Allan Watson did me the honor of talking about his tantalizing new book, Heart Swarm, in advance of the launch Thursday, October 5, 2017, 7:30 pm UTC+01 at Waterstones in Byer Road, Glasgow, Scotland. Heart Swarm is being published by Caffeine Nights Press, and it’s fantastic!
Julie: Like your previous novels, Heart Swarm is full of disturbing and dark imagery, but it feels like a definite crime novel as opposed to your horror and fantasy books. Was this a deliberate shift of genre?
Allan: My writing has always had, ahem… genre issues. Even when I wrote 1234 which was more of a mainstream fiction novel, with a few murders thrown in for flavouring, it still got tagged in certain circles as horror. The dividing lines between horror and crime have become blurred over the years. Many crime novels I’ve read lately contain far more gruesome and visceral scenes than any pulp horror novel. But, to answer the question; yes, Heart Swarm is very definitely a crime novel. I realized if I wanted to place this book with a publisher I’d have to pitch the story in a different key. It’s still a very dark book and probably not for those who like their crime cosy and comfortable.
Julie: What did you read growing up in Glasgow and where did you get your reading material?
Allan: Growing up I was a staunch follower of Enid Blyton. I even attended Blyton Camp where the unscrupulous librarian camp leaders encouraged us to form secret societies dedicated to solving minor local crime with the help of a canine mascot. We were also taught to cycle aimlessly around the countryside, drink ginger beer until our urine stung like sulphuric acid, play lacrosse and most importantly, to treat the working class with hostility and unbridled suspicion. Only the subsequent discovery I myself came from humble working class stock gave me the courage to break away from this dangerous cult. From there I stumbled upon Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin and so began my passion for Plus Fours, Calculus and Haddock. I also loved The Three Investigators. Jupiter Jones was such a cool role model. It’s his fault I spent a period of my life stuffing my face with chocolate-flavoured lard and casually dropping long words such as onomatopoeia and cliterodectomy into conversations with my friends.
Julie: When did you start writing?
Allan: Seems I’ve always been writing in some shape or form. Lyrics, poems, jokes, hit-lists, ransom demands. Does graffiti count?
Julie: Of course. Your books are full of crime, mystery, humor, sex, gore and lots of surprises. How do you get your ideas?
Allan: I set traps for them at night. Little earthenware bowls filled with jam and honey. Obviously you have to sift the good from the bad. The good ones get stored away for later use. The bad ones I stomp on. They make a funny squishy noise when you do that.
Julie: Your books have a tinge of supernatural, sometimes sci fi even- travel between parallel worlds, beings from other galaxies; do you read any sci fi and how has it influenced you?
Allan: I got hooked on Ray Bradbury as a young teenager. His descriptive prose was a revelation and I loved the way he seamlessly shape-shifted between science fiction, horror and dystopian fantasy. His work gave me a real appetite for sci fi and I soon started working my way through the golden greats such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Later on I fell in love with Iain Banks’ Culture novels and Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series. The fact that science fiction has always enjoyed the allure of limitless possibilities did influence me to push the boundaries of my own work and never feel restricted to only writing about what is solid and tangible. Life is too short for cold, hard reality.
Julie: From what I have gleaned, Glasgow has a reputation for being tough and dangerous. Is that a justified stereotype? How has growing up in Scotland- in Glasgow, particularly- made you the writer you are?
Allan: My job takes me all over the country and I find most cities are basically the same once you put aside the different accents and (sorry, Perth) number of fingers. One thing growing up in Glasgow did give me was a cynical, self-mocking sense of humour. If you take yourself too seriously in Glasgow you’ll get battered.
Julie: Tell us about the setting of the new book – the Cathedral House Hotel and the Glasgow Necropolis. After reading Heart Swarm, I feel that I have been there.
Allan: When I was writing Heart Swarm I was conscious that simply placing my protagonist in Glasgow wasn’t enough. I wanted him to be associated with an aspect of the city that was unique in its location and sense of history. Cathedral House Hotel is perfect for that role being right next door to the medieval Glasgow Cathedral and the famous Necropolis. I loved the idea of having Harlan living across the street from all those mouldering old bones. The hotel itself is one of my favourite watering holes and even has a ghost or two. What’s not to like?
Julie: Your main character, Will Harlan, is such a charming, self-deprecating, tall, gin-drinking kind of guy- is he anything like you?
Allan: I’ve always believed that most writers can’t resist creating a character that epitomises the sort of person they themselves aspire to be, not necessarily who they are. The fact I’m charming, self-deprecating, extremely handsome and drink gin is purely a coincidence. Um, think you forgot to mention the extremely handsome bit.
Julie: And let’s not forget modest. One of my favorite scenes is the exhumation; come to think of it, open graves abound in your books; do we all have a fascination with the grave? Are cremations ruining all our fun?
Allan: I’m all for cremations, but they don’t inspire the same internal concussion of mortality that graves can conjure up at the drop of a coffin lid. There’s just something so bleak and morbid about gazing down into that deep, dark hole in the earth, inhaling the rank miasma of the damp, worm-infested soil, and then, just for good measure, you have a dead body bound in oak and brass (pine is optional) to contend with. Graves certainly win hands down over cremations for pure gothic theatre. The last graveside funeral I attended saw me get a severe dressing down after I referred to the undertaker as Guitar George… because he knew all the Cords.
Julie: That undertaker was in dire straits with you in attendance. For my fellow clueless Americans: in Scottish burial custom, braided silk cords are held by family members to symbolically lower the coffin. Allan’s books are an education.
So….. what’s next on your laptop? Any new books in the works?
Allan: Just finishing up the sequel to Heart Swarm, a novel called Wasp Latitudes. Will Harlan returns to head up the investigation of a bizarre series of murders and abductions. Then again, if no one buys Heart Swarm I may tear it up and start something else.
So place your orders now for Heart Swarm, available on Amazon U.K. and U.S. October 5. And you’ll want to get Allan’s other books via Kindle if you haven’t already: 1234, Carapace, Dreaming in the Snakepark, Monochrome, The Garden of Remembrance, Mezzanine, and …And Other Stories.
My photos on Facebook:
This was my second year attending Celtic Week at the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. I’m hooked- I hope to attend next year as well. The teachers are fabulous- I had flute classes with Nuala Kennedy and John Skelton plus a singing class with Cathy Jordan and numerous “pot luck” classes with other teachers including Marla Fibish, Ed Miller, Kevin Crawford and Laura Risk. I had lunch with Robin Bullock and chatted with Martin Hayes. I caught up with Michael Ginsburg, a Knoxville friend from my Laurel Theatre contra dance days, about music, music, and music. Imagine getting to hear these world class musicians/recording artists each night in concert then dancing or playing under the stars, roaming the mountainous campus with new friends, frequent visits to the beer and food truck, and great meals in the cafeteria. I especially tried to grab fellow flute players aside to play their flutes and get some recommendations from experts. I think I made more friends this year, became closer to my flute tribe and am determined to keep that Swannanoa spirit through the year. I feel hiraeth all year for this place. Resistance is flutile!
Next year- July 8-14- I’ll be there!
I got to see the Scottish band Tannahill Weavers in Knoxville May 18 at Boyds- truly phenomenal musicians. Really dug the flute player of course. I’ve been hoping to get to Boyd’s for a session someday to at least listen. I hear that the Irish sessions are on alternate Thursday nights. I came home and learned “The Geese in the Bog.”
A favorite pub in the mountains of NC: any guesses as to where I am?
So every blog needs a cat picture.
April 4, 2017- Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, TN- *Swoon* He sounds better each time I hear him. This was my 7th RT gig.
St Patrick’s Day, March 2017- at Angela’s Deli in Athens. Celtic Plain featuring Mark Merriman and yours truly!
Not every St. Paddy’s day celebration has a Cuban flag
I’m pleased to be on track 5, Mortlake, on Allan’s new album. A short interlude guitar/flute instrumental. I sent a little accompaniment via wav file across the seas to Scotland – well, several files, til we found one that sounded ok. My flute gets a little seasick, poor gal. Allan Watson’s new album, Personal Geometry, is finished- all fantastic songs. Soundcloud:
Mortlake, just outside London and on the Thames, is the home of Dr John Dee, scientist and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.
Finally a new reviewer is picking up on the obvious, that abbey tapes is fantastic. And on p. 110, the two Lol Robinson albums get excellent reviews. Really happy that Phil’s and Allan’s books and music are getting some additional attention- and in the same issue as such revered musicians as Levon Helm, Ashley Hutchings, Wishbone Ash, David Crosby, Jimmy Page, and the Incredible String Band. Here’s Ian Maun’s review in Stick it in Your Ear: http://www.siiye.co.uk/E28/PAGE_116.html
I’m pleased that my flute part in “The Comb Song” is described as adding “hiraeth”, the Welsh word for longing, nostalgia, homesickness and mysticism to the song.
Check out other issues in this great little e-zine edited by Geoff Walls, UK music writer and a biographer of Ashley Hutchings.
These tracks from a John Peel session are on an LP accompanying the new biography of Drake. A couple of these had been on Youtube already, but the last two- which include a flute player- are new. As a flutist, I’m really happy to hear these- and to imagine the studio session. I’d guessed Lyn Dobson or Ray Warleigh who played on Bryter Layter but according to Youtube notes the flutist is Iain Cameron. There must have been scads of flutists hanging around London then. I’m looking for a guitar player to perform the N.D. songs with flute parts, but still no luck- anyone? http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDDS-ylPBPufS1pNMTRpLKRbNzOZmfGXT
Played a gig with Mark Merriman at Starbucks, Rock City Saturday night. We played Christmas carols plus our Beatles-Irish-eclectic mix. There was a big outdoor fireplace and nice folks listening in plus some of Mark’s friends and my good friend Betty who came along for company. Pleasant evening! The enchanted gardens were crowded but beautiful.
My favorite author- finally to be on the telly! ITV of Great Britain will film Midwinter of the Spirit in 3 segments. It’s the second novel in the Merrily Watkins series- and the first one I read – got me totally hooked. Really happy about Phil’s success. I only hope that PBS will pick it up to air here in the US eventually.
Happy to see that ‘The Comb Song’ is featured as a teaser on Phil Rickman’s shop web page, along with ‘Tanworth in Arden’ from one of the Lol Robinson albums: http://www.philrickman.co.uk/the-shop/
And a review of Abbey Tapes is to come out in January in a folk rock e-zine…. stay tuned.
Just ran across a little essay I wrote about TKAM some time ago:
I think that one of my favorite quotations from To Kill a Mockingbird is on p. 298 in our version, where Miss Maudie says “…we’re making a step- it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.”
This comes after the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930’s Alabama. Atticus Finch, the attorney, defended Tom and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to all readers that Tom is innocent; but Tom is convicted, anyway. The novel came out in 1960 and has been lauded ever since as a great novel about civil rights.
I’ve re-read this book recently for “The Big Read” and even though this has been on my list of recommended reading for all graduates, I’m having some second thoughts about the book. Something is bothering me and I may not even know what it is until I start writing about it. I want to find some criticism by the likes of Toni Morrison or even Zadie Smith. What do revisionist literary critics have to say about this novel? And what do black readers think of it?
I think the film is quite different from the book: the film concentrates mostly on the trial and the race issue. I think most people are picturing the movie when they think so fondly of TKAM. The book, for me, was more a series of vignettes of small town life, only one of which is the trial. In fact, not much is said for almost 200 pages about the Tom Robinson issue. There is more about Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose. By p. 284 the trial is over and then commences a lot of self-congratulatory stuff by the whites about how Mr. Atticus was such a good white man for defending Tom even though he knew he could not win. I think that this book was a terrific eye-opener for whites back in the 1960’s, but today, it just strikes us as too “our massuh such a good white man…”
The black people in the novel are 2 dimensional. The main characters are Jem, Dill, Scout, and Atticus. Even Boo Radley is more multidimensional than any of the black characters.
We hear that Tom has died in prison, shot by guards as he tries to escape, even though Atticus wants to launch an appeal. And then the plot returns to the children and Boo Radley. No problem really that Tom is dead as long as the white children are saved from the supposed white racist. In fact, blacks are compared to birds in that their deaths are akin to the senseless killing of birds. I wonder how this strikes African American readers.
The book gets a little preachy with the comparison to Nazi Germany- surely something that the white South needed to hear in the 1960’s but it seems a bit overdone here. Now the trend in fiction leans toward understatement, whereas this spends too much time laying it on the line.
I must not forget that in the 1960’s we were still baby stepping, and many such baby steps have been needed to lay the foundations for the day when this nation can see beyond racial lines enough to elect our wonderful new black president. This book was definitely a baby step along the way. And our country needs to take a whole lot more baby steps even now.
I’m not questioning Nelle Harper Lee’s racial sympathies. She was at odds with her peers, did not fit in with the sorority crowd at U. of A., and as a writer she was exposing some things that needed to be exposed. She agonized over the book, rewriting it 3 times. She poked fun at the missionary ladies in the living room going on about the savages in Africa being saved by some white Christian guy. She made fun of having to become ladylike. I could identify; I used to plot how I was not going to wear girdles or slips or hose when I grew up! She really pointed up a lot of hypocrisy in the lives of Southerners and probably many North Americans. I respect her for that. She was a bridge between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Toni Morrison. She wasn’t trying to portray the African American experience, just the white experience of that era. She may have been caught in that space of time that many of us well-meaning whites in the South were caught in: the time between consciousness and action; between realizing our mistakes and doing something about them; between Martin and Malcolm. And something tells me that the book has outlived its usefulness other than for historical purposes, and that another better American novel should take its place as the lesson in black/white relations. So- I wonder what it could be…… and it isn’t The Help.
I’ll be playing some flute tunes with this great guitarist soon- Mr. Mark Merriman! He’s performing at Angela’s in Athens August 22 at 7 pm. We will do a few Irish tunes, a couple of original numbers, and perhaps a jazz tune. I’m a lucky flutist!
I’ve put together a video for ‘The Comb Song’ from abbey tapes, my shining moment on flute- I hope it does it justice. I’m such a fangirl. Please share and if you don’t have it already, get the CD from Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org or download from Amazon or iTunes.
The music by the haunted bandmates in the novel December by Phil Rickman… a unique fusion of fiction and music.
Monochrome in kodachrome. Promo video for Allan Watson’s new book.