Interview with Ed James, author

RR: Where did the inspiration come evolve for the character of Scott Cullen?
EJ: Lots of places, really. I read a lot of detective fiction and one of the things that strikes me is you’ve generally got two types of detective – the maverick (e.g. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus) or the by-the-rules guy (e.g. Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner). Both are Edinburgh detectives but they’re worlds apart. They’re like Batman and Superman – the great difficulty in dramatising Superman is he’s perfect, other than the spurious green Kryptonite thing. Batman is very layered and very fallible.

I know a few coppers and the common complaint is most of the stuff they read or see on TV will have a DCI or DCS knocking on doors, daft stuff like that. In reality, these guys are stuck behind desks, managing the teams who manage the teams who do the actual graft. I wanted to write a character who was realistic.

Going back to fiction, the interesting characters are guys like Stuart MacBride’s DS Logan McRae or maverick DIs like Rebus or Mark Billingham’s Thorne. These DIs could very easily be a DC or DS, with their DS sidekick – the one who plays more by the rules – inverted to be their boss, much like Rankin’s doing with Rebus and Siobhan Clarke in his last couple of books.

On another level, when I came up with Cullen, I’d had a lot of career pain professionally. I’d been an Analyst, doing a solid job for years but never getting the extra stripes. Writing the guy at the bottom rung of the ladder who wasn’t getting the breaks despite getting the results really resonated.

Another thing was to make him young. A lot of fictional detectives have the back story in place. I wanted a young guy who hadn’t had the divorce or the battle with the bottle and who couldn’t afford the classic sports car. I wanted it all to happen on the page.

RR: How long did it take you to write the first entry in the series “Ghost in the Machine?”
EJ: It took about three months to write the first draft. It took another five to redraft it to make it less rubbish. It then took another six months to revise it to something a bit better. After fifteen months of not managing to get any writing done, I picked it back up and spent four months really honing the plot and sorting out the mess. About three years, all in. Needless to say, I’m a lot quicker these days!

RR: What motivates you to continue to write?
EJ: Since January, it’s become my day job. There’s no bigger motivation to me than having to go back to IT if this all falls apart. I used to have the hunger to escape that life and now I have the hunger to avoid getting back into it.

RR: What is your process when beginning a project?
EJ: At some point I’m going to write a book on that. It’s quite involved, really.
I start with the idea. Or ideas. I’ve got a folder in Evernote with story ideas, at least another 15-20 snippets of stuff I could develop, all of the books having started off like that. Generally, I’ll have one or two ideas that really get the synapses firing and they sort of eat away at my brain while I’m doing other stuff. By the time I come to getting the ideas down on paper/screen, I’ve already done a fair amount of thinking.
I tend to do an iterative approach to my books – lots of passes through it start-to-finish. It helps smooth out the plot holes and sort any characterisation issues. I start with a high level story summary, just five or six big events and then break them down from there. How do the bits flow together, etc? I then have a second level story with a lot more meat on the bones which I then set against a timeline – certain things happen during the week vs weekend, for instance – and that’s when the story gets properly fleshed out. Next, I write synopsis notes for each scene, making them as dramatic as I can. Usually I’ll resequence here and merge some characters together, etc. And that’s it ready for writing.

When I write and edit, I usually take a few passes at it before anyone else gets to see it then I revise according to early reader feedback.

RR: What is your favorite part of the writing process? The least?
EJ: Favourite is definitely the planning/outlining stage. That’s when the magic happens – the connections are forged, connections are muddied, red herrings introduced and it’s the bit I get the buzz from.

Least favourite is editing. It’s like doing school homework to the power of university exams. This year, I’ve edited the first four books properly with my editor, Rhona. It’s been a hellish process but I’ve come out much stronger for it. In a lot of ways it’s the best part, as it’s when I learn about the stupid errors I make, but it’s the bit I always try to minimise and cut out… A lot of the focus on plotting early on is to stop editing being so horrific – I rarely get feedback that the plots are mince, for example.

RR: Which authors do you admire the most? Why?
EJ: Iain Banks and Ian Rankin are probably the two authors who’ve meant the most to me. Both write universal books set in Scotland, which add in local colour and language (obviously, there’s Iain M Banks’ Culture novels too, but they’re almost a different author). They’ve been the two biggest inspirations to me. I have to say, Banks’s death last year affected me in a profound way.

RR: What genre do you enjoy reading the most?
EJ: Crime. To me, it’s the ultimate form of storytelling. Most crime fiction is so pared down and focused. The clipped style of James Ellroy adds an electricity to the text. Guys like Stuart MacBride are writing such vivid prose these days but seldom get the recognition for it. Compared with the horrendous exposition and narrative waffle of, say, sci-fi, it’s mind-bending. Crime fiction tells the truth about our society, lays all its faults bare.

I love sci-fi, though I really struggle these days with the writing. Most authors write in either a cold, science textbook way or a ‘witty narrator’ manner, a la Douglas Adams. The stories are usually excellent but are weighed down by so much exposition and tedious world-building – I don’t care how this society got to where it has, just show me how broken it is and people doing interesting things in it.

RR: Out of all your novels, which book do you identify with the most?
It’s got to be BOTTLENECK, Cullen five, for two reasons. First, the central plot deals with the music business, something I tried out a few years ago to not much success. It was very cathartic. Secondly, it allowed me to explore Cullen’s hometown of Dalhousie, a fictional place inspired by some Iain Banks’s better novels – THE CROW ROAD, THE STEEP APPROACH TO GARBADALE, STONEMOUTH – which bring small-town Scotland to life.

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