Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, 2014. Robert Galbraith interview.
I am not a Harry Potter fan, so the writing of J.K.Rowling has been largely off my radar until the abrupt but hilarious meeting of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott in The Cuckoo’s Calling. That said, they soon get down to some serious sleuthing which continues in the follow up book The Silkworm. So for me, the need to see the interview between J.K. Rowling’s other persona, Robert Galbraith, and Val McDermid came more from a sense of curiosity to see how J. K. Rowling came over in public.
Robert Galbraith appeared in a smart grey trouser suit and salmon pink tie. The mutual respect that both writers hold for each other was evident, as was the genuine delight that Robert had in being interviewed by such a renowned crime writer as Val McDermid.
Val had read ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ which impressed her to the point of asking if Robert could appear on the ‘New Blood’ panel at the Crime Festival last year. Val was promptly informed this would not be possible because he would be out of the country for the summer. Only when the news that Robert Galbraith was about to be exposed for who he really was, did Val become aware of his true identity.
Entering the crime writing genre was a natural progression for Robert who had read the classic whodunits of writers like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Lord Peter came in for some criticism, poor gent, at which point I had to restrain myself from leaping up to defend his shellshock, the issue of still waters running deep and the rather beastly behaviour of one Harriet Vane towards the smitten gent.
However both modern day crime authors did redeem themselves, Val McDermid, by extolling the virtues of Dorothy L. Sayers’ powers of description and Robert Galbraith by saying that, despite needing to go to sleep, how impossible it had been to put down Tiger in the Smoke. It is because of this extensive reading of classic crime fiction, Robert chose a private eye as one of his main protagonists because this meant it was possible to write a whodunit. As Cormoran was a private eye he could get into places the police could not and having Robin as a side kick pushed that concept further.
Robin would appear to have considerable support from readers, as the audience made their approval known of Cormoran’s sleuthing companion. Robert said that Robin is one of the best characters he has ever written because she is a good woman and a smart woman.
Val commented on the wonderful quality of imagination that Robert had brought to the books (including Harry Potter in Robert’s other guise) and that Robert was like a magpie picking up all sorts of details and drawing them deftly together. Robert pointed out that detail in crime novels is important and had identified that in Agatha Christie’s novels the innocent have long elegant fingers, whereas the guilty do not. This made Val laugh as she commented on the size of her own digits.
Humour in crime was discussed and Agatha Christie mentioned because of the acerbic descriptions of the old ladies at the beginning of Murder at the Vicarage. But the more serious side of Cormoran’s character was also talked about because, as Robert pointed out, although Coromoran tries to keep going with his prosthetic limb, sometimes things get on top of him. For example, his disability can become a real problem if a lift is not working and other little daily things we may not think about can be made very awkward for someone with a prosthesis.
Robert recognises problems with disabilities both from family experience and also because of time taken to talk with people who have similar issues to Cormoran and have been in the services. The respect for these people who put time aside to be interviewed was clear, as was the need for preserving their privacy.
Robert also highlighted the importance of being able to access expert knowledge in forensics and, like all good crime authors striving for authenticity, is quite happy to listen at length to details of body decomposition.
However not all research is serious. The husband of J.K. Rowling has been roped in to order and consume a very large traditional breakfast in a tiny café in London that was no more than a shed (by the description I suspect on of the old green cabbie huts). This type of research is important, because Harry Potter contained imaginary places that could be easily concocted; but Cormoran’s world is real and cannot. It is therefore important to touch bricks and get to know a place.
Writing is a strange business, particularly if you start probing into the way authors produce their novels. The idea for the The Silkworm came first, but the plot was so complex that Robert felt another book was needed to introduce Cormoran and Robin, hence The Cuckoo’s Calling came first. The Silkworm began at Chapter 48 and then the novel worked out from there. Val said she now plots in her head and as she goes along, a concept which was meet with horror by Robert. The spreadsheets of J.K. Rowling are now legendary and apparently the next book’s plot is ‘insane’; the spreadsheet a patchwork of different colours.
It was reassuring to hear two successful authors talk about days where the writing does not flow, as well as their moments of unjustified self-doubt. This sort of admission does help when an unpublished writer is having a bad day.
I think unless you write, it is difficult to understand why someone as successful as J.K. Rowling continues to write. But the evidence that she is a writer comes in the form actively seeking another challenge by writing a script for Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts. However, she does draw the line at writing another ‘book within a book’ for Owen Quine’s ‘poison-pen’ novel ‘Bombyx Mori’ in The Silkworm, as she did with The Tales of Beedle the Bard in the Harry Potter series.
Robert is right in that the characters of a crime novel are key to a good story. I do like well-formed characters, who interact with each other and have the capacity to develop as a series goes along. Cormoran and Robin seem to be doing very well so far in their work and their‘will they won’t they’ relationship. So I do feel the Cormoran Strike series has, as they say in the business, ‘legs’.
But there is another detail that I also think is important for me, if I am going to continue to read a writer’s work. Their attitude towards their readers. There is nothing that puts me off more than a book signing where the author will not engage with their readers; by keeping their head down and avoiding eye contact. Robert Galbraith had a great many books to sign that night but, as far as I could see, was taking time to acknowledge every reader approaching the table.