I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Aberdeen-based author Bill Kirton for around a decade now. He is versatile and polished, and he can be excruciatingly funny – and the same adjectives can be used about his writing. I’m delighted to be hosting Bill here today, as he launches The Likeness, the sequel to The Figurehead.
Welcome Bill – and tell me, what inspired this book?
I’m not sure if ‘inspired’ is the right word but it does have a definite starting point. About seven years ago, a friend said to me, ‘You should write a novel about a figurehead carver’. Neither of us knew where his suggestion came from, but I liked it, love sailing ships and the 19th century, and so I wrote The Figurehead. What I hadn’t planned was that the two central characters, carver John Grant and Helen Anderson, daughter of a successful businessman, would start a relationship, but they did and some readers asked, ‘What happened to them? We need a sequel’. The Likeness is that sequel. It’s still a historical crime novel but it also develops the far from straightforward romance between them. In fact, writing the solution to the mystery part of the story was much easier than arriving at a satisfactory conclusion to the love element.
Do you see yourself in any of your characters?
The ending of The Likeness proved to be an interesting experience in this context. I had to rewrite it several times because, as I wrote, I could feel the disapproval of Helen over the direction in which I was trying to lead her. She’s a strong woman who, in her repressive mid-Victorian society, resists conventions and wants to chart her own way. In the end, I had to reach the conclusion by following her preferred route. It raises the whole question of whether men can create authentic female characters and vice versa. She and I were at odds but I felt and understood her uneasiness about some of the compromises I (unsuccessfully) asked of her.
More generally, I think there are bound to be aspects of the writer in all her/his characters, good or evil. Mine have their independence and frequently surprise me by things they say or do, but if I’m going to ascribe particular qualities or flaws to them, they have to be things I can feel from the inside. The policeman in my modern crime novels definitely shares some of my characteristics – a congenital grumpiness, a desire not to take life too seriously, the occasional childishness, and other things which I’m not prepared to reveal. He has my good points, too, but it would be immodest to claim them.
Hmm. If I had a bit more time, I’d be pushing you about those secrets! Let’s move on and talk about research. Do you do any? If so, what has grabbed your interest most?
Readers nowadays are very well-informed so your research has to be meticulous. In modern crime novels, you daren’t risk short-changing them on forensic details.
Most interesting? That’s easy. For The Figurehead, I needed to know how carvers create their wonderful creatures and characters so I joined a carving class. It’s a different type of modelling; with clay you build up a structure but, with wood, you have to discover the form inside it. I’ve been carving things ever since.
Also, for The Figurehead, I realised a lifetime’s dream. In order to experience what some of my characters would go through, I signed on as a paying crew member of the beautiful sailing ship the Christian Radich to sail from Oslo to Edinburgh. To know just how magical it was, look on Youtube for the title sequence of the old TV programme The Onedin Line. The ship you’ll see is the Christian Radich.
Wow Bill, that sounds amazing. And there was me thinking that a conducted tour round a wind farm was exciting! You do a lot of writing tuition, don’t you? So you must have some great tops. Go on – do share!
Yes, I give workshops on crime writing, writing in general and, (in schools) academic writing. My three main points are always the same.
- Trust your own voice. Don’t imagine that flowery images or posh, complicated words and sentences have more impact than your own, natural way of using language.
- Read your work aloud to spot repetitions, awkward constructions, mistakes, and all the other things that interrupt the flow and convey a lack of professionalism.
- Cut, cut, cut. All writing is better for being pared down.
Thanks Bill – and good luck with the new book.
Aberdeen, 1841. Woodcarver John Grant has an unusual new commission – to create a figurehead to feature onstage in the nautical melodramas of a newly-arrived theatre troupe. Simultaneously, he’s also trying to unravel the mystery of the death of a young woman, whose body has been found in the filth behind the harbour’s fish sheds.
His loving relationship with Helen Anderson, which began in The Figurehead, has grown stronger but, despite the fact that they both want to be together, a conventional marriage, in which the woman is effectively the property of the husband, holds no attractions for her. She’s also challenging yet more conventions of a male-dominated society by asking her father, a rich merchant, to let her join him in his business.
The story weaves together the threads of romance, mystery, Helen’s first steps in business, the activities of the actors, and life around Aberdeen harbour. Finding resolutions to complete the tapestry is a challenge for all of them.
Bill Kirton was born in Plymouth, England but has lived in Aberdeen, Scotland for most of his life. He’s been a university lecturer, actor, director, TV presenter, written and performed songs and sketches at the Edinburgh Festival, and had many radio plays broadcast by the BBC and the Australian BC. He’s written five books on study and writing skills in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series and his crime novels, Material Evidence, Rough Justice, The Darkness, Shadow Selves, Unsafe Acts, and the historical novel The Figurehead, set in Aberdeen in 1840, have been published in the UK and USA. He’s also published a spoof of the crime/spy genres called The Sparrow Conundrum which has won two awards, a satirical novella about online gaming, Alternative Dimension, and a children’s novel, The Loch Ewe Mystery. His short stories have appeared in several anthologies and Love Hurts was chosen for the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 2010.