This weeks author Q&A features Douglas Lindsay, author of ‘Song of the Dead’ (the first in the DI Westphall series).
I reached out to Douglas Lindsay to see if he would possibly be able to answer a few of my questions, which he said yes to. Thank you very much for doing so Douglas Lindsay, much apprecieted! my questions and his answers are as follows;
1. What made you want to become a writer?
I’ve always been a daydreamer, a fantasist. I remember reading Walter Mitty in school, and thinking, isn’t everyone like this? Why is this even a character in a story? So, I’d always thought about writing, but I hit my twenties and got a job in an office. Time passed. Then I married a diplomat, we moved to French-speaking Africa, I didn’t speak French, I mentioned to Kathryn that I could become a writer, she foolishly agreed, and that was twenty-five years ago. Kathryn’s still a diplomat, still waiting for the pay-off of me being a writer. On the plus side, I just made butternut squash, chili and crème fraiche soup for lunch, which I wouldn’t have done if I was working in an office.
2. Did you have any specific inspiration to write ‘Song of the Dead’?
Not in terms of story. I decided to write a new, first-person detective series, so the main influence, or non-influence, was my other first-person detective series, DS Hutton. Hutton is an alcoholic, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, opinionated, melancholic, PTSD-afflicted reprobate. I try to make him roguishly attractive, but I suspect plenty of readers just think he’s a bit of a dick. So, my basic starting point for Westphall was that he wasn’t Hutton. He doesn’t swear, he doesn’t sleep around, he’s calm, he’s reflective. He is melancholic, but all my leading characters are melancholic. The way the narrative develops then really stems from the character. Slow, measured, stopping to think on a regular basis.
The idea of the fellow turning up having been declared dead twelve years previously just came to me out of nowhere. Sounded intriguing, and that was all I had when I started writing the book, trusting myself to come up with a decent explanation along the way.
3. What did the process for writing this book look like? Did it involve much research?
Zero research. We’d just arrived in Estonia, where Kathryn was posted to the British embassy. I loved Tallinn. Straight off the bat, felt at home. We were there three years, and I’d move back in a shot if circumstances allowed.
I wanted to set the book there, but was aware that I really didn’t know the place. So, I used the narrative of an outsider arriving fresh in the country, and we see it through his eyes. It allowed me to be unfamiliar. It did get picked up and translated into Estonian, so hopefully I did a decent job in not offending anyone, or sounding naïve about the local culture.
4. This book has a lot of tough subjects (inc. loss, grief, suicide, crime), were these difficult to write about? And did you find it difficult balancing these within the book?
I find the melancholia really easy to access, very natural to write. There’s no reason for it. No childhood trauma, no PTSD. We all are the way we are, I guess, whatever that is. The story of Dorothy, which is really a small, sad, standalone tale detached from the main narrative, comes from me imagining what I’d do differently with my life if I was suddenly tossed back to university, and thinking through logically how bad that has the potential to be.
It’s interesting though that in the main narrative, there’s not a huge amount of grief, or sense of loss. We don’t really care about the victims, as we don’t particularly get to know them. That’s fairly common in my books. I like the detachment from real life, which is why the narrative is infused with the fantastical.
5. The book has two main settings, Scotland and Estonia, why did you choose to write with two setting and why these specifically?
Well, I’ve explained Estonia. It just felt like home. And the other place that feels like home is Scotland, of course. Since 1992, I’ve only lived there for two years, but the sense of place never leaves you. Those two years were spent living in Dingwall, and I have a lot of family up in that area, so I know it well. Not being a big reader of my fellows’ crime novels, I’ve no idea if there are any other detective series set in Ross-shire. I decided not to be bother checking. Just in case. The Highlands in general are such an extraordinary area to use in literature, and being based in Dingwall, does give scope to use such a huge swathe of the country. Again, no research, so I’ve no idea what area of the Highlands detectives out of Dingwall would cover. Maybe there aren’t even detectives in Dingwall…
6. This book is written in first person, was this a conscious decision?
It’s limiting, of course, in the sense of reporting the narrative of the story. You only ever know what the main detective knows. You can’t have things happening over there, somewhere else, where the detective isn’t. (Unless you cheat, and have third-person chapters, which in fact I do with DS Hutton, but decided not to do with Westphall.)
I do find first person very easy to write, however. Hutton, actually, is much easier than Westphall, because he’s so unfiltered. So, that was partly it, but it was also the issue I referred to previously. Setting the book somewhere with which I was so unfamiliar, if it had been written in the third person, I really would’ve had to get to know my town and the country a lot better. But I enjoyed the first person, stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect, so I didn’t feel like I was cheating in not researching. The narrative felt very natural.
7. I found DI Westphall really interesting, refreshing to have a character who isn’t perfect (eg fear of flying), did you find it important that he had flaws?
The flaws are the interesting bits. I also don’t see fear of flying as a flaw, by the way. It’s common sense! That was the downside of living in Estonia, the three-hour flight, which always seemed to last so much longer, back to the UK. I’d’ve driven every time if it had been practical.
The early Bond novels were a big influence on my writing. I remember always being more interested in Bond, his character and his flaws, than in whatever international espionage story he ended up involved in. I could’ve read three hundred pages of Bond being bored in London. And the man in those novels was so much more flawed that Connery or Moore ever were. I guess, now with Daniel Craig, they make him a little more human. But I remember a scene where Bond’s in the Caribbean, flying through a storm in a passenger plane, and he’s terrified, and I thought, that’s more like it.
8. Was ‘Song of the Dead’ always going to be part of a series?
That was always going to be publisher driven. Could I find one in the first place, and what would they like to do with it? I publish a lot of books myself through Amazon, but I wrote this one with intent of finding someone else to do it. It was initially picked up by Freight Books, and when they folded just before they were due to publish the second in the series, it was taken on by Mulholland/Hodder. They wanted three off the bat, but sadly it doesn’t look like they want any more. Unless something happens (in terms of sales or TV rights, neither of which seems likely at the moment), Westphall is probably done.
9. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Get on with it. It’s very easy to get bogged down in detail, to find reasons why you end up not writing much, or to give in to not feeling it on any particular day. I always think you should try to write through the bad days, hope that something comes out of it. You can always rewrite, and if ultimately you have to bin something because it’s bad, then it’s no different from not writing it in the first place. Better to get something down. The story will always grow and develop in the writing.
When you’re done, always, always, always print the book off and read it out loud. And try to do it in a day or two. It doesn’t just help with dialogue, but it really helps spot repetition, general typos, and even plot holes.
Then repeat at least once more, if not a couple of times. It gets boring, but it really helps the final polish.
10. Would you like to share anything else about ‘Song of the Dead’?
I like it. That isn’t always the case. I’m not, for example, particularly fond of the second Westphall book, BOY IN THE WELL. It was unusually a struggle to write, and I never really lost the sense of it not working. If I ever see a good review for it, I think, wow, dodged a bullet there. On the other hand, the third book, THE ART OF DYING, is my favourite of my own crime novels. Think it works really well.
I took the title of Book 2 from the REM song, and for Book 3 from the George Harrison song. Neither book is in any way related to the songs. I have no idea where the title for Book 1 came from. Must just’ve appeared in my head one day.
I loved reading this so I hope you have too! Thanks again to Douglas for taking the time to answer them! I would highly recommend reading this book for yourself but if you want to see my thoughts on this book I have written a previous blog post on it (check it out here!)
Many thanks, Caitlin x
(PS please feel free to like, comment and share x)