they are, of what they’ve done in the past. The concern about a character list like that is that it might put people off somehow, but I’ve always had faith in the wisdom of anyone who bought the books in the first place. Never underestimate the reader. Any number of characters can be handled and remembered if they’re good enough, if they matter. That’s the challenge, make these people important enough to justify a thumbnail.

STAY THIRSTY: You wrote an earlier series under the title of The Glasgow Trilogy. What is it about Glasgow that holds such an attraction for you?

MALCOLM MACKAY: At first I just needed an urban setting. I wanted to tell the story of Calum, the protagonist of my first trilogy, and it required a city that could hold that story. What works about Glasgow is personality. Glasgow works as a city that wants to be your friend but won’t put up with any shit from you. There are parts of it that still have the old rough edges, industrial, working class history seeping through into the regenerated modern elements of the place. It’s always been a city of art and writing, and those things have become a more pronounced part of its modern identity. In books about organised crime you’re likely to have characters of working class background seeking to make money by exploiting modern developments, and Glasgow, quite starkly, offers both of those.

STAY THIRSTY: What are the three most important elements you believe a crime story must have in order to produce a satisfying read?

Malcolm Mackay (credit: Raj Curry)

MALCOLM MACKAY: Character, pace and brevity. You need to have a person that readers are prepared to follow over a few hundred pages. They don’t have to be nice by any means, and they don’t have to be a good or morally sound person, but they do have to be interesting.

Any story needs to move. That doesn’t mean something always has to happen, a book can be draining if people are being thrown into extreme trauma every chapter and big moments get diminished if there are too many of them. You can have moments where not a lot happens, but there has to be a sense of movement, of progress, to give the book pace. Making a long book feel short is a massive achievement.

The third thing is knowing what doesn’t need to be in there. Write what your book needs, not what you want to put in there. There are always going to be things you want to put into a book, ideas that you’ve made notes on months in advance and believe will be important, and as soon as you start writing the books core evolves and your plans matter less. Let some ideas go. Wipe out characters. Cut the language. If the story and characters are good then they need as little embellishment as possible.

STAY THIRSTY: Now that you have six novels to your credit, what have you learned about writing fiction? How has your story structure and writing style changed over the years?

MALCOLM MACKAY: Following on from the last answer, knowing what needs to be in the book and what doesn’t. Trusting the reader’s imagination to fill in the small blanks you leave for them, giving every reader the chance to create their own vision of the book. You also learn when you’ve cut too much, the things that more readers find important than you realised. I think my own style has inevitably become more ambitious, as every writers probably does, and that brings risk with it. When I started I wrote in a style that felt comfortable, and my protagonist was as close to me as I could make him, because I didn’t have the courage to push myself beyond that. Experience makes you braver.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.