James Oswald on writing crime and keeping a farm


“I have 18 breeding cows and they are all purebred Highlanders,” says James Oswald of the farm he runs in North Fife. “And with the bull and all the calves and heifers from the year before, I guess we have about 50 cattle on the farm. And that’s my only farming activity besides fixing fences these days.

When he’s not writing his Inspector McLean novels, the latest of which, All That Lives, has just been published, James Oswald continues the family tradition. His father also farmed this land, but the trip here was a detour for the family.

Although his father grew up on a farm, he was a stockbroker in the City of London when Oswald arrived in 1967. “He hated it every day,” his son recalls.

“He ended up as a partner in a stockbroking firm and they got bought out by Lehman Brothers during the Big Bang. He got a big chunk of money and bought this place.”

Oswald was helping on the farm before leaving for the University of Aberdeen. He wanted to be a writer and sold a screenplay to 2000AD in 1993, but could never turn his interest into a career.

And then in 2008, his parents were killed in a car accident. Oswald, his brothers and sister spent the next two years coping with the emotional and legal fallout from this tragedy.

Oswald decided to take over the farm. “I didn’t have a big career idea in mind. I had had a string of dead-end jobs over the years and never really had a career. I was 41 when they died and still wasn’t a published author.

“I had almost by then decided that writing wasn’t going to work and it was always going to be just a hobby, so I needed something I could pick up and run with. It was definitely a challenge and I love challenges.

“And I love working with animals. Highland cattle are such gentle big beasts… Most of the time.

It was his friend, crime writer Stuart MacBride, whom he had met in Aberdeen, who told him that he should start writing crime novels.

Read more: James Oswald, Alex Gray and Helen Sedgwick on the morality of detective fiction following the murder of Sarah Everard

“I was writing fantasy novels at the time and he said, ‘Stop writing that dragon nonsense. Crime fiction is the thing to do.

Oswald began writing a few short stories in the genre, and one of them served as the basis for his first novel Natural Causes, which mixed horror and detective stories. But he still had trouble finding a publisher.

“I had an agent at the time and she was sending it to publishers and they all came back what I call rave rejections because they were all like, ‘We love this book, we love the writing, we don’t just don’t know. how to sell it. It just doesn’t fit because it’s not horror, it’s not crime, it’s not fantasy. What is that?'”

“It’s quite depressing. A lot of people said, “Take off all the scary bits.” So, I rewrote the second book. There was a perfectly rational explanation for everything. And it sucked the life out of the book for me. The editor who had been very interested didn’t like that either and said “no thanks”. And I think about a week after I got that email, my parents died in a car accident. So it was not a good year, 2008.

“I haven’t written anything for two years. I couldn’t concentrate on it. I just couldn’t handle the emotional fallout of that.

He eventually returned to writing and decided to self-publish Natural Causes 10 years ago. It was an almost immediate success, as was his second book The Book of Souls. Suddenly, publishers got interested. There was a five-for-three auction and Penguin won. He is now in book 12 of the McLean series and he has also written three books in his Constance Fairchild series.

And yet, he did not give up agricultural work. The two jobs complement each other well, he says.

“I tend to write the most at night anyway. I will sit around eight o’clock and work for three or four hours.

“Because they’re such different things, if I’m really struggling with the writing, I can just go do something on the farm, fix a fence. Or there are quite a few trees that need clearing after the thunderstorms earlier this month. You can do physical work and that takes a different kind of focus.

All That Lives is published by Wildfire, £16.99


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