Edinburgh Book Festival: Claire Askew sets her first novel's campus shooting in Scotland

Claire Askew has been thinking about death for years. Not the usual cancer/chemo/crematorium combination, but something even more randomly appalling, like when a loner student wakes up one morning and decides to kill as many girls at his college as he can

Claire Askew drew on her childhood fears after the Dunblane shooting. Picture: Stewart Attwood

We are used to reading about such carnage in America, but Askew’s debut novel All the Hidden Things has the added shock of plonking that storyline right on our doorstep, in Edinburgh’s fictitious Three Rivers College. And while our own imaginations might shrink before such a horror, Askew’s opens up to follow in heart-shredding detail the trail of tragedy the shooter leaves behind him.

Publishers Hodder – winner of a four-way auction – are making comparisons with Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina for their new signing. Allow for a bit of hype, but they’re not too far off: the opening three chapters, introducing us to three central characters on the day before the shooting, when none have a clue about what is going to happen the next day, are the best-realised set-up for a crime story I have read for years.

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When we meet for what turns out to be her first interview, I ask the obvious question: what made her want to write about such an awful event? And she takes me back to the 1996 Dunblane massacre three days after her tenth birthday when her Kelso primary school went into lockdown. “I think that probably had a profound subconscious effect. From that time on, I’ve always been fascinated by these kind of events, these seemingly senseless acts of mass murder.”

Yet in those intervening years, most of the writing she has done had been poetry, not prose, her work regularly being picked up in anthologies of the year’s best Scottish poems. This Changes Things, her first collection, came out two years ago and was promptly shortlisted for both the Edwin Morgan Poetry award and the Saltire Society’s Society’s Best First Book award. She has, says poet Jen Hadfield, in words that are also applicable to her Askew’s fiction, “a genius for communicating how people tick”. Poetry still had the upper hand when, in 2008, she started working four days a week at Edinburgh’s Telford College, where she mainly taught male students aged between 15 and 21. She was soon doing a full-time PhD at Edinburgh University as well, concentrating on the confessional strand in contemporary female poetry. The two worlds, both demanding, could hardly have been further apart.

“My job title at the college was lecturer in communications, but what I was really doing a lot of was literacy work, usually on courses like sports coaching or engineering where the students needed just to be able to write a report or make a presentation. So they weren’t really engaged.

“On a one-to-one basis, I really liked them. But what I kept noticing was that when you put them in a big group and there was the slightest provocation, it was like a tinder box. They would get angry and aggressive, threatening each other and trying to get across the desks to attack.

“I never felt in danger, but it did make me realise how angry young men who have been failed by the system can be. I actually felt as though I could understand how those kinds of events [shootings] could happen. Obviously, that does not excuse them, but to me they became less senseless and random than I had thought.”

When she left the job in May 2014, all of that was still in her head. She decided to try writing fiction, but as the school shooting idea “which had been chasing me around” seemed too big for a short story, she plunged straight into attempting to write a novel. There’d be three women protagonists – Helen Birch, a newly promoted police inspector leading the investigation; the mother of the shooter, and the mother of his first victim. And she’d start with the shooting itself. That, though, was only on the novel’s first draft – and the scenes I so admired were put in later. In case there’s anyone out there who thinks novel-writing is straightforward, I should point out that there were a further eight drafts before it was accepted for publication and five more before the final version. “Only about ten per cent of the original first draft made it through,” she tells me.

Then that same month, in California, there was yet another campus shooting. A 22-year-old killed six students and wounded 14 at Santa Barbara before turning the gun on himself, having first made a video which he uploaded to YouTube. “He was one of the first of the more recent wave of “incel” (involuntary celibate) killers, and that did shape quite a lot of the book,” admits Askew. “In the novel, the shooter only kills women, and maybe that comes from this.”

From the start, she was determined that the shooting wouldn’t be described graphically, but instead through the more neutral tones of Wikipedia entries or police reports. “Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus describes a school shooting in toe-curling detail and I didn’t want anything like that. I just wanted to show the devastation left in the wake when an act like that is committed.”

Because she had never attempted to write a novel before, and because she never assumed that her book would be published, she found a certain freedom in writing. With that came a clearer idea of the characters, and how important it was that each of them should be stereotype-free. That even applies to the killer himself. Even though he is only shown through other people’s eyes, he doesn’t appear to be mentally ill or in any way likely to commit such a horrendous crime. His mother isn’t absent, uncaring or violent either.

“The main thing I wanted to do,” says Askew, “was to write a book that prevented people sticking with their preconceived ideas about this kind of event.” There are no easy answers, in other words – the way there often aren’t in life either.

With DI Birch – already lined up as the protagonist of Askew’s second book – the challenge was to swerve around the stereotype of making her too much of a cold, imperiously efficient commander (Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison, for example). “Yes, she’s doing a hard job, but sometimes she messes up, and goes home and puts her yoga pants on and has a glass of wine,” she says. We’re talking degrees of nuance here: Birch isn’t as untidy as, say, a female Columbo, just someone who might occasionally spill a sandwich down her front or leave her radio behind in the car.

While we’re on the subject of avoiding stereotypes, I should mention that All the Hidden Truths is hardly what you might expect from a “poet’s novel”, all polished metaphors and overwrought similes. Instead, with only the occasional exception, the dialogue is cracklingly authentic, the characterisation (apart from a cardboard cut-out freelance hack) credible and the scenes showing “the Edinburgh the tourists don’t see” so well-drawn that Ian Rankin and the capital’s other crime writers are going to have to look to their laurels. There’s a new kid in town.