John Gordon Sinclair: I want people to get “a big old slap in the face” when they read my books

The Gregory's Girl star and thriller writer shocked reviewers when he wrote Seventy Times Seven, and now he’s tackling difficult content once again with the third book in the series

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Gregory’s Girl is the elephant in the room when I talk to John Gordon Sinclair about his latest thriller, Walk in Silence, published this month by Faber.

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The former apprentice electrician from Glasgow shot into the limelight at 18 in Bill Forsyth’s charming 1981 romcom, kicking off an ostensibly accidental acting career that embraces film, TV and musicals like She Loves Me and The Producers. But he is ambivalent about acting and the mostly benign parts he’s (type)cast in.

When the first of his two daughters was born, Sinclair wanted to stay at home, so he renounced acting for a while and reinvented himself as the tougher-sounding, goatee-wearing ‘JG’ Sinclair, writer of pacy and startlingly brutal thrillers.

“I definitely took the gloves off with the first book [in 2012],” says Sinclair, now 55. “I thought, I know what people are expecting, and I want them to get a big old slap in the face.” That book, Seventy Times Seven, about mistaken identity and sectarian politics in Northern Ireland and Tuscaloosa in the 90s, garnered strong and sometimes horrified reviews.

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Gregory’s Girl

This month sees the publication of the third in the series, Walk in Silence, which is set in present-day Glasgow, New York and Albania. Its heroine is Keira Lynch. A child in the first book, she is now a drily witty, knife-throwing human rights lawyer with three bullet holes in her chest. And the subject is the sex trafficking of women and children.

“Because of what’s happening in Syria and Afghanistan now and what happened in the Balkans in the 90s, there are all these displaced families and children, and in the criminal underworld they are treated like any other commodity,” he says. “They are trafficked around the world, and when there is a glut, they are cheaper. It’s just shocking.”

The Albanian criminals who have homed in on this trade, and the police who supposedly hunt them, are both products of the battlefield. “When the civil war in former Yugoslavia started in the 90s, rather than raid the bakers for bread or the supermarkets, they raided the gun stores,” he says. “Everyone in Albania has a gun. Other international criminal gangs don’t like dealing with Albanians because they are too quick to violence. They won’t have a discussion about something, they’ll just shoot you.”

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Sinclair says that he ended up with a female protagonist by accident: when he realised there was more life in the story of Seventy Times Seven, Keira was simply the best person to carry it forward into the sequel, Blood Whispers (2014), and the new book. Although she is pretty damn tough, and a survivor, the awful violence meted out to her underlines the way the other women in the book are treated. Sinclair says he was inspired to make his own fiction “more graphic and more horrible” after reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which “aims to portray violence in such a way that people are sickened by it”.

He adds: “The same rule applies to any of it. If it’s funny, I want people to laugh out loud. If they feel sad for a character, I want them to shed a tear.” One of the best responses he’s had to his first book was when his father, also formerly an electrician, rang him from Glasgow in tears after reading it. Walk in Silence is dedicated to his father – who is now 83 and seriously ill with chronic lung disease – as well as to his wife, Shauna, a GP who also grew up in Glasgow, and their daughters, Eva and Anna.

There is an irony, perhaps, that Sinclair dreams up these dark visions of abuse from a female-dominated domestic idyll near Guildford. He’s a hands-on dad who delights in domestic tasks as much as the more traditionally macho skills of plumbing and wiring that are the legacy of his training as a spark. A self-confessed “socialphobe”, he’d rather be at home than down the pub or gabbing with actors. “I like hanging out with my wife and kids,” he says. “Writing gives you a great excuse to have to do that.”

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Promoting The Producers with Gene Wilder

He works from a shed in the garden, doing all his research online, and grumbles that Albania is one of the few places that isn’t on Google Maps, so he couldn’t “go walking with the little yellow man” as he did with the locations for his previous books.

On his passport it says “writer and electrician”, and he has plans for a book for young adults and two plays before he revisits Lynch for a fourth and final time. But he has not completely given up on acting. He is soon to be seen in a comedy Ill Behaviour and the drama Diana and I (both BBC2), and plays the manager of the singer Nico in a European film out this year.

He recently took his daughters to a 35th anniversary screening of Gregory’s Girl at the BFI Southbank in London: “They’d never seen it, and it was in the same cinema I had first seen it in, so it was a nice way to say goodbye to it.”

Was his big break a burden or a blessing, on balance? “Definitely a blessing. If it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t be doing any of this. But I think acting found me, rather than me finding it. Whereas I found writing, so there feels like a greater sense of achievement to it.”

John Gordon Sinclair will be a guest on Saturday Live on Radio 4 this week  

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