I have something super-special for you today, folks. Make sure you read the whole piece! Twice if you are entertaining thoughts of being a writer. Or love crime. Or both.
I know you are really wanting your summer reading list to start now so make sure you have a little something by the Queen of Tartan Noir. Never heard of Val McDermid? Think ABC's Wire in the Blood ... of course you have!
Shouldn't be too hard to get hold of something written by McDermid as she's a prolific crime writer - she's published three books this year. A crime novel Skeleton Road (hooray), and investigation and explanation of forensics (for all you budding writers out there) and a revisit of Northanger Abbey. What a lass!
And that kind of output, my friends is why is a class act. I met her a couple of times at Ubud Readers and Writers Festival and found she is as hilarious, sharp and generous in person as she is in an interview. I'd love to have a few G&T's with her next time. Or a wee dram.
You guys are in for a real treat today as here is my edited and transcribed bits of interview she did with the lovely Rosemary Sayer. Click here for a wonderful review of Skeleton Road by fellow crime writer Angela Savageand click here for an EXTRACT of Skeleton Road. Then run and get it for the beach pronto.
The Official Blurb from Little, Brown
The Queen of the psychological thriller returns with her latest chilling novel.
When a skeleton is discovered hidden at the top of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is faced with the unenviable task of identifying the bones. As Karen's investigation gathers momentum, she is drawn deeper into a world of intrigue and betrayal, spanning the dark days of the Balkan Wars.
Atmospheric, spine-chilling and brimming with intrigue and suspense, this is Val McDermid's richest and most accomplished psychological thriller to date.
Val McDermid is a No. 1 bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over eleven million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. She writes full time and divides her time between Cheshire and Edinburgh.
The #UWRF14 Interview with the delightful Rosemary Sayer
Val McDermid: The comment that I made was in relation to the state of the publishing industry today and how that's changed since I was starting out as a writer. Back when I started you got a chance to establish yourself. You didn't have to hit the ground running. Ian Rankin and I used to laugh quite a bit about ten years ago about how it's taken us ten years to be an over night sensation. That was how it was in those days. You could start small and gradually build. Now the publishing environment is such that if you haven't broken out into a wider audience, a bigger consciousness by your third novel, really the chances of getting a fourth novel published are very slim indeed. I think that's what I was really talking about.
When I was first published, I was published by a feminist publishing house. I was published as a paperback original. Back in the day, Report for Murder came out in 1987, review papers didn't review paperback originals. The book came out. It didn't get reviewed. It gathered an audience by word of mouth really. Eventually got covered in a few feminist publications. People would ... The publisher that published it The Women's Press had a very distinctive black and white, diagonal-striped spine. A lot of people at that point, a lot of women at that point particularly, would just go into a book shop and if they saw the Women's Press spine they would buy the book regardless. That's how I really started to build my audience. These days it's changing back again, that you're having the rise of Indie publishers who have given the people a bit more space to publish. You got the chance to make the mistakes in public which you really don't get anymore in traditional publishing.
Rosemary Sayer: But you didn't make mistakes with the Lindsay Gordon ...
Val McDermid: The first one's terrible.
Rosemary Sayer: How many of you have read this first book by Val McDermid?
Val McDermid: Not many.
Rosemary Sayer: Two. There's three or four of us. The joy of Val McDermid's writing is many of us discovered your work through Tony and Carol, through Wire in the Blood. Then we go back and we discover there's actually a series with Lindsay Gordon. There's a series with Kate Brannigan. Then there were standalone novels. You're doing a huge amount of work.
Val McDermid: It's not as good as I ... I get better, you know. I get quite a bit better I think. I think part of the problem I had with that novel was that, through no fault of my own, I ended up with five different editors, all wanted something slightly different. When I look at Report for Murder really all I can see in the joins. I can see the bit where I didn't quite stand my ground well enough I think always. I think it's not a bad first novel but I look at it now and I think I could do so much better.
Those first three novels, I started off intending they would be regarded as a trilogy. The reason was I thought it would be a trilogy was the book I really wanted to write, the third one. I couldn't figure out how to get there without writing the first two. Now, I have a little more sophistication in my narrative skills. I could bump them all up into one novel so I wouldn't have to write the trilogy. On the other hand, given the terribly low level of advances from feminist presses in the 1980's, it's probably just as well that I wrote the three books. That book has never been out of print in the UK or in Germany since it was first published.
Rosemary Sayer: So actually it's done very well.
Val McDermid: Very well. I get more money every year off that book than I got from my first advance. Actually, one of the things I'm proud about that book is that when it was published in Russia in 2001. This is really hard for me to believe, but it was the first novel ever officially published in Russia with a lesbian protagonist. There have been lesbian novels before but that was the first one officially published by an official publishing house in Russia and it went straight to the best seller list at number three. There's obviously a market for it.
I don't know if I could go back there now and do the same thing though, given the atmosphere there nowadays.
Rosemary Sayer: You're very supportive of first-time novelists now. Is that because of the experience that you had yourself as a first time novelist? You are going to tell us about what you do and how you help novelists now. I think it's terrific. You're so giving and generous of your time.
Val McDermid: I see it slightly differently. I see it as looking over my shoulder to see who's coming up on the rear. One of the things I do every year is I'm very involved with the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, which is the premier writing festival in Europe now. I chair the New Blood panel there every year. I get to pick who's on the New Blood panel. This means I have to work my way through about 70 first novels. I'll be honest I don't read all of all of them. There's quite a few that don't get past the 20-page test and another bunch that don't get past the 50-page test but having said that, I can guarantee there will be at least a dozen novels every year that make me sit up and take notice.
When I was starting out, there were one or two established writers who were extremely generous to me and supportive of me, particularly Stella Koretsky, Sue Grafton and Reginald Hill. They kind of held a helping hand to me and I never forgot how generous they were with their time and their support and indeed, their audience. It seems to me to be a very small thing indeed to do that but genuinely it also gives me a real sense of what writers coming into the field are thinking of possibilities to do with the crime novel. One of the reasons the crime novel is so strong at this point is we keep pushing the envelope. We keep reinventing it. When you think it's starting to run out of steam, something comes along, something quite original and quite different. We all go, "Whoa, that's really interesting."
It sets your train of thought that maybe pushes you in a different direction, a different book than the one you were thinking about. It's a genre that is constantly dependent on inventiveness of its practitioners. These new writers coming through often provide signposts to new directions or new possibilities of what we can do with the genre.
Rosemary Sayer: You've been incredibly inventive with your writing. We were laughing the other day when we were chatting. I had the pleasure of spending time with Val. Then somebody tweeted they had first read The Mermaids Singing, which is the first, for those of you that know, in the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books. They were just a bit sick of those serial crime novels. I think you were able to tweet back that actually you started it. You were really at the forefront of what is now a major movement.
Val McDermid: Yeah, sorry about that. I get bored very easily.
Rosemary Sayer: Ian wrote that you were a restless writer.
Val McDermid: Yeah, I think that I suppose I am. I've got a restless imagination. I get bored very easily. I don't want to ... Some people seem to be happy writing essentially the same book again and again. I'm not being principled about it all, because some of them doing it very well indeed. I've never had that. I've always wanted to be challenged by something fresh, by something different. I never sit there and thinking, "Aha, this will shake them up. This has never been done before." When I start a book, I'm always like I've got the story in my head and I think I have to find a way to tell this that works.
For example, in the book The Wire in the Blood, when that come out, various critics said that I had torn up the rule book of the thriller because of things like the identity of the bad guy on page two. You know his target and what he's doing and how he's doing it. That's not really what the book is about. Then halfway through the book you discover that halfway through the book you have the moment of shock. I'm not going to issue any spoilers by telling you what that moment is but there's a moment where something happens and it's supposed to happen in the conventional frame but it's the only way I can tell the story. I don't sit and think, "Oh, what can I do that's never been done before." I only sit there and think how do I tell the story that is pounding inside my head. How do I find the structure for this story? How do I make it work? That can take years.
One novel, a few novels back, called Trick of the Dark, it was a stand-alone. The idea for this book came to me one afternoon. I was in Oxford. I was back at my old college in Oxford. They have a crime mystery conference every summer. I don't get the chance to not go to that. I was bunking off because it was a lovely sunny afternoon. It was a bit soporific in the conference hall. It was a beautiful afternoon and I thought I'm just going to sit by the river and enjoy the sunshine and think, do the thinking bit of writing. I knew that there was going to be a wedding that afternoon, somewhere on the college grounds. There was a big marquee something that said there was a wedding reception in the college. I wasn't really paying much attention. I was sitting by the river enjoying it. The bridal party arrived. I looked across there. I realized I recognized the mother of the bride that it was someone who had taught me when I was an undergraduate.
The next logical step after that was that therefore the bride was someone that I had babysat for when she was a kid. For most people, that's a nice little coincidence as it turned out.
Rosemary Sayer: I'm just thinking that's not what's going on in your mind.
Val McDermid: No, it's not what's going on in my mind. What's going on in my mind is what could be the dark secret that joins these two people? What's in their history that makes it interesting? What could this encounter mean? What could the possible repercussions of that be? But at the end of the afternoon, it seemed to be that the best thing that could possibly happen is that bridegroom would be dead by bedtime.
Rosemary Sayer: Of course.
Val McDermid: I teasing the story all weekend and by the end of the weekend I knew the whole story. I knew what happened. I knew who the killer was. I knew why they'd done what they'd done. I knew the whole sort of back story and everything. I could not think of a structure. I could not find a way to tell the story. At the heart of this, this is a book of unreliable narrators. Everybody is lying in one way or another, at some point or another. It's necessary for one of the characters to talk about, or reveal in some way from her point of view, the parts that she had done so much to bury. I couldn't think of a valid reason why she would actually open that can of worms having done so much to bury it. I wrote the first 15,000 words about it five times, could not get it right. I knew I had a great story in there. I knew it was a good story to be told.
What happened eventually was outside events solved the problem for me. I don't know if you remember, you probably do remember a few years ago, Misery Memoirs became all the craze. You couldn't walk into a book shop and throw a stick without hitting a book about somebody's bloody, miserable childhood. The terrible time they had, been beaten by the monks or the nuns, whatever. It was all about tragedy and misery and grief. I thought that's exactly it. She writes a misery memoir. That's why she goes into her past. Of course, misery memoir is so stressful that she ends up a wretched one. That was the way she gets writing her version of the past.
Rosemary Sayer: How long did you carry it around?
Val McDermid: Oh, at least a dozen years. Sometimes you just have to be patient. You know you've got a great story but you've just got to wait for it to find the shape. I don't sit there and think, "I need to do something revolutionary here in terms of form." I suppose form and structure is something that interests me as a novelist. I suppose the writers that I find most interesting are the ones who play those games with form. I mean Eleanor Catton with her first, The Rehearsal, then The Luminaries. That fascinated me. Ali Smith, I think is a really interesting writer because of the way that she uses form like a snake eating it's tail. You get to the end and you have to go back to the beginning to know what the end is. I suppose I'm always trying to absorb other people's tricks in structure and style so that I can add to my own toolkit.
Rosemary Sayer: I'm just fascinated by Val's mind, actually from all the time I spent with her. I'm interested in the writing process. Tony and Carol coming along as a series and then Lindsay is no more and Kate Brannigan, for those who have read the other series. There's another series called Kate Brannigan series. You're not writing Lindsay and Kate anymore?
Val McDermid: They stopped talking to me. It wasn't a conscious decision to not write them anymore. If it was a conscious decision, I would have brought books to what felt more like an end. The Lindsay Jordan finished in a sort of a reasonable place that could almost be considered an end but Kate Brannigan doesn't finish. It just stops. That bothers me a little bit. For me, I'm not the kind of writer whose publisher can say, "Oh, do us another Kate Brannigan. We need another Kate Brannigan to finish the series." If it's not jabbering in my ear, it's not going to happen.
Rosemary Sayer: So she's gone?
Val McDermid: I'm afraid she is. I don't what I did. You know I don't know what I did to upset her. Maybe I got the wrong pizza topping or something. Whatever it was, she stopped speaking to me. Maybe I got the wrong ... Maybe I got cheap vodka instead of the premium brand or something, you know.
Rosemary Sayer: There's Tony Hill and Carol Jordon in the series and then we have wonderful stand-alone books. You won't be able to go out and buy it at the bookshop because it's only just out. I have a copy. Skeleton Road, which is a stand alone book which is just extraordinary. How do you know what you're doing?
Val McDermid: I don't have no bloody idea of what I'm doing most of the time.
Rosemary Sayer: This story in my head is a Tony and Carol story. This is a stand-alone.
Val McDermid: The shape of the story. For me, it would be one of the reasons why I write so many different kinds of novels is because I have to find a way to accommodate the stories that excite me. I don't how you go on with just one central character. You got every urge to try to craft a story for Detective Inspector Grumpy. There's just so many stories that Detective Grumpy can't tell. For me, that's the heart of it, is the variety of the characters that I use is entirely done to the variety of the stories in my head.
Tony and Carol stories are a certain kind of shape. There's a serial offender at the heart of the books. It's usually sexual homicide, but not exclusively. It's something that requires a kind of formal investigative team structure. It's a cops and robbers kind of thing. I know pretty early on with the story idea if it's going to work in that shape and if it doesn't then it's something else. Then I have to start thinking about whose story it is.
Rosemary Sayer: Did you know Tony and Carol were going to be a series?
Val McDermid: No. No, I would have done something quite differently if I had known it was going to be a series. When I wrote The Mermaids Singing I intended it to be a stand-alone because it didn't occur to me that people would want to read more of these, that these two characters would have more than one story. By the time I got to the end of the book, I realized that by the nature of the professional lives and also their personal lives in the sense of who they are as individuals. There are a lot more stories that I could tell with them at the heart of them. If I had known this was going to be a series, I probably wouldn't have made Tony Hill impotent. It really kind of limits you in some respects. It's a plot point. I made him impotent because I actually thought it was of the key elements in how the plot works itself out the way it does.
Rosemary Sayer: Some want him and Carol to get it together.
Val McDermid: Do you? Can you imagine the two of them sipping on a cup of coffee over breakfast in the morning? It's weird. Imagine them having sex. That's not a thing you want to hold in your head, is it?
Rosemary Sayer: I could imagine it.
Val McDermid: Easier than me. He's quite sexy.
Rosemary Sayer: Carol's quite sexy, too.
Val McDermid: Carol's very sexy.
Rosemary Sayer: I like her.
Val McDermid: Carol's very sexy. She's a bit messed up though. I've messed her up a bit over the years.
Rosemary Sayer: You messed up a lot of your characters.
Val McDermid: Well, life's like that. We don't come out of this alive.
Rosemary Sayer: I get really upset when she kills a lot of the characters. I've already talked to her about that. You know I get attached to them.
Val McDermid: It's crime fiction. Crime fiction by the very nature of it, people die. On the other hand, this is just made up. You can make up your old wee world. If you make up your old wee world and write a book where the people didn't die. They live happily ever after went to the Bengali and sat around drinking coconut water and sipping hot ...
Rosemary Sayer: Falling in rice paddies.
Val McDermid: Falling in rice paddies, thank you.
Rosemary Sayer: She tweeted it. She went for a walk.
Val McDermid: Slipped on the dewy grass and fell into the rice paddies, which has caused a great hilarity among everybody I encountered on the way back to the hotel. The children of the village haven't seen anything that funny for years. It's nice to know I'm adding to the gaiety of nations.
Rosemary Sayer: Back to the serious business of writing.
Val McDermid: You think that's not going to end up in the serious part of the writing? Everything is material. Lying in the rice paddy looking at the sky is material.
Rosemary Sayer: We were told that apparently you haven't arrived into the Asian culture until you've fallen into a rice paddy.
Val McDermid: That's good. I've been in the sour. I've arrived then.
Rosemary Sayer: Indeed. Tell us about Skeleton Road, which is your latest novel. I thought it was terrific. The detail and the level of research in this book is extraordinary. Tell us about Bosnia. Tell us about war crimes. Tell us about Oxford. Am I getting your ... I must read this book because this is extraordinary.
Val McDermid: Thank you. Again, it's a book that's been kicking around in my head for a very long time.
Rosemary Sayer: How long?
Val McDermid: Bits of it have been kicking around in my head since the early 1990's. I had a very good friend when I was at Oxford, she was a philosophy tutor at my college. She was extraordinarily generous, brilliant woman. In my final year, while I was reading English, I got very interested in philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. We spent many late nights discussing these things over a bottle of wine. I often said that Kathy taught me to think but she also taught to drink. And indeed, I still can't even smell gin without feeling very sick. After I said all that, she got involved in the secret university movement and the philosophies of the Soviet Union, which was western academics preparing to go on holiday to places like Czechoslovakia, the Baltic Republic to conduct secret seminars in philosophy, economics. The kind of things that people were not allowed to study under the Soviet system because they were deemed to be somehow not appropriate.
Anyway, they were taking philosophy texts disguised as airport novels and conduct these secret seminars in people's basements and the backrooms of pubs. Eventually, Kathy got barred from the Soviet satellite states. At that time, Yugoslavia had kind of broken away but it was still very much under the Soviet influence. I think it was a bit looser there so she started doing a lot of teaching on her holidays at the University Center in Dubrovnik. That's how she was in Dubrovnik on the first of October 1991 when the bombs started falling. She was trapped by the siege of Dubrovnik and she spent the whole siege there in the city. She wrote an internal newsletter for the city while this was going on. She also smuggled out reports for the British newspapers and American newspapers while she was there.
When she came back, of course, she talked a lot about this. She's a tireless fundraiser for the restoration of the old city. She was decorated by the coalition government, by the city of Dubrovnik. She’s an honorary general of the Croatian Army. There's a square in Dubrovnik that bears her name but she was very modest about this. She's never boasted about them. A lot of these things I only found out after she's died. She used to tell me about her adventures, about going swimming in the morning because there's no running water to get watered. She go out swimming in the sea, every day, every day, until she swam across a dead body and it lost its charm. She would say these things in a very offhand, kind of Oxford way.
Writers, we have this essentially charmless trait of stealing everybody's lives around us. When you're bent on telling something pretty awful like a child's ill or a husband's left them or the mother's got Alzheimer's. The human being in you is genuinely supportive. You mean it when you say it, "If there's anything I can do, I'll be there for you." But the writer in you is going, "That was really good. Could you say that again?" You know that you're just filing that away and at some point it will transformed into the crucible of the imagination into something quite different and not like that in the book. So it was with Kathy's stories about Croatia. I just knew that was going to somehow be useful to me someday but I didn't know how. It was just too good a story to not exploit.
I have another friend, Sue Black, who is a professor of anatomy at Dundee University. She's a forensic anthropologist by trade. She was the lead forensic anthropologist on the British forensic team that was sent to Bosnia after the war there, in Kosovo, to investigate allegation of war crimes and massacres there. She was involved in the excavation of [inaudible 00:23:05] and stuff like that. Pretty dark stuff a lot of it. There again, Sue came home and told me lots of tales of things that happened there. I came out with a lot of interesting stories.
Again, I thought there must be a way of writing about this in a novel because a novel there's a lot you can tell things more cleanly in a way than you can in a historical case where you have to take in all the nuances and all the different accounts and things coming from different directions. In fiction, you can take a lot cleaner line in the story to kind of get to the heart of things. With these two things sort of kicking around in my head about the Balkans and I thought I really should write about this one day but I haven't got a story to pulls it together. There's no reason why I would be writing about that.
Then I came across a book. It was published in 1937. This book is called The Night Climbers of Cambridge. It's a book about undergraduates who took upon themselves the hobby of climbing the outside of Cambridge College buildings under cover of darkness, without ropes or crampons or anything. They would free climb the outside of these extraordinary vast Gothic structures. This is how you get round that nasty overhang on the front John. If you're doing the east quadrant in Trinity, be careful because every 20 minutes the porter comes round. If you are spotted, you are sent down and that will be the end of your Cambridge career. Amazing photographs of these guys, young men in a pullover hanging off the top of Kings College Chapel in the middle of the night.
I was entirely charmed by this but also because I have a master devious mind. I'm also thinking what if you got to the top and there's a skeleton where there shouldn't be a skeleton. That sort of became the jumping off point or something. Okay, whose skeleton would it be? How long has it been up there? Why is it up there? What's the back story? How did that come to be. That led me to Karen of the historic cases unit who I've worked with before.
Rosemary Sayer: We knew Karen in a previous book.
Val McDermid: Yes, in A Darker Domain and briefly in The Distant Echo. I thought that could plug me back into all that stuff about the Balkans. It doesn't start with the discovery of a body. A Gothic Victorian pyre in Edinburgh was going to be demolished and the skeleton has a bullet hole in the skull. Then we go with Karen on her journey to find out whose body it is and why it's up there. How it got there and why? That takes us to Oxford and ultimately takes us to Croatia.
Rosemary Sayer: It's just fantastic. I couldn't put it down. I have to say it's extraordinary.
Val McDermid: But it's not boring history. This is important but it's not a customary history book.
Rosemary Sayer: The research in this book was obviously incredibly time consuming. The desire to get things right
Val McDermid: I had no time at all.
Rosemary Sayer: You had no time at all?
Val McDermid: Anyway, a lot of stuff was what I knew already from what Kathy and Sue had told me.
Rosemary Sayer: Tell us about the research that you do generally. I mean how do you get in the mind a profiler? How do you get into the mind of the detective? How do you get into the mind of your characters? How do you get it right? Because I'm sure you got a gazillion things who want to email you. Hey, you didn't get that quite right?
Val McDermid: Well, I think there's a difference between accuracy and authenticity. Everybody knows that all crimes are not solved the way we crime writers write about them, you know. It's not Detective Inspector Grumpy and Sergeant Wimp going down to the pub and Sergeant will buy all the drinks, you know. It's not how it happens. There's a whole team of people involved in the elucidation of a real murder. It's actually mostly deeply, deeply dull. There's a lot that's routine work, meticulously done and has no dramatic element to it at all. For me what's important is that the book feels like it's real. That it feels like the people who are doing stuff in my book actually could feasibly, plausibly be doing these things. In order to do that, I need to talk to people who do it for real because you can go to the library or to the internet with questions. You'll get your answers there but what you don't get is what I've come to think of as the sociology of the information.
You don't get what it feels like to be at the scene of a crime. What it feels like to be reconstructing a human head from a skeleton. What it feels to be doing all the things I write about. I'm trying whenever possible to get someone to talk to me who does these kind of things for real. A lot of this stuff is done, a lot of the detail I will never ever use. I always think being clear is quite sufficient. The rest of it you fill in with anecdotage. You fill it in with the stuff that makes you feel like you know what you're talking about. There's no need to bore my readers with the technical details of how you unravel the magnetic strip on the back of a credit card. You just need to know that you can do it.
It has to sound as if what I'm doing is believable and the people who are doing it are believable. That's the main point is, for me, is I get to sit and talk to these people. I get to sit with a courier of beer. The thing is most people, most of us, we live life and nobody is really very interested in what we did all day. You come home after a day at work or a day of whatever it is that you do all day. You're lucky if somebody will say did you have a good day. If you try and tell them about your day, how the meeting with so and so we discussed such and such. The whole face glazes over, you know. Then it's, "What's for dinner, mum?" Or what's for dinner, darling, if you're lucky. Most of us most of the time our professional lives, it's not of any great interest to anybody around us. When somebody sits down with you and says, "No, I really mean it. What kind of day did you have today?" Most people are too reticent to tell you.
Rosemary Sayer: Actually, … I'd actually like to talk to you about how you reconstruct the head of a skull. You get a good response?
Val McDermid: At the very beginning ... Even from beginning I found people were always willing to listen at least to what I had to say. When I started working on the Tony Hill novels, I knew nothing about how the profiler works in the UK because we do it differently from America where they chain up FBI agents with behaviour sciences. In the UK, they have psychologists who work with the cops. I didn't know who they did their profiling. I saw someone on the television news talking how he'd worked with the police. I said, "Great, fantastic." It was absolute serendipity.
I was just about to start work on the book and this guy on the telly talking about it. I called him up at his place of work. I said, "Can I come and talk to you about being a profiler?" He said, "How do I know you're not a nutter?" I said, "Well, good point. I'll send you a copy of my books." I sent him a couple of Kate Brannigan novels and time went down. I eventually got a callback. He said, "Well, I've read your books. My wife read your books and we don't think your a nutter." Definitely a plus. We met up. He actually took me through the details they do of how you draw up a profile. Actually, over the period of the next few weeks showed me a couple of real profiles, real cases he was working on. Took me through the whole process that he goes through from getting called in by the cops to delivering his analysis of the horrible things they should be looking for.
That became Tony Hill's method and it remains his method to this day. They're very different personalities. The guy I speak to for real doesn't have any of Tony Hill's tortured angst at all.
Rosemary Sayer: You used to acknowledge him.
Val McDermid: I did. I did, yes. He asked me to stop doing that. I was a bit concerned because I thought I might have done something that was professional embarrassment, got something wrong or just made him look stupid. I said, "Is there something I've got wrong?" He said, "No. No. It's not what you said. It's my wife. My wife's getting asked at her workplace, Mike's not getting it up anymore then?" People do conflict reality and fiction all the time. People get very disappointed sometimes when I show up and they think they're going to get Carol Jordan. I was in a bookstore. Kate Brannigan's five foot three and sort of a skinny redhead, who does high kickboxing. Then I come up. People will go, "You don't look like Kate Brannigan." She's a fictional character. I'm the real one, the wee fat woman with the gray hair.
Rosemary Sayer: We want to be friends with Kate Brannigan.
Val McDermid: What Kate was meant to be is an imaginary best friend. I wanted to write a character who was very different from me and in every respect. I kind of looked around my friends and I thought what do I like about you and why do I like that aspect of you. Mentally, came up with this kind of composite character who has many qualities that I admire, but also has some qualities that would irritate the living daylights out of me if she was my best friend. That's how it should be because nobody's perfect, not even me.
Rosemary Sayer: I'm a little bit anxious that everybody may end up in your books.
Val McDermid: No, it's not as simple as that. When I'm thinking about a character and what they have to do in the book and I have to think about why would have responded in that way rather than in this way? I'm thinking about the people I know and how they would react in particular circumstances. I'm kind of flipping through the card index in my head and figuring out which of my friends would respond in this way and which would respond in a different way and why would they do that? What makes them that kind of person? It's not so much people I love in my books.
When the days are set, the source of my characters is my books, just slightly different. People you see on the train. People you're standing next to at the supermarket queue. People have the most extraordinary conversations in public places. My friend Anna relayed this conversation to me, completely extraordinary. She was in the Turkish bath in Harrogate. Harrogate is a fairly gentile town in the north of England. They've got this wonderful original Victorian Turkish bath, which includes this fantastic scenery lined with marble benches. The steam gets really thick in there and you can't see other people in there. You could be lying there and think you're in there by yourself.
Clearly these two women thought that there was nobody else in the steam room. The relationship difficulties of a third party, one of their friends. One of them said to the other, "Then he choked her with his penis." There was this long pause and the other woman said, "How did he get it around her legs?" Why would you have that conversation in a public place? Why would you have that conversation at all? Everywhere there is material. Everywhere.
Rosemary Sayer: Weigh very carefully what you say next.
Val McDermid: Seriously, everywhere, the world is just full of these conversations that you can just find and you think there must be a way I can use that.
Rosemary Sayer: Have you used that yet?
Val McDermid: Not yet, no. It'll come up someday.
Rosemary Sayer: And you heard it here first in 2014. We're going to open up the floor for questions because I'm conscious that we only have Val for a very short time and I know you all have hundreds of questions about how she writes and what she does and how she does things. Before we go over questions, I have one more I'm going to ask and then I hope our microphone is appearing. Why are there so many women who write crime?
Val McDermid: Well, I think it's partly a historical reason and it's partly a sociological reason. Historically, back in the 1920's, 1930's, the literary world in UK and others was very male-dominated. It was seen as very much a man's world. We had Virginia Wolfe. They had the women, doesn't need any more. Women were kind of pushed toward genre fiction, sort of romantic fiction, historical fiction, so-called women's fiction and crime fiction. We've gotten to be quite good at those genres.
I think the sociological reason is that women are conditioned quite early on in life, we don't get what we want by confrontational means. Little boys learn that they get what they want by fighting each other. Little girls get what they want by what the Buddhists call subtle means. That would be sort of devious manipulation you might characterize it as. We learn to go about things in a sort of convoluted, indirect way. That worked very well for the construction of a crime novel. If you mind is trained to walk a slightly devious path, when it comes to writing a mystery it's almost your natural way of thinking, your natural state.
Generalizations are always dangerous and people will eventually tell me five exceptions to this but in general, women crime writers tend to plot more convoluted story lines and male crime writers tend to write more linear stories. There are obvious exceptions like Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter, Andrew Taylor. In general, I think that's a rough rule of thumb.
Rosemary Sayer: That's an interesting thought, too. I've never thought about it in that way.
Speaker 3: Do you think that a crime novel can end with an unsolved mystery?
Val McDermid: Some do end with elements of the story being unsolved. It's been a long time since we had the situation with the Agatha Christie novels where everything got tied up in a neat ball at the end and the bad guy got handed over to Detective Inspector Stupid to be tried and sentenced. Quite often crime novels have some aspect of the story that are open-ended. I think you have to have some sort of resolution. Something has to be resolved at the end of the book. Otherwise, it ends up being quite unsatisfactory in terms of narrative. You can leave things open. You can leave loose ends that are to be picked up in a sequel or perhaps not.
There's was a very successful television series in the UK this year. I don't know if you saw it over here or in Australia or whatever, called The Fall. At the end of that, in many respects, a very unresolved ending. I think it was taking quite a risk in lot that didn't like the way that rocked out. I think it's quite possible but I think you have to be good.
Speaker 4: In a crime novel, what is the importance of a crime scene?
Val McDermid: Well, it depends on the crime novel that you're writing. If you're writing as a police procedural crime novel then the crime can be very important because of the forensic elements. The forensic element has become much more important in recent years because of the development of forensic science. It sounds like an advertising plug here, but I've just about to have published this week a non-fiction book about forensics. This week, it was published on Thursday.
Rosemary Sayer: Who knew? I'm sorry. I failed in telling you that this week a new book has been published by Val McDermid.
Val McDermid: Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime. So if you're writing that kind, forensics is very important but if you're writing a different kind of crime novel, it can have no importance whatsoever. It's not an absolute. It's not the keystone of the book. It might not have anything to do with the book at all.
Rosemary Sayer: Can you just tell us a little bit about Forensics, the new book?
Val McDermid: Sure. I was asked to write it by a Trust, who have a huge medical history collection in London in a big museum there. They want to reopen with a big exhibition about the history of forensics and they came to me and said, "Will you write a book accompanying this?" Not accounting of the exhibition but a book that accompanies that. I said, "Well, I can't do that." I can't do that so I'll just make shit up. In the end, I decided what I would do is I interviewed a dozen forensic scientists from different disciplines then incorporated into that a history of those disciplines and what the immediate future looks like for that. Essentially, it's an overview of contemporary forensics and where the roots are. If you don't mind, there's an extract from it in the Guardian Newspaper last weekend. If you Google it, the Guardian extract will give you a flavour of what it's about.
Speaker 5: I have the mike here. Thank you. I noticed there is a loose end in Skeleton Road.
Rosemary Sayer: Don't give it away. Don't give it away.
Speaker 5: No. No. No. It's not to do with the plot. It says in the weeks before, or months before the sovereign referendum on Independence. I was wondering if you have a view on the outcome of that given the very serious campaigning out there and whether that might appear in your next book.
Val McDermid: My books do exist in the here and now so I always try to get the books to kind of answer the local question without it being something that weighs them down for years to come. When people read for years to come, it's not something they'll go, "Oh, I don't know about that. I can't read this book." Yes, I have a view on the referendum. I was campaigning for them, the Yes campaign for standards. I'm very disappointed. I think we were beaten last minute by Westminster politicians who hadn't come near us for the two years. When it looked like they might actually vote yes, they suddenly got interested. I think it was a mixture of bravery and fear. On the day people walked into the ballot box and thought well maybe I won't get my pension, maybe my job won't be secure, maybe they will be able to raise taxes. It was a fear. It was a fear campaign run by those ... And I think we're better than that. I think the Yes campaign was about aspiration. This is not over. You have not seen the last scene in this story. This is an ending that is not yet resolved.
Rosemary Sayer: Yes, next question.
Speaker 6: It's about your writing process. I was intrigued when you said that it took a while and all of a sudden you knew how it was going to end, your story. I always thought it worked a little bit different for crime stories writers. I thought that when you start writing the story, you know who did it. Is that different for you when you change a murder?
Val McDermid: I did know the end. I mean I know when I start working what I'm aiming towards. All the stuff I was talking about earlier, the defining of the story, that was only in the background as it were. I'm writing one, but I'm thinking about several others. When I sit down to start the writing time of the year, I have a very good idea of what I'm actually working on. It's something that will have taken more than the two weeks before I started writing to develop it. It may have taken years or even months to get to the point where I can even write it. So far, every time I've sat down to write I've got something ready to go. I know pretty much where I'm going. I don't write a very detailed synopsis any more. I used to write a very detailed synopsis but I don't do that anymore. It stopped working for me. Generally, I normally start from ... I know the arc of the story. I know the shape of the story. I may not know the details of the end but I know pretty much where it's going and how it's destined.
Speaker 7: What are you working on now? Are we coming up on another Tony and Carol?
Val McDermid: Yeah. The next will be Tony and Carol. It's Tony and Carol. The plot is very strongly contemporary. Very much set in the way things are right now in our world. Not the referendum, but other very contemporary resonances.
Speaker 8: Val, I wonder if you could tell us where you see yourself at the end of the rich heritage of British crime writing, who are some of the writers that you admire from history and with Scots being such well known storytellers, do you come from a family of storytellers?
Val McDermid: I come from a family of liars. I feel very much a part of the Scottish literary tradition as opposed to an English literary tradition. I think Scottish crime fiction is relatively slower, comes from shaky roots in the past. I think we have the advantage of not having the weight of the English trend, we don't have to consider Agatha Christie. For me, my line of storytelling descent comes down to James Hogg with his Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Robert Louis Stevenson with Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island and Kidnapped. William Harrison was things of a different ambience is a different kind of story form. What we all have in common is a darkness, fascination with the dark side of the psyche. I think that's part of Scottish heritage. Then we have the real beacon of the landscape is William McIlvanney's novel Laidlaw, which was written in the late 1970's. I don't think it's coincidental that that book was written at a time that Scots were really seriously talking about evolution of independence for the first time in a long, long time. However, a referendum in 1979 about both parliaments. We voted yes and we didn't get it. We voted yes because that's who we aspired to be. We need to move forward from the position that we're not the English and we need them. We need to get a better attitude about ourselves. At the time that this conversation was kind of happening within Scotland among the Scots, the crime novel was increasingly becoming the novel of social history set with the new king. The literary novel had gone down a blind alley that there's no match from. That blind alley of writing for the academy and more interested in critical feeling than it was a narrative engagement of readers, like the death of the text, the death of the author and all that stuff. [inaudible 00:48:11] crime had no narrative line at all and it didn't aim to stop. I think for anybody who is interested in the art of narrative it was a very frustrating time. I think a lot of women became crime writers because that was where you could tell a story, where you could still write well. Certainly for us in Scotland, it became a place where you could also explore society and shine a light on the model that we were living. Write about a model along an ethical landscape as well as telling good stories. That's what's been behind the excitement of what's happened in Scotland probably over the last 35 years. McIlvanney … kicked the door open ... I think those writers all have a very part on me. But other writers also shaped my idea of the crime novel. Different from Agatha Christie. I liked Josephine Tey's psychological approach and the way that she chooses them and what went on behind people's masks. I was a great admirer of Reginald Hill for so many reasons. But in a funny kind of way that kick-started me was Stella Koretsky because I was thinking about writing a crime novel and I was a bit stuck because at that time in the UK there was really only police procedurals and mysteries. I didn't think I knew enough about the police to write a police procedural. [. No, no my dear, I've never been inside a police station and I started writing worse. For me growing up in a Scottish mining community, the English village it was like science fiction to me. We did not have retired couples or the Indian Army. We did not have spinsters. We didn't have vicars 00:50:19]. That was all strange to me. Then a friend of mine sent me a copy of [inaudible 00:50:30] America. [inaudible 00:50:33]. It was a novel about a female protagonist with a brain and sense of humour. She had agency. She did her own stuff. She didn't get the guys and everything [inaudible 00:50:47]. It was set in the city. It was an urban setting. The story came out of the setting. It was wasn't sort of bolted on randomly. It grew out of the environment she was writing about. It had politics [inaudible 00:51:00] source of politics. It really excited me. I thought if I tried really hard maybe one day I could maybe write about that. That was what kickstarted me into starting thinking about actually doing it. The rest is history.
Speaker 9: This has always sparked my curiosity of all crime novelists. Do you ever feel like your losing yourself when you write these kind of novels? Like losing yourself in the criminal or in the protagonist?
Val McDermid: No, I don't lose myself in the criminal or the protagonist because I make it up. I know it's not real. It's a kind of product of my own mind so nothing happens outside my control. I'm in complete control of everything that goes on. I am God in my role. When I stop working at the end of the day, nothing happens to anybody until I start again in the morning. I control the voices in my head. I think that's the way it has to be. You know you have to be in control of your material otherwise what you end up with is self-indulgence.
Rosemary Sayer: You're not worried to give the rest of us nightmares?
Val McDermid: Other people give me nightmares because that's what my material ... I don't know what's going to happen next. I'm reading somebody else's novel. I don't know what happens next. If they've done their job properly, it's very meaningless. I remember reading Denise Mina's Garnethill Trilogy. I remember waking up screaming. Yeah, when I read other people's work I get sucked into it but my own work ... You're not thinking about it in terms of technique. Is this sentence right? Is this the way to end the chapter here? Have I done enough? Have I done too much? Again, all that technical stuff comes between you and the immediacy of it. You have to walk in somebody else's shoes to try and think like they think but equally you know you can step away from it.
Speaker 10: Thank you. You had mentioned earlier the writing season. I'm going to give you an actual date. What's the time frame between sitting down and going the first T or end normally?
Rosemary Sayer: This is the touring season.
Val McDermid: It's essentially taking about three months to physically write a book. But that's this is kind of along the British spring. I publish a book a year. A book can take dozens of years. A book can take 20 years from when you get the first idea to being ready to write it. Sometimes they come together quite quickly, sometimes they don't. The writing season I suppose is January, February, March. That's by choice. When I sign a contract with my publisher, they say I must deliver it at the end of March. We sit down and we negotiate, we discuss it. I agree with that. I'm fine because if I didn't have a deadline I'd never do anything. My capacity for doing nothing is quite remarkable.
Rosemary Sayer: I'm just going to ask one final question because some of you may not know that Val also participated in the Jane Austen project. There's a book called Northanger Abbey. We're just going to hinge on that. I think it's a remarkable story. You obviously love Jane Austen.
Val McDermid: Of course, everyone loves Jane Austen. What's not to love.
Rosemary Sayer: Various authors have been asked to take on an Austen book and re-imagine it.
Val McDermid: Yes, the project was about asking several writers to rework the Austen novels. You're basically stuck with the plot and the characters but then to make that work in the contemporary world. It's an interesting challenge. Rather half of it is the idea that human nature remains the same, that people do the same things 200 years on for the same sorts of reasons. I was a bit taken aback to be honest to begin with. You've got [inaudible 00:55:36] and the Hans Christian Anderson film. Me, a swan, aw go on. I looked and I saw and I was a swan. I was daunted but I thought well, why not. It'll be a challenge. I see what I do as a process of challenges and not standing still and moving forward. [inaudible 00:56:04] and do something that on the face looks quite bonkers. For me, Northanger Abbey was the only one I would have considered because it's the only one that isn't a straight forward romance. It has at its heart of the Gothic novel, the Gothic horror novel that was so popular when Jane Austen was still writing. It's now given me the chance to play with the idea [inaudible 00:56:25]. It seemed that, all those fashions. [inaudible 00:56:37]. The whole zombie thing which was the perfect thing to satirize at this point in time. I think that's my jumping off point and I had a lot of fun with it. I really enjoyed it. I was very scared of it to start with but I thought what the hell? What's the worst that can happen here?
Rosemary Sayer: It's had fantastic reviews. If you want to experience Val McDermid doing something completely different, Northanger Abbey is the way to go. If you have only discovered Val McDermid's work through Tony and Carol, I urge you to read more widely. Look at the stand-alone books. Go back to the early days. Look at the short stories. We didn't even discuss those. There's nonfiction. There's so much more to Val McDermid. Will you join with me in thanking her?