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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Denise Mina

Denise Mina is one of the new stars of mystery fiction. She's not afraid to tackle a difficult subject (see below) and she writes like a dream. In this interview I assumed her influences were - and I compared her with - Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, but I think a more direct ancestress might be Ruth Rendell who often has a point to make but makes it with such stunning narrative skill and well fleshed out characters that you don't really notice it while you're reading the book. Mina's series character, Paddy Meehan, is one of the more unusual and memorable in mystery fiction and her books shouldn't be neglected by any serious reader. Slight editorial note: Ms. Mina rarely uses capitals but I have used them throughout for continuity. It doesn't change the meaning of any of her answers.

Q: I'm at a bit of a disadvantage, as I have only so far read your Paddy Meehan books, so we'll stick to those. I picked up FIELD OF BLOOD a month or so ago and was blown away by it. As a bookseller, I sometimes find it a tough sell, because of the topic. People tend to shy away from child killings, and as a mother, was that first chapter especially difficult to write? It was a bit difficult to read.
A: It was difficult to write because I didn't want the baby to be a prop or an object in the story, I wanted him to be fully human and valid as a character which is why it's from his point of view but I cried every time I had to go over it. What a woose!

Q: To me personally, I think child killing is as valid a topic as any other, and often more compelling because the stakes are so much higher for the reader. Anyone can be instantly heartbroken by it. Were you looking for an instant hook that would take the reader through some difficult subject matter?
A: Actually I really wanted to deal specifically with a child murder by a child because it happens and in Britain we have been so draconian about it: two boys killed a baby in Liverpool about twenty years ago and they were tried as adults, a mob attacked their van and well qualified psychologists were calling them evil on TV. I felt it needed pulled apart and looked at. In the UK everyone thinks it's outrageous to bring it up again and offensive. Everywhere else people think it needs talked about. Callum Ogilvy gets released from prison in the next book (SLIP OF THE KNIFE) and his crimes had to be terrible to make him work as a character.

Q: The second book also has an "instant" hook, I think - the woman at the door with a bloody face. You really WANT to know what has happened to her, and it's not what you expect.
A: Thanks. That was based on a true case where the police went to the door and the woman had blood all over her chin. They thought it was a domestic dispute but actually she had asked her boyfriend to pull all her teeth out because she was on a lot of GBH and thought she was being bugged.

Q: I love Paddy, she's a great character, and one of the things I like about her is that she's so opposite from practically every other female mystery character I can think of. She's young, she's chubby, she's uncertain, she's low woman on the totem pole, and to make her more of an outsider she's disenfranchised from her family and her family's values - what I think of as their very small expectations of her. How did you develop this character? What specific points are you interested in getting across when you are writing about her?
A: I'd noticed that a lot of female protagonists are alpha types: go ahead, confident, did well at school, popular with boys and I wanted a character for the rest of us. I don't know women like them: everyone I know lies to their mum about how fast they drive and eats too much. In Scotland women always live near their mum and every family house is like a train station, hundreds of people coming in and out. Mostly I wanted to get my extensive knowledge of the history of stupid diets into a book.

Q: Why set it back in the 80's? Did you want to be dealing with the more unusual choices Paddy was making in this context? - i.e. choosing her job over a marriage? I was wondering if it also had something to do with the technical aspects of newspaper work at the time? No sending in stories by e-mail, no cell phones, etc. The old timey newspaper feel - the grimy old typewriters - make the books feel more "newsroomy".
A: Exactly right, also to trace the changes and how much of an effect they have had on story telling. They start in the 1980s because the books span 30 odd years of Paddy's life and I wanted to dip in and out, like visiting an old friend and finding out about them slowly - oh god, you can drive now! You married that twerp! How's your cousin Angela?, etc.

Q: What made you tie the fictional Paddy Meehan to the real one? I appreciated the footnote in the first book and the info on your website. Is this a hugely famous case in Scotland?
A: Very famous but only to older people. I wanted Paddy to have a story that she uses to make sense of her life, look at the way narrative operates in a person's life, substitute the jesus story for another one.

Q: Economically, is Glasgow still so depressed? The picture you paint of the unemployed, the poverty, the general grimness of life is so well done and so bleak. I know it's set during the Thatcher years which were more difficult, so was this also a deliberate choice?
A: Glasgow is now a shopper's paradise and was one of the first cities in the UK to regenerate itself through the arts. Every bit of waste ground is now covered in luxury flats. It's bizarre.

Q: I know this is a planned trilogy - what's coming Paddy's way in the next installment?
A: It's not a trilogy but one of five. The next one is out in August and Paddy has to deal with Terry Patterson's death and Callum getting out of prison.

Q: I find it so interesting that you also write graphic novels. I have two teenagers and they devour the things by the handfuls (mostly Japanese ones). Do you think this is the wave of the future? Both my kids also read straight novels but the graphic novels are what they read when they want to relax.
A: Well, everyone in the business tells me that the graphic novel is dying. I love writing for them. Ian Rankin is taking over Hellblazer next and hopefully there will be a few Scottish crime writers chipping into the form in the next few years.

Q: Who are your influences, mystery wise? Of course reading your books I was reminded of both Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, two of my own favorite writers. Did you grow up reading mysteries?
A: No, I didn't read much growing up. I couldn't read until I was about nine and then only read really unsuitable books about witches...Errol Flynn's MY WICKED WICKED WAYS, rubbish, really. When I started reading at nineteen I read the classics. I only got into mysteries when I was doing a PhD and then read the American ones, Block, Cornwell, etc. I didn't even know about Ian! But he wasn't that big in 1997.

Q: Finally, congratulations on your Edgar nomination! I never think they nominate enough women and it was great to see you and Nancy Pickard on the list - not just because of your gender, obviously! I loved both books.
A: Thanks so much. I had a dream the other night that I was at the ceremony, after they'd named the winner, and I was naked, alone and disappointed. What ever can it mean?

Well, good luck!

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