April 2006 Scotland on Sunday

Denise Mina

INTERVIEWING Denise Mina is a hoot. The conversation will be going swimmingly when suddenly she'll come to a halt. "Usually when I start talking about Stanley Fish it's time to shut up," she'll say, half embarrassed to have mentioned an American literary theorist.

Or she'll be chatting away interestingly about social inequality in Glasgow when she'll insist on changing the subject for fear she'll introduce "Foucault and Derrida" to the conversation and end up sounding like the academic she once was. "I become very pompous when I talk at any length," she'll break off, not sounding pompous at all.

It's partly that she's wary of being pretentious and partly that she can't bear the thought of repeating herself. So familiar has the Glasgow crime writer become with the Q&A circuit – the endless quizzing she faces at book festivals, signing sessions and interviews – that it takes a good five minutes before I can stop her asking me questions and get in a few myself. "I do a lot of interviews and find myself very tedious after a while," she apologises.

There's nothing awkward about this – she's entertaining and quick to laugh – it's just that her mind is so active, her imagination so restless, that there always seems to be a kind of meta-interview running in parallel, passing comment, editing, changing tack.

We're here in this Glasgow coffee shop, round the corner from her West End flat, to talk about two things. One is Ida Tamson, her debut as a playwright, showing this week at Oran Mor's A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime season, with Elaine C Smith in the title role. The other is the forthcoming publication of The Dead Hour, the second in her series of five novels about Paddy Meehan, a wannabe reporter on the Scottish Daily News who got perilously close to the scene of the crime in last year's The Field of Blood.

Both are subjects close to Mina's heart, but closer still is the third in the Paddy Meehan series, in which she's already immersed, and the comic book strips she's turning out every month for DC's Hellblazer series, not to mention the graphic novel she's in the midst of. It's clear that having two young children – one two years, the other seven months – has taught her to focus rather than slow down.

"I'm amazed that my output has gone up exponentially," says the novelist, 39. "When you're working you've just got to work: you're not going to sit and play Tetris, read magazines and go to the gym. I had to give up things like wearing clean clothes. I sometimes go out for dinner and realise I've got sick on me. You tend to not mind. It makes you so time-efficient."

It's typical of the air of creativity around her that Ida Tamson, though written specifically for the theatre, is just a staging post en route to a much bigger ambition. With Elaine C Smith and director Morag Fullerton on board, Mina wants to turn the story into a film and is already 30 pages into a screenplay. "The play is part of the development," she says. "The film is telling the same story in a visual way."

Focusing on an east-end grandmother who believes she's lost her daughter to drugs, Ida Tamson started life early last year as a short story for a newspaper. It began to take theatrical form as Mina toyed with the idea of using the kind of captions you see in Take a Break magazine as back projections in a play.

"In Take a Break they always have these wee squares of text that are teasers to the next bit of the story," says Mina, an avid reader of down-market mags. "There are always causal paragraphs missing: the woman met a man with an axe and then she invited him to live with her. There's a paragraph missing in between that makes you think, 'He's got an axe, maybe that's not a good idea.'"

When her multi-media vision proved impractical for the Oran Mor space, she sat down and, true to her new time-efficient style, simply rewrote it. Elaine C Smith is taking on the role of Tamson, telling her story to a journalist from Take a Break who'd much rather be writing for The Guardian. Behind the culture-clash comedy are serious themes about social inequality, drugs barons and the creeping racism of today's Scotland.

"It's about how, ever since 9/11, people in Glasgow are overtly racist," says the former Strathclyde University lecturer in criminology and criminal law. "Taxi drivers were the first people I noticed openly talking about 'Pakis' and 'towel heads'. Obviously, these people had those opinions before, but now they feel free to vent them. I'm particularly attuned to it because my family are Irish and it's exactly the same dialogue they used to say about Irish people: there's too many of them, they're all over here taking our jobs, they're breeding like mad. I wanted to do a piece that was challenging that."

Apart from a Radio 4 play, Hurtle, in which three financial dealers are stuck in a plummeting lift, it's her first taste of writing drama. "It's been fascinating," she says. "If you write a novel, you don't think of the audience that much until the editorial process; writing a film, you think of them a bit; but writing a play, you have to be really aware of what the audience are going to see.

"You have to strip everything down and come up with a skeleton. It’s like writing comics – there's nowhere to hide. You can't put a shoddy plot into a play, it just doesn't work. It has to be a really clear arc. In comics every frame has to have a purpose and it's the same in theatre."

With her sixth novel, she's on more familiar ground. Her last one, The Field of Blood, was set in Glasgow, 1981, where a James Bulger-style murder of a toddler brings to light forgotten crimes, bogus leads and miscarriages of justice. The story gives lowly teenage copy-girl Paddy Meehan a chance to get a foot on the journalistic ladder and break free of her tight-knit Catholic family. Her investigations, however, put her in risk of her life.

Move forward three years, and The Dead Hour catches up with Meehan in the run-up to the miners' strike. Subsequent books will make similar leaps towards the present day.

"I've tried to place each book just before a giant conflict," says Mina, whose debut novel, Garnethill (1999) won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasy Dagger, kicking off a trilogy that included Exile (2001) and Resolution (2002). "This is just before the miners' strike, so it's February and they're stockpiling coal and the government is refusing to meet members of the union."

Mina's writing is highly accessible ("I love the way people read crime novels on the bus or on the beach"), frequently enlivened with anecdotal asides and funny period detail but, as a long-term devotee of the genre, she is not afraid of looking life's murkier details in the face. Garnethill featured mental illness, paedophilia and poverty, setting the tone for the two sequels. The Field of Blood opened with a stomach-churning description of two boys killing a toddler, Mina making clear that, for all the tales of drunken journalists and blinkered policemen that follow, the central puzzle was serious, ugly and real.

She makes no apology for exposing the reader to such uncomfortable material and says her recent experience of motherhood has, if anything, made her even more inclined to return to those places. "People asked me would I write that scene in The Field of Blood now, being a mother, and I would," she says. "In fact, I would make it gorier. A lot of gory crime novels are written by women, many of them mothers, and the vast majority of crime readers are women. Having children is such a visceral experience that it probably makes you more gory – how squeamish can you be after a gang of teenagers have looked up your fanny?

"The stereotypical gender role would be that women can't bear things like that, but mostly we're the ones clearing up the shite and looking after elderly relatives with bogeys hanging out their noses. These things go on whether you write about them or not and it's interesting to look at them."

Ida Tamson, Oran Mor, Glasgow, April 24–29; The Dead Hour is published by Bantam Press in July

© Mark Fisher 2006/2009

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