Jay Stringer’s WAYS TO DIE IN GLASGOW is one of the big hits of the summer, which should surprise no one. Already selling like pints of room-temperature stout through the UK, the book is set to hit American readers soon.
A violent drunk with a broken heart, Mackie looks for love in all the wrong places. When two hit men catch him with his pants down, he barely makes it out alive. Worse still, his ex-gangster uncle, Rab, has vanished, leaving him an empty house and a dead dog.
Reluctant PI Sam Ireland is hired by hotshot lawyers to track Rab but is getting nothing except blank stares and slammed doors. As she scours the dive bars, the dregs of Glasgow start to take notice.
DI Andy Lambert is a cop in the middle of an endless shift. A body washes up, and the city seems to shiver in fear; looks like it’s up to Lambert to clean up after the lowlifes again.
As a rampaging Mackie hunts his uncle, the scum of the city come out to play. And they play dirty. It seems that everyone has either a dark secret or a death wish. In Mackie’s case, it might just be both.
"That sounds great," you say, "but how's the writing?" Gracious, you're a tough one to please. OK. Here's the opening:
I’m baw deep in Jenny Towler when they come looking for me. I don’t hear it at first, because Jenny’s doing all that fake shouting that she thinks turns me on, and there’s guys in the other rooms getting the same doing. But then I hear people running up the stairs and the back of my neck goes, does that tingling thing that always saves my arse, and I’m up and moving.
They come in through the door, a bald man covered in tattoos and some skinny blonde guy carrying a gun. You know you’ve pissed someone off when they send a gun.
What's that? Get out of your way and get to the interview thingy with the now-Wikipediable Jay Stringer? Fine. Enjoy.
Steve Weddle: Why are you setting this story in your Eoin Miller world? Are there aspects of that world you wanted to explore from a different perspective? Or are the worlds very different after all?
Jay Stringer: I grew up reading comic books. I know everyone’s onboard with the shared-universe thing now, because of the films, but I always liked how Daredevil and Spidey could go out for drinks, or Thor might fly past on his way to save the world. I really liked the thought that Jim Gordon could go for coffee with Maggie Sawyer, and they could have real-people conversations, while somewhere out in the world Superman was saving everybody from Darkseid. Then when I started reading crime fiction, I saw that Elmore Leonard did it, and so I just thought it was something we all did.
I think it’s exciting to leave the vague suggestion that Eoin Miller or Veronica Gaines could turn up in Glasgow at any moment. And, who knows, if I write a sequel maybe they will.
SW: Your earlier novels had a strong cultural and political tone, especially with the Romani people and the idea of “outsiders” and belonging in Britain. Do you consider yourself a political writer?
JS: This is one of those times when the answer I’m supposed to give would be ’no, I’m not a political writer, sir, what a silly thing to suggest.’ But the real answer is, ‘yeah, kinda.’ I used to deny it. I’m a political person, so that finds its way into my work. I’m also a big fan of fart jokes, so, you know, you pay your money and take your chance.
SW: And, um, what is a political writer?
JS: Well me and my buddy George Orwell both think that all art is political. Even if you’re deciding your art isn’t political, well…that’s a political decision. Sure, Ms. Hollywood Action Film BlockBuster Writerwoman might say she’s just writing about fun things happening to cool dinosaurs, but she’s choosing to write that in a world with rising inequality and with species becoming extinct every year. Mr Cop Procedural UK Writerman might say his book is just a bit of fun, but he’s choosing to write that in a UK where one in four children is living in poverty. That says something about the writer, and they’re political choices.
We write about the world around us, and more importantly, about how we see it. How we meet it.
You might never go out and meet the world, never go and talk to the people you’re writing about, but it will show in your work. We have to tell some basic truth, and the truth isn’t always nice. That said, we’re storytellers, and nobody likes to read a polemic, so we have a duty first and foremost to tell good stories and give people a reason to keep reading.
SW: Your new novel opens, shall we say, in medias rogering.
JS: Perfect. let’s always say that, from now on.
SW: How important is pacing to you and how do you keep the readers engaged once the initial onslaught of intercourse and killing passes? How do you keep things moving?
JS: For Ways To Die In Glasgow, it was easy. I had Mackie. That guy is pure ID. He’s basically a human shark, he moves, he fucks, he eats, and if he’s not doing one of those things he dies. He’s not a character who will sit still and contemplate the world, or pause to reflect on some deeper irony of life. He’s always moving, and if you’re writing that guy, it means the plot is always moving, too. If I stopped at any moment to try and figure out what Mackie should do next, I’d find he was already off doing it.
SW: I heard that you have some sort of bicycle fixie, but I can't seem to find out what that is. I've looked at some British language sites, and it seems to be a bloke what is sat at the edge of the lane in a lorry with a spanner in hand to repair your bicycle for nine shillings. Is that right?
JS: Think of me like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in PREMIUM RUSH, except I do my own stunts. Fixed gear is where it’s at. Especially for writers, it’s a chance to get out and work the body without daydreaming about the current project. No gears. No coasting. Constant peddling. And you need to be aware of the road around you at all times, because you don’t have breaks. It’s like being a zen monk, but travelling headlong through traffic at high speed.
SW: When you move from voice to voice in your books, from perspective to perspective, you do a great job working with that character's voice. How do you inhabit each character? Do you think of the story as that person's story? Do you hollow out a place in your soul and become that person?
JS: I found playing around with tense was a fun trick. So Mackie, who seems to be everyones favourite character, was written in first-person present-tense. He lives in the moment, always alive, always moving in real time. We know what he’s going to do at the same time as he does. Sam, the PI, is a more thoughtful character. She tells her story in first-person past-tense. Then there’s Lambert, the cop, and his story is in limited-third. He has some secrets, a distance between himself and the reader. Once I figured out those three basic ideas, the voices came easily.
SW: When people ask me what path they need to take to be an author, I say they need to write a great book and add that the traditional "path" doesn't really exist, if it ever did. "Look at my pal, Jay," I say. “He's done everything wrong and he's a huge success."
JS: Usually, when people say "look at Jay, He’s done everything wrong and he’s a huge…” the word that follows takes the form of dirty cussin’
SW: Yeah, well I tell the folks how you don't spend months scheduling signings in bookstores or driving across the country to conferences or lining up readings. I tell them you write great books and that you have a solid relationship with the Thomas & Mercer folks over at Amazon. Seriously, though, how have you managed to get your books in front of everyone without blogging every day about nonsense or retweeting every positive review you’ve gotten or sitting on 20 panels a year?
SW: As a cyclist and a human, you've certainly followed all the doping stories in sports -- bicycling, baseball, track and field. If there were a performance-enhancing drug for writers -- besides coffee or whiskey -- what would it be? Adderall? Speed?
JS: I think the fear of financial oblivion would be a good one. Contracts are also quite performance enhancing. I know there was this whole thing with Lance Armstrong about replacing the blood in his body, because the oxygen levels would be too high, and that got me thinking about this trick I used to try as a kid, where you hang your head upside-down off the edge of the bed while you….wait, where were we?
SW: We were on the last question. What part of this book was the toughest to write?
JS: The bit that’s not there. Fun fact, folks, the original ending is missing. I wrote a coda that summed up some of the themes of the book. Al Guthrie talked me into deleting it. It’s still on my hard drive. Maybe one day, it’ll make a fun extra, like a deleted scene on a DVD, but for now it’s on the cutting room floor. Maybe if people want to see a sequel, they’ll get to know what happened next.
UK readers can grab a copy of Ways to Die in Glasgow here.
Most of the rest of you can queue up here.