07 July 2015

The Intel: S.G. MacLean

S.G. MacLean Photo: Jerry Bauer

And we’re back. Because we can’t keep away. Not really. Because we love hearing what crime authors have to say. Especially when they’re award winners!

S.G. MacLean has just won the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger for the first in her series about a man who makes Ross Poldark and his scythe look like Charles Hawtrey, the manly and ruthless Damian Seeker.

The Seeker, published by Quercus, is set in Oliver Cromwell’s London of 1654. Cromwell is at the height of his power and has declared himself Lord Protector. Yet he has many enemies, at home and abroad.

The city is a complex web of spies and merchants, priests and soldiers, exiles and assassins. One of the web’s most fearsome spiders is Damian Seeker, agent of the Lord Protector. No one knows where Seeker comes from, who his family is, or even his real name. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell. We’re absolutely chuffed here at CTF that Shona MacLean is here to give us the lowdown on how she met Seeker himself, about why the English Civil War is such fertile territory for novelists, and how sometimes—if you want to be a writer—you just have to go nuclear with your word count.

Who is The Seeker?

The Seeker is Damian Seeker, an officer in the intelligence services of the Cromwellian Protectorate. He is an agent-handler and enforcer in the vast spy network headed by Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. Seeker is a Yorkshireman, taciturn, unflinching, much feared and utterly loyal to Cromwell. However, in the tradition of all good detective stories, he has a seldom-glimpsed softer side and a few secrets of his own.

Where did the inspiration for Damien Seeker come from?

Ah. Well, the story, the mystery, centred on the inhabitants of the Palace of Whitehall and and the patrons of a City coffee house. I was so taken up with the setting and the story, I hadn’t really considered the question of the detective character until I was explaining the idea to my editor over the phone. It was when she said, ‘of course you’ll need to think carefully about your detective character’ that I first realised I didn’t have one. Cue a long rant to my husband, followed by hauling the Labrador out to the woods in an effort to work out what on earth I was going to do about this.

It was a typically dreich Highland December day, and I can still remember the place on the path where, in my mind’s eye – I was perfectly aware I wasn’t actually seeing this – a large man dressed in black leather boots and a long black cloak stepped out from the whin bushes and presented himself to me. He was like a cross between Darth Vader and Brix, Sarah Lund’s boss from ‘The Killing,’ and I knew his name was Damian Seeker. Believe it or believe it not, that is where Damian Seeker came from. I think it was probably that location and situation that contributed to his background and his character, but he really did step in to my mind’s eye at that moment more or less fully formed.

Why is the English Civil War such a rich period of history to mine for a novelist?

Humanity. Be it good or bad, no-one could deny their own humanity in the English Civil War. People from all walks of life suffered, lost everything. But people with very little also rose to the top, in a manner that must have utterly astonished their contemporaries. And it is a time when the people of England really found their voice – religious radicals, lawyers, newsmen – there was a mania of opinion and a mania for rumour and news. There were instances of extreme bravery and complete barbarity in the course of the wars, and of course, the establishment of an endless game of espionage and counter-espionage between Royalists and Republicans. It is, for an historical novelist, an embarrassment of riches.

The SeekerHas Oliver Cromwell got a rough deal from history or was he really such a formidable character?

Mmm. I don’t think he has had a rough deal – he still ranks pretty highly in ‘Greatest ever Englishman’ polls. As a Scot of partly Irish descent, I am pre-disposed to see him in a quite different light. Quite aside from his Irish atrocities and his attitudes to the place of the Scots and the Irish in his vision of a united commonwealth, he seems to have verged on megalomania as time went on, and as more reasoned voices were dismissed or fell silent and his power increased. However, I think he was undeniably a military genius and must have had a tremendous force of personality. Despite my personal antipathy, I found that when I wrote Cromwell, whenever he strode on to the pages of The Seeker, I was writing him sympathetically, as someone I liked. I think this may be because I had decided Damian Seeker would be unwaveringly loyal to him, and so any criticism of Cromwell in the books comes from other, subsidiary characters.

Congratulations on winning the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger – do you feel extra pressure on writing Seeker’s next adventure now?

Thank you. And Oh, Yes, I do. However, I was feeling the pressure before that. If I am happy with one book, I instantly worry that the next will not be as good and that people will be disappointed. If someone has something nice to say about my writing, I get a flutter of pleasure and then wonder if I should warn them not to read anything else I have written. Apparently this is not particularly good PR, so I am trying to reign in the impulse.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Sometimes you just have to press the delete button and start again. You have to decimate your carefully nurtured and much-cherished word-count and be honest with yourself if a character, a scene, a chapter just isn’t working.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Oh, crime first? My favourite series are Craig Russell’s Hamburg-set police procedurals featuring the elegant and intellectual Jan Fabel. I love the portrayal of the city, I love Fabel’s elegant, tasteful apartment, clothes, lifestyle (grisly serial killings aside). I love the cleverness and the depth of research. The series has all the qualities of Wallander and I would love to see it televised in this country.

I also love Anne Cleeve’s Vera books. Vera is a magnificent creation, and my 15-year old daughter’s heroine. A beacon for feisty women. The mysteries are utterly intriguing and all the characters so well drawn.

Not specifically crime? Alan Warner, Andrew Greig, James Robertson, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith, James Kelman: they show me my country in its past and present in ways that buzz with authenticity, life, and the potential of human beings.

Give me some advice about writing…

Inspiration when it comes, and it does come, is fantastic – gives you a buzz, sets you alight with the desire to tell a story. But the rest is a job of work, and you have to treat it like a job of work, be exacting with yourself and don’t take sloppy short-cuts. You won’t like yourself if you know your book isn’t as good as you could have made it.

What’s next for you?

Almost finished the First draft of the second Seeker book – working title: Gethsemane. But really next is the holiday packing – ugh!

The Seeker is published in hardback by Quercus Books.