Graeme Macrae Burnet’s literary thriller, His Bloody Project, explores a brutal triple murder in the Scottish Highlands in 1869 through a variety of different, at times conflicting, accounts. It won the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Awards and the Man Booker Prize. This year the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in a co-production with Royal Lyceum Theatre, presented a theatrical exploration of the novel as part of their Playing with Books series. Features Writer Carly Brown met with Graeme to talk about the rehearsal process, the challenges of writing historical fiction and what’s in store with his next novel.
I pictured it all taking place in a theatre and I would be back in the shadows, probably puffing a cigar
Can you tell us a little bit about what the rehearsal process was like for this theatrical exploration?
Watching the director Paul [Brotherston] interacting with the actors, and what the actors brought to it with their thoughtfulness and the understanding, I was so impressed. It was three days of real education about how people go about doing this: the care, the looks, the physical movements, the delivery of the lines and the actors bringing their own thoughts to it. And they’re performing something I’ve written. You can imagine how rewarding that is. I felt they really did it justice.
How much input and suggestions did you bring to that process?
I said at the beginning, ‘Don’t feel obliged to have me along.’ But everyone seemed keen to have me there. It was a new experience for me and I didn’t know the etiquette. I went in with the attitude that I would just sit back and say nothing. I pictured it all taking place in a theatre and I would be back in the shadows, probably puffing a cigar. I’m fairly opinionated, but I did try to keep my comments to a minimum and tried to address myself to Paul [Brotherston], so there was some kind of hierarchy. Obviously I know the book, and I sort-of know the characters, but how someone else feels about the characters is also valid.
I think I could illuminate some of the motivations of the characters and I think actors seem to like to talk about this stuff. I kept completely away from saying, ‘Oh say this line like that’, because that is not my job. I think let the actors do their work. Let the director do their work. They’re really, really good. I don’t know how to do that stuff and it was really nice to be involved. I’ve had an amazing year. I’ve been all over the place, and that was the highlight. That’s because it’s nice to work with lovely people and see your words performed. It was incredible.
One of the things I thought was particularly effective was that the piece referenced the challenges and opportunities of performing scenes from your book onstage. Certain scenes are replayed, for example, so that we get two different versions of events.
Absolutely, that came very much from Paul. I met him last week for a drink and he said that he wanted it not to be a reverential reading of some scenes, but to reflect the experience of reading the book, which is that you get a version of events and then it’s kind of challenged later. So that was very much the idea about replaying scenes.
The challenge for an actor, if you play everything in a linear way, is you have to make a decision about: Is [the character] horrible and aggressive? Or is he an awkward young man who doesn’t know how to behave with the opposite sex? So I thought that worked really well.
It mimicked the structure of the book as well. It was a bit jokey at the beginning, but then at the end it became more immersive and emotional, as the book does.
I wanted to ask you about the book itself. This form – the layers of documents, the different unreliable narrators – is such a nineteenth-century structure, like Wilkie Collins or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. What drew you to that particular way to frame a story?
I definitely wanted to present a story in a way that the reader has to make up his or her own mind about what’s happened. So you are presented with different viewpoints. Part of the inspiration was this French case where there was a memoir and the book also contained these witness statements that were wildly contradictory, just as they were in His Bloody Project. Carmina Smoke [a character in the book] says that [Roddy’s] a polite and courteous young man and then the minister says that he’s a malevolent good-for-nothing. So immediately you are presented with: Who is this character? What are the motivations for the people speaking? So I think that structure brings the reader in, in a very active way. You’re not presenting a version of the truth and the book doesn’t ever give you a definitive answer. It’s for the readers to come to their own conclusions. That’s what I like as a reader. It does reflect a view of the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of even very recent events. All you have are conflicting accounts. Nothing is complete. Everything is partial and biased. If you’re writing in the first person, it’s always unreliable.
You also have a new book coming out, The Accident on the A35. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
It’s a sequel to my first book [The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau], which was set in a small town in France. It’s going to be a trilogy and this is the second one. In the first book, I pretended that I only translated the book and it was written by a fictional French author called Raymond Bruni, which of course confused people greatly. It was a bit of a lesson, because when that book came out, people thought it was a French novel, which I was a bit embarrassed about because I didn’t want to fool anybody, but people felt fooled. So for this, I’m writing in the persona of Raymond Bruni who is trapped in this small town. It’s quite an interesting exercise. [It has] that sort of meta-textual playfulness.
Has anybody thought that His Bloody Project was non-fiction?
Frequently. There was a review in The List magazine that reviewed it as a true-crime book. It’s often been said that it’s ‘based on a true case.’ When I go to book groups, the first question is always, ‘It is real, isn’t it?’ But it’s a compliment to the book that people can read a book like that and it feels real. That’s what you try to do in fiction.
I think that’s a particular feat given the historical setting.
It’s a challenge with the first-person to get the language right, to sustain it and make it convincing. That was the most difficult thing about writing the book. It’s a question of convincing the reader and using some of the historical language, the construction of the sentences, and making sure you don’t use vocabulary that is too modern. You work with an editor as well. We took care over that stuff and that’s why it feels real.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s new book, The Accident on the A35, is forthcoming from Saraband Books in October 2017.