Claire MacLeary Interview: “English was my first love throughout my schooling”

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Author of the thrilling Cross Purpose Claire MacLeary provides me with a fascinating overview of her work and how she creates thrilling plots and memorable characters.

What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?

English was my first love throughout my schooling, I read English at university, and I’ve always written, be it advertising copy, training manuals or short stories.

I first worked in newspaper and television advertising, then in HR. After the birth of my first child I became an antiques dealer, a baby under one arm, then started my first business. Raising a family and a business career diverted my attention. It was only when my children were at senior school that I returned to writing, first attending P/T classes then pursuing a MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee.

Please tell me about Cross Purpose.

Cross Purpose is a present-day crime duo: its protagonists, Maggie and Wilma, non-professional women thrown together by circumstance. They’re an unlikely pair: Maggie petite, conservative, lacking in confidence; Wilma big, bold, brash and a bit dodgy.

Maggie, a stay-at-home mum of two teenagers, is devastated when ex-policeman husband, George, is found dead in his struggling detective agency. Divorced Wilma, recently moved in next door, rides to the rescue, persuading Maggie to take on George’s business as a conduit both to paying the bills and restoring his good name.

When a crudely mutilated body is discovered in St Machar kirk-yard, the two women are drawn into an unknown world of Aberdeen’s sink estates, clandestine childminding and drug dealing.

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What drew you towards crime fiction?

I had developed a literary novel from my MLitt dissertation and been urged by my professor, acclaimed New Zealand novelist, Kirsty Gunn, to send it to a publisher. The feedback was that the writing was accomplished, but the domestic subject matter wouldn’t sell. So I researched the market, found that crime was popular, and set out to develop a crime series.

What defines your writing style?

My writing style is spare, pared down. I try to make every word count, and leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.

It’s strong. Cross Purpose, is generally described as ‘dark’ both in its subject matter and language.

It’s funny. I feel it’s important to leaven the darkness with humour. Wilma, one of my two main protagonists, is larger than life, and has attracted a fan following.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I use alliteration to help the flow, though I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm. It can create tongue twisters when I’m reading passages aloud at book launches and festivals. That’s why it’s so important not just to revise, but also to read your work aloud pre-publication.

I employ very short sentences to add drama, particularly at the beginning or end of a scene. Again, these have to be offset by longer, more involved, sentences, as overuse is hard on the reader.

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What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

My reading preferences have evolved over time and been subject to many influences: Dickens and Dostoevsky in my teens, Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver in my twenties through to Edith Pearlman and Carol Shields in the present day.

Writers I aspire to include: Chekov, Katherine Mansfield and Lorrie Moore for their short stories, William Boyd for his breadth of vocabulary and empathy, Alice Munro for close observation, Jayne Anne Phillips for dense, lyrical prose.

I didn’t read crime until I decided to write a crime series. Nowadays I tend to read crime at bedtime and a short story in the morning to inspire me before I start writing.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

It’s hard to pin down just one individual from the giants of literature, or one woman from the many, dating from Jane Austen onwards. But I’ll opt for William Boyd who, for me, personifies all that is admirable in a writer: acute observation of the human condition, elegance of style, wry humour, and compassion in spades.

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

2017 has been a roller-coaster: first novel launched, first book signing, first festival appearance. Cross Purpose was short-listed for Harrogate New Blood and long-listed – amidst the giants of Tartan Noir – for Bloody Scotland’s McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.

I’m looking forward to Glasgow’s book festival Aye Write the following week and Newcastle Noir in May. Somewhere in there I’ll have to factor Book 3 in the series. I’ve also been accepted for a Scottish Book Trust mentoring programme for another project entirely. Watch this space!

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the New Year?

My wonderful publisher, Sara Hunt, has a discriminating list of new titles scheduled for 2018 under the Saraband banner and its dedicated crime imprint, Contraband. This year’s favourite reads have included Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project and Louise Hutcheson’s The Paper Cell. Names to look out for in 2018 are Ever Dundas and Olga Wojtas.

Anything you’d like to add?

To those of your readers who aspire to write, or are already working on a project, I’d say keep chipping away. When I first produced a short story for a creative writing class, I’d never have believed I could sustain 100,000 words of a novel, far less see it in print. So join a writing group or class, start to think like a writer and persevere.

Thanks to Claire for taking the time, it’s been great to hear from you. You can read more about her work HERE.

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