A Conversation with Denise Mina and Kate Atkinson

As Denise Mina hits the US for her THE END OF THE WASP SEASON, she was interviewed by Kate Atkinson (CASE HISTORIES and STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG) on genre, character and the best place to write.

Kate Atkinson:  Do you have a lot of books planned ahead?  Does it worry you that you’ll die before you write them all.  (My own paranoia is on display here, obviously.)

Denise Mina:  My books tend to unfold as I write them and start with a very nebulous idea. I know some writers have notepads full of ideas they’re waiting to get around to. I used to keep a note pad and found it recently and it was full of dreamlike nonsense. One memorable entry– ‘King and Queen of Moon’ – what the hell is that?

For me the best books to write, if not to read, are small ideas that snowball out of nothing much at all.

I still have two Paddy Meehan books to write but I’m glad they’re not done now. If I’d written them before the Murdoch scandal I’d have missed out so much juicy stuff.

I’ve never had much of a horror of death. I’m so busy now that whenever I think about dying I comfort myself with the knowledge that at least I’ll get to sit down for half an hour.

Kate Atkinson:  Your characters are very well-rounded, not ciphers as in some novels (crime and otherwise).  Do you become attached to them or are you aware you’re using them as fictional devices? 

Denise Mina:  I get very attached to them. When Facebook first started and I was looking up/stalking old friends, I actually typed in half of Maureen O’Donnell’s name before I remembered that she wasn’t real. I usually base my heroes on admirable aspects of people I know, so maybe that makes them seem more real to me. They never feel like ciphers to me, especially not by the time I’ve finished a book. Then they usually feel like someone I like but I’ve been spending far too much time wit

Kate Atkinson:  You haven’t always been a writer and could, I suspect, have succeeded in many different fields.  If you could have completely free rein what path would you have chosen?

Denise Mina:  Nah, I was unsuccessful at everything else. I’m not being modest, I really was because I have a bit of a problem with authority and was prone to getting sacked for being mouthy. Maybe it served me well: I have a friend who wants to write but she has the misfortune of being good at all her until-I’m-a-writer jobs, so she keeps getting promoted.

With completely free rein and writing not being an option: I would have a talent for art and become a sculptor. But then I’d probably need a talent for self-promotion as well.

Kate Atkinson:  Do you wish you could write more?  Or less? 

Denise Mina:  Much, much more and all different stuff. At the moment I write for magazines and newspapers, I write plays and poems and comics and novels and short stories. I find all these different outlets invigorating and inspirational. For me there’s no greater inspiration than an impending deadline.

The hardest thing about writing for me is the first draft, making the clay. Shaping it is the re-writes and that’s just fun, but forgiving myself the roughness of a first draft is very hard, and a deadline makes me do it.

Kate Atkinson:  Does the question of genre get boring?  Yes, this in itself is a boring question!

Denise Mina:  I know what you mean. I think of ‘genre’ as a marketing tool, a way of giving the reader a clue as to what they’re buying; it shouldn’t be taken too seriously because crime fiction especially is a very broad church. Crime, deviant identities, social divisions: those are what I’m interested in anyway. Even if I was marketed as a straight literary writer I’d still be writing the same books.

Because crime is seen as less serious, though, it does mean that you can tackle really complex ideas within a strong narrative arc, which makes it work on two levels for different types of readers. I love that!

Kate Atkinson:  Where would your ideal place to write be?

Denise Mina:  Since I had kids I can write anywhere anytime. Ideally, either on a long haul flight or in a hotel room up in the early morning with jet lag. Also departure lounges. Headphones on, coffee nearby, departures board above my head and a laptop open on the table. Bliss.

Kate Atkinson:  Which do you prefer – beginnings or endings?

Denise Mina:  Always beginnings: the joy of that first chapter, the inciting incident from which all the subsequent action flows. It’s like building a bomb out of words.

Endings: it’s very hard to find an upbeat ending in a crime story and yet for me the best crime novels have a sudden twist of tone at the end, that unexpected aftertaste that always reminds me of the final chocolate with the coffee after a long, delicious meal. Hard to do. I prefer blowing things up.

Denise Mina is the author of Still Midnight, Slip of the Knife, The Dead Hour, Field of Blood, Deception, and the Garnethill trilogy, the first installment of which won her the John Creasey Memorial Prize for best first crime novel. She lives in Glasgow. Follow her book tour on Facebook.

Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was named Whitbread Book of the Year in the U.K. in 1995, and was followed by Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News?. Become a fan.