Interview: James Oswald

The Five By Five Interview with James Oswald

“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!

Nagging by a friend of mine got me reading a Tony McLean novel, and it wasn’t long before I had bought and inhaled the three or four books that were published at that point, and since then it has been an annual treat to settle down with Tony (and of course Mrs McCutcheon’s cat). Then he created Con Fairchild, a very different kind of cop, and I became hooked on that series too. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting James at a few signings and festivals, to tell him in person how much I love his books, and ask how the coos are doing (I was brought up on a farm, it never quite leaves you!). If you haven’t read either series, I highly recommend you dive in – check out my thoughts on Cold As The Grave, Bury Them Deep and What Will Burn.

James Oswald is the author of the bestselling Inspector McLean series, and the DC Constance Fairchild series. James’s first two Tony McLean books, Natural Causes and The Book Of Souls, were shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award. The Damage Done and Bury Them Deep were longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, as was the first Con Fairchild book, No Time To Cry. He also created the fantasy series, The Ballad Of Sir Benfro. James farms Highland cows by day, and writes disturbing fiction by night. Find him (and lots of pictures of the coos) on Twitter at @SirBenfro and check out his website at


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?
I started off writing comics because that’s what I mostly read and I couldn’t think of anything else to do. My first published writing was a Future Shock [a one-off short piece] in 2000AD, back in December 1993. I thought that was me made, and a career at Marvel and DC awaited, but I never managed to get another script past the mighty Tharg [as the 2000AD editor is always known] let alone any American editors. I lived in Aberdeen at the time, and it was there that I met a fellow by the name of Stuart MacBride. We collaborated on some comics and drank a lot of beer before I moved down to Roslin, outside Edinburgh.
From comics, I slid sideways into SF. My first attempt at a novel was an adaptation of a rejected comic script. It’s rubbish writing, but I still like the story. One of these days I’ll maybe try to rewrite it and see if the world agrees. I wrote a couple of embarrassingly bad contemporary urban fantasies, moved to Wales for work, wrote the first three books in an epic fantasy series [The Ballad Of Sir Benfro] and then had a phone call from my old chum Stuart. We’d been beta-reading each other’s work for ages, and he’d just been picked up by HarperCollins for the first Logan McRae book, Cold Granite. He persuaded me to stop writing nonsense books with dragons and sheep in them, and turn my hand to crime. The result was Natural Causes, which somehow managed to be shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2007. The sequel, The Book Of Souls, was also shortlisted the next year.
Alas, publishers weren’t so keen on Tony McLean and the ever-so-slightly supernatural crimes he investigated. I was just about ready to pack it all in and concentrate on farming full time – I’d moved back to Fife to take over the family farm after my parents died. One last throw of the dice was putting out the two McLean books and first three Sir Benfro books on Kindle. I was pleasantly surprised when the books took off spectacularly. Publishers changed their minds about Tony, and the rest is history.

Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
The first one was so much fun. I had no job at the time, so spent the whole day just making stuff up and writing it down, week after week while my other half was away doing research for her PhD. I ended up with a great sprawling mass of a thing with far too many character viewpoints. Such was technology back then, I printed the whole thing up and literally cut pages for scene breaks, rearranging everything on the living room floor with the help of a Jack Russel called Chiswick, a Patterdale Terrier called Mortimer and a Dachshund called Machrihanish.
I’d like to think books got easier the more of them you wrote, but in truth they get harder. This is partly because I am more demanding of myself as a writer, partly because there is always a deadline looming now. Mostly, I think, it’s because I’ve forgotten all the hell of writing the previous ones and can only remember the good bits. Such is life.

Q3 You’ve created three series (two crime fiction, one fantasy) – do you feel more drawn to series than standalones, or is that just how the stories have turned out?
It seems to be just how it’s panned out – I’ve never really planned anything! The Ballad Of Sir Benfro, my fantasy series, was heavily influenced by writers like Katherine Kerr and Robin Hobb, and that genre favours chunky series. (Although they tend towards trilogies, and for some weird reason people assumed Benfro was a trilogy and got annoyed when book three ended without wrapping up the story properly. I had a lot of bad reviews based on that misunderstanding!)
With the Tony McLean books, I’d first written the main character in a few comic scripts, then used him again in my rubbish urban fantasies. Every time I needed a policeman I’d dig him up and use him again. I guess that meant when I gave him his own book, it was already part of a series in a way. I was using the works of such luminaries as Ian Rankin, RD Wingfield and Stuart MacBride as my crime fiction template when I first attempted to write in the genre, so I suppose series was baked in right from the start.
I have written some standalones – there’s one people can read for free on my website, and the book I’m editing at the moment doesn’t fit into anything else I’ve written. I quite like the freedom creating something from a totally blank canvas brings, but there’s also a lot to be said for already having most of your characters well developed when you set out to write the next book.

Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I’m inherently lazy, so do as little research as possible, although I’m reminded of the Iain Banks quote about the best kind of research being the type you don’t realise you’re doing. Meeting readers is lovely, but I do suffer from social anxiety so have to psych myself up for events and signings – there’s a reason I live in the middle of nowhere and commune mostly with cows.
I love the problem solving aspect of writing – puzzling out the reasons why people behave the way they do and say the things they say. So perhaps for me my favourite part of being a writer is the therapy.

Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
All That Lives, the 12th Inspector McLean novel, is the last book in my current contract with Wildfire, so I’m a bit of a free agent right now. There will be more Tony and Con – panic not, dear readers – but I’m in dire need of a break so you’ll all have to be a little patient.
As mentioned above, I’m putting the finishing touches to a standalone novel at the moment. I have no publisher lined up for it, and no idea whether a publisher will be interested. It’s something I started writing about 15 years ago, then put aside when my parents died as I lost all inclination to write for a while. It’s completely different from my other work, to the extent that I might use a pseudonym for it. Once it’s away to my agent, I’ll turn my mind to some other half-baked ideas that have been piling up over the years. Maybe another crime fiction series, or perhaps that ancient SF novel. I’ve got a bigger living room now, so I can spread the pages even further, although with only two dogs to help it might take a while.

Now for the quick-fire round…

Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
I’ve struggled with this question, because I don’t really know. Imposter syndrome is very trendy these days, but my sideways route into crime fiction means I often feel like I really haven’t got the right qualifications. If I really must, then Judge Dredd and Batman. Oh, and Danger Mouse.

Q2 What book have you reread the most?
The only books I can think of ever re-reading were set texts at school. I know re-reading is good for the soul, but I can’t even begin to cope with my TBR pile, let alone contemplate reading something again. It’s a play rather than a book, but by an unfortunate set of coincidences I ended up studying Hamlet for O-level, A-level and in the first term of my English Lit degree course (one reason why I abandoned the subject in favour of Psychology). Maybe that’s why my latest book is called All That Lives… [“All that lives must die” – Act I, scene II, fact fans]

Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Favourite? What kind of monster do you think I am? I had a character jump off North Bridge, plunge through the shattered glass roof of Waverley Station and end up smeared all over the front of the London train. That was quite special, if not actually possible.

Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
To be honest? I’m not sure…

Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I would never fold down the page corner. I either use something like a receipt pressed into service as a bookmark, or simply remember the page number I have reached.


Ah, finally, an author I could lend a book to and get it back without dog-eared page corners! I’m not sure if Tony McLean and Judge Dredd would see eye to eye on everything, but I suspect the former would envy the latter’s ability to dish out justice immediately and with little paperwork… I also hope James’ bumpy road to publication gives any budding writers out there some cause for hope. Thanks for taking the time to chat!

The 12th Tony McLean novel, All That Lives, is out now: Two victims. Nothing connects them, except that someone buried them in the exact same way. Seven hundred years apart… An archaeological dig at the old South Leith parish kirkyard has turned up a mysterious body dating from around 700 years ago. Some suspect that this gruesome discovery is a sacrifice, placed there for a specific purpose. Then a second body is unearthed. This victim went missing only 30 years ago – but the similarities between her death and the ancient woman’s suggest something even more disturbing. Drawn into the investigation, Inspector McLean finds himself torn between a worrying trend of violent drug-related deaths and uncovering what truly connects these bodies. When a third body is discovered, and too close for comfort, he begins to suspect dark purpose at play – and that whoever put them there is far from finished.

James is doing some bookshop events to launch All That Lives. If you’re in/near London or Brighton, he’s at Waterstones Piccadilly on 22 February and Waterstones Brighton on 23 February. If you’re north of the Border, he’s at Waterstones Edinburgh on 8 March (I’ll be there, in the front row – feel free to say hi/totally ignore me!). Check the Waterstones website for more details:

Liam Rudden of the Edinburgh Evening News did a great interview with James, which is online here:

The trams to Newhaven project has unearthed many graves, plague burial pits and other less macabre but nonetheless fascinating items from Leith’s history over the years. This article details one of the more puzzling burials uncovered by the engineering works:

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