Val McDermid grew up in a Scottish mining community then read English at Oxford. She was a journalist for sixteen years. Now a full-time writer, she divides her time between Cheshire and Northumberland.
Welcome back to Shots, Val – it’s been a long time! Your latest novel The Vanishing Point was released last month and I have to say it had quite a different feel to many of your previous novels. At one point, the main character, Stephanie Harker, says she hates asking people to sum up the plot of their novel as they can never do it concisely enough. . . is this a personal bugbear or purely Stephanie’s? (And can you sum up The Vanishing Point for us please?)
It’s always a mistake to conflate the views of a character with the author. Except on the subject of football, of course. I suppose, like most authors, I hate having to sum up in a few words something I’ve spent a year expressing at the perfect length. Especially since I detest the kind of reviews that consist of a précis of the plot (including twists) plus ‘I loved it’ or ‘I hated it.’ I suppose what I would say about The Vanishing Point is that it begins with the terrifying abduction of a child in an international airport then loops back through the history of the key players in the child’s life to unravel what has happened, why it has happened and what the outcome will be for five-year-old Jimmy Higgins. It’s about love and friendship and betrayal. Oh, and sudden, violent death.
The perfect elements of crime fiction then! The subject matter is very current, what with the reality TV celebrity culture and the phone-hacking and the paparazzi that is so commonplace now. What made you want to write about this?
I never decide to address a subject or theme as such. I’m always driven by story, so when I start working on a book, among the first decisions I have to make is the universe of the story. Where is it set geographically, socially, politically, professionally? Where will it work best. The more I thought about the bare bones of this story, the more it made sense set against the world of celebrity culture.
Well, as a story, it definitely works. At first, it seems that Scarlett ‘The Harlot’ was based on Jade Goody, but of course there was a lot more to her than first met the eye (which could possibly have been said about Jade too). Did you intend to draw so many comparisons? The cancer storyline, in particular seemed to have been very much based on Jade…
Once I’d decided on the environment of The Vanishing Point, I had to do my research, which meant reading celebrity biographies and immersing myself in various magazines. I drew on the experiences of several women who have been through the celebrity roller coaster. Jade’s the obvious one because of the cancer storyline, but the book wasn’t inspired by her. What I’d say is that her life story informed some of what I wrote. But she was only one of several. I have no idea what her interior life was like, though I suspect it wasn’t very like that of Scarlet Higgins.
Indeed. Something else that interested me in particular was the use of a ghost writer as the main character. Did you do a lot of research into this? I’m imagining it’s more widespread than most people may realise?
I have a couple of mates who have experience in the field. They talked me through what they do and how they do it. Which is how I do most of my research, whatever the field I need to know about. I just pillage the lives of those unfortunate enough to cross my path…
Ah… an extension of the whole ‘write what you know’ adage, i.e. ‘write what someone you know knows’! Much to my reading pleasure, part of the book is set in Transylvania (which is a fantastic place to visit) and I’m wondering if is ‘Harker’ is a nod to Bram Stoker’s Jonathan from Dracula? Stephanie did undertake quite a journey herself…
Thank you for noticing. Sometimes I like to play little games, to see if anyone will notice. I suspect most of us are guilty of that from time to time.
I like little games like that and I’m glad to have picked up on it. Sometimes things are too subtle. It’s nice to nod to your influences like that. So, the ending could be described as controversial. Did you consider any other fates for the main characters?
I started out with three possible endings, all involving the same people in the same location. By the time I was about two thirds of the way through, where I ended up felt inevitable. It felt like the only possibly outcome given the people and the journey they’d taken. I mean, think about it. What else would feel satisfying at that point? (I did have a spirited discussion about this over several days with my publicist in South Africa, but her head is in Stepford…)
Ha! Well I have to say I did consider a few alternatives myself – thanks for keeping me guessing! Thank you for talking about The Vanishing Point. I’m wondering what’s next for you with regards to plot ideas? You’ve covered so many different types of crimes in your books, is there anything left?!
Human beings are infinitely inventive, thankfully. I’m always coming up against things that take me aback. And not always crimes. It’s generally not crimes that set me thinking and wondering and fiddling around in the back of my head. Next year’s book is a Tony Hill & Carol Jordan, so that will involve a certain murderous creativity. And some delicate manoeuvring to get them back into each other’s orbit.
I look forward to that! Do you think people will ever tire of reading crime? There seems to be more and more horrific true crime in the news these days, perhaps crime fiction isn’t the escapism it once was, with things that used to only happen in books and films becoming more commonplace in today’s society?
People will always be drawn to fiction because the stories are more satisfying and the characters have more depth. ‘The banality of evil’ has become a cliché with good reason. In fiction, the drama works itself out more coherently and the characters are people we care about, whether we are drawn to them or repulsed by them. And of course, there is a consolation in fiction; we know that nobody really died, and we find that generally, bad things happen to people who do bad things.
Yes, there is that, thankfully. On a lighter note – what’s your favourite of your own books?
My Granny Is A Pirate. Mostly because the illustrations make me smile every time.
Great answer! I’m going to have to buy that now. Not quite what I was expecting! Changing the subject onto your fellow writers for a moment - I’m a big fan of discovering new authors and I’ve found some absolute gems this year (some who are not that ‘new’ but still new to me!) As a champion of new authors – can you tell us who’s going to be hot in 2013?
Among the writers I’ve been most excited by in recent years are Belinda Bauer, MJ McGrath, David Mark and Attica Locke. But I haven’t picked the panellists for my New Blood session at Harrogate next year yet, so I’m not ready to go out on a limb over the really new kids on the block.
Belinda Bauer is coming up a lot – she’s definitely one to watch. I’ve loved her books so far. I also had the pleasure of meeting David Mark and have his book on my to-be-read pile. Asfor the other two, thanks for the recommendations. I’m looking forward to hearing the line up for New Blood too. So, can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
A stimulating tumbler of Jura Elements: Air, since you ask…As well as the Tony & Carol book (provisionally titled Cross And Burn) I’m working on a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. And possibly a non-fiction project as well. Oh, and two short stories and a radio serial.
You certainly like to keep yourself busy, Val! And finally… what question does no one ever ask you, that you would you really, really like to be asked?
People often ask what music I listen to when I’m writing. They never ask what whisky I’m drinking and whether it changes according to where I am in the book or what I’m writing about.
People really should be more concerned about the literary benefits of whisky… Thanks for talking to me Val, best of luck with The Vanishing Point – I think it would look great on the Big Screen!
THE VANISHING POINT - read the review
Little Brown RRP: £16.99 Released: 13th September 2012 Hbk Buy Now
Interview November 2012