CRIME WRITER, Tony Black, Launches His New Anthology
Tony Black is the author of over 20 novels, many of which fall within the category of ‘tartan-noir’, Scotland’s very own crime fiction genre. Not bad for a native Australian.
“I was born in Australia,” Tony confirms. “My mum and dad were Ten Pound Poms. They were out there for about ten years. Then they came back and I was in Kelso until I was 7 or 8, then we went over to Ireland for a couple of years, and then my dad got a job in Ayr.”
The young Tony realised very early on that there were only two subjects at school he was interested in.
“I concentrated on art and writing. I did actually go to art school but I changed to English. Then I went to work in newspapers. I worked in a local Ayrshire rag called The Leader. Then I went up north and worked on newspapers up there.”
‘Up north’ refers to Inverness where he worked for The Press & Journal, the best-selling daily newspaper in the country. But his aim was always to write fiction.
“It was really fiction that I was interested in, but to pay the bills I had to be a hack! So I did the hack work all over the place. At one stage I had three or four complete novels and I’d managed to bag an agent in London… she was really well connected, but she was struggling to get my books sold.”
In the end, it was advice from an Australian author, Bryce Courtenay, that led to Tony securing a publishing contract.
“I had interviewed Bryce who had just had a number one hit with The Power of One. At the end of the interview I mentioned that I was a budding author myself and he asked how many books I’d written. I had four gathering dust and cobwebs under my bed and he said ‘well, it’s always the fifth one that breaks through’ so I thought, maybe I should try another one.”
Having been advised by his agent to write a crime fiction novel, he penned Paying For It.
“She put it out and within five days had sold it to Random House. It took me ten years to be an overnight success!”
Paying For It was the first in the Gus Dury series. Significant and memorable characters in his other books include DI Rob Brennan, Doug Michie, DI Bob Valentine and Clay Moloney. I ask if those four early novels ever made it to print.
“The first two are still under my bed and that’s where they’ll stay! The other two have been published. His Father’s Son – which The Herald erroneously called biographical – is about a kid who comes from Australia and goes to Ireland. It’s a dad and a lad type story. The second one was The Last Tiger which is the story of a young boy who befriends what he thinks is the last Tasmanian tiger during the tiger bounty in Tasmania.”
The Last Tiger actually went on to be runner-up in The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.
Having lost count when I was trying to add up Tony’s long list of published books, I ask how he managed to write so many in such a short period of time.
“I really must learn to say no,” he says, matter-of-factly, before admitting he had a contract hanging over his head.
“When I signed with Random House, they gave me a six book deal and wanted me to produce two books a year. For the first few years I just about managed it, but towards the end I was getting really burned out. It was getting ridiculous and I was sick of writing Gus Dury novels! In the end… I packed a bag and went to live in Melbourne. I was out there for a good wee while before Gus chased me down and got me to write another one a few years later.”
Despite the success of his novels, Tony wouldn’t be so quick to sign such a contract now.
“It’s not something I would recommend. I think as you get older… you’re much more cautious about the words that you put into a sentence. And if you work around the clock everything suffers… your social life, your diet. But I suppose if you’re one of those people stupid enough to fall down that hole then how do you get out of it?”
It’s clear he’s berating himself rather than criticising anyone else. And I’m sure there’s also a hint of humour hidden behind his self-deprecation. If our brief conversation is anything to go by, humour is something he’s clearly very good at. Which makes his sometimes gruesome imagination all the more shocking.
“This is how it works…” he says, referring to his macabre storylines. “You think of the nicest place and you do something horrible there and it has the most impact because bad things aren’t supposed to happen in nice places.”
Which leads nicely onto his new anthology. Titled The Lock-In, it is the follow-up to his first anthology, Last Orders, and is a collection of shorter stories, some of a rather grim nature, and some with a heavy Scottish influence.
“There’s a lot of stories in there that are influenced by Ayrshire… and I wrote a couple of stories on Arran as well. You can play Ayrshire bingo with it!”
The stories, he tells me, are of varying lengths from 2,000 to 8,000 words. His novella The Ringer, which was adapted for stage and performed at Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre, is also included.
I ask if he has a favourite story in the anthology.
“There’s a new Gus Dury story in there called Dead On. It’s set in Edinburgh and, without giving too much away, Gus tends to fall into these ridiculous situations where he’s so disgusted by the crime, he can’t help but get involved.”
And what about his characters. Does Tony have a favourite from his many books?
“The little boy in His Father’s Son,” he says without hesitation. “He’s a funny character and so genuine. There’s a childhood spark of honesty about him. I’ve actually just finished the first draft of the second book where he goes into his teenage years.”
You heard it here first! In the meantime, it’s all about The Lock-In. But why an anthology, and why now?
“Writing is the day job and it pays the bills, so I’m continually writing big things like novels. The short stories and the novellas are the things that I really want to do… but there’s no market for it. They take a wee while to accumulate before you’ve got enough for an anthology. This has probably been about ten years in the making!”
There’s that humour again. I’m looking forward to hearing more of that when he launches his anthology on 30th November at Prestwick Library. Talking of which, does he have time to read other people’s books?
“I read a lot less than I used to. I read Barry Graham, he’s my favourite Scottish writer. I think he’s probably the best writer that we’ve produced over the last couple of generations.”
Interestingly, the cover image of The Lock-In is actually a portrait of Barry, painted by Tony himself!
Before I (reluctantly) bring our conversation to a close, I ask what advice Tony has for other budding authors. Keep going until you’ve written your fifth novel, perhaps?
“Something like that,” he laughs, before adding more seriously: “Only do it if you have to and you can’t do anything else.”
Spoken from experience, obviously.