Monday 11 April 2011

Nigel Bird interview: Dirty Old Town

Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird

Nigel Bird's short stories have received considerable acclaim and rightly so. In my opinion, he's one of the best new writers around. He runs the Sea Minor blog, famous for its unique series of interviews: Dancing With Myself. Two little known facts: Nigel came up with the name for this blog; and he was the mastermind behind a group of six-year-olds from Tranent putting out a charity book on Kindle called Jack And The Giant.

Dirty Old Town is his debut fiction collection.

How long did Dirty Old Town take you to write?

‘Sea Minor’, the tale of a young girl who is taken by her depressed mother to the Isle Of Skye, was written about five years ago and, like many of my pieces, was written in a very short burst.  It was published by The Reader magazine in the UK in autumn 2009 and it gave me a real boost to be appear in a collection which also featured Seamus Heaney, Vanessa Hemingway, Ian MacMillan and John Kinsella.

The remainder of the collection was written over 2010 and a number of them were published online during that period.

‘Drinking Wine’ and ‘Sisterhood’ first appeared at A Twist Of Noir, ‘Taking A Line For A Walk’ debuted at ‘Beat To A Pulp’, Silver Street in ‘Dark Valentine’ and One Hundred And Ten Per Cent at ‘Title Fights’.

For many of my short pieces, the longest part of the process is waiting for the idea to find its characters and its voice.  The actual writing doesn’t take more than three or four sittings and the edit usually takes about as long as the initial writing.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

It’s amazing waiting to find out who’s going to be in a story once an idea has formed.  The folk who come into focus when I start looking never cease to amaze me.  For example, in the story I’ve just completed, the main character is an Australian woman who shears sheep and is an arm-wrestling champion; how and why she came out like that, I’d be afraid to find out.
I love the germination aspect of things when my brain puts things together while I’m not looking. I’m always pleased to find the voice for a story and then to let it flow for as long as it can without needing too much intervention. When I’m working, I often know the beginning and end point. The rest appears as I write and I genuinely enjoy finding out what’s going to happen along the way. It’s great to finish something and know that I’ve nailed it to the best of my ability and then it’s fun to go back and to see that I can actually improve on it still.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I think my stories are full of heart, but I’m not clear why. I also think that I’m good at going along with a voice and keeping it consistent, letting it flow to a conclusion that makes sense.  An element to that might be the creation of characters who may not be obvious choices for a story in the first place.  I come up with some interesting turns of phrase, something I put down to my poetry reading and writing of way-back-when. Best of all, I think there’s something in what I do that can leave a reader feeling something, moving them somehow; it’s not something I set out to do, but it’s what people say and I’m glad it’s there.

Weaknesses outweigh the strengths and I probably don’t know what half of them are. 

I’m guilty of assuming the reader knows what I’m talking about and forgetting to point out the obvious.  Conversely I can be guilty of over-writing.

I need to work harder on describing scenes and people to give a stronger link to the environment or action I’m writing about.

I’ve only just heard of authorial intrusion and I’m guilty of that. 

When it comes to longer work I fail to use chapters well or to keep the reader’s interest. 


Missing out chunks of narrative because I think they’d be too difficult to write. 

The good thing about all of these is that they can be overcome.  Authors who write really well often talk about the importance of the re-write and I think that is an area I’m taking more seriously and getting better at. 

What are you reading now?

I’ve just finished a couple of books that I really enjoyed.  More Sinned Against’, by Dave White, is a collection of bite-sized PI stories about Jackson Donne over in New Jersey.  It’s a brilliant, modern read with a familiar detective feel to it.  'Smokeheads', by Doug Johnstone, is a rip-roaring adventure where a lot of bad things happen to a group of guys on a whisky tasting weekend.  I’d recommend both highly.  The book in my bag now is Hilary Davidson’s ‘The Damage Done’ and I’ve been waiting for this to get to the top of my pile with some anticipation.  She hooked me early and she’s reeling me in with soft, secure hands.

Ever tried your hand at poetry?

Wet Weekend

You’ve got a face like a wet weekend
A bus’s back-end, Buster Keaton’s best friend
The Moaner Lisa, a soggy pizza,
No way on Earth to ever please ya'
Like tripe was served for dinner and tea
Like the mush escaped from the mushy peas
Could sink a few thousand ships I’d say
Send the single swallow the other way
Seven colours short of making a rainbow
A luminous thing that just won’t glow
A violin played with a cheese-wire bow
The bitter part of bitter lemon
You’ve died and been sent back from heaven
Someone’s read your secret diary
You’ve won, and there’s a steward’s enquiry
A cat who’s found the sour cream
Awoken from some hideous dream
About to face the dentist’s drill
Can’t afford the latest bills
Got up this morning the wrong side of bed
A bird’s just crapped upon your head
Aimed for the stars, hit the barn roof instead
Seen a ghost, got no post
Lost the one you love the most
The butter between the floor and the toast
Dragged through a hedge the wrong way round
Found a penny, mislaid a pound
Fit to scare the Baskerville hounds.
I’d like to make you smile, in fact
I want to put you back on track,
But I can’t, you see, it just might crack
Wherever it came from, you should take it back.

Which author should be much better known?

I’m going to throw in the name of a local boy based purely on the evidence of one book. Simon Logan wrote a novel called ‘Katja From The Punk Band.’  It’s so immediate as a story and so well put together that he’s clearly an author with a huge talent.

Simon’s novel is up for a Spinetingler Award in the Best New Voice category, so I’m obviously not the only one who holds him in high regard.

I think film-makers should be looking closely at the work to see if they can reproduce his ideas on screen as there’s something powerful in the tension he generates and in the visual images he offers.  Maybe that’s the way word would spread to a bigger audience.

If you don’t know the book, I’d strongly recommend you get acquainted. 

What was your favourite book as a child?

As a pre-schooler it was anything by Dr Suess. 

The books that made the biggest impression on me at Primary School were White Fang and Lafayette.

Lafayette (and I don’t recall the actual title) was a hardback book of faded green.  It was a fictionalised version of the general’s life and it carried me along in a way that no other book had managed before.  I was always a reluctant reader, so just getting me to sit down and read rather than just pretend to was quite something.

White Fang was read aloud to my class in our last year of school.  Our teacher put everything into it and I absolutely loved it; I read it last year and still do – it brought all the smells and flavours of the classroom and the frozen north right back to me.  Tremendous.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

I’m working on a really great project just now with my good friend Chris Rhatigan.  Chris is a fine writer in his own right and he’s also the man behind Death By Killing, a blog which reviews short stories.  A number of the best writers around were given song titles from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack to inspire ideas.  Together with the talent that is Needle Publishing, we’re going to put them out as PULP INC which should be available some time this summer.  We have nine stories in the bag so far and each of them is dripping with class and craft.  I can’t wait to get them out there to a broader audience.

It would be nice to put together another collection of short stories this year and I have the pieces that will do the job.  All being well, that will come out in the autumn.

I’m also hoping to get my novel off the ground.  I’m a third of the way through writing it and it feels good so far.  It might well be something I do myself as an e-book rather than spending a year sending it around to agents and publishers.  I’d miss the editorial input, the tips and support with publicity, but unless someone starts biting my hand it seems like the best option.  I am part of a writing group online called Crimefic Writers and they’re pretty slick, so maybe that will be enough on the re-writing front. 

After that I’ll be returning to a novel I finished a while ago to see if I can salvage a couple of the main strands to create a novella.

Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird


  1. Smashing interview. Dirty Old Town is a class collection.

  2. Hi Nigel, Al,

    Great interview! Great poem.

    I'm looking forward to reading your Dirty Old Town collection.
    I'm finding it impossible to keep up with so many great interviews and recommendations or come up with another word to use instead of great.