BLOODY GLASGOW: The GRB interview with Callum McSorley, shortlisted for crime fiction’s McIlvanney Prize

Callum McSorley is based in Glasgow. His short stories have been published in New Writing Scotland, Gutter, and Shoreline of Infinity. His debut novel Squeaky Clean was published in March by Pushkin Vertigo, and is shortlisted for the Scottish Crime Debut of the Year award and for The McIlvanney Prize.

Tomorrow night (Friday, 15 September) – as part of Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, Bloody Scotland – Callum will be one of a group of authors leading a torchlit procession from Stirling Castle to the Albert Halls, where the winners of both prizes will be announced. 

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

GRB: So, Callum McSorley, could you start by telling our readers how Squeaky Clean came about?

Callum McSorley (CMcS): Sure. I studied writing at Strathclyde [University]. After I left there, I ended up working at a car wash for a couple of years. And then, about 2015, I started writing short stories for publication. Around 2019, I decided to use this car wash idea that I’d been mulling over. It had always been on the back-burner but I finally decided to give it a proper shot, which turned into a novella called Valet. And my publisher [Pushkin Press] liked it, but they wouldn’t publish it because it was a novella. So, I re-worked it, and it went through a lot of changes since 2019 until, eventually, it became Squeaky Clean.

GRB: What sort of relationship is there between your experience working in an actual car-wash and the characters in the book?

CMcS: I used the details of what it was like to work there. At the start of the book, Davey [Squeaky Clean’s main protagonist] has to clean the dregs of cocaine out of a car. And that’s something that happened when we were valeting, there’d be odd powders worked into the grooves, you know, and hand-prints in strange places.

And my boss was this quite eccentric guy.  He loved the Sopranos, the gangster films. We watched the Sopranos when we were working all the time. He loved Russia Today, hated the BBC, had lots of interest in political theories. So, he became a character in the book, Sean, who runs the car wash.

I also used some other scenarios from real-life. wholesale. Like, the day this guy stopped by, and tried to sell us a bunch of stolen stuff and we turned him away. Then, he went down the street and broke into a car, but the police were standing across the street and immediately arrested him. That ended up in the book.

GRB: Tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you start with a very clear ending in mind, or do you start with the initial scenario, to see where it took you?

CMcS: I was working on this historical fiction story but it didn’t sell to a publisher, so I wanted to try something different, something longer than a short story that wasn’t a whole novel, as I didn’t feel up to that at the time – and that’s when the carwash story came back to me.

I knew I wanted to do something short and fast paced, so I wrote a novella that’s, pretty much, almost all still in the final act of the book. The DI character [Detective Inspector Alison ‘Ali’ McCoist] just popped in at the end. She wasn’t really a big character in the original, so that’s one of the main changes that happened when I developed the novella into a full-length book. I knew I would have to do something with her, to develop her back-story, and that became a really important part of the book.

GRB: How long did the process take, to work these characters up and develop the story into a full-length novel?

CMcS: I gave a first draft to my agent as a novella in 2020. Pushkin said that they liked it, but they wouldn’t buy it. I did another rewrite, and then they bought it in 2021. And, I was obviously pretty happy with that. Pushkin are independent but they’re quite big for an independent. They won [The British Book Award for] Independent Publisher of the Year in 2022. I know I won’t get lost on the slate, but they still have some clout.  

So, I was working with my editor at Pushkin on rewrites right up until I signed off on the final proof at the end of 2022. So yeah, it took, all in, a couple of years of re-writing. Going back to it, going over it. And every time you do it, there’s something else you can work on, to sharpen up. It went from 25,000 words to about 90,000 in the final draft. It grew arms and legs.

GRB: What would your advice be, to a new author who’s going through that process?

CMcS: It’s almost never finished. Anytime you write ‘Final Draft’ on something, it’s still going to get looked at, and you’re going to get all these notes back, and you have to get used to that and not be put off by it or disappointed. Often, you’ll get an email and it’ll be really positive and you’ll open up a draft and there’ll be so much red pen . . . as soon as you hear the phrase ‘structural edit’ . . .

So, you have to take a step back and think of it as a way to make what you’re doing better. Read the notes, make a plan of what you need to do and then just go through it. The process is daunting but the more you do it, the easier it gets and the fewer notes there are. Then you can take that with you to the next book, and you’ll know what to expect.

I’d written a few unpublished novels before I got to this one, so I had that experience. The third book that I wrote was shortlisted for an award and it got me signed to an agent and it then didn’t get published, which was a huge disappointment.

But it meant, when it came to this book, I’d already been through the editing process with my agent. So, I had that experience already. But with an actual editor, obviously, they do this for a living and they really know what they’re doing. They point out things that you’ve tried to get away with, that you know aren’t right.

That’s the big difference between self-editing and working with an editor. When I’m self-editing, I’ll think, ‘Ah, that seems like a big fix, it’ll be fine, I’ll just leave it’. Then my editor will say, ‘That needs to be fixed and you know it needs to be fixed.’ So, my advice is not to get disheartened about the process. It’s long, but it’s worth it in the end. By the time you’ve got your finished thing, you’ll be really happy with it.

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GRB: You’d written another, historical novel before Squeaky Clean. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

CMcS: There was one publisher that really liked it, but they said, ‘We’ve already got one Glasgow historical novel on the slate for next year, so we’re not going to take it’, which I found galling because I was like, ‘Just one, you know, two’s too many?’ I found that rough.

So, it was a historical novel set in Glasgow, and it was a serial killer thing. I think, having gone on to write another book since then, there’d be a lot that I would change if I went back to it now, but there’s still bits of it that I really like. I got shortlisted and I met my agent through it, so I look on it as a stepping-stone. I’ve got over the disappointment of it.

GRB: Your historical novel was set in Glasgow and Squeaky Clean’s set in the city as well so, to what extent has Glasgow acted as a character in your work?

CMcS: In the historical book, Glasgow was a big feature of it. I did a lot of research into what it was like in the time. So, it loomed really large in that story. There was something about Glasgow in the Victorian era that was just so distinct and I went into that a lot, describing what the Clyde would have smelt like, and so on. Whereas in Squeaky Clean, the way the city’s described is more stripped back. It’s more in the dialogue.

GRB: What about plans for a follow-up to Squeaky Clean. Is there more to come from these characters?

CMcS: I want to do more with McCoist. I want to see how much more trouble she can get into. Just today I had all my notes out, I’ve been writing notes on postcards, trying to arrange them all and figure out what I want to do with the story. I always think, the first half of any book is where you get people into trouble, which is really fun. The second half, you’ve got to work out how to untangle it all, which is really difficult because of the complications you’ve made for yourself. So, I want to go back to McCoist and see what she does next.

GRB: We don’t want to give too much away, about the way the book ends, but there’s an extent to which things escalate and get worse and worse for the characters [ . . .]

CMcS: It’s a cheerier ending now than it was originally . . . but, yeah, you do have to try and not paint yourself into a corner. Which is the trouble with not planning fully before you begin but then sometimes that’s the way you find the best solution. You have to run yourself into a dead end, and then sometimes you have to then backtrack, but every so often that’s where you hit the idea, the one that you need to finish the story.

GRB: So, your historical novel, if it was about a serial killer, was presumably a crime novel. Squeaky Clean is crime novel. Is crime the genre that most interests you?

CMcS: I’ve always liked crime. I read everything pretty much. I read a lot of literary science fiction. When I started writing short stories, I wrote whatever genre I wanted to really. I started writing a lot of sci-fi short stories. But, when I decided I wanted to write a novel, crime was my go-to because it’s easy to come up with it. It’s not always easy to come up with the idea but you can build space to do so much in a crime story.

Conversely, it’s hard to do a crime short story well because you have so little space to work with. It’s hard to do a satisfying, build-up, twist, denouement that actually resonates because you’ve got so little space for your characters or your plot. Whereas a novel is much more suited to it.

Whereas I find, in sci-fi, you can come up with a cool idea for a short story but if you try and expand it to a novel length, the logic falls apart completely. It’s a different style of idea you use in sci-fi, to make it fit the length. I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi short stories, but when I try and make a longer story out of them, I end up writing a crime story that has sci-fi frills.

I love Cyberpunk, I love William Gibson – and it’s partly because of the fusion of sci-fi and hard-boiled noir that he put together. Because Neuromancer is a heist story but the technology is important enough to call it sci-fi.

If you read Richard Morgan, a lot of his stuff is cyberpunk, but sometimes I feel like it leans more heavily on the crime noir than the sci-fi elements. I think, if you take away the technological idea from the story, and the story still works, then it’s not sci-fi to begin with. Whereas Gibson inclines much more towards the sci-fi. His style of writing is also very different compared to other sci-fi authors. 

A lot of people in sci-fi go for this really clean . . . I’ve seen it called ‘transparent’ style but Gibson’s style is not like that at all. He would read these magazines about computing, and what he took from them was the language, then he mixed that tech lingo up with his idea of street lingo and came up with something really cool. Neuromancer’s nearly 40 years old but it sounds as fresh as anything written today. But, yeah, crime essentially is what I’ve always been attracted to. The best crime writing is character- based and that’s what I want to do.

GRB: Arguably, there are two kinds of crime novel, there’s the more procedural kind, plot driven, that relies a lot on technical jargon [ . . .]

CMcS: I definitely wanted to focus on the characters and how they behave in these bizarre situations. When I started to write McCoist more into the story, I had to do a bit more research into police procedure and I knew someone who was in the police force, so I talked to them, but I was more interested in things like, how the office was run, the internal politics, as opposed to the minutiae of solving a crime.

For example, I asked if they still carried a notebook and they said, ‘No, you’ve got all the forms on your ‘phone and you just tap it all in’. So, it was the minor things like that. I think, if you get the small details right then it’s easier to convince people about the bigger things.

GRB: Is there a risk,  as with something like ‘Line of Duty’, that you get weighed down by the need to get the acronyms right?

CMcS: What’s interesting about that, though, is that Jed Mercurio had no interest in police procedural when he went into it. He wanted to write this story about cops catching cops and he wasn’t that bothered about how accurate it would be. I think it just grew into a much more procedural thing than it started out as. I love that stuff sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to write something like that.

I love James Ellroy, and the attention to detail he has for the procedural stuff is insane, considering he’s writing about cops from seventy years ago. He really drills down into how they went about solving crimes. But his characters, they’re always really flawed, they’ve got terrible pasts and he never hides that – but they’re always really memorable as well – and I think that’s the important bit.

GRB: Of course, Ellroy’s another prose master as well [ . . .]

CMcS: I’ve got the collected edition of his ‘LA Quartet’ with the four books all together. And as you read through it, from first to last, you can see the style just getting tighter and tighter and tighter until it’s like a diamond. When you get to White Jazz, it’s almost like reading a notebook, there’s literally nothing spare.

I heard that’s because it was massive, just so big. And his editor said, ‘You’ll need to cut some of the story’ and he was like, ‘Absolutely not’. So, he shortened it by cutting everything that wasn’t the story. And he ended up creating such a unique voice, and now there’s no-one like James Ellroy. Style’s what I like in writing, and that’s what goes across genre, isn’t it? You know, something literary, that’s got a really great style to it, I will always enjoy it, regardless of the plot. That’s what I go for.

GRB: How far along do you think you are, in developing your own style?

CMcS: I don’t know. It seems like I spend so much time jumping around different short stories and stuff. I find it hard to say. I’ve tried lots of different stuff on. So, like the Victorian Glasgow story, it’s written in a totally different voice. With, Squeaky Clean, when I came to that I wanted to do something a bit funnier. I just wanted to have a laugh. So, I thought I’d write lots of jokes in, write lots of puns in.

It’s like, when you see A Christmas Carol, they often have a Charles Dickens character who narrates. They have Gonzo in the Muppets. And you see it on the stage as well often, they’ll have someone who plays Charles Dickens. And when you read A Christmas Carol, you can see why, because his style is chatty – he just chats to the reader as if he’s your friend, and he’s just telling you this story. He digresses, he goes in tangents and passes judgements to the characters.

I wanted the narrator to sound like the characters, to have this kind of chatty style. A bit more sarcastic than Charles Dickens. I thought it would be fun and I did really enjoy doing it. I knew I wanted all the dialogue to be in Scots, but I did the rest in standard English. I wanted to keep that register very close to it.

GRB: Did you have any bother with your publisher about writing in Scots?

CMcS: None at all. I have done with other short stories but not with this. My two editors were big fans of Graeme Armstrong. So, it was never ever brought up. Which is really cool because I’ve done other stories for people who’ve said, like, ‘Can you tone it down a bit?’. Particularly in sci-fi. A few of my sci-fi stories are set in this future-Glasgow. I did this story, it was in a cyberpunk anthology and it was set in Glasgow, quite far into the future. It was in the first person, it was written almost completely in Scots. But the editor. . . and the editor was Glaswegian as well . . . he was like, ‘Oh, it’s too hard to read’.

So, I came up with this compromise. I came up with the idea that in this Glasgow of the future, upper class people will all speak Scots. And the lower-classes all use a more English vocabulary. Because the country’s independent, it’s quite far into the future, so I thought it would be interesting if, by this time, speaking Scots had become high class, because of independence and the more English someone speaks mixed in with their Scots, the lower they are in the social strata. I thought it was a kind of funny idea, that I quite liked.

So, yeah, in crime writing people seem to be far more accepting of the use of Scots, than people in sci-fi. I mean, if you take Trainspotting as an example – hugely famous internationally, uses both standard English and lots of Edinburgh Scots, switches between things and mixes it up. And the writing, the use of Scots, I think is absolutely part of that.

GRB:  Before we finish, we’ve been talking about crime as a genre. Squeaky Clean has been shortlisted for the 2023 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize and longlisted for the Mcilvanney prize – there are a number of big names among the other nominees but who really stands out for in crime-writing for you? 

CMcS: From the prize list? Or in general . . .

GRB: Either. Or both [ . . .]

CMcS: From the prize list, I read, S.G.Maclean’s, The Bookseller of Inverness recently and I enjoyed that a lot. But it’s so different from my book. It’s kind of interesting to have them both on the same list because they’re loosely of the same genre but historical is quite a different niche. But that’s a great book.

But generally, I’m a huge fan of Louise Welsh. When I was coming to the end of my course at uni, I really got into hard-boiled detective fiction, so I read Raymond Chandler and, you know, the usual suspects. But then, I read The Cutting Room and it just totally blew me away.

Because the thing about the hard-boiled stuff, I feel like, something set in Los Angeles, that just feels effortlessly cool, you know. But doing something in Glasgow wouldn’t have the same feel to it. You know, like, even just mentioning the street names, all the LA patter from the 1950s. Then, I read The Cutting Room and I realised that Louise Welsh had done this with Glasgow.

It’s kind of sleazy, it’s glamorous, it’s grimy. The way the character is harsh, she subverts all these tropes and it made Glasgow recognisable but unrecognisable at the same time. And it had that same quality that Chandler gives to LA or Ellroy does, in its own unique way. It totally blew me away when I read that. It opened my eyes, to see that I could write crime and set it here, in a place that I know really well.  

So, there was that. Also, one of the big influences for Squeaky Clean specifically is Out by Natsuo Kirino, which is about four women who work in a boxed lunch factory in Tokyo on the night shift. One of them kills her husband and the four of them band together to dispose of the body using some of the techniques they’ve learned at work and claim the life insurance money, share it, but it comes to the attention of the police and the Yakuza and they get embroiled.

It’s such a good story. I loved it. I really like the writing. I’ve written loads of short stories about work, various jobs that I’ve had. Over the past few years, I’ve always ended up writing about them somewhere.

And Natuo Kirino did the same about this factory. That aspect appealed to me, it has a really, really dark sense of humour. It’s really bad. It’s more like the kind of absurd situation that they get into is kind of funny, and it goes to their wee jokes on the page. But yeah, that was a huge influence. It’s the kind of story I wanted to write.

GRB: Callum McSorley, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. 

Callum McSorley was speaking to CD Boyland.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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