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Graeme Macrae Burnet on his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel His Bloody Project

The Scottish author tells us how his life changed when his novel made it onto the Man Booker Prize shortlist, boosting sales and attracting the attention of critics.
Author Graeme Macrae Burnet with his book, His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Tristan Fewings / Getty Images
Author Graeme Macrae Burnet with his book, His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project was the great surprise on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. Published by tiny Scottish imprint Saraband, the novel initially attracted little attention and no mainstream reviews.

A nod from the judges of Britain’s most prestigious literary prize changed all that, becoming a sudden hit with readers that quickly and dramatically outstripped established fellow nominees, including Deborah Levy and Nobel laureate J M Coetzee, to clock reported sales of more than 50,000. Burnet’s only other novel, his 2014 debut The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, sold an estimated 2,000 copies.

The press, too, was quick to jump on the bandwagon, starting with The Guardian, which declared His Bloody ­Project “a fiendishly readable tale that richly deserves the wider attention the Booker has brought it”.

Set in a remote 19th-century crofting community – and subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae – the book attracted praise both for its historical and sociological veracity, and for its structure, which mixes “newly discovered” first-person diaries written by 17-year-old murder convict Roderick Macrae, with other “found” documents and footnotes supposedly uncovered by the ­author. So convincing was this device that a number of reviewers reported the book to be a “true crime” work based on real documents, rather than a work of ­fiction.

Following a recent promotional appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair – a few days before Paul Beaty’s satire The Sellout was named the Booker winner – we sat down for a chat with the book’s 48-year-old Scottish author.

Where did the concept for the book, and the character of Rodney in particular, come from?

It had been germinating for years. The idea of a murderer who writes an account of what he’d done was the initial idea. Rodney as a character evolved through the circumstances that I read about, and the process of writing the character. I don’t plan. I don’t do character notes or any of that [rubbish] – it sounds a bit mystical, but you find the character as you write the character.

What are you working on next?

It’s a sort of sequel to [my] first book – same town, same cop. The first book is a character study in the guise of a crime novel. The structure for the first book is more complicated than [His Bloody Project], but because it doesn’t draw attention to itself the way that this book does, ­nobody notices.

That first novel came out when you were in your mid-forties. When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a student at the University of Glasgow in the late 1980s. Even at school I was writing short stories and stuff. After uni, I was a teacher of English as a foreign language for eight years – 18 months in Prague, years in Portugal, France, London – and I wrote some stories. In the mid-1990s I wrote a straight crime novel that didn’t get published, which I’m now glad about.

What happened to it?

When I sent it out, I didn’t expect it to be published, I was just giving it the opportunity, were that to happen. It was just a way of immunising yourself against disappointment – if you don’t expect anything good to happen, then you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t. It was a competent genre novel, it could have got published, but it didn’t have anything particularly unique about it.

What’s important is that getting to the end of writing a novel is an achievement, whether it gets published or not. Starting a novel is easy, finishing it is difficult and, having run the course once, it prepares you to do it again.

You left a career working in television to devote yourself to writing. What flicked the switch for you?

I’d love to say I threw down my pen and stormed out. I got made redundant – but it was a natural end to a particular job, all amicable and fine, and I was happy to finish there. I remember the day after, I went for a swim and I said “today’s the day”, and for some reason I chose [to write] what became Adèle Bedeau. I’d started at least three novels and written them up to 30,000 words, but I had a page and a half sketch from 12 years ago, and I pursued that just from this little scenario. That was six years ago.

How do you feel about your Booker nomination?

It has changed my life – publishers abroad, increased sales, the fact the book has been so widely reviewed – and reviewed in glowing terms, there hasn’t been a single bad review in the mainstream press that I’ve seen. There was no way I was going to make a living out of writing any time soon, but now I can probably hope to do that.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is out now

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: November 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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