A passion for crime: Interview with Val McDermid
- Published: 11 September 2010
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12 September 2010
You seem to have been thrust into a world where you were the outsider: You were the first person from a Scottish state school to go to St Hilda’s College in Oxford and at a young age; you’ve worked as a reporter in a predominantly male environment and you’re a lesbian. How has this influenced your work and the kinds of characters you write about?
The thing about the detective is the outsider, the maverick, so having experience of being outside the mainstream gives you an insight into that position. The person on the outside has the objectivity to solve the case.
Were you always out at college and in the workplace?
I was out in the sense that I wasn’t in. Right from the beginning it wasn’t something that was hidden. I had one or two friends who didn’t understand how to deal with it, but that was more because they were young and had no experience of the world, and those friendships have since been rebuilt.
What about in the cut-throat world of journalism?
I was as cut-throat as anyone else. My nickname on the Daily Record was ‘killer’. To be perfectly frank you didn’t get to that level in journalism if you were a woman if you didn’t have a very high level of skills and commitment. There were a lot of things that were irrelevant – if you could do the job, that was what counted.
On your website you say you ‘seized on every experience’ you could get your hands on at Oxford. Such as?
Every chance that came by I was happy to take it – make friends, contacts, relationships.
Oxford was a place rich with possibilities. If you made the right connections it would sort you out for life. It’s still the case – if I am working on a book and need some information from someone and that person happens to be a Hildabeast, I can ring them up out of the blue and say, ‘I was up there 72 to 75, can you help me?’ And if they can’t they will know someone who can. It’s an old girls network.
It was also an opportunity to spread my wings intellectually. I became interested in the philosophy of language. It wasn’t my course work, so in my finals year I’d spend time with philosophers drinking gin till 3am and sorting out the ontological argument for the existence of God.
It was full of social opportunities. I was brought up in a council house in a working class town in Fife and I was spending weekends in castles on the Welsh borders. It provided me with a rich source of information for fiction.
Why are you so interested in death, violence and forensic professionals?
When I was a kid I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparents and I ran out of things to read because library books would never hold me long enough. They only had two books – one was Murder at the Vicarage so I grew up with the idea that adult books had to have dead bodies in them.
I enjoyed the way the plot works and everything clicks into place and makes sense. What was impossible to understand become clear. I suppose it’s the process of growing up too. Me growing up gay in late 60s and 70s life was confusing and things don’t make sense.
Then you discover, ‘Oh I’m a lesbian’ and suddenly all sorts of things make sense. Crime writing is a genre that has more possibilities than any other form of writing.
Let’s talk about violence. Some people have said while they love your work, some of it is just too grisly and disturbing to read. And there was a media furore three years ago when your pal Ian Rankin noted that it was women, and particularly lesbians, who were writing bloodthirsty, gory violence. How do you justify the need for shocking torture and death in your novels?
The grisly stuff is about a quarter of my output that has somehow become emblematic of who I am as a writer and it kind of pisses me off.
I am not representative of anyone else’s writing. I write what I write because for me it’s appropriate for those books.
Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.
With the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novels particularly I deal very directly with violence and what it does to life.
I believe certain kinds of books demand that kind of honesty. In particular a book that is predicated on someone reading a crime scene and draws conclusin from it. How preposterous would it be for Tony Hill to read a crime scene the reader isn’t able to see?
I’m very conscious there is a line between writing directly about violence and not being gratuitous about it and I work very hard to stay on what I think is the right side of the line.
I appreciate some people do find it hard to read and it’s probably a sign of good mental health that you do find it disturbing. But I’m not going to shy away from writing about the nature of violence and what it does to victims and how we treat them simply because some writers step over the mark.
Writers have a responsibility not to be glib about things. I’ve always tried to write about victims with respect and portray what it’s like when someone in your life is suddenly rubbed out, so I write about families, friends who are left behind after a violent crime.
I’m not going to apologise for doing that just because other writers don’t.
Women’s writing is often dismissed or lumped as ‘chick lit’. What does a female writer have to do to be considered a strong literary voice?Chick lit is not my world! I’m not sure it’s relevant at all. If you look at the canopy of female writers like Ali Smith or Margaret Atwood, nobody is saying these are not strong intellectual women writing books.
I think women do get taken seriously as writers, particularly in crime writers. The Times recently did a 100 greatest crime writers list and number one was Patricia Highsmith.
Women have held up at least half the sky in crime writing since the beginning. Where readers are concerned, they are smart enough to see good writing.
Yet author Manda Scott wrote a piece in The Independent last year when she said that readers and publishers are no longer frightened of lesbian authors or protagonists, but “being a woman is still a bit of a downer when it comes to selling books”. She cited a number of crime writers who are all writing blood-soaked crime fiction that sell by the shedload but said that most men still don’t knowingly buy books by women, with sales stuck at 80% women and 20% men buying books by women. What are your thoughts on this and your experience?
Probably my readership is 70/30 women to men, across the spectrum. Yes, men don’t read books by women and that’s frankly their loss.
Where it changes is when women buy the books and tell men to read them. I think a lot more men read my books who don’t actually go to shop and buy them.
It’s about getting them to start, that’s the hard thing. It’s about getting boys to read. Men don’t read fiction as much as women and it’s hard to get their attention. Women need to train men more – we need to train boys to read.
Your first novel, Report for Murder (featuring lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon), was published by The Women’s Press in 1987. American lesbian author and playwright Sarah Schulman is critical of ‘niche marketing’ – that is, marketing a writer as gay or lesbian instead of as a strong literary voice. What are your thoughts on niche marketing?
When I wrote Report for Murder the only way it was going to be published was by a feminist publishing house.
I think although mainstream publishers will now publish lesbian fiction by lesbian writers it tends to be at the literary end of the market or by people who have already established themselves.
There is still almost no possibility if you are a lesbian writer of serious fiction of being picked up by a commercial house.
My wife [Kelly Smith] has a publishing house Bywater Books and she publishes quality lesbian fiction. They are good books but they won’t be picked up by mainstream publishers. I’ve shown those books to British publishers and their response is ‘This is fantastic, it’s really good writing but I can’t make a commercial deal out of this book.’
How did your publishers react to your latest book Trick of the Dark with its all-lesbian cast of characters? Were there any worries on their part that it was too niche and wouldn’t be popular with mainstream readers?
Their reaction was they loved it! They weren’t concerned because they see it for what it is – it is a good read.
But that book would not have been published 20 years ago, or if it had been, it would have been by The Women’s Press or Virago.
This one will be commercially successful because I have a reputation as a commercially successful writer with a track record so it will be bought by my readers.
I’ve never written breast-beating coming out novels, I’ve always written about lesbians in the world and lesbian characters in the same way as straight characters – they are part of the continuum of human life.
They have separate issues that sometimes affect them but the majority of their daily life is the same as anyone else’s – you don’t go to the supermarket in a particularly lesbian way! You don’t catch the bus in a particularly dykey way – these are things you do that everyone else does.
In fiction most of the things that happen in the context of a novel don’t happen because you are a lesbian.
This book is certainly the most lesbian book I’ve written but I didn’t set out to make a political point. I didn’t think, ‘The Labour government is probably going to lose the next election and we’re going to have a nasty radical right-wing government and people need to speak out against this!’
It took me a long time to find structure for this book. It’s been in my head for about 12 years. It’s a lesbian novel because the relationships at the heart of it are triangular and triangular relationships don’t work with heterosexual characters because there is always someone falling off the end of the triangle; it’s much harder to do A loves B loves C loves A with heterosexual relationships because the balance of power becomes skewed. So in a way the story demanded it be a lesbian novel.
Ten years ago I would have hesitated to write this book in case my publisher wasn’t ready for it and my readership was not so much ready for it but accepting of it.
But I think we are at a very different place now, especially in the UK where there is swathe of really successful lesbian writers – Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Charlotte Mendelson, Stella Duffy, Manda Scott, Jackie Kay – and Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate. But it’s only happening at the top end. It’s still hard for lesbian writers in the middle part of the market to break through.
Now that you’ve had success with your stories being adapted for TV, including the hugely successful Wire in the Blood, has it changed how you write? In other words, do you write with TV in mind?
No. I’d said no several times to options for these books and others because I didn’t like the people in the production companies concerned.
I’m not just going to grab the first thing that comes past because it’s television. I’m not in love with being on television, I’m in love with being a writer. I really don’t care about that stuff. I wouldn’t agree to it unless I was sure it was going to be done well.
I understand you’re very angry that ITV stopped commissioning it, particularly as it was made up north and left a huge gap in terms of employment in the industry in the north of England. Any news on whether it will be picked up by anyone else?
No one in the UK will pick it up again after six series. It’s a shame. I don’t understand why it was cancelled – it had great audiences and great ratings.
The official line was it was too expensive to continue making it but that’s bullshit because we were still making it for same money as the first series six years earlier.
I think the real reason was ITV got a new head of drama and when new people come in they have got their own agenda and want to axe what went before and make their own mark. Plus they have their own favourite production companies they want to use that are sometimes run by their husbands or best friends.
Why do you think crime novels and subsequent TV shows based on them are so popular – addictive even?
Part of it is it’s safe to be scared when you are watching something like this on TV because however awful something is that’s happening on TV someone will come along at the end – the detective will come along and make it all right.
In the UK and I daresay other places, people’s fear of crime is way out of proportion to the risk of them being victims of crime.
Part of it is we live in a society that is much more fractured than previous generations. When I grew up you knew every family in the street and there was a certain sense of community that there isn’t so much of now.
People don’t know their neighbours as well as they used to; people see a stranger on the street and don’t immediately go, ‘That’s a stranger’ and that’s made us feel more vulnerable about the world, and crime shows make it more manageable.
There’s also an element of sublimation in it. Women in particular are supposed to be gentle and kind and not supposed to get angry and especially physically angry but we have those feelings of rage.
I don’t know there is a single person on the planet who has not felt murderous at some time or another in their life and one of the things that draws us into crime dramas and crime fiction is that sense of sublimation – we can imagine these terrible things being visited on that person who pissed you off at work or rammed into your car and didn’t say sorry. So it’s a way of transferring those feelings to what is happening on screen.
You worked as a journalist for many years. What are your thoughts on journalism and fiction writing, such as whether they complement each other or not and why so many journalists write fiction?
I don’t know. I’d say I didn’t learn much from journalism that applies to writing fiction. There are the indirect things like the realisation that no matter what is going on in your life you can still knock out 1500 words and this taught me not to be precious about writing.
I don’t sit and wait for the muse to strike, it’s a job, and when it’s writing time I sit down and do it even if I don’t feel like it.
The other thing journalism gave me was a fantastic data search of people and situations and environments I wouldn’t otherwise have had an entree into. I worked in Manchester for 12 years and it was a small team so you had to do everything, from investigative journalism to celebrity scandals.
Journalism has little to do with writing. Most journalists who turn to fiction can’t do it. They really can’t – they can’t do the long haul.
All the guys I work with say, ‘You’re really lucky to be doing what you are doing’ but I’m not lucky, I work bloody hard! There’s nothing lucky about my decision to sit down and write fiction.
An Australian journalist Caroline Overington uses fiction as a way to reveal things to the public that she can’t as a journalist, so it’s kind of cathartic. Does this resonate with you at all?
There is some truth in that. You can write about things with more honesty sometimes because with journalism you have to prove things and finding that proof is sometimes difficult.
Over the course of my career there were stories that we spent a lot of time on in the investigation unit that didn’t get into the paper because the lawyers said no.
Are your characters based on real people?
If you based a character on someone who is real, it’s dishonesty, because you do all sorts of things to them because you need them to do it for the book to come out right and that’s a bit bloody cheeky.
People sometimes make the mistake of conflating the author with characters. With Lindsay Gordon who is a Scottish lesbian journalist, people think that must be me but we are so different. I wouldn’t do half the stuff she does – she’s mental!
Just because a character in a book has strong views about something doesn’t mean that’s what I think either. I used to live in Buxton in Derbyshire and loved going into the fields for a walk. [Detective] Kate Brannigan hates it because she is a city girl so she is really rude about the place and my neighbours were giving me a hard time about it but I said, ‘I’m not her!’
You write all these murders but nobody actually thinks I pop off on a Saturday afternoon and do a spot of serial killing. But you write one sex scene and everybody assumes that is what you do. No! I made it up. I don’t do that filthy stuff. Good god no – I’m much dirtier than that!
I have a son and if I write about a child they think I’m writing about my son. No, I have an imagination – it’s called fiction because I make it up!
Your first agent fired you for not making him enough money. Have you had contact with him to say, ‘I told you so’?
I believe he inhabits the same rubber room as the publishers who turned down JK Rowling.
Have you considered writing outside the crime genre?
Why would I? There’s nothing I can’t say in that genre. Crime writing has become a very different animal in the past 20 years. It’s no longer a crossword puzzle, it’s become a novel of character, place, wide social issues and politics – anything you want to write about.
It’s a bit like high stakes poker – when you are writing about issues of life and death, it’s hard to think about going back to write about a novel set at a dinner party in north west London and whether someone is going to have fertility treatment or not, for fuck’s sake! When you play high stakes poker it’s hard to go back to playing snap.
How much research do you do?
It varies from book to book. Trick of the Dark didn’t take much at all because I knew the locations and there’s not lots of forensic detail.
Other books take much more like Fever in the Bone. I had to do research into how technology and social networking works.
I’d say I do less research than people think I do. One of the great things to learn is it’s not about dumping lots of information on people that matters, it’s making it feel authentic and that usually comes form talking to someone who knows what they are talking about.
The anecdotes and telling descriptions make it come alive and people think, ‘Oh my God she must have spent three months in an anthropology lab; she must really know her stuff.’
You’re busted now!
Well you know how much blagging journalists do to get a story!
And finally, you posted on your Facebook page that your wife had gone off to lunch with Martina Navratilova recently, making many a lesbian jealous. Did you get Kelly back safely?
Yes, and I now have the magic formula for anything I want done for the rest of my life. I just have to say ‘Martina Navratilova!’
For more on Val McDermid, visit her website.
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief at The Scavenger.
Image of Val McDermid by Alan Peebles.