James Oswald thinks up plots on his cattle and sheep farm, and has just won a six-figure deal
by: Tom Rowley
James Oswald is talking about his success as a crime writer when he suddenly becomes distracted and turns to the computer on his battered desk. His “lamb cam” shows a live feed from the shed some 500 yards across the fields. “I think that’s a little head,” he says, pointing excitedly.
We cut across a field of ewes to his polytunnel. Inside, a tiny newborn lamb is crouching next to a ewe. “Here comes the second one,” Oswald shouts, as it emerges and crouches on the straw while the ewe licks it warm. He creates a new pen so the ewe and its lambs won’t be disturbed by the rest of the flock. At last, Oswald is satisfied: “I’ll leave her to clean them up.
“I’ve been up since 5.30am,” he explains as we head back indoors. “As I was giving them hay earlier, I noticed one of them was struggling a bit and I had to help the lamb out. This is as hands-on as it gets.”
Oswald’s days are about to get even busier. On Thursday, his debut novel, Natural Causes, will be published, and two more are expected to hit bookshelves by next spring. He will have to juggle writing and farming with interviews and book-signings.
The 45-year-old already has experience of such success, however. In fact, he has become a self-publishing phenomenon, racking up 350,000 online sales for Natural Causes and its sequel, The Book of Souls, when he released them last year for download to e-readers such as the Kindle. The figures astonished publishing houses that are normally impressed by first-time authors who can sell 20,000 books, and Oswald was soon at the centre of a bidding war to publish his work in book form. Penguin won the auction, while the international rights have already been sold to six countries. The book has proved a critical success, too, making the shortlist for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award.
So Oswald could be forgiven for relishing this moment in the limelight, booking a London venue for a glitzy bash on Thursday night. Instead, the book will be officially launched in… the Dundee Waterstones.
He points across to the city from his window, showing how convenient the party will be. His view is rather wider than that, however. His home overlooks the River Tay, some two miles wide as it reaches its mouth. Twenty minutes’ drive south of Perth, Oswald can see the Grampian mountains to the west on a good day, while the Tay stretches to the North Sea beyond Dundee to the east.
Oswald shares the study-cum-kitchen with three dogs; his partner, Barbara, will soon join him. Logs stand next to the wood-burning stove, and a whiteboard pinned above his desk is covered with scrawled ideas for future novels.
“I’ve always wanted to write,” says Oswald, perched on a black leather chair, incongruous among the dog blankets that clutter the floor. “I just love telling stories. My uncle told my mother when I was four that I’d be a writer because of the tall tales I used to tell. But you can’t be a full-time writer unless you’re really, really lucky, so you need to have a day job.”
He has worked on farms since he graduated from Aberdeen University in 1990, first doing odd jobs in Scotland before settling in rural Wales, working as an agricultural consultant.
He had just bought a house there with Barbara five years ago when two police officers knocked on his door one day at 3am to tell him his parents, David and Juliet, had died. Their pick-up truck had collided with a car on the A9 in an accident that also killed a Dutch man and his young son. Oswald inherited the 350-acre farm he had hungered for in the toughest of circumstances. “I’d always wanted to take over – but after my dad retired, not after an accident like that. It was enormously traumatic. I had no enthusiasm for anything at all. I certainly didn’t want to write, and I didn’t write for about two years.”
He moved to the farm and prepared to abandon his dream to tend his 12 Highland cattle and 50 New Zealand Romney sheep. In despondent mood, he realised the publishers had been right to turn down Natural Causes when his agent had hawked it around a few years previously.
But at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a few weeks later, he got talking to Allan Guthrie, whose first e-book had just sold very successfully. “I hadn’t really cottoned on to the whole Kindle thing, but I just had to pay $80 for the cover to be designed and for a few beers for my friends for proofreading. I thought I’d give it one more go.”
Within weeks Oswald was shifting 2,000 copies a day. Readers loved his protagonist, Edinburgh’s Det Insp Tony McLean, who combines old-fashioned sleuthing with supernatural intuition, and Natural Causes soon topped Amazon’s e-book chart.
“Nothing gives you your self-confidence back like 350,000 people downloading your book,” he grins. “The sales figures are updated in real time and it was really addictive. I had to ration myself to only checking them after a day on the farm.”
Far from finding it a bind, he says his day job helps him to write. “If I’m on the tractor, it’s not mentally taxing so I can just think through plots. If I go for a walk and I lose the dogs because it’s all going off in my head, then that’s brilliant. My notebook is never far away, so I can scribble things down. It has all sorts of questionable stains on it.”
He was mending a fence in a hailstorm when his agent called with the result of the auction. “My fingers were barely working, but I managed to get the phone out. She said she’d done a six-figure deal. I thought, 'I can pay someone to come and do this fencing for me’.” He quickly frittered some of the money away on such luxuries as a new tractor.
The hefty advance suggests that Penguin considers Oswald in the same bracket as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. So surely he can give up the day job? “I could never move,” he insists. “For all that it is bloody hard work, there is something magical about lambing and calving. I could do my writing in a city staring out at a brick wall – but this is the view I want.”