Douglas Skelton introduces Val McDermid and Peter May as two of the most popular authors Scotland has produced. When he asks if he’s correct in saying that they’ve written 35 and 23 books respectively, they laugh and say ‘probably’. They’ve both won a variety of awards and May was the first western author to join the Chinese Crime Writers Association. Skelton then begins by asking about their latest books.
McDermid began Skeleton Road with the problem that one of her main characters, Carol Jordan, was no longer a cop. Needing a way to get her involved and finding that the other central character, Tony Hill, wanted to give her something to do, the story involves the investigation of women who had be driven to suicide by online trolls. At least that is how the situation appears when Tony Hill first suggests it. McDermid was interested in the way that after the feminist progress of the 70s and 80s, the anonymity of the Internet suddenly allowed for an outpouring of vitriolic misogyny. Suddenly the simple act of suggesting that keeping a female face on a bank note would be appropriate is worthy of a torrent of online abuse and death threats. JK Rowling donated to the No campaign, a perfectly legitimate political choice, and was vilified in a disgraceful way. McDermid points out the online abuse often involves language you wouldn’t use to talk to an animal, usually over something relatively minor.
May’s book sprung from an experience he had as a teenager. He was in a band and had been expelled from school so the band went to London, hoping to find fame and fortune. Sadly all they found was the cold hard floor of Euston station. He then wanted to write about something similar but set 50 years later. He described his idea to a publisher 20 years ago and was told it wouldn’t work as a book. He did find a way to write the idea as a book but it did take him 20 years. However, those years were also necessary to get to a point where he had the understanding to write it well. It doesn’t have the usual investigative or procedural elements so it’s not a typical crime book, though it does begin with a murder and end with its resolution.
May then says he wanted to ask McDermid about her writing and if she planned or just wrote. She began being very serious about plotting, even going back to study and unpick books by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Margaret Atwood to see exactly how each section of plot was written. She always had a detailed road map and then on one book she just could not pin it down. Eventually the deadline was fast approaching and she had to just write. She went away where she would have no Internet access or distractions and wrote 65,000 words in 9 days. Afterwards she was so drained she could barely form sentences. Her editor then told her it was the best first draft she’d ever handed in (she ended this anecdote with an emphatic ‘Oh fuck!’). Now she will sit down with a rough idea of the arc of the story and the ending but little else. While she used to write about 2,000 words each day, she now has 3 solid months of 7 days a week with her family occasionally dragging her out of the house for a break.
May explains that he writes in a very structured way, partly thanks to previous experience in TV where you are always writing from breakdowns. You can go on diversions but you always return to the original road map. He works out a 20,000 word story line over a week, usually including several moments of panic where he wonders if it’s ever going to work.
When Skelton points out that they were both journalists before they were authors they begin discussing the lessons they learned. McDermid explains that journalism taught her not to be precious about writing. You can’t wait for the muse to arrive when you’re reporting for a newspaper; you just have to write. It also provides a fantastic data set of people and places that you would never have come across otherwise, which is a huge benefit when writing fiction. May also points out that journalism teaches you to be fearless about research. You have to just go out and ask questions (he managed to get amazing contacts in the Chinese police this way) and learn that when you talk to people rather than reading books you get additional anecdotes and phrases that can set you off in a whole new direction.
Both also started out aiming to be literary novelists. McDermid wrote a literary novel that was rejected repeatedly until a theatrical friend said it would make a good play. At 23 she was suddenly an accidental playwright but struggled to repeat her success as she didn’t know what she’d done right. At 17 May had written a relatively short piece that was rejected but received an encouraging rejection letter from one publisher, Philip Ziegler. He kept the letter and many years later told his editor about it only to discover that Ziegler was now with the same publishing house. A short while later he was at a party put on by the publisher when a car arrived outside for him. It took him to Ziegler’s house and he spent the evening talking to the man who had encouraged him all those years ago. Before he left they signed each others books.
The question of ‘does it get easier’ receives an emphatic response of ‘no’. McDermid explains that if you have ambition and a desire to get better then it never gets easier because you’re always pushing to do something new and each new advance requires more work. May adds that most writers have a love/hate relationship with the process of writing and that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether it’s driving or washing the dishes, some part of your brain is always focused on your writing. McDermid says she often thinks about a problem before going to bed and finds that the solution is waiting when she gets up in the morning.
An audience member asks how easy it is to find a title for a book. Both agree that it’s often difficult. You either find the right title right away or spend an age writing lists of potential titles trying to find one that fits. Editors also have an input on titles. McDermid once had a title rejected with the comment of “How am I supposed to sell that to Asda?”