I always loved writing stories and poems in school ( it never felt like work), and I used to dabble a bit when I was younger. I’d enter short story competitions and get nowhere. I didn’t start writing seriously and consistently until about 1997. I have been writing full-time ever since.
Where do your ideas come from?
My ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, although usually (not always) most of them develop from my own life and what goes on round about me. Maybe the way someone looks or a name will start me thinking about a character, or I'll go somewhere and hear a story about a place and the tiny nugget of an idea will start to grow. This is how I had the idea for The Drowning Pond. I visited Mugdock Country Park outside Glasgow with a school group and discovered it had a real witches’ drowning pool in it. Just standing beside it was enough to start me thinking about setting a story there. When my sons were younger, they used to inspire stories without realising it. They might do something daft, or tell me about something that happened and would I take their ‘truth’ and turn it into fiction. My thriller Sugarcoated, is inspired by a horrific attack that actually happened in my local shopping centre, and my novel Tug of War is a futuristic twist on something that happened to my mum during World War Two when she was evacuated.
Very often, ideas about a book I am working on come into my head while I’m doing something away from my desk that I don’t need to think about too much: driving to the supermarket, or ironing or cleaning.
How long does it take you to write a book or play?
Every book I have written has taken a different length of time to complete. The very first book I wrote ( The Finding) took over a year, as did Fat Boy Swim, SKARRS, The Drowning Pond and Tug of War. Some of these novels involved research, which I count as part of the writing process.
Some of my books take less time to write. Exit Oz (based on a true story I completely nicked from my sons and the escape of their snake) took me about a month to write. The novel I wrote with Kevin Brooks, I See You Baby…, took three months, as did, Firestarter and L-L-L LOSER!! My record for a writing a book is two days; Dead Men Don’t Talk. Not surprisingly it is also my shortest novel. When it comes to writing plays, the idea for one will come to me the exactly the same way as a book ( ie - from anywhere, out walking, eavesdropping...). I still write notes to myself about it, building up layers and layers of backstory before I sit down and type 'Scene 1.' However, the big difference between the two genres of writing is that plays are shorter, so they take less time to write, and I think while I am writing I have to think more quickly in the moment. You can't really afford to be self-indulgent in a play and go off at a tangent the way you can with a novel to a certain extent.
I talk out loud to myself regardless of what I'm writing, as that is the only way to make sure dialogue sounds authentic.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Firstly you have to read and read and read. The more you read as a writer, the more you recognise what is good and not so good in other writers and I think this helps you develop.
Secondly, it’s important to get into the habit of writing regularly, even if it's just a diary. You need to build up writing muscles and develop stamina.
Thirdly, make a note of all your good ideas, especially if they keep niggling at you. If you don't they'll slip away from you.
Where do you write?
Unlike many writers who can write anywhere, I can't. I work in a very cluttered room, on a very, very cluttered table by a window that looks over my garden path. It’s the place I write best, even though it gets freezing cold in the winter and I have to wear fingerless gloves to type and keep my feet in a heated ‘ big slipper’. (Thanks Mum!) In the course of writing a book or play, I accumulate notes and scraps of paper all round my keyboard, but I never throw anything on my desk away until I feel I have a polished first draft. Before I start a new piece of writing, I clear my desk. Within days, all the mess reappears.
Who is your favourite character from all your books?
I'll have to cheat and name several. Jimmy from Fat Boy Swim is the first. He just popped into my head fully formed and I liked him from the start. GI Joe from Fat Boy Swim is another character I have a soft spot for because he is tough and kind and honest. My third favourite character is Grampa Dan from SKARRS. He is based on my dad who died in 2001 just before I started writing SKARRS and before any of my novels were published. The 'voice' of Grampa Dan is my dad's voice and the character is my tribute to him, from the way he talks to the music he loved.
I like aspects of all my main characters, even though none of them are perfect. I think I have to like them a little, or at least be interested enough in them to keep writing about them, and stick with them through the course of what could be a long haul.
Do you base your characters on real people?
Elements of most of my characters are partly based on real people, and quite a few of them have bits of me in them. I'll steal the way someone talks, or looks or behaves, but not a whole person. For example, Aunt Pol in Fat Boy Swim has lots of my sister Pauline in her character, and many of the teenage boys have been inspired by my sons and their friends. In The Drowning Pond, all the girls are based on schoolmates and girls I knew and was wary of in school. Nicky, the main character is very like how I felt as a teenager. I never, ever put anyone I know well and dislike in my novels, but people who I'm fond of will often become cameos in my stories, for example Mrs Hughes in Fat Boy Swim is a real Mrs Hughes, and in Tug of War, Guy Lyons is my sister's husband…the incomparable Guy Lyons!
Who is your favourite author?
I have to cheat here and list a few. David Almond’s spare, spiritual writing leaves me in awe, and Skellig is one of my favourite reads of all time. My other favourite writers include Jamie O'Neill ('At Swim, Two Boys' my Top Read), John McGahern, Brian Moore, Pat Barker, Bernard MacLaverty, Rohinton Mistry, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Joseph O'Connor, James Joyce and Charles Dickens, Colm Toibin, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Mal Peet…. I could go on forever.
What was your most favourite book when you were young?
Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey. I loved this book so much and read it so often that my original copy fell to pieces. It’s about the arduous journey a half-dog, half-wolf makes across the Alaskan Tundra to be reunited by a boy called Andy, the only person who showed him love. I don’t like animal stories and I’m terrified of dogs yet I LOVED this book.
What is your favourite book of all the ones you have written?
It’s SKARRS. Not because I think I’ve written a brilliant book but because it’s a really honest book. I wrote it because I was worried (about my son and what was going on in his head) and sad ( because my dad had just died) and I wrote from the heart and learned a lot about myself while I was writing. I also turned myself into a teenage boy for the first time. That was interesting. I have written in the first person ever since.
Do you have a routine?
I try to start work every morning within about half an hour of getting up. I take a cup of tea to my desk ( it used to be coffee but that's a treat for later) and work till lunchtime in my pyjamas. Over the years I have found that if I start to do things about the house instead of heading straight to my computer or if I go out anywhere, I lose the inclination to work at all, so I have to be disciplined. After a few hours at my desk I have to get some exercise, so either I go for a run or a walk with my music or use my cross trainer. Getting out in the fresh air is essential me. If I am ever stuck on something, or have had a tough morning trying to nail the way a character speaks or behaves, I can guarantee that my problems will unravel once I start putting one foot in front of the other. The outdoors inspires me and recharges me.
Now that my sons have flown the coop, I work longer hours, ( and also sleep a little later in the mornings). My working day used to be based around their timetable, but now I can suit myself so I tend to go back to work after I’ve had a break and work until early evening.
Who is your inspiration?
When I’m asked this question I think people expect me to name writers. There are lots and lots of writers whose work I completely admire, but it is the people I know and care about and their lives and stories that inspire me to write the kind of books and plays I do. Family and friends, in other words; the world I know. I love to explore the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Do you get writer’s block?
Philip Roth, another writer who I love, wrote somewhere: Amateurs look for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and work. That is the best answer to the question.
Because writing is my ‘job’ I can’t afford to have writer's block. I don’t know if many writers do, to be honest. Like any job, some days work is easy and other days I don’t seem to get very much done, or am plagued with self-doubt. I avoid getting ‘stuck’ by making sure that I know roughly how I want my work-in-progress to end before I start writing. That gives me a goal to aim for.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I think so, although I never thought I’d end up writing the kind of books I’m writing now. Nor in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would become a playwright. I wish I had tried my hand at drama years ago, because I've learned on the job.
When I was young I used to write very serious stories and dreadful, pretentious poems full of fancy words and soppy notions. No one would ever have published the rubbish I was writing, thank goodness. Now the only thing I am interested is the story or play I am writing and the people in it. I don't want an audience to be tripped up by the style.
What have you been the recent highlights of your career?
Without a doubt the biggest was being given the opportunity to jump ship from writing fiction to writing drama, thanks to a commission from the National Theatre of Scotland . As soon as I started working on Empty, my first play, I knew I wanted to write another. So I wrote a comedy called The Sunday Lesson which was produced for Play, Pie, Pint at Oran Mor in Glasgow, in June 2010. That was my second highlight, and another would be my second Oran Mor play called Supply which was produced in September 2011.
And then there was the chance to combine all the elements of what I love; writing, music, working with young people. This opportunity came along when I adapted my novel The Drowing Pond for Youth Music Theatre Uk in 2013. To hear a massed choir sing lyrics you have written in ten part harmony is something I will treasure for ever.
Working with young adults on sustained projects is one the privileges of being a writer. I loved mentoring the young writers for Scottish Booktrust, when I was their Virtual Writer in Residence. I am really keen to promote creative writing to young people and demystify the process by talking about what I have learned over the years. The most fun I have ever had going to work is mentoring the young writers who come to my sessions at Toonspeak in Glasgow.