A recent entry of The Rap Sheet dug up a gem of an interview with author Paul Johnston from 2003, in which Paul – interviewed by the superlative Ali Karim and Simon Kernick – talks about his life and work; including his Quint Dalrymple series, which is set in the independent city-state of Edinburgh in the 2020s.
With this series experiencing a long-anticipated revival this month, the sixth in the series, Heads or Hearts, will be published in the UK on 30th April, it seems the perfect opportunity to reintroduce readers to both Paul and Quint.
Scroll down for more about Quint, or read the full interview here.
I want to talk more about your Quintilian Dalrymple series. Those books are set in Edinburgh in the 2020s, yet you try to avoid making them classifiably “science fiction.” You’re a Blade Runner nut, I understand, but have you ever really been interested in writing SF? And why set a crime series in the future?
The real reason that they are set in the future was that I wasn’t in Edinburgh at the time, and the objectivity thing was becoming a problem for me. … So moving the story into the near future was a way of overcoming that.
The whole SF thing is difficult to define, as [George] Orwell, for instance, is often referred to as SF. Then there’s [Aldous] Huxley with Brave New World, which is much more high-tech and much more SF than 1984, by Orwell. And I guess the latter is more where I am coming from — if you want to be divisive, you might even call it “literary SF.” Other kinds of SF I don’t read, and it doesn’t interest me. … I have always been open-minded as a reader and tried many SF books, but just couldn’t get into them. I literally couldn’t read them. On the other hand, I enjoy and have always enjoyed SF movies, which is somewhat weird. The visionary aspect of SF I do find interesting, but more from a sociopolitical perspective, rather than from the high-tech side, as I was always hopeless in science at school. I think that when I was young, and trying to read these SF books, the problem for me was the quality of the prose. Now, the quality of the prose is very high, like in the crime genre. But back then, 25 years ago, a great deal of SF was dreck, and it didn’t have any pretensions to be anything other than that. … [Today], I read Iain Banks’ SF and really enjoy his work …
What was it like to create a whole new world and landscape for the Quint novels? Did the freedom in itself become a burden?
[Laughs] Yes, it became a complete pain in the ass.
I found that I literally couldn’t write Body Politic as a contemporary crime novel. It was a complete logjam. Then, I suddenly had the brainwave of setting it in the future, and suddenly I was freed-up. The next day, I realized the downside: I had to invent a whole new society, as it was pointless moving the story into the future if the society then was exactly the same as present-day. Having said that, I did want to set the spotlight on contemporary society, anyway. The Quint books are really not meant to be futuristic, but contemporary social commentary — and that is the Orwellian side of it, insofar as the society is not very high-tech. It did take me a couple of months to invent the society, and that was a lot of extra work, but what that actually meant in the long run was it provided a good backdrop for the five novels.
About the Quint character: What is the genesis of his name, and how much of you is reflected in Mr. Dalrymple?
I guess [the name] started way back from a conversation with a friend in a pub, where after a few beers we thought it would be amusing (as you do after some beer) to have a character whose initials would be Q.E.D. … An old professor of mine in Oxford was an expert on [the ancient Roman orator] Quintilian, so we had the “Q.” Then the Dalrymple was quite easy, as it was a very good and fine Scottish name. But for the “E,” we really went very puerile and used “Eric” [the name often given to the village idiot in Monty Python sketches] … But when I got round to writing the book, I thought, Sod this, and I dropped the “Eric” and decided that Quint doesn’t have a middle name. The important point was that I was looking for an unusual name, something beginning with a “q” or a “z,” like Aurelio Zen [Michael Dibdin‘s Italian series detective]. I was messing around with various permutations, so it was quite consciously planned.
Going back to your original question, where you raised an interesting point on where these characters come from, and to what extent they have elements of the author in them: the interesting thing about Body Politic is that I wrote it in the third-person initially, and it failed to come to life. What I felt was lacking was the private eye, Marlowe-esque voice, so I rewrote the entire book, but in the first-person. The reason that I mention that, is that when you write in the third-person [as in A Deeper Shade of Blue], you inevitably put more distance between you and your characters … So Quint was realized with several degrees of separation from me … [but] when it transformed into first-person, there is no question more of me went into his character, like his anti-authoritarian views [and his] sardonic humor, to some extent. But I do think you try consciously not to write too much in terms of yourself.
Did you envision Quint as a series character right off the bat, or was his premiere adventure originally supposed to be a standalone?
No, I was unpublished at that point, struggling just to finish the novel I was writing, let alone thinking about a series. However, by the end I did leave some loose ends, as I had decided that the character, as well as the story, had legs, and perhaps I would revisit that world and its social setting. Body Politic and its follow-up, The Bone Yard, were both around 90,000 words, but subsequent novels were considerably longer. If I was given my time again, I would make both of those [first two] longer, sort of expanding the backstory. Both novels are very lean, in a wham-bam style, and in some ways that’s good for the pace of the books, as well as reflecting the minimalist nature of the society that they feature. … I have rationalized that perhaps Body Politic and The Bone Yard could be seen as two halves of the same book. I even mentioned that at my website.
Quint listens to a lot of blues music. Where did his love of the blues come from? Is that the kind of music you listen to when you’re writing?
I actually don’t listen to music when I write. I avoid any sound, even traffic noise, when I write. And even in Greece, there are a lot of building noises, especially from millionaires building mansions nearby, and flying in by helicopter. I’m pretty sure some of these people will die a gruesome death in a novel someday …
Actually, I have a very catholic taste in music, and I do like the blues. But with Quint, the reason he likes the blues is that it’s subversive and banned by the state, so it was an obvious thing for him. … I guess the blues also signify the melancholic side of Quint’s nature, which is an important facet of his character, and is, coincidentally, in Mavros’ character also. And “mavros” means black or noir in Greek. So we’re back full-circle again.