Do you have any authors whose books you just can’t believe you haven’t read yet? Stuart MacBride is definitely one of mine. Last weekend, I got the best possible introduction to his books: while in Denmark for Krimimessen 2017, I got to sit down with Stuart himself and discuss his writing, his background, Shakespeare, and a whole lot more! As a bonus, we met in a cafe that had the creepiest, most fitting decor for a crime festival - see our photo below and check out the window in the picture...
Our interview is specifically focused on Stuart’s Ash Henderson books: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD and A SONG FOR THE DYING. As you’ll see, we started there and then covered a little bit of everything in our conversation! Stuart was an absolute pleasure to speak with - I honestly can’t remember the last time I learned so much in a 45-minute conversation. Many thanks to Stuart for taking the time to speak with me, and to Mette from HarperCollins Nordic for setting up this interview!
Plus: below our interview, you’ll find plot information for Stuart’s Ash Henderson books.
Author Interview: Stuart MacBride
My interview with Stuart was truly such a fascinating one. Of everything that I took away from it, what impressed me most was the level of detail that goes into every aspect of his writing - from his research to his prose to his inspiration. You’ll see what I mean as you read through this recap of our conversation! Here you’ll find my notes from talking with Stuart, divided by topic.
- What’s Book 1 in the series (BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD) about, in one or two sentences? What happens when someone abducts young women on the eve of their 13th birthday, and then, each year, sends the family a reminder in the form of a Polaroid photo of their daughter being tortured? This criminal doesn’t just torture the victim, but tortures the family as well… (I know, I was totally hooked. You can read the full plot summary at the bottom of this post!)
- Do these books need to be read in order? Yes, they do, definitely.
- The Ash Henderson books are set in a fictional town.
- Why a fictional town? Stuart chose to create a fictional town because it gives him freedom to make his characters, especially Ash, behave in a way that’s not exactly upstanding. His police officers can be corrupt and can behave in less-than-legal ways without him worrying about offending anyone.
- Stuart worked closely with local police officers in researching his books - and he didn’t want anyone to think he had based the corrupt cops in this series on the officers who helped him.
- This town might be fictional, but Stuart has mapped it all out - literally. He’s made an actual map of the town to make sure his descriptions of it are always accurate! He first wrote about this town in a short story collection, and he wanted to make sure his descriptions of the town were always consistent. (This blew my mind - I’ve always associated this kind of rich world-building with someone like J.R.R. Tolkien.)
- His research when writing about the police covers all different aspects of police work - everything from the big-picture elements to the little details, down to how the epaulets on a police officer’s shirt are fastened.
- He never intended to write a follow-up to BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD, but his readers were so keen to keep reading about Ash, he ended up writing A SONG FOR THE DYING.
- Because he never meant to turn Ash into a series character, he put Ash through a lot of trauma in BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD. I wondered, how do you continue writing about a character who you've just put through so much? Stuart explained that in A SONG FOR THE DYING, he had to make sure that Ash now carries with him the scars (emotional and physical) of his brutal experiences in BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD. For example, physically, he walks with a limp in Book 2 after sustaining an injury in Book 1.
- Stuart’s Ash Henderson books are, in many ways, informed by Shakespeare’s tragedies.
- These books aren’t retellings of any individual Shakespearean tragedy, but they reflect the core theme of these plays: a story of a man brought low by his own hubris.
- Ash suffers greatly throughout his books, and in many ways, the terrible things that happen to him are his own fault - and things just get worse and worse for him as the books progress.
- Stuart played Hamlet when he was a kid in school! I loved this because I actually did, too. (We bonded over how hard it is to memorize all those lines!)
- Side note: I've never talked about it on Crime by the Book, but Shakespeare has been a huge part of my reading life, so I was just thrilled to learn about this element of Stuart's work!
STUART’S FAVORITE BOOKS?
- I asked Stuart what book he considers his favorite, and his answer was just so charming! He answered Winnie the Pooh, because that story is so near and dear to his heart.
- Someday he would love to write a children’s story like that - a story that someone will hold in their heart for the rest of their lives. He views it as such an honor, to write a book that someone would love and cherish for their lifetime.
- As far as crime writers, Stuart enjoys: Allan Guthrie, Eva Dolan, Steph Broadribb, Zoe Sharp, and many more!
BACKGROUND & WRITING
- Stuart has no formal training or background as a writer! (This blew my mind.)
- He worked a number of different jobs before trying his hand at crime writing.
- His first book was, in his own words, terrible. But trying his hand at writing, even if the end product wasn’t great, showed him how much he loved crafting worlds and characters. From there, he was hooked.
- He has now written 16 books plus a number of short stories. This includes his Logan McRae series, his Ash Henderson series, and a number of standalones.
- I also loved learning that he’s written a children’s book called Skeleton Bob!
- He’s always looking for new ways to change up his writing routine. Just recently, he tried writing a screenplay as a new way to start a novel! He wrote his idea for a book into a screenplay, and then adapted it into novel form.
- Stuart also shared a whole lot of information about his personal writing style and goals - but I don't want to spoil anything for you! Suffice it to say, Stuart puts a lot of effort and thought into the worlds he crafts in his writing, and strives to create a truly immersive experience for his readers. He shared with me many different elements of his books that he said he hopes are so natural, his readers will never notice that he's worked so hard to develop them - and I would never want to spoil that for you. I will just say, if you do pick up BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD, pay close attention to the way Stuart's characters interact with one another, and with their environment. Stuart has done something truly exceptional in his writing and I for one am so excited to see what that reading experience is like.
The Ash Henderson Books
Book 1: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD
Detective Constable Ash Henderson has a dark secret
Five years ago his daughter, Rebecca, went missing on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. A year later the first card arrived: homemade, with a Polaroid picture stuck to the front – Rebecca, strapped to a chair, gagged and terrified. Every year another card: each one worse than the last.
The tabloids call him ‘The Birthday Boy’. He’s been snatching girls for twelve years, always in the run-up to their thirteenth birthday, sending the families his home-made cards showing their daughters being slowly tortured to death.
But Ash hasn’t told anyone about Rebecca’s birthday cards – they all think she’s just run away from home – because if anyone finds out, he’ll be taken off the investigation. And he’s sacrificed too much to give up before his daughter’s killer gets what he deserves.
Book 2: A SONG FOR THE DYING
He’s back …
Eight years ago, ‘The Inside Man’ murdered four women and left three more in critical condition – all of them with their stomachs slit open and a plastic doll stitched inside.
And then the killer just … disappeared.
Ash Henderson was a Detective Inspector on the initial investigation, but a lot can change in eight years. His family has been destroyed, his career is in tatters, and one of Oldcastle’s most vicious criminals is making sure he spends the rest of his life in prison.
Now a nurse has turned up dead on a patch of waste ground, a plastic doll buried beneath her skin, and it looks as if Ash might finally get a shot at redemption. At earning his freedom.
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Thank you to Stuart for taking the time to meet with me! I had such a great time learning about his books, and I've now added BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD to my reading list. For more information on Stuart and his books, visit stuartmacbride.com.