Chaired by Viv Groskop
The latest book coming out is Val McDermid’s 30th novel, and unsurprisingly she recently won an award for an outstanding contribution to crime fiction at Theakston’s Harrogate Crime Festival. Out of Bounds, published earlier this week is the fourth book featuring cold case detective Karen Pirie. McDermid didn’t expect her to become a series but some characters have a way of sneaking up on her, and Karen shouts a lot. Her comment that keeping going with Karen was partially born out of laziness so that she didn’t have to create a new protagonist has Groskop spluttering. As she points out 30 novels and numerous other projects doesn’t exactly look like ‘lazy’. If anything it looks maddeningly prolific. McDermid says she simply likes to try new things and find new challenges. Recent new challenges have included a children’s book, radio plays and documentaries. She does admire writers like Sue Grafton who can do one thing and keep it fresh and intriguing but her mind simply doesn’t work that way.
Groskop asks about how she feeds characters voices and finds ideas. They apparently don’t need feeding, the world is brimming with ideas and sparks for stories. A comment on the radio, an overheard conversation, a person in a cafe, a story someone tells. People do interesting and stupid things and ideas are impossible to escape. Often there are so many she has to hope some crawl off into a dark corner of her mind and die quietly. She also apparently frequently irritates her agent by appearing at events and telling stories about ideas that are three books away. Somehow I doubt the audience ever feels the same irritation about a glimpse into the mind and work of one of the queens of Tartan Noire.
Groskop wants to turn the conversation to McDermid’s hometown, Kirkaldy. However, she accidentally diverts the session by pronouncing it ‘Kir-cal-dy’ rather than ‘Kir-caw-dy’. A rumbling ‘Oooh’ and laughter from the audience leads McDermid to wave us down with ‘Calm down, she’s English, she can’t help it!’ Groskop decides to avoid further potential embarrassment by referring to it as ‘the place that you’re from’ from then on.
McDermid’s family were decent working class who believed the way to get ahead in the world was good education. When she was 6 they moved to a house opposite the central library and McDermid proceeded to read her way through it. You could take out 4 books at a time but 2 of them had to be non-fiction (a category that included drama and poetry), so she wound up reading a lot of things she might not have done otherwise. The librarians were eternally helpful and always patient with the fact that she was a child whose reading vocabulary outstripped the spoken, meaning that they managed not to laugh when she asked if they had any more of ‘those Norse leg-ends’. The only issue came when she ran out of books to read in the children’s section but couldn’t get access to the adult section. She soon found a solution by stealing her mother’s library tickets and asking for an Agatha Christie as her mother was ill. This excuse worked for years until McDermid was old enough for an adult ticket. Her mother didn’t know until she went with her daughter to an event at that library a few years ago and a librarian exclaimed ‘Oh, Mrs McDermid, I thought you must be dead!’
McDermid’s introduction to the idea that she could be a writer came when a character in a book she was reading became a writer and mentioned getting a cheque for their work. Her first thought was ‘They get paid for this? I could do that!’ Her parents were slightly baffled by the choice because it was not the life they’d ever had the chance to lead. However, they were supportive and once she got to Oxford McDermid began to wonder if she could write the great English novel. She describes her attempts at the task as ‘shite’ and subsequently decided to try something she thought she knew how to do, and she’s still doing it now. At the time no one studied crime fiction like they do now. She recently discovered that you can now do a degree in detective fiction and seems a little peeved she didn’t have that option. Despite never being able to study it McDermid never considered crime fiction to be intellectually invalid. It might not have been on the syllabus but the green spines of Penguin editions of Agatha Christie still sat on the office shelves of her tutors, right next to the books in her essays. In her mind Christie was on the same level as Asimov and all the others, so she sat down to write and discovered she could do it a lot better than the ‘great English novel’.
McDermid does like to start with a title in mind, meaning that she finds it rather irritating when her publisher decides it needs to be changed. One of her recent books had originally been given the title ‘Inveterate Scars’, until her publisher protested that he couldn’t sell that to Asda. ‘Unredeemable’ was deemed too long a word to fit on the cover while still a good size and in the end they settled on ‘The Retribution’. Another had originally been called ‘Bounty’, which was changed when the publisher became worried that readers would confuse it with another book published that year in a different genre. It seems that publishers often ascribe an astonishing lack of intelligence to their customers, though sometimes the comments of readers do strike McDermid as stupid. One woman sought her out on Twitter to say that she had been a fan but had just found out that McDermid was a feminist and was therefore no longer interested in her work. Incensed, McDermid replied that it was her loss and that she’d ‘probably struggled with them anyway’. That response caught attention, resulting in 12,500 retweets, a New York Times article, and the title of ‘Elle Malaysia’s badass woman of the week’.
Twitter and increased public engagement does mean that a writing career now is a little different to what it was twenty or thirty years ago. The increasing need to interact with readers does take up more time than was required of previous generations and McDermid worries about the online behaviour of some younger writers. Some seem to put up every tiny detail of their lives, public or private, meaning that when the sky falls they have no place to hide. McDermid engages but always makes sure to retain a layer of privacy into which she can retreat when some aspect of her career or personal life becomes difficult. She does however believe that some past authors would have loved the level of audience interaction allowed by social media. Dickens probably would have been on Twitter constantly. Personally, I would love to see what Shakespeare would have done with 142 characters.