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Denise Mina: ‘Writing is a compulsion. It’s not really something you choose to do’

The Scottish author talks first love, bad hair, and how true happiness is giving a kid a 99 for the first time

Denise Mina was born in East Kilbride, but moved a lot as a child. In her twenties, she attended Glasgow University and gained a law degree, then wrote her first novel, Garnethill, which was published in 1998. As well as novels, she writes plays and comic books and has won several prizes, including the McIlvanney Prize for The Long Drop.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, she talks about when she fell in love with reading, the joy of having children and how she wishes that she’d given up smoking sooner.

When I was 16 I was living in London with my parents. My dad worked for North Sea oil and we moved around a lot. He got the sack a lot for being obnoxious, to be honest with you. Everywhere we went he fell out with someone, so we had to move. We ended up in Bromley in London, but before that we lived in Norway and Paris and Amsterdam and Glasgow and Invergordon – all the big lights. We always had a big family in Glasgow. The longest I’d ever lived anywhere was Paris for three years. I keep going back, but Paris in the ’70s was really special.

In 200, the year the second book in her ‘Garnethill trilogy’, Exile, is published Photo: Colin McPherson/Sygma via Getty Images

I was still at school but I never really went. School isn’t for everybody. There was quite a strict smoking ban at our school, that really put me off. And I didn’t read at all. I thought reading was for wholesome people who wore ironed trousers. I didn’t realise it was an escape. Sometimes reading fiction gets presented at school as something that’s good for you, like running. It’s not presented as a joy, something you do for fun. It doesn’t feel like a naughty thing. So it didn’t feel like anything to do with people like me. And it wasn’t until I went on a hellish holiday with some pals – one girl had brought [Gabriel García Marquez’s] One Hundred Years of Solitude and [Mikhail Bulgakov’s] The Master and Margarita with her. I started reading to escape and I realised, this is great. I love this.

I was quite a loner as a teenager. I was really overweight and quite punky, cutting my own hair. And I found it quite hard to give a fuck about what my peer group thought. Being overweight didn’t affect my confidence as much as it should have. I think I was supposed to hate myself because I was quite fat, but I thought it was funny. I remember going to a fancy dress party dressed as the Hulk because I loved the Hulk. And lots of girls said to me, you shouldn’t put yourself down like that, you’re not that fat. And I thought, what? I just really like the Hulk. 

As a teenager I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was ambitious. My ambition was to enjoy my life and not become bitter. It’s difficult to do, but that is the ultimate ambition. You know, people want their kids to be successful so they’ll be happy – why don’t you just cut to the chase and hope your children are happy? I’ve had so much luck in my career. But I know people who’ve had more luck and all they can think about is what they haven’t got. What a waste. So I made a conscious decision to be upbeat. 

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Other writers will understand that writing is a compulsion. It’s not really something you choose to do. When I was about age 18 I actually started putting things on paper, and then burning them. I wrote down lots of different things, words, thoughts, considerations, and then I turned to fiction because not enough had happened to me to just document my own existence. I think the words are the addiction and writing fiction is a way of indulging that compulsion to put words together. 

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I wrote a book about a professional shoplifter and I gave it to someone. They said something mildly ambivalent and I didn’t write again for two years. You know those stories about people who sent stuff off and got rejected again and again and just kept going? I would never have done that, I was too quick to believe the negative feedback. So it wasn’t until Garnethill got published two years later [in 1998] I thought, OK, this might work out. 

Being inducted into the Crime Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2014 Photo: Shutterstock

Finding out I had a book deal was a really big moment in my life. I didn’t sleep for a week. My pal came to my flat in Glasgow and she shouted up to my window, “Are you coming out for a drink?’ And I shouted down into the street, “I’m getting a book published!” And she shouted, “No way!” But it felt very unreal, and actually I felt very scared and exposed. I just couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. It felt like a big, big change. Now, years on, I understand that even when you get your dream, you will never feel all right. So just make peace with feeling uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re aware of what’s going on around you. You should be in two minds about everything, always questioning yourself. You should never feel like oh, here we are, we’ve arrived.

I think the 16-year-old me would be surprised how workaday being a published writer is. I imagined I’d be swanning about in a cape and that sort of thing. I’ve been very lucky, but my life is still about cleaning the floor and making sure my auntie gets to the doctor – those are the things that are really important, the things that make up a day and a life, aren’t they?

Photo: PR supplied

For years I dyed my hair black until I looked at a photograph and it looked like an Elvis wig. I thought, I can’t keep this up. I told my hairdresser Natalie, “I’m going to go grey.” She said, “It’ll be very ageing but good for you, that’s very brave.” I said, “There must be a cool way to go grey”, and she said, “I know what it is.” And she gave me this haircut. I loved it immediately. It does make a difference to people’s perception of me. Also, I think it’s important that we all stop pretending we’re still young. 

I would say now to my younger self, don’t worry so much. You’re always worried about the wrong thing. So it’s just a waste of time, whatever’s going to happen will happen. And I wasted a lot of time being fretful. I’d also say, stop smoking. I thought it made me calm, but it made me very, very anxious. And I wasted a lot of money on it. 

Having my kids has been the high point in my life. I never wondered what I was about or what I was doing; I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve loved almost every moment of it. I think about my relationship with my mum. We gave her a hard time and that was an intense relationship, but ultimately very close. 

The joy of having kids is you’re not thinking about yourself. You’re thinking, my son has never had a 99, I bet he’ll like this. It’s such a gift. For years you think, if I have this and I have that I’ll be happy. But actually, what makes you happy is giving someone a 99 for the first time. 

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If I could have one last stolen moment with anyone it would be my mum. She died at Christmas after she got Covid. She had a lung condition; she could not stop smoking. I would just sit with her because there wasn’t a thing left unsaid between us. We’d always had quite a difficult relationship but a really good laugh – if you’re from Glasgow you’ll understand that perfectly. So I would just sit with her and hold her hand.

If I could go back and re-live one moment… do you remember when buses in London used to have an open back? You could just jump on or off. Well, when I was 16, the very first time I fell in love I went on one of those buses on the way to visit him. I was standing with a foot on each side of the pole and we suddenly went round a really steep corner and I swung right out into the street. I remember it was dark and I swung out into the night, closed my eyes, and felt the wind on my face. Like Gene Kelly but a bit more dangerous. That was the first time I’d fallen in love and been really just intoxicated with it. It was an amazing feeling. I remember even at the time thinking, this is incredible. This is living. 

Confidence by Denise Mina is out now (Vintage, £14.99)
Interview: Jane Graham

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