It’s a rainy night in Glasgow, even by Glasgow standards, when I find myself among a crowd of less than twenty people, knee to knee with Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Woodlands Workspace – a new hub for arts and events that opened at the end of September. Two walls of the small venue are floor to ceiling glass, an impressive showcase for said weather.
Booker-prize nominated author Burnet is the first writer to appear there as part of a month-long series of events to mark the grand opening, just weeks before the publication of his third novel, The Accident on the A35. Asked how he feels about releasing his first book since His Bloody Project (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016, catapulting him – and its Scottish indie publisher Saraband – to international attention) he answers with one word: “Scared.”
He outlines several reasons, the main ones being how different his new book is from His Bloody Project as well it being not so overtly ‘literary’. The Accident on the A35 is a sequel to his first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, a high-minded crime story set in a provincial French village. A fan of post-modern tricks, Burnet created a fictional author for the book, only crediting himself as its translator (there’s even a fake author bio at the end of the book), a ruse which fooled many readers and even people who had booked him for readings and signings.
His Bloody Project followed a similar vein, set up as a series of lost documents curated and annotated by Burnet that pertain to the bloody murders of three people by a crofter called Roddy Macrae in the 19th century. He laughs that many reviewers are disappointed that it is ‘fake’. It may all be fiction, but the history is so well researched you’d have to forgive people for thinking otherwise.
Of course, Burnet isn’t the first author to do something like this. It was a common feature of early novels – particularly horror stories – and has been repurposed and satirized by several post-modern authors, Alasdair Grey’s Poor Things for example.
It does, however, lead to a heated discussion between Burnet and an audience member who complains they disliked the end of His Bloody Project because the story is left open for interpretation (without spoilers – Roddy’s motivations to commit the crime are presented differently by different sources, with no one source indicated as the ‘correct’ version). “But as the author, isn’t the onus on you to give the readers an answer?” she asks. He shakes his head and says, “Not at all,” rebutting any accusation of not meeting his readers’ expectations. “If you’re still having to think about it afterwards, that’s good.”
As well as discussing his new book, he takes on a round of quickfire questions, revealing The Catcher in the Rye is the book that got him into reading at a much later age than expected for someone who became a critically-acclaimed author, he finds Kerouac’s beat classic On the Road boring, and that The Inbetweeners was an influence when writing scenes featuring His Bloody Project’s teenage cast, the character Archibald Ross being particularly compared to Jay – “He’s six months older than Roddy, so Roddy thinks he’s very worldly, but he’s really just a bullshitter.”
Despite the damp clothes, it’s been a fun and interesting night complete with tea and cakes, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most intimate gigs Burnet will do for the foreseeable future.
The Accident on the A35 is out on 26 October.