Interview: Caro Ramsay

The Five By Five Interview with Caro Ramsay

(“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!)

Caro Ramsay is not only a tremendous crime fiction writer, she can also do you serious bodily damage – having sat in on a session which she runs for crime writers about the body and how to break it, I can confirm that she is someone it would be a good idea to stay on the right side of… But more seriously, Caro is a phenomenal writer and all-round excellent person who also finds time to be gentle with the less fortunate, proved by the fact she takes a starring role in Douglas Skelton’s various Carry On Sleuthing plays despite the immense pain reading his jokes in front of an audience must inflict on her (only joking: if you get the chance to catch one, you should, they are hilarious, and Caro makes a fabulous lady detective). If you haven’t picked up one of her novels, get a move on!

Caro was born in Govan, on Glasgow’s south side. A graduate of the British School of Osteopathy, she runs a large osteopath centre in West Scotland, treating animals and humans, and writes in her spare time. Her first novel, Absolution, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2008 and her second, Singing to the Dead, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2010. Author and critic Cathi Unsworth opined in The Guardian opined that Ramsay’s Anderson & Costello series “excels in sense of place, realism, plotting and caustic humour”, describing it as “Bleak, black and brilliant”. As well as that series, Ramsay also has several standalone novels under her belt. She was the subject of a 2007 BBC documentary film, and appeared on STV show The Hour in 2010. You can follow her on Twitter here: @CaroRamsayBooks and her website is here: www.caroramsay.com

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First, the sensible questions…

Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
It’s a well-known story, but I broke my back (not as dramatic as it sounds) and started writing in hospital. I wrote 200,000 words before I was discharged. I took those words to my local writers’ group. The writer in residence, AJ Close, suggested I should send it to Jane Gregory (who is the agent of Val McDermid and Ann Cleeves) as “she likes evil women like you”. She signed me – there were two years of rewrites, but then she sold the first two books to Penguin. So far, everything I have written has been published. I’m a one-trick pony but I like both my trick and my pony.I only read crime fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by killing folk, and I am a bit weird. When I was six or seven, the teacher asked us to write a story about a song or a nursery rhyme. I did The Teddy Bears Picnic. The teds turned on the children and ate them… I’ve always found the rather macabre side to things.

Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now?
To be fair, I was lying down writing my first novel (in hospital) and I was on an awful lot of drugs. As I was merely amusing myself and nobody was ever going to read it, I didn’t care. But once it was sold, and the editing started, I was very aware of somebody sitting on my shoulder watching me. I still am. But if I think I’m running a bit free at some point in the narrative, I do point it out to the editor, so they are comfortable in coming back and saying, “Yes, you are right. That section is complete crap.” I still have a feeling of not really knowing what I am doing. I think this is normal for writers.

Q3 As it’s coming up to St Andrew’s Day – what is it about Scotland that makes it such fertile ground for crime fiction writers, and let’s it punch so far above its weight in the genre? 
The bleak weather, the hopeful football team, the storytelling tradition, the long winter nights. And here in the west coast, we have a slightly askew way of looking at things that brings dark humour to the page.

Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
The isolation. So much of my other work is intense and talking people through the most awful things that I am glad to sit in my turret and think up ways of killing people. But the good thing is that my research comes to me. In the new book, there’s a bit where somebody scuba dives into an underwater cave. Somebody popped in to see me, their job was as a commercial diver. What a chat we had! And then, out of their mouth popped a nugget of information was gold dust to my plot…

Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I am not at liberty to say. But it’s at 113.000 words. And it’s new and different. But the same in a different kind of way. Does that even make sense? I have the same agent as Val and Ann, and you can see that she likes her authors to move about between two or three series…

Now for the quick-fire round…

Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Charles Paris (Simon Brett books) and Bryant & May (Christopher Fowler). And many more!

Q2 What book have you reread the most?
The Children Of Man (PD James) and everything by Agatha Christie.

Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
In one book I dangled somebody by ropes over a railway bridge so they could see the oncoming train before it hit them.

Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
“Just”. I can easily take a thousand words off a word count by asking each just to… err… justify itself. And my characters “shrug” far too much, too.

Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I’m a leave-it-open-face-down person. What a rebel!

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Thanks so much for these answers, Caro – I think it’s safe to say that being in hospital turned out to be good for crime fiction, even if it was a traumatic time! I look forward to seeing what’s next, you have definitely whetted my appetite there. I shall remember not to lend you any pristine paperbacks though <shudders>

Caro’s latest book, the 13th in the Anderson & Costello series, is The Silent Conversation: It’s been four years since four-year-old Johnny Clearwater disappeared without trace one hot summer afternoon. Now, a new TV documentary series is revisiting the case, dredging up memories perhaps best left forgotten. On the night the TV show is broadcast, detectives Anderson and Costello are called out to investigate the murder of a female police officer. On arriving at the scene, they discover that nothing about this death is as straightforward as it would appear. What was the victim doing in the garden of the exclusive gated residence where she was found? How did she die? Why is the key witness so reluctant to speak to them? Even the off-duty police officer who was first on the scene isn’t telling them everything. The pressure intensifies when a link is discovered between the dead woman and the disappearance of Johnny Clearwater four years earlier. What secrets are lurking behind the closed doors of this small, exclusive community … and what really happened to little Johnny Clearwater?

Caro Ramsay is appearing at Noir At The Bar Edinburgh, at Rose Street Theatre Cafe, on Thursday 25 November. Tickets are £3 from Eventbrite (please buy in advance), see @NoirBarEdin for more details and a full list of participating authors.

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