In 2016 Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. On Saturday he was in the new Spark Theatre at Edinburgh International Book Festival, talking to Roland Gulliver (EIBF Associate Director) about his more recent book The Accident on the A35, a sequel to The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau (2013). So why, asks Gulliver, when His Bloody Project was such a huge hit (a bestseller as well as a success with the literati), did he not write a sequel to that? The answer is that he’d already written the first draft of The Accident before he got the call from Booker. And he’s very glad he had;
‘Otherwise I might have felt pressurised to write another story of persecution and murder in 19th century Scotland.’
For although there are aspects of mystery to all his books, what really interests Macrae Burnet is how events affect people’s lives, how they react to something unexpected and unplanned for. In The Accident on the A35 a man is killed in a car crash. The mystery centres on where he had been on the night of his death, and why, but what concerns Macrae Burnet is the impact the accident has on the victim’s teenage son Raymond and Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, who is convinced that the accident was not as straightforward as it first appears.
The story is set in St Louis, an unremarkable small town near the French-German border. Macrae Burnet has loved St Louis ever since he visited it while writing The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, and one of the reasons he loves it is that it always stays the same;
‘I went back twelve years later and had the same lunch in the same café with the same tables.’
Change, he says, is something some people want – Raymond, as an angst-ridden teenager, can’t wait to get away from St Louis (‘I couldn’t wait to get out of Kilmarnock’) – and some people don’t; Gorski may have had his eyes on Marseille or Paris in the past, but now he’s content with his life as it is (or as it was before his wife left him.)
The small details of people’s lives are important to Macrae Burnet; Gorski shaving in the en suite bathroom as an act of rebellion against his absent wife; Raymond getting off a train and back on again to get away from another passenger, then realising she’ll notice when they arrive at their destination – the little things that we all do but rarely admit to. He tells an hilarious story about buying sandwiches in Sainsbury’s en route for his daily visit to Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. It’s a story in which nothing really happens, but it’s one with which few could fail to identify – and that’s one of the great strengths of Macrae Burnet’s writing.
He’s also fascinated by ‘hyper self-consciousness’ or overthinking – something he assumed everyone did, but now realises they perhaps don’t (they don’t?) Gorski and Raymond both play out scenes in their heads, always imagining what other people are thinking about them, creating entire fictive narratives. So Gorski is sure that his staff will place a certain interpretation on the position of the door to his office (open/closed? ajar?); he performs an elaborate charade to persuade people that he hasn’t planned to go into a bar, even though he’s been thinking about little else all morning. Of course no-one else notices or cares – but what if they do?
The foreword to The Accident on the A35 tells us that the manuscript was written by one Raymond Brunet (also the ‘author’ of The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau), and that it was sent to the publisher by his executor after his death. There’s a clear suggestion that the book is autobiographical – though in the narrative Raymond’s surname is Barthelme – but Macrae Burnet is quick to point out that he doesn’t say that, and that the Jean Paul Sartre quote at the beginning of the narrative is part of Brunet’s manuscript, not his;
‘What I have written is false. True. Neither true nor false.’ (Words 1963)
He’s very interested in concepts of truth, of multiple possibilities, and in the ‘Translator’s afterword’ he speculates on how much of the book is ‘true’, and on whether it matters. At least half of the readers of His Bloody Project thought it was non-fiction (‘that’s OK but I get no credit’….). What matters to Macrae Burnet, however, is whether a story feels true;
‘It has, however, to ring true, to be psychologically plausible; that’s the truth fiction is striving for.’
He cites Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square as an influence, and refers to a scene in that book where a waiter takes an order holding a tray in a certain way;
‘That tiny details brings it to life, regardless of whether it’s ‘true’ or whether that person really exists.’
The reader needs to be immersed; the story must seem real.
One of the 2018 Book Festival’s key themes is ‘Freedom’, and many writers have been asked to contribute their interpretations of the word to a series of ‘Freedom Papers’. Macrae Burnet originally thought he’d need to write something profound (‘I’d been reading Simone de Beauvoir…’) but the more he pondered the considerable freedom he, as a white middle class man, enjoys, the more he wondered what he had to say (‘There’s people with deep and meaningful things to say, and then there’s me.’) It was, in fact, his fascination with the minutiae of everyday life that eventually gave him his story, which concerns the way in which we place constraints on our own freedom, the need we have to stick to our routines, to cling to our comfort zones.
Macrae Burnet’s story is A Minor Incident in Amsterdam, which he reads aloud in his wonderfully restrained Ayrshire tones. It’s about a visit to a bar. And as ever with this witty, sophisticated author, there’s a very clever sting in the tail. If you want to know what it is, get along to the EIBF Bookshop and buy your copy before they sell out.
The Accident on the A35, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and His Bloody Project are all published by Saraband.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s next appearances will be at Bloody Scotland in Stirling on 21 and 23 September, where he will be discussing European Crime Fiction and The Art of Crime Fiction. His website can be found here.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is on until 27 August 2018.