AT first glance, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second book, His Bloody Project, could easily be mistaken for a grisly piece of true crime from the Victorian era.
One reviewer has already been fooled by the book, with its subtitle "Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae" and its authentic seeming afterward purportedly written by real life prison doctor James Bruce Thomson.
Yet this confession of murder in 19th century Ross-shire comes purely from the brain of its author, although his shared name with his murderous anti-hero, who writes down his confession while imprisoned in Inverness, does hint at Graeme’s own links with the setting.
Graeme, whose debut novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau is set in France in the early 1980s, told us more about his Highland-set novel.
I can't help but notice that yourself and your (anti) hero in His Bloody Project share a name. Is there any family history influence on the new book?
Although I was born and brought up in Kilmarnock, my mother is from the village of Lochcarron and my grandfather and his forefathers seem to have come from the Applecross peninsula, where His Bloody Project is set. In fact, Gordon Cameron, curator of the Applecross Heritage Centre told me that the song sung in the scene in the inn (Coille Mhùiridh) was written by in Donald MacRae who was (I think) my grandfather’s great grandfather. But bigger influence on the book was really that because of these family links I’ve been visiting Wester Ross all my life. And certainly the odd thing I heard in my childhood found its way into the book.
And why the setting of the Highlands in the 1860s and such a big leap from your first novel's setting?
With both books the setting was an intrinsic part of the idea. It wasn’t a case of ‘I have an idea, where will I set it?’ In both cases I couldn’t conceive of the books being set anywhere else. A big part of why HBP is set where it is, is the family background I described above – it’s a just part of the world I’m quite familiar with. The period was little more difficult to pin down, but it was always going to be somewhere between the end of the worst of the Clearances (around 1840), but before the Napier Commission which was set up to investigate crofters’ conditions in 1883. In the end, the exact time was determined by when the real life character of James Bruce Thomson was alive. (He died in 1873.)
What were the main challenges you faced in setting a novel almost 150 years in the past and how did you overcome them? Was much research in the Highlands involved?
Before I started writing, I spent three or four months reading about the history and lifestyle of the Highlands in the nineteenth century, but once I started writing I tried not to shackle myself too much to my research. I was writing a novel, not a history book, but at the same time, I wanted it be reasonably accurate. But the main thing is not absolute historical fidelity, it’s to create a believable and vivid fictional universe for the reader.
[NB: The most important books I came across listed in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book.]
On a technical level, I made things a bit tricky for myself by writing in the first person. When you write in the third person, you can pause and spend two pages describing something if you want, but any kind of exposition or description is much harder in the first person, as you can only say what you’re character would plausibly say. That’s a particular problem when you’re writing about a world most readers won’t be familiar with.
You feature at least one real life character in James Bruce Thomson. Why did you decide to introduce him into the novel and how much real history blends into the novel?
I came across JBT’s writings in the course of my research, having already planned to have my protagonist – the murderer, Roderick Macrae – subjected to some sort of psychiatric scrutiny. So coming across this real life character, who seems to have been a genuinely influential figure at the time, was a total gift. And because of the attitudes contained in his writing (which are quite unpalatable to the modern reader), it was quite easy to imagine him as the kind of sneering, superior character I created. It should be said though that the personality I ascribe to him is entirely fictional. Other than the most basic details, I haven’t been able to find any biographical information about him.
There are a couple of other minor characters who are very loosely based on real figures. I do like blending fiction and reality. I go to some lengths in the Preface to the book to set up the case as being based on actual events, so using real people and locations is all part of that. Having said that, the book is intended to be read and understood as a novel.
I find it interesting with both His Bloody Project and Adele you adopt a what strikes me as a distancing device between yourself and the reader - HBP with Thomson's take on Macrae's confession and Adele with the conceit of its having been translated from the French. Why does that appeal to you as a writer?
You’re right, there is a common thread there, but I’m not sure I really know why it appeals to me.
As I reader, I’m not particularly concerned what the author ‘intended’ in his or her work, or how the work relates to his or her biography. I want to have my own engagement with what I’m reading, not see the work as some sort of coded communication from the writer.
So I suppose by creating these distancing devices – and fictional authors – for the texts, I’m just playing around with these ideas. With The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau I think most people found the afterword amusing, but there were certainly some folk who thought it was a bit irritating. But it’s certainly not the case in either book that I’m trying to dupe people into thinking something is real that isn’t – which is why I added the word ‘A Novel’ to the title page of His Bloody Project.
From what you've written about the new book, your readers have to do a bit of work and come to their own conclusions about the events. Fair point?
‘Work’ is probably a bit of an off-putting word. The most important thing for me is to create a set of three-dimensional characters and a gripping story. For all that the structure of the book might be quite elaborate, the story actually unfolds in a pretty conventional, chronological way. I don’t want the reader to feel that they are ‘working’. I want them to be gripped and emotionally engaged.
But I don’t think there’s any contradiction between that and making people wonder about whether Roddy is insane or not, and leaving a bit of space for them to come to their own conclusions.
And finally, what next for yourself? Is it true you are planning a return to France and more from Gorski?
Oui, c’est vrai! I am currently working on a second Gorki novel, provisionally entitled The Accident on the A35. But I don’t like to plan, so I need to get quite far into the first draft before I’ll really know if it’ll come to anything.
• His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is published by Saraband Books.