|Multi-award winning author Val McDermid was born in Scotland, and now lives in Manchester. She read English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and was a journalist for sixteen years, but is now a full-time writer. In 1995 she won the CWA Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year with The Mermaids Singing and was short listed in 1999 for the CWA Gold dagger awards for A Place of Execution. One of the UK's most talented writers, she has written three series. Her latest book The Last Temptation is set in Europe and reunites psychological profiler Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan. A major ITV series based on the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series will be broadcast in 2002 with Robson Green playing the lead role.
Ayo: What made you decide to write mystery fiction?
Val: I had always wanted to be a storyteller, but my first attempts at writing literary fiction were a disaster. Maybe because I started too young, I don't know. But I'd always read and enjoyed crime fiction, right across the spectrum, and the defining moment for me was reading Sara Paretsky's first V I Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. Here was someone writing something I'd never seen before - a mystery with an urban setting that dealt with contemporary women's lives, that didn't shy away from engaging with the politics of the society it reflected and that was fun. I knew I'd found the right niche for my own imagination then and there...
Ayo: Who were your influences when you decided to start writing in general? Do other books still influence your writing and if so, what other types of writing are you attracted to?
Val: It's probably easier for other people to identify influences in my work than it is for me, since none of us likes to think we're aping other writers! But writers who were important to me as a reader thinking about writing were as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Atwood, Norman McCaig, Raymond Chandler, Josephine Tey, Patricia Highsmith, Kate Millett, Joseph Heller and William Mcllvanney.
Ayo: Do you still enjoy reading crime fiction yourself? Why?
Val: Why not? Al the reasons I first enjoyed it still exists. At its best, it's engaging, edifying, entertaining and escapist. All the reasons we turn to any form of art or entertainment.
Ayo: Do you enjoy being part of the mystery community and the accompanying events e.g. attending crime fiction conferences and book signing events? Which conferences do you always try and ensure that you attend and why?
Val: Being a writer is a very isolated existence. And I'm quite a gregarious person, so I'm very happy that there exists a community of writers and enthusiasts who enjoy socialising. It's fun to get out and party with other people, many of whom have become good friends over the years. I like the mix of work and play at conferences, and book signing events are generally a lovely massage to the ego, though they can get a little wearing at the end of a long tour, particularly in the US where the travelling is so brutal.
I usually attend St Hilda's conference in Oxford every summer, where I particularly appreciate the intimacy of a relatively small group and the stimulation of intelligent well thought out presentations. I haven't missed a Bouchercon since I first attended in 1994, and I love the buzz that comes with such a big convention, as well as the chance to sit down and catch up with all the friend's I haven't seen since the previous year. Last year I went to Magna cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana for the first time, and I'll definitely be back there again. It's a medium-sized gathering, about 250-300 people, a mixture of panels, author interviews and academic papers. It's also one of the most welcoming gatherings I've ever attended, and I had a ball. It's always held on the last weekend of October, so there are years when it's easy to tag it on to Bouchercon.
Ayo: Your books always have a wide range of diverse characters and they also always have such depth. Where do you get the ability to ensure that your characters are so rounded?
Val: I have no idea. Must be something to do with Schizophrenia... I spend a long time working on a book in my head before I start writing, getting to know the people who will carry the story, so I guess that's where it happens. As to how... well, I do people watch a lot!
Ayo: How would you describe your books to a novice reader and which of your books would you suggest that they start with?
Val: I write pretty much across the genre, so the chances are that there's something in there that will appeal to every reader. I think of the Lindsay Gordon novels as being sort of cosy - they have an amateur sleuth who gets sucked into investigations and they operate within the classic English whodunit tradition, although having a lesbian protagonist means there is a bit of a twist.
The Kate Brannigans are first-person private eye novels, coming from the US tradition, and maintaining, the convention of the smart-mouthed detective who always gets her man. They differ mostly from the Lindsay Gordons in that the murder isn't the starting point for the book- Kate is investigating other things and murder just happens along the way.
Then there are the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novels, which are dark psychological serial killer thrillers, which deal head on with issues around violent, sexually motivated homicide. The latest of those is The Last Temptation, which came out in February 2002. I've also written two standalones - A Place of Execution, which is rather hard to categorise. The first part of the book purports to be a true crime account of a case from the 1960s. In the second part of the book, the events of the past prove to have long shadows, which are finally dispelled in the course of the inquiries the "writer" of the first part of the book when she's researching her account. Does that make a word of sense? Anyway, it's set in and around a tightly knit Derbyshire village and there is no blood and gore. The second of these standalones is another psychological thriller featuring Fiona Cameron, and her efforts to track down a killer who is murdering crime writers.
Ayo: What were the last five books that you read?
Val: No Great Mischief, Alistair McLeod
Kisscut, Karin Slaughter (does I count if I read it in manuscript?)
Resurrection Men, Ian Rankin
Mr Sandman, Barbara Gowdy
Where's Maisie's Panda? Lucy Cousins
Ayo: What do you think of the state of contemporary crime writing today?
Val: The best of it - both in literary fiction and in the crime genre - is imaginative, courageous, beautiful and to be treasured. The worst of it? Literary writers more obsessed with theory and critics than narrative and readers And genre writers obsessed with climbing on market-driven bandwagons rather than using their imagination.
Ayo: What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Val: Sleeping! Reading, walking, cooking, socialising with family and friends, playing computer games. Ha! Like I have time for that...
Ayo: What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?
Val: Not allowing myself to be distracted.
Ayo: At least one of your books in the different series that you have written has been nominated for an award. In 1994 Crack Down was nominated for the Golden Dagger and in 1995 it was also nominated for an Anthony Award. In 2001 Booked For Murder was nominated for a Lambada Literary Award for Mystery in the Lesbian and Gay category and of course, The Mermaids Singing won the 1995 Macallan Gold Dagger. Have you been surprised at the way so much of your writing has been acknowledged?
Val: It's always a surprise when the accolades arrive. I know I'm not alone among writers in feeling perpetually dissatisfied with what I've achieved in any given book, so it's always something of a shock to discover that the readers are happier than me with the end product. The awards and the nominations are always a thrill.
Ayo: Your first Lindsay Gordon book Report for Murder was first published in 1987. I am not sure whether or not you are aware but earlier this year it became part of the recommended core reading for one of the modules - genre fiction which forms part of the MA Reading Postmodernity - Post Modern and Post-Colonial English Literature at South Bank University. How do you feel about it being used as part ofthe core reading list for a post-graduate course?
Val: Pretty weird, really. I'm very flattered, of course, but also faintly embarrassed because I feel that as a writer I've come a very long way since that first novel in terms of learning my craft. It feels odd to find that something I wrote to give pleasure is now worthy of study!
Ayo: I understand that there may be a new Lindsay Gordon book called Hostage to Murder. What gave you the idea for a new book and when is it due to be published?
Val: I'd had an idea kicking around for a while that refused to allow itself to be moulded into anything but a Lindsay novel. Then I went to Russia at the end of 2000 and fell in love with it, and that gave me the perfect foreign setting for the central section of the book, so there seemed no reason to keep fighting it! It was great fun to see where Lindsay was several years on - she's having something of a midlife crisis, I have to tell you. The Women's Press will probably publish it in spring 2003.
Ayo: The Kate Brannigan books are totally different from the Lindsay Gordon books what made you decide to write the Kate Brannigan series?
Val: The Lindsay Gordon one's were only ever intended to be a trilogy. I had always planned on doing something different. I thought it would be interesting to write in first person and to see if the very American PI form could be translated to the UK, given how different our different social mores are. And I wanted to see if I could walk in very different shoes. Not to mention making a living...
Ayo: The last Kate Brannigan book was Star Struck which won the French Grand Prix Des Romans D' Aventure in 1998. Have you any plans to write another one? It seems that at the moment she has been left languishing.
Val: I have every intention of going back to Brannigan. I have a strong idea for a seventh novel at least, working title Half Life. It's simply a question of fitting it into a very busy writing schedule when other books seem to take priority in my imaginative and professional life!
Ayo: The Mermaid Singing won the CWA Golden Dagger in 1995, were you surprised when you found out it had won and did you feel that there was additional demand on you afterwards as a writer?
Val: I was astonished. I didn't think people like me won the Gold Dagger! Inevitably, it does bring a degree of pressure to perform to a certain standard, but frankly, the advantages far outweigh the downside.
Ayo: In 2000 your non-fiction book A Suitable Job For A Woman was nominated for an Edgar Award. What promoted you to write this book?
Val: I made the mistake of getting drunk with a non-fiction editor and talking about real women PIs that I had encountered. She said she thought there would be a good book in it, I agreed, and she called me in the morning when we were both sober and commissioned it then and there. It's not often someone pays you money to spend six months wandering around talking to interesting women and then writing about it... But it was much harder work writing a novel, so I don't think I'll be doing that again!
Ayo: While you were researching this book did it in any way tempt you to consider a change of career to write "true crime" instead of crime fiction?
Val: Not in the slightest. Reality is very frustrating. It's not neat, it's not dramatically effective and you don't have any choice about the people you have to spend mental time with.
Ayo: Do you believe in any case that crime writers are influenced to a certain extent by true crime events?
Val: Some more than others. I draw very little on real-life events, but I know others, such as Ian Rankin, do it a lot.
Ayo: A Place of Execution is a taut psychological thriller, one of the best novels published in England in 1999. It's set in the winter of 1963 and two young children have vanished from the streets of Manchester. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady's murderous careers have already begun. A child goes missing from the remote Derbyshire village of Scardale; it is a small hidden village that has had very little communication with the outside world. However, for a newly promoted inspector it is destined to become one of the most difficult and harrowing cases he has every dealt with. With no body, an investigation that has no leads and witnesses whom are extremely reluctant to come forward. The outcome and repercussions of the case are ones that Inspector George Bennett had never envisaged. Why did you decide to set A Place of Execution in such a desolate space?
Val: Because that was the only sort of environment where it would work. And because for years I wanted to write about that Derbyshire landscape, which I love.
Ayo: It is also considered to be a highly atmospheric novel and despite the fact that you have been writing for many years, it has been seen as your break out book and brought you once again to the attention of American crime fiction readers. It was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was nominated for nearly every other mystery award going. It recently won an Anthony Award at the 2001 Bouchercon Convention and also the Macavity Award. It also won a Barry Award given by the readers of Deadly Pleasures magazine as the best British crime novel and also a Dilys Award for the book that is most fun to sell and that was awarded by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Were you surprised at the amount of critical acclaim that it received?
Val: Yes. Flattered, delighted, but gobsmacked. Because there's a lot of good stuff out there, and it's a great honour to do so well. (ps you forgot to mention it won the LA Times Book Prize for the best Mystery/Thriller...) Oops!
Ayo: Killing the Shadows could also be quite easily be called something along the lines of Someone is trying to kill UK serial killer writers! Their deaths are particularly gruesome and the killer is using the plots and blueprints from their own books. Where do you get your ideas from and specifically, how did you come about the story line/plot for Killing the Shadows?
Val: Ideas are everywhere - an aside in a newspaper feature, an anecdote told over a drink, a quirk of serendipity, a song lyric. What presses my hot button wouldn't necessarily do it for anybody else; it's all about the way an individual's mind works. I start with a germ of an idea that I think might be interesting, then I apply the 'what if?' game to it, pushing it in lot's of different directions to see where it takes me. Killing the Shadows had its roots partly in my concern over the way offender profiling was being misused by some people, partly at quite a few events I'd done, the notion of the moral responsibility of the writer had come up, and partly because we went to Toledo on holiday and it demand to be written about...
Ayo: If one didn't know better, one would have thought that you were plotting to kill some of your fellow crime writers. Did you have any complaints from them about the story line in Killing the Shadows?
Val: No. A few ribald remarks, but nobody took the slightest offence. We're all far too good friends for that.
Ayo: How do you feel once you have finished writing a book? Do you normally have a great sense of elation that you have finished it or do you start worrying about how well it is going to be received?
Val: Never elation! Relief that I've made it to the end, depression that it hasn't turned out as well as I had hoped, apprehension as to whether I'll be able to do it again and anxiety about how much rewrite I'm going to have to do once my editor has got her hands on it!
Ayo: Readers are a lot more knowledgeable nowadays, does the fact that they are more than likely to pick you up on something that you might have done wrong affect your writing?
Val: Not really. I write for myself first and foremost, and I reckon I'm a pretty well informed person. I also check anything significant that I'm unsure of. If the level of accuracy and detail satisfies me, then it's going to satisfy 99.9 per cent of the readership. Any major errors will be picked up either by me when I rewrite or by my editor, copy editor or proof-reader. The bottom line - it's fiction. Who can say that what I've written is 'wrong' in my fictional universe? It may not chime with reality, but I'm not writing non-fiction.
Ayo: How easy do you believe it should be for readers to work out the solutions in detective fiction? Or do you always believe that there should be a twist in the tale?
Val: The crime novel is no longer merely an intellectual puzzle. With the best of the genre, I don't think it really matters if I can figure out where I'm going as I still care about how all the elements of the book work out. I like to be surprised as a reader, but I don't mind if I've figured it out as long as I am enjoying the world of the novel and I'm interested in how the characters resolve matters among themselves. What I hate is the sort of book where I think I've figured it out and there's not much else to distract me, so I pray the writer has actually figured out the extra twist that would make it all worthwhile, that little bit of magic that I've half-seen the possibility of... but they don't get there. I've ploughed through pedestrian accounts of the detective's meal with his troublesome girlfriend, dull descriptions of what should be interesting landscape and exciting events, and the ending is exactly as I thought it would be on page 89... That leaves me feeling, "What was the point of that?" As a writer, I try to keep something up my sleeve for the last few pages, but it doesn't always work out that way, and it's not the most important aspect of plotting.
Ayo: Which do you think is more important characterisation or plot? Why?
Val: I don't believe you can write a successful novel without both. Plot-driven novels feel mechanical and sterile to me, whereas character-driven novels usually lack narrative tension and satisfactory resolution. Plot and character should operate as a kind of biofeedback system, each drawing on the other and also pushing the development of the other.
Ayo: Do you ever look at your characters and see them as being either "good" or "bad"? Or do you just see a shade of grey? That is to say that everyone (whether in fiction or true life) is capable of being evil at some stage in his or her life.
Val: Where my characters are concerned, I don't think I'm much given to high moral judgment. I don't believe in the existence of evil as some sort of nasty virus out there that you'll catch if you don't wear the vest of rectitude. People who are essentially good can do astonishingly vicious things in certain circumstances, just as people who are essentially bad can be capable of amazing generosity of spirit and selflessness. We're all a mixture of good and bad impulses, and mostly what comes to the fore is circumstantial. In my book, compassion, empathy and generosity are the virtues that matter most.
Ayo: It has been a long time coming, but finally your fans will soon be able to see Wire in the Blood on television. I understand that filming actually started in October 2001. Why did it take so long and are you happy about the way things have turned out?
Val: It took so long because I was waiting for the right team to make it. I wasn't prepared to entrust these books to the first person that came along looking to option them. I've seen too many good novels turned into trash TV. I wanted to be sure the books would be treated with a degree of respect, that they would be made with appropriate production values and the right actors. Robson Green's company, Coastal Productions, fit all my criteria, and I'm very pleased with the way things have worked out. Robson is a terrific Tony and Hermione Norris is dream casting for Carol. The scripts are very effective, though of course certain narrative elements in the books have had to be sacrificed because they don't work for TV. I've seen the finished version of the Mermaids Singing, and I have to tell you, it had me on the edge of my seat!
Ayo: Your latest book The Last Temptation is a long overdue return to the Tony Hill/ Carol Jordan series. In The Last Temptation a clinically efficient killer is murdering psychologists on the continent. Psychological profiler Dr Tony Hill is drafted on to the case. Meanwhile DCI Carol Jordan is en route to Berlin too, on a covert police operation. Both of them have to explore a past of atrocities and a present day full of cruelty. The Tony Hill/Carol Jordan is in fact my favourite amongst the three series that you have written. Did the fact that Wire in the Blood was being filmed for television have any bearing on your decision to write a new Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book?
Val: No, I had already been planning The Last Temptation for a couple of years and I had in fact started writing it before we did the deal with Coastal.
Ayo: What made you decide to set the book mainly in Europe? Did you have a lot of fun doing the research?
Val: The European waterways form the backdrop to the novel; as with A Place of Execution, it was the only place where the events within the book could possibly take place. I enjoyed doing some of the research - I spent a couple of weeks driving around Belgium and Holland and Germany, talking to boatmen and spending time with my crime writing colleagues in the cities I visited. Other elements of the research were pretty harrowing, so not much fun there...
Ayo: Does the amount of affection and the high esteem that fellow crime writers hold you and fans of the crime/mystery genre surprise you?
Val: On a regular basis...
Ayo: How much input do you have regarding the marketing of your books and yourself?
Val: I have regular meetings with my core publishers about sales and marketing programmes, when wediscuss what has worked in the past, what has worked less well and how we can develop my profile in the future. It's been very valuable to me; I don't see how you can make this business work to your best advantage unless you know how the business works.
Ayo: I understand that your next book will be another standalone thriller and that the title is going to be The Distant Echo Which do you find easier to write?
Val: They both have their challenges and their advantages. With a series you have an established nexus of characters, which is easier than starting from scratch. But you have to guard against getting stale and sloppy with them. The standalone is harder work at the beginning, but because you know you're never going to use these characters again, you can do things with them you can't do with a series character because they won't have to carry that baggage forward.
Ayo: You have recently set up one of the best author web sites going. It has a lot of personal and background information about you on it. What made you decide at long last that you needed a web site and what took you so long?
Val: What took me so long? Inertia and laziness. I've been online for a very long time, even before www existed, and I understood the value of a good-looking, well-run site. It took me a little time to find the right person to construct and manage the site, and even longer for me to get my shit together and supply her with what she needed from me. It's an important resource for my readers and publishers world-wide - it allows me to keep them informed about what's happening in my professional life. And it allows them to talk to me about my work. And anything else that gets their juices flowing.
Ayo: What advice would you give any budding writer?
Val: Write. Stop thinking about it, talking about it, being scared about it. Just do it. Give yourself a fixed time that is writing time - one evening, an hour before bedtime, Sunday afternoon, whatever works for you. And stick to it. Oh, and don't keep rewriting the first chapter. Anybody can write a first chapter - it takes a writer to get to the end and THEN go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole damn thing...
Ayo: Finally, if you could take five books away with you on a desert island which ones would you choose and why?
Val: The Complete Works of Shakespeare - because there's so much to get my head round, it wouldn't matter if I was never rescued, I'd have something for every mood and every state of mind.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson - I'd have to have some Stevenson with me and this would be best suited to a desert island.
A guide to the flora and fauna (including fish) of the climatic region I was stranded in, partly for practical reasons of what I could and couldn't eat, but also so that I would know what I was looking at.
Any volume of The Bedside Guardian - it would contain enough diversity and bizarre to keep my mind stimulated and remind me of the world I left behind. And it would probably give me ides for a dozen or so novels.
The Chalet School in Exile, by Elinor M Brent-Dyer - this is my comfort blanket book, the one I always go back to when I'm in bed with 'flu and feeling miserable and sorry for myself. And I suspect there would be days like that even on the most idyllic of desert islands.
Val's excellent web site can be found at http://www.valmcdermid.com