Tuesday 10 March 2020

Interview with Douglas Lindsay (part 1)

An absolute treat for this month (and indeed next month). As many of my readers know, I love the Barney Thomson books which are the brain child of Douglas Lindsay. The next adventure of the barber cum former accidental serial killer, Curse of the Clown, is due out on the 23rd March and Douglas very kindly allowed me to interview him. 
It’s a wonderfully substantial interview and, as a result, will span both this month’s blog and April’s.

1. For those who are not familiar with your books, could you please introduce yourself and your works?
I've been writing for about twenty-five years now. Have been extremely lucky to be married to a career diplomat, which has allowed me to do this full-time for most of those twenty-five years, while travelling the world. Having said that, we've had three postings to eastern Europe and one to West Africa, so there are a few bits of the world we've missed.

I mostly write crime novels, something that happened entirely by accident. I neither read crime novels, nor watch crime shows on the TV. Nor, indeed, commit crime for that matter. In my head my first novel, The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, was a comedy. However, bookshops don't have comedy fiction sections, but they do have very large crime fiction sections. The presence in my comedy novel of detectives, a serial killer and a freezer full of body parts allowed my publisher to put my comedy novel in the crime section, and the die was cast.

My longest running series is Barney Thomson, which is now nine books and counting. They're definitely comedies, if occasionally macabre. Then there's the Detective Sergeant Hutton police procedurals, which are vulgar, violent, and sex and alcohol fulled; there's three books with Detective Inspector Westphall, more sedate police procedures, with a hint of the supernatural; then there are a couple of books each with DCI Jericho and DI Pereira, which are more straightforward procedurals.

I should clarify that the character of Detective Sergeant Hutton is sex and alcohol fuelled, rather than me being fuelled by sex and alcohol when I write them.

I've also written a few definitely-not-crime novels along the way in an attempt to escape the crime fiction circuit, but people don't really buy them, so it hasn't worked yet...

2. As many of my readers know, I am a huge fan of the long-suffering Barney Thomson. What or who influenced you in the creation of him? When I was a kid my mum always took me to this elderly barber who had one single style that he inflicted on every lad in town. Did you suffer a similar barbering hell as a child?
There was a guy in my home town who cut my hair, this would be in my early to mid-twenties, who was the original model for Barney. The chip on the shoulder, the apparent resentment of his colleagues, and possibly of customers. I have no idea if the guy would have recognised himself in Barney.

There's a scene in the first book where Barney is shunned by an entire shop full of customers, all of whom prefer to wait for one of the other two barbers. I witnessed this happen one late afternoon, with men preferring to wait well over an hour for a cut, than submit their hair to this guy. That was pretty brutal. I didn't even think he was that bad a barber.

Barney's mother was, in part, based on my gran, who smoked sixty Woodbine a day and loved watching game shows on TV. I tweaked my gran's personality a little, and made her a serial killer. Emma Thompson, when portraying Barney's mother in the movie, made a massive tweak, adding foul language and prostitution. If you've only seen the movie, that character was not based on my gran!

After three books of Barney being this fearful, resentful, rather dour character, I kind of tired of writing him, so used the circumstances of the novels to take the opportunity to change his character. These days he's a pretty cool, relaxed, somewhat melancholic chap, with a dry sense of humour.

3. I thought Emma Thompson was brilliant in the film as was Robert Carlyle. Mind you I tend to think he’s brilliant in most things, which is why I wandered into my local indie cinema one day to have a gander at his latest film and walked out 90 minutes or so later with tears of laughter streaming down my face. This then obviously led me onto devouring the books. How did the film come about? Did he just ring you up one day and say, “You know what? I’ve always fancied being a serial killer barber."
The idea of the film happening started so long that I first heard about it by letter. November 1998. The book was due for publication the following February, and an agent in London wrote to say he had a guy interested in the film rights, and that he was shopping it around other companies in the hope of getting a bidding war going. De Niro was mentioned. Being old and cynical and from the west of Scotland, and following the movie business far more closely than the publishing business, I knew that films rarely happen - even though films obviously do happen, percentage-wise, they don't - so I never really got too excited. There was no bidding war with just the one guy interested. His name was Martin Rosen, and his main movie claim to fame had been writing, directing and producing Watership Down. He asked me to write the script, and he brought in David MacKenzie as director. At that point, David hadn't directed anything, but he's now a thing. Him being a thing had nothing, sadly, to do with Barney in the end. This being the movies, big acting names were tossed around like kites in a hurricane, in particular Ewan MacGregor, as David was currently working with him, trying to get a film called Young Adam underway. This despite Ewan MacGregor being thirty years too young for the part, and looking about sixty years too young. Young Adam did happen. At this point, Barney Thomson didn't.

Martin Rosen never got the film made. A couple of years later the rights passed to Sigma Films in Glasgow, who were intent on making the movie with Ford Kiernan. They dispensed with my script writing services. I don't know who they got to write the script, or what happened with it, but the movie didn't get made.

Then a Canadian fellow named Richard Cowan, who'd been a long-time assistant director in Hollywood, took the rights to the script. He was going to write and direct, and it was going to be his breakthrough into the next level of filmmaking. Ultimately, it was Richard who made the film happen, but sadly for him it didn't really work out the way he intended. He had the film rights for years. Every year he'd send an update, and try to sound like things were happening, but they weren't really. One year (around about 2010 maybe) he mentioned the script being with Robert Carlyle, but since virtually every British actor alive was mentioned at some point, that didn't seem particularly exciting. But then a year later, when he renewed the option, Carlyle was mentioned again, and then the next year there started to be talk of Carlyle directing. When the movie finally happened, there were other producers involved, and Richard had lost the directing role. Before filming began, Carlyle handed Richard's script over to a Scot, and so Richard's work kind of got lost along the way. Indeed, it was at this point that the book really got completely rewritten.

The movie finally went into production in June 2014, not kicking the pants off sixteen years after that first letter. With Emma Thompson and Ray Winstone on board it has the look and feel of a studio movie; but all along there was no money, and they were scrimping and saving and muddling by. A real low budget independent film. And when it came to it, despite the cast, it never really got much of a release in the UK, and wasn't a huge success. But the movie was fun, and it opened the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2015, and I got to briefly hang out with movie stars and walk on the red carpet, and meet James Cosmo, who's obviously like the coolest actor in all television. And I also got to meet Emma Thompson on set, though she stayed in character of a 75 year-old Glasgow woman while I talked to her, so that was weird.

As for the book. It had gone out of print in around 2002. ie I was dropped by the publisher. I put it back in print myself, because no one else would take it. Then, when the movie came along, the ebook rights were with a digital-only publisher, and I couldn't get a mainstream London publisher on board, despite Emma Thompson, because I couldn't offer digital rights. In the end, the movie tie-in paperback was published by Freight Books, smalltime, but up and coming Glasgow publisher.

They folded a year later. Barney Thomson killed the publisher. Around the same time, the digital publisher folded as well. Barney really is a serial killer.

And now The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson resides on the shelves of Amazon, digital and print on demand, a forgotten masterpiece. Or, my naive early work, as I like to call it.

4. You’ve set the more recent Barney books in Millport on the island of Cumbrae. Was there a particular reason that you chose that location? Does it hold any personal significance for you like Lancaster does for me in my Sam Spallucci books? Also, does the real life town share an identical layout with the books or have you tweaked it?
Millport is one of those towns on the Clyde where Glasgow used to go on holiday, before the introduction of cheap flights to Spain. We had a small flat there, so we'd go several times a year, including for three or four weeks in the summer. I feel much more affection for Millport than I do my home town, which incidentally is where I set the Hutton crime series. I took my kids to Millport often enough, and like to go back when I can.

It has the feel of an English, Victorian seaside town, promenades and palm trees and crazy golf.

The town is exactly as it's painted in the book. From the town you look across the water at a nuclear power station. Not the most attractive view. Around the west coast of the island however, and one is transported to the Highlands, looking out on the firth, with Bute and the mountains of Arran beyond.

5. So, the next Barney Thomson book, Curse of the Clown, comes out on 23rd March. Without being too spoilery, what are you going to inflict on the poor chap this time?
So, in the first Barney novel the killer cuts off a body part of each victim and sends it to the victim's family. Just out of badness, really. There was one day in London, sitting with the Watership Down guy, and his partner in the movie, James Lee, and we were tossing around ideas for the film, and decided that instead of various body parts, wouldn't it be funny if the killer always sent the penis? So we had a scene with the police looking at oblong boxes of various sizes, and the opening scene of the movie was DI Holdall showing a woman into a lab and asking, 'Is this your husband's penis?' I thought that would be one of the all-time great first lines in a movie. Then that particular movie never happened, and the line was lost.

So, at some point, when thinking of what to do with the next Barney novel, I decided to resurrect my lost movie line. This means that the killer has to sever his victim's penises. (Spoiler: this won't actually happen to Barney.) I sent the men of the shop to a fictional barbershop convention in a fictional hotel in Perthshire. The killer himself is a barber, somewhat mirrored on the type of man Barney used to be back in the beginning.

Douglas Lindsay’s Curse of the Clown will be available from Amazon on the 23rd March. Click here for more details.
For more information on all his works, click here for his website and here for his Twitter.

The second half of this interview will pop up in this blog next month. Until then, beware of what lurks in the shadows.