Graeme Macrae Burnet at Creative Conversations, University of Glasgow, 12 December, 2016
I always enjoy Creative Conversations and when I can I head along to the University of Glasgow Chapel to catch Louise Welsh in conversation with a talented writer included in the programme. The event this week with Graeme Macrae Burnet was a particular highlight attracting a large crowd with other writers in the audience. These included Carol McKay, Helen McKinven, Donal McLaughlin, Zoe Strachan, Elizabeth Reeder and Colin Herd.
The University Chapel provided Graeme and the host, Louise Welsh, with the perfect backdrop to the discussion of his book ‘His Bloody Project – Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae’, which was recently shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2016. I’d held off buying the book as I wanted to go along to a reading and get a signed copy. I’m happy with that decision as I feel I will enjoy it all the more having listened to Graeme talking about the book, its background and his approach to writing it.
The initial conception of the book was inspired by the case of Pierre Riviere, who wrote ‘an eloquent account’ of his slaughter of his mother, brother and sister in France in 1835. Thus Roderick Macrae was created; the main narrator in ‘His Bloody Project’, who is charged with three brutal murders carried out in the village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Graeme’s mother’s family from Wester Ross was a further inspiration and proved to be a valuable source of information, particularly in relation to the character Rev. James Galbraith, whose views Graeme based on a book of sermons he came across in his grandmother’s house. These provided ‘a true reflection of attitudes of the time’. He explained that the book is a mixture of authentic details based on his research and material that he ‘made up’ and how he grew more confident in writing about this historical period as the book progressed.
Louise Welsh asked Graeme about his approach to writing and there followed an interesting discussion on his anti-allegory beliefs and his strong desire for the reader to bring his, or her, own experience and understanding to their interpretation of the book. He gave the example of a Chinese journalist, who on reading the book likened the period in which it is set to ‘life under the Maoist regime’.
In discussing the process of writing, Graeme explained that’s he’s not a writer who works to a firm plot and that his main focus is on developing the characters, who can often surprise him. Some readers of the book have also provided surprises as they have taken the book to be non-fiction, probably influenced by the reference to ‘the documents’ relating to Roderick Macrae’s case. Their mistake could be taken as a compliment as in writing the book Graeme was painstaking in his desire to create a world which ‘had to seem authentic’.
It was an absorbing discussion and I enjoyed hearing not only about the book but about culture in the Highlands, for example, the practice of using nicknames, which through time lost all meaning and about a society where religion and status played key roles. It was also fascinating to hear about an education system, which could provide poor crofting people, such as Roderick, with the ability to write fluently and eloquently. Graeme’s own writing is smooth and accessible and I very much enjoyed his book ‘The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau’. The structure of ‘His Bloody Project’, with its many narrators and different sections, could appear complicated and there is the option of selecting sections to read rather than simply read the book cover to cover, nonetheless, it is presented in chronological order. I’ve already started reading ‘His Bloody Project’ – starting at the very beginning.
Pat Byrne, December, 2016.
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