Q & A: Graeme Macrae Burnet

Posted on 25th October 2016 by Sally Campbell
It’s not our place as booksellers to be partisan over awards: being independently-minded – at least until the award has had its moment – is part of the job.

The presence of Graeme Macrae Burnet on the Man Booker shortlist, however, has forced us to test this position. As one of our own – that is, an ex-Waterstones bookseller – Burnet has not just joined that grand alumnus of booksellers into print, but now finds himself on the very precipice of potentially bagging the biggest and most prestigious prize in literary fiction. By this evening, we will know and we can’t help but feel a certain sense of pride and anxiety.

Last week, Waterstones Online’s Martha Greengrass caught up with Burnet to discuss the construction of His Bloody Project, the novel under such scrutiny, and the place where research stops and narrative begins.

Photo: Graeme Macrae Burnet (c) Jen Cunnion

Much has been made in reviews of the way you’ve constructed this novel, the different so-called ‘found’ documents that make it up. In fact everything, from its presentation to the narrative strands within it, blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, author and narrator. 

Also, much of the story is told in the first person; this is shifting ground isn’t it? The first person narrative sucks you in, makes you feel as though you are hearing privileged truth, but there’s a fair bit of deceit and obfuscation here as well, isn’t there?

That’s certainly the whole point of the structure of a novel like His Bloody Project where you get different viewpoints; you, the reader, have to engage with the different accounts and decide for yourself how truthful Roddy is being. What are his true motivations? Is he insane? Do we believe the other characters’ viewpoints?

The idea is to make the reader play detective for themselves. There’s no detective in the novel to solve the crime and come up with an objective truth at the end and, in a way, that’s what makes it really interesting for me. I love hearing people come up with their own interpretations, their own views on whether Roddy was insane or not and often readers ask me. “Well, is he or isn’t he?” and my view is very much that your interpretation is just as valid as mine.

It’s an element that’s also present in your first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedaeu. One reviewer said of that novel, ‘You never know who to trust’, and I think this increasingly becomes the case with His Bloody Project too.  Is there fun to be had, as an author, by playing around with truth and lies for your readers?

Yes. In His Bloody Project I go to quite a lot of trouble to present the documents as though they were real and yet, I want it to be understood as a work of fiction; I’ve always enjoyed that kind of construction. As soon as you start to write in a kind of literary, journalistic style, which is how I’d describe the preface to His Bloody Project or the afterward to The Disappearance of Adèle Bedaeu, then you’re writing in a form that is associated with non-fiction  - and yet it is very definitely fiction. People, readers, react very differently to that.

I mean, I’m not trying to fool anybody but I suppose I am trying to play with ideas of why we like to immerse ourselves in fictional worlds. We know that a novel is a piece of fiction but we want to feel that it’s real, that it’s authentic in some way. Primarily in His Bloody Project I want the reader to be inside the head of Roddy, to be rooting for him as if he’s a real person.

Certainly, as a reader, I found myself reassessing and doubting what I had read, the further I got into the novel.

That’s where you get complexity in a novel I think, when you’ve read something and then, later on, you reassess what you’ve read. So in His Bloody Project, everything is not as it seems and we’re left questioning the truth of what Roddy has said.

It’s also the process I went through writing the novel. It’s basically chronological; once Roddy starts, he essentially tells his life story, or the events leading up to the murders anyway, and in a way, I was engaged in the same process writing the novel. I wrote it chronologically so, as I wrote it, I found myself reassessing certain things that Roddy has written. For example, some readers commented on when Roddy kills the sheep up on the peat bog and drawing a parallel between that act and the way he murders the people in the house. That parallel became clear to me as I wrote it, I didn’t plant that incident in the novel so it would be a parallel.

So the process is quite organic then?

Exactly that, organic is the word that I use, so rather than planning everything out, I like ideas to arrive, that’s a more interesting process for me.

I think it’s part of what makes the novel so effortless to read, the sense of doubt creeps up on you, there’s no sense that ideas are being delivered to you in an obvious way, as a reader you feel you’ve uncovered them for yourself.

The novel is set in a small crofting community in Wester Ross in the late 1860’s, what drew you to write about this time and place?

Well, the choice of place is very much because my mother’s side of the family come from Wester Ross in a neighbouring village and Donald Macrae (this is the only true thing in the novel) was my grandfather and he did come from Applecross. As a child I went up there three times a year and as an adult I continued to go up there very regularly, so I know the landscapes up there very well. I had in my mind, when I had the ideas for the murders, a small village with just one street and a row of houses. Culduie just fitted the bill geographically and it was natural for me to set the novel in a place that I knew.

As for the time, well the novel doesn’t deal with the Clearances, which took place in the early 18th Century; a time when a lot of crofting communities were cleared off the land to make way for sheep farming and gaming estates because they were deemed to be a more profitable use of the land. I knew I didn’t want to write about that time directly, or the period later in the 1880’s when the Napier Commission was established, so I wanted it to be before that but after the time of the Clearances.

By 1840, although the Clearances hadn’t completely ended, the worst of them had and rather bizarrely one book I read described the period of the 1860’s as a time of relative affluence for the crofting community. The date finally got nailed down because James Bruce Thompson (who was a real historical figure) died in 1871 so it had to be before he died for historical accuracy.

Although it takes place after the Clearances, the ripples of its effects on the community, the communal trauma, are definitely present in this novel though, aren’t they?

Yes, the conditions that people lived in at that time were absolutely dreadful and the regulations - the enforcement of the regulations (whether written down or not) – were commonplace. The conditions that I present in the novel, these were real, as were the punitive regulations which, in His Bloody Project, Lachlan Mackenzie takes it upon himself to enforce. Most of the incidents in fact are based on real conditions that crofters lived under.

And you worked as a researcher before you became a novelist, was that useful?

I had done some ad-hoc research for previous novels, novels that never came to fruition and I’d used archives and I’d also researched for television and for documentaries, so I had a pretty decent skillset as a researcher and I liked doing research. I liked having an excuse to read more about the period and the place. Although I’d spent a lot of time going up the Highlands, I was actually pretty ignorant about the history so that was actually, in itself, quite rewarding.

With such a rigorously researched novel, how do you know when to step back from the facts to find the fiction?

It’s a very good question and other people I know who have written historical novels have said just that, that you do the research and then you step away from it. Initially, after researching Roddy’s narrative when I started to write his account, I was finding that I thought I didn’t know enough about something and I’d find myself continually going back to check. However, the deeper into the narrative you get, the more fictionalised it becomes and although I wouldn’t say I played fast and loose with historical accuracy, it becomes less of a yolk that you feel tied to and you become more willing to just make it up.

What’s most important is that it feels authentic to the reader, rather than that every single detail is real. For example, I know that the school that Roddy goes to wasn’t built until 1872 but the number of readers that would know that are about half a dozen probably, so you have to balance absolute historical accuracy with creating what is, after all, a work of fiction.

Ideas of guilt and innocence are hugely important to this novel, I think, in that it shares some common ground with Crime and Punishment; I’m particularly thinking of the common focus on the psychology of criminal intent and notions of predetermination. Many of your characters are bound up with ideas of fatalism, either driven by religion, superstition or tradition, Roddy himself says ‘I had no choice’ – how important was the idea of characters feeling themselves not agents in their own lives and actions to writing this novel?

It’s absolutely crucial, I love that you’ve mentioned Crime and Punishment because it’s one of my favourite books and I re-read it as part of my research. There’s a line in my translation which has always enthralled me, it’s a moment where Raskolnikov leaves his house and the text says ‘as though unable to make up his mind walked slowly in the direction of the bridge’ and it’s that phrase ‘as though unable to make up his mind’ that just totally struck me, he could have gone the other way.

Crime and Punishment is an essential part of my literary baggage as well as the idea of fatalism in Presbyterianism and the Church of Scotland - the Calvinistic ideologies which still have a grip on the Highlands today. What we’re calling fatalism, they call providence and so the idea of providence, the idea that you cannot actually act with any degree of free will, that everything is predetermined, looms large in the book. When Roddy goes to commit his murders, he explains it to himself as going to the MacKenzie household “to see what will transpire” he uses that idea that he’s not acting with any free will.

This seems to tie in with the ways in which the characters appear to be, in some ways, constructing narratives for themselves, they are almost not surprised by events that happen to them as they fit the pattern they’ve already decided is there, in a way.

That’s pretty spot on, definitely, these ideas run through French existential fiction; the question of to what extent is it possible and desirable to act with free will? My taste in fiction is pretty deeply embedded in that period of European writing. Georges Simenon, who I’m a big fan of, explores these ideas of free will, they are deeply embedded in his writing and his characters aren’t able to extricate themselves from a cycle that appears to come from a small event. Another word I would use would be inevitability. I want the events in the novel to feel inevitable, even if, as a reader, you wish for them to be otherwise.

And power is important here too, isn’t it? That Kafa-esque performance of power exacted beyond justice, led by indecipherable legislation.

I agree with your analysis of power coming from a faceless force and that inability to ever reach the seat of power, as in The Castle or The Trial (one of my favourite books). Here, Lachlan Mackenzie is enforcing these regulations but do they even exist? They only exist because we accept they exist and these are very Kafkaesque ideas.

I found myself becoming as interested in the surrounding characters as in Roddy himself and obviously with a variety of narrative voices here, some characters are given a chance to speak and other’s stories are left more in the dark – how did you decide which of those characters to give voice to? Was it difficult to leave certain strands untouched?

I kind of hint that there may be other stories, we don’t really know what’s going on with Jetta for example, between her and Lachlan Mackenzie or between her and her father.  I’m intrigued by her and what is going on in her head but from a purely technical point of view, when you’re writing in the first person you have to be completely enslaved to that character’s point of view. So at certain points there’s a suggestion that there might be something else going on there that we don’t know about. I’m pleased when readers have commented on being interested in Jetta’s character because it means that even a very secondary character has enough about them to make the reader think and wonder about them.

What comes next?

Well, thankfully just before the Booker Prize Longlist was announced, I got to the end of a first draft of a sequel to my first novel. I haven’t done any writing since then, as it’s all been so wild and busy and brilliant. When you do come back to writing after a period away you can go back with a big red pen. The further away from it you are, the less you’re wedded to the ideas and the easier it is to be brutal.



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