Man Booker Prize, Meet the author

Graeme Macrae Burnet: “I want my readers to play detective”

Graeme Macrae Burnet is the author of His Bloody Project, the little book from the little publisher that’s taking the Man Booker Prize by storm.

It’s made the shortlist and is surpassing the sales of the five other contenders, much to the delight of its publisher Contraband (the crime inprint of Saraband).

The Reading Agency allocated His Bloody Project to the Book and Brew book club in our role as official shadow judges for the prize. I finished reading it yesterday and it’s played on my mind ever since. It’s an extraordinary tale and an extraordinary book, mixing real-life documentation of a crime with the author’s additional material to create a story in which you’re never sure who to believe or which side you’re on.

It certainly captured my imagination and I wanted to know about the author and the process of writing this very unique novel. I contacted the publisher and they sent me the following interview, which gives a fascinating insight into this intriguing tale.

But first, let’s meet the author…

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet is one of Scotland’s brightest literary talents. Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, he spent some years working as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. He has degrees in English Literature and International Security Studies from Glasgow and St Andrew’s universities respectively.

His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust, was longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award and was a minor cult hit. Set in small-town France, it’s a compelling psychological portrayal of a peculiar outsider pushed to the limit by his own feverish imagination.

His second novel, His Bloody Project, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. He is currently working on another novel featuring Georges Gorski, the haunted detective in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.

Now, let’s find out how he produced this wonderful book…

Tell us a little about His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project tells the story of a triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. The story is told through a series of “found documents” – police statements, medical and psychiatric reports and the like – but the heart of the novel is the prison memoir of the 17-year-old murderer, Roddy Macrae.

The book is an exploration of why Roddy committed his dark deeds and on the nature of sanity and criminal responsibility. It was inspired by reading about some real-life historical murder cases and by my own family background in Wester Ross.

Why did you use the ‘found documents’ structure?

I wanted to present the reader with different viewpoints of the same incident, so they can kind of make up their own mind about what has happened.

As a reader, rather than be presented with one “objective truth” at the end of the novel, I find it far more engaging to be come to my own conclusions about what has happened or the motivations of the characters. So in a way, by structuring the novel in this way, I’m inviting readers to play detective for themselves. 

Would you describe His Bloody Project as a crime novel?

I tend to describe it as “a novel about a crime” rather than a “crime novel”. Crime fiction has always been a broad church, embracing the more procedural “whodunit” books – in which some sort of investigator solves a mystery on behalf of the reader – and the more character-driven novels that tend to focus on the perpetrator of a crime.

The latter is a tradition that goes back at least as far as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Throughout the 20th century writers like Georges Simenon and Nicolas Freeling used the genre as a vehicle for psychological study. In both my books, the crime or mystery element is just a springboard to examine the inner workings of my characters’ minds.

 What research did you do for His Bloody Project?

I really like doing research. For His Bloody Project I looked into the history and way of life of Scottish crofting communities; 19th criminal anthropology and psychology; and the Scots legal system of the time.

Of course, you can get a lot from the internet, but I love to be in an archive where you can dig out yellowed, hand-written documents tied up with ribbons – you can smell the reek of history!

Do you have a favourite author?

It’s always difficult to pick one, but it’s probably Georges Simenon. He’s a Belgian author most famous for writing 75 novels about Inspector Jules Maigret. He wrote about 200 novels in all under his own name, and many more under others. He was unbelievably prolific. I’ve read about 80 of them.

Simenon is a brilliant writer on the psychology of his characters, and he’s brilliant at setting a scene in very simple language. You’re completely transported to whatever place he’s writing about. There’s one that’s just been made into a film called The Blue Room.

How has the Man Booker Prize shortlisting changed your life?

On the morning of the Man Booker longlist announcement His Bloody Project was lurking around the 300,000 mark on Amazon UK. By the end of the day it had hit number 7.

Since the shortlisting, the book has been consistently in the top 50, a pretty giddy height for any novel, never mind one with a glossary and footnotes. On top of this I’ve received invitations to appear at festivals all over the world, from Estonia to Pakistan. Also – and perhaps more importantly for my long-term career – there has been lots of interest from overseas publishers.

Before all the current fuss I had been quite happy with how my writing career was going. I had published two well-received novels in two years and had sold a film option to His Bloody Project, but I was nowhere near making a living as a writer.

A Man Booker shortlisting propels your work to a far larger audience than one could ever dream of, and ultimately all you want as a writer is for people to have the opportunity to read your books.

What is your first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, about?  

It’s ostensibly about the disappearance of an enigmatic waitress from the small town of Saint-Louis on the French-Swiss border. But it’s really about the impact this event has on the two central characters, an ill-at-ease loner called Manfred Baumann, and Georges Gorski, a detective haunted by his failure to solve an earlier murder case. Like His Bloody Project, it focuses on the psychology and motivations of the characters.

Tell us a little about how you write – the structure of your average working day.

The first step is to remove myself from all distractions (fridge, kettle, internet). This generally means going to a library.

Second step is to stare into space for some hours, during which time I work myself into a healthy fug of self-loathing.

Third step is to attempt to switch off my brain. The brain is my enemy: full of dark, self-defeating thoughts that are not conducive to creativity. Then with the clock ticking down, I launch into a frenzy of activity which will generally not last for more than two or three hours – ample time to write 1,000 words or more. At which point, I will feel that all is right with the world. At least until the next day.

His Bloody Project is available now from Contraband. The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced on 25 October. Good luck Graeme – our fingers are crossed for you!

5 thoughts on “Graeme Macrae Burnet: “I want my readers to play detective”

    1. It certainly shows the impact of a prize nomination, eh? I love that this year’s shortlist reflects wonderful books like this from smaller publishers and is not just about the big titles from massive publishers.

  1. His Bloody Project is an amazingly clever book. Graeme Macrae Burnet clearly knows how to grab his readers and spin them round and round. Excitin,g, exhilarating and heartbreaking I will be reading more of his work. Of that I am certain!

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