Interview: Denise Mina

The family in Denise Mina's first graphic novel are nasty. As in murderously nasty. The Ushers are so constantly at one others' throats they make Norman Bates and his mother look like members of the Brady Bunch. This lot are cruel, angry, obsessed with inheritance, and selfish to the point of amorality. They wouldn't make their granny a cup of tea if she was wasting away in the basement. They would be more likely to bump her off.

• Mina relishes the discipline of writing for the comics page: 'I respond very well to rules. If there are certain parameters it's much easier to do something good.'

Picture: Robert Perry

Meeting the creator of the Ushers (and so many other memorably dysfunctional characters) in her bright, grand home by Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, the kids dispatched to school, the yoga class cancelled, Mina is all set to talk about social deviance, violence, and murder.

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She's practically rubbing her hands together in glee at the prospect of it.

"I love bleak things," she says with gusto. "It's true. And these people are disgusting!" She slaps the cover of her graphic novel, A Sickness in the Family, and looks pleased. "But then again, this is an analogy for our wider society. I grew up in London under Thatcher and that really was disgusting. A feeding frenzy.

"I'm sure in north London there were people sharing lentils but where I was, in Bromley, it was all about f***ing people over and having the biggest house. And when I wrote this, four years ago, it was still about that."

Surely even the mother of tartan noir to Ian Rankin's father (why not stick with the dysfunctional family metaphors) doesn't think people can be as awful as the Ushers? She cackles for the hundredth time. "Actually, it kind of is how I see people."

Mina is renowned for being a game, garrulous and rather ribald interviewee. She is such good fun; the conversation taking flight into the Glasgow property market, asylum seekers, her hatred of anyone who lives in Chelsea, the Anstruther Fish Bar in Fife …

Mina is super-smart, says exactly what she thinks, swears like a trooper, and is every inch the cheeky-faced crime queen of Glasgow. But what sets her apart – and always has – is her explicitly feminist politics and the fact that the more mainstream she becomes, the more unconventional she appears. Even surrounded by the hallmarks of successful middle-class life – the stripped floorboards, the ornate cornices, the Princess Pashley bicycle in the hall, the Cath Kidston wallpaper in the kids' bedrooms – Mina manages to look nonconformist with her shock of grey hair, puffball skirt, and sharp expression.

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She has sold gazillions of books. The Garnethill trilogy, her first stab at fiction while she was supposed to be working on her PhD, is a gothic masterpiece, and she is read all over the world. Her series featuring tenacious reporter Paddy Meehan is currently being adapted for the BBC.

"I went and checked out the 1982 newsroom they've created the other day," she says. "It was like walking into my own head."

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Yet in the ever burgeoning market of mass-produced, embossed crime fiction, Mina has managed the impossible. She has remained the outsider. Her detectives – always women – are proper one-offs: fearless, flawed and not necessarily likeable (she calls her latest, Alex Morrow, "a grumpy cow"). Mina is able to wriggle into the skin of both victim and perpetrator, is more interested in pitching documentaries about the history of prisons to the BBC than writing screenplays, and now, of course, there's the graphic novel.

"The day after my pal, Benny, set up my website I got an email from DC (Comics, publisher of the Vertigo imprint] asking if I'd like to write one," she explains. Mina had already taken on the Hellblazer comic series for a year.

She wrote A Sickness in the Family, a noirish whodunit in which an enormous hole in a house leads to a killing spree, in a fortnight. The monochrome drawings by Italian artist Antonio Fuso came later.

"We had just moved in here," she explains. "We certainly don't need any more space but I couldn't stop thinking about extending, buying downstairs, knocking through the wall. It was pure avarice. It had become so febrile, people seeing their properties as their identities.

Why do I need more rooms? I can't even keep this place clean." What began four years ago as a warning against human greed has become, in the midst of recession, black satire.

Crime fiction and graphic novels go hand in hand. There is the crossover in readership but it's also something about the economy of the form, the rules of the genre, and the aesthetic. Mina points out "a Hitchcock shot" through a window in the novel and explains that she wanted it to have a Scottish and American noir feel, with lots of flashbacks.

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"I respond very well to rules," she says. "If there are certain parameters it's much easier to do something really good. Especially when readers know what those are. They know what to expect and then you have to wrong-foot them. That is the trick of crime fiction. And readers come to crime and graphic novels wanting to be entertained, or disgusted. They don't want to feel better about themselves."

She found the discipline of writing a small number of words for a small number of panels thrilling. "It's so confined," she says. "You have to leave so much story for the artist to tell otherwise it won't work.

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Antonio (the artist] sent me a floor plan of the house and even designed his own William Morris wallpaper. I loved the tightness of it.

No-one can move in a panel. No-one can light a cigarette. You're either smoking or you're not. You're either standing at the top of a building or you're lying at the bottom."

Mina was born in Glasgow in 1966. Her family moved around Europe constantly – 21 times in 18 years – and by the time she was ten she could speak French and Dutch but she couldn't read. "I left school at 16 and when I was 18 went on holiday to Ibiza with a bunch of girls," she recalls. "They were going out, getting pissed and shagging. I didn't have a clue. I thought we were going on holiday to get a suntan." On the beach, Mina discovered fiction. She read Bulgakov and Marquez and the reader in her was born.

The writer took longer to come to life. It was when she returned to Glasgow to do a PhD on gender and mental illness that she had her first go at fiction. "I had to stop thinking that in a secret life I was a writer and in real life I was an incompetent PhD student," she laughs. "I'd written a book about a professional shoplifter called Mrs Mattie but it was when I wrote the first few chapters of Garnethill that it happened. If it hadn't been accepted I would have just stopped and become a lawyer."

The strong sense of social justice ended up being channelled into fiction instead of law. How important are her politics and sense of responsibility as a crime writer? "They are everything," she says without hesitation. "That's the only reason I can justify being a writer. I came from this very traditional background and I benefited hugely from feminism. I felt privileged going to university and doing a PhD. Most people of my background don't get to do that. I felt like I had to disseminate those ideas to people."

.Does she worry that her fiction is compromised by her politics? "It's difficult to manage," she says. "But then again, there is no such thing as point of viewlessness. Everyone has a position. Think about the number of novels where a serial killer cuts up lots of prostitutes in lots of different ways. The writer assumes you won't give a f*** about them. If it were a vicar's daughter, one murder would be enough. You tend to get accused of sneaking politics in if you come from a leftist or feminist perspective. Nothing is politically neutral."

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There is no sense of justice in A Sickness in the Family. It is bleak to the point of comedy. Order isn't restored, crimes go unpunished. To say more would give the plot away but Mina has always resisted pat solutions. "Readers are so educated now," she says. "Often I pick up a book and go – shot by a policeman without a trial? Again? That's what tends to happen and it's terrifying. The reader thinks it's fair. They aren't thinking about Jean Charles De Menezes."

Those sharp, green eyes turn to the cover of A Sickness in the Family with its creepy illustration inspired by American family portraits where the dead members' eyes are scrubbed out. "I find this kind of book much more satisfying because it could actually have happened," she says.

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"If order is restored at the end, then that's bollocks isn't it? Life just doesn't work like that."

• A Sickness in the Family is published by Vertigo Crime, priced 14.99