Author Tom is on the side of the outsider
BORN in Wick, but now resident in Oxford, author Tom McCulloch is building a growing reputation as a novelist.
His first novel, The Stillman, which drew on his own experience in the whisky industry, saw McCulloch named as one of Amazon’s Rising Stars for 2014.
His second, A Private Haunting, which is also published by Dingwall-based Sandstone Press, is already attracting acclaim with fellow Scottish writer Alan Bissett calling it a "sometimes beautiful and eerie book".
Set in Oxfordshire, it centres on troubled Afghanistan veteran Adam Fletcher and Jonas Mortensen, the Norwegian drifter squatting in Fletcher’s family home, each of whom have secrets which are threatened with exposure when a teenage girl disappears from the village.
As a Highland lad, has your upbringing had an impact on your writing?
Yes. Especially in my first novel, The Stillman, which is set in a Highland distillery. The self-portrayal of the industry frustrates me – half-lit warehouses, men in boiler suits turning barley – it’s part of the Highland shorthand, romanticised and sepia-tinted.
I used to work in a distillery and they’re anything but sentimental. They’re industrial workplaces, complicated and class-conscious as any other. I wanted to challenge the romance of the "wee dram" and give the lead role to working people who just happen to live among the wonderful landscape and the myths.
It seems you were always destined to be a writer, so when did you first get the bug?
Writing runs in my family. My father is a poet and my grandfather wrote short stories. I remember reading one story that had a big impact, about a shop burglar that turned out to be a cardboard cut-out.
When I was about 13 or so, I set out to write sequels to other people’s books, a follow-up to Eric Morecambe’s Reluctant Vampire series – which is hilarious by the way – and Force 10 from Navarone by Alistair MacLean. I never finished them, of course. It would be fun to go back and write a Navarone sequel.
Your first novel drew on your own background and experiences in the Highlands, but your new book has no Scottish element, in either the setting or characters. Was that a deliberate, if possibly unconscious, move?
I could have set A Private Haunting in Scotland. But a southern England setting fitted the story better. I wanted to give a sense of enclosure.
I live in the south and sometimes have a feeling of being boxed in, by busy roads, so many more people, RAF planes buzzing overhead. I wanted the main character, Jonas, to feel those walls closing in.
One of the characters is hounded by the public and media after being suspected of a crime, which brings to mind cases like Christopher Jeffries in Bristol, the landlord of murder victim Joanna Yates. Did you consciously draw on this or other real life cases?
Yes. It’s quite disturbing how the media can basically ruin someone’s life for not fitting some norm of behaviour. As if their difference is evidence of culpability.
The media response to certain crimes, especially involving children also unsettles me. There is a voyeurism in it and sometimes a strong sense of entertainment masquerading as empathy. I wanted to take a look at all that.
are all troubled individuals, but do you see a wider linking theme between the two novels and your work in general?A Private Haunting and Jonas and Fletcher in The StillmanJim in
They’re troubled because they’re outsiders. We live in a time of near-caricature when it comes to identity and belonging. Sometimes this leads to hostility, generally driven by someone not being "like us", whatever "us" is. It’s a theme of the times we live in and my sympathies are with those who are trying to make a life in those conditions.
What was the most pleasurable part of writing A Private Haunting?
Music is a big part of A Private Haunting. The older I get the more I seem to be morphing into a weird meld of Bill Bailey and some German folk-rocker, so I felt I had to make the main character a big fan of Krautrock bands like Can, Neu! and Faust.
It was great fun selecting a soundtrack for the book. I tried writing with some of this music on in the background, but just ended up staring into space and thinking about hairy freaks making music with cement mixers.
You have written poetry and short stories as well as your two published novels. Do you want to continue writing in other forms, or do you want to concentrate on novels in future?
I’ll concentrate on novels, I think. I do enjoy writing poetry but it’s difficult to find the time to work on it as well, especially with a young family. Maybe when that Hollywood cheque comes in I’ll be able to do both.
Anything you can reveal about any future prospects?
I’m working on a new novel for Sandstone Press. It’s about a reclusive old man, a famous ex-film director and businessman, who goes home to Scotland at the end of his life. It’s wrapped up in a back story about Music Hall, jazz and the early days of the ’60s counterculture. It’s full of all kinds of bad jokes.
And finally, with two published books under the belt, what lessons have your learned about the writing process that you might pass on to would-be or unpublished authors?
Just keep on with it. Iain Banks said he wrote a million words before he was published and I reckon I did too. And don’t get too hung up on criticism. It’s easy to get too close to something and a fresh perspective can work wonders.
• A Private Haunting by Tom McCulloch is out now from Sandstone Press in paperback, priced £8.99, and as an ebook.