EIBF2014: Val McDermid, criminally enjoyable

I always make a note of approximate attendances and the male/female split in the audience at events, mainly for my own interest, but I think it says something about Val McDermid’s event on Wednesday Tuesday night at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that it was about 95% full, and the audience was almost exclusively female. I’m not sure quite what it says, mind, but a friend who is a regular at her events told me that it’s quite normal.

Val McDermid is a hugely affable presence and is sharp, witty and managed on several occasions to reduce the chair, Alan Morrison to silence with her, let’s say, unexpectedly colourful chat.

This was the first event I’ve been to where live tweeting was actively encouraged by the host, an offer that Val immediately got her first big laugh from by getting out her phone. Sadly, the latest book, Skeleton Road, wasn’t yet available but, as Morrison pointed out, there were plenty more other books that she could sign after the event. Asked just how many, she joked: “There comes a point beyond which it becomes vulgar to count.”

With the book most closely connected to it, A Darker Domain being about the effects in Fife of the Miners’ Strike, a subject that she had wanted to write about for many years before finding a story that fitted, was the new book, with its background of the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, similarly one she’d wanted to write for a while, Morrison asked?

“I had the basis for the book handed to me on a plate.” When she had been at Oxford she had been friends with Kathy Wilkes, a philosophy don. “She taught be how to think. And also how to drink.”

Wilkes had been active behind the Iron Curtain in Prague, running clandestine philosophy seminars, taking in books disguised as airport novels. She was eventually banned, so started going to Yugoslavia; she got caught in the siege of Dubrovnik and became a decorated hero in Croatia. “I knew as I was listening to these stories that I was one day going to have to write about these things.”

The story of The Skeleton Road begins with a body being found in an unusual place, and Val explained how this was another idea she’d wanted to use and that eventually the two had converged. The Night Climbers of Cambridge was, she said a book “about a bunch of maddies who climbed the outside of Cambridge colleges under cover of darkness without any climbing equipment … it’s just daft, it’s demented, why would you do that?” Having read it, she thought how interesting it would be to find a body up where there shouldn’t be one, and this let her connect a cold case with the Balkan conflict.

She’s resisting the idea that the return of Karen Pirie marks the start of a continuing series “but I have a horrible feeling she’s not going to leave me alone”. Should she come back, though, she won’t be the centre of the story, the “dominant force”, but more the one holding it all together.

Morrison addressed the fact that in the period between the two books being written the Scottish Police force has been unified, and wondered if that was something she specifically worried about. “It’s slightly sketchy at this point … I don’t write these kind of things anyway, I’ve never written books that are admin-heavy.”

“I like to root a book in a period but not tie it down with detail. There’s a sense of time and place without dating the book.”

Morrison wondered if the two backstories, although on different scales, were likely to reopen old wounds. Had she had problems going back to Fife after writing about the strike in A Darker Domain?

“Nobody said anything to me, they may have said it to each other. The response I had was entirely positive, with people saying it reflected their experience.

“I tend to do book festivals and literary luncheons, and I was doing one in Windsor, and what was really interesting what that in the Q&A afterwards several people said the same thing: that they had no idea that was what was going on. It wasn’t in their papers, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph. Their understanding of the Miners’ Strike was diametrically opposite to mine and that of anyone who lived close to the coalfields. They just didn’t know, they weren’t told, they didn’t see it on the news. They thought I was making it up.”

She then went off to describe how Fife wouldn’t have let her get away with less than the truth (“Fife’s no’ like that!”).

“In Kirkcaldy, no matter how many awards I get or books I sell, I will always be ‘Jim McDermid’s lassie’.” (Her dad was a scout for Raith Rovers and discovered football star Jim Baxter.) She recounted how she’d recently been in a chip shop and been pointed out to a Rangers fan: “See that woman there? Her dad discovered Jim Baxter!”

“Fife,” she beamed, “home of ‘ah kent her faither’.”

Returning to The Skeleton Road and Yugoslavia and the way that the dominant narrative has been that Serbia were “the bad guys”, she said: “Too much of our history and our foreign policy has been about good guys and bad guys and we make quick judgements, and pursue strategy accordingly.” Referring to the fact that the US under Reagan were responsible for creating the Taliban, she made a plea that we need to be more nuanced in reaction to complex situations.

“Increasingly that’s what the crime novel has the potential to become. A lot of us are trying to write serious fiction that happens to have dead bodies and cops in it. The readers are coming with us. I have a huge respect for the sophistication of my readers. Youse are the smart guys!”

How do you know when a character’s series is finished?

“It’s the voices in my head! They stop speaking to you. When I start to write the stories it’s not their voice I’m hearing. I had at one point half a story for Kate Brannigan but it fizzled out.

“It wasn’t a conscious choice to turn away from those earlier characters, it’s just the stories that sat well with them were no longer coming into my head.

“I’ve never had an overall story arc for any of my series except at the beginning, the Lindsay Gordon trilogy. The only reason was that I wasn’t sophisticated as a storyteller and the book I really wanted to write was the third one.”

With the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books (“Wouldn’t you hate to be one of them? I know I would!”), she said, she will often get long emails from fans who hold the characters dear, but she has to put them to one side: “I can’t let that rule what I want to write”.

Shifting focus a little, they then talked about My Granny is a Pirate. She said she was initially reluctant to do a children’s book, “it’s a specialised skill I don’t possess” but relented and sent a poem to her publisher which became a bit of a hit.

Probably the biggest laugh of the night was a brief diversion into her involvement with The Austen Project, where prominent authors update Austen’s classics.

Northanger Abbey was too good to resist. I thought, ‘I can have fun with this.’ Northanger was the obvious one as it’s not just a straight romance. I knew I wasn’t going to be asked to do Emma, as I’d had a conversation with that editor previously over dinner, and I said, ‘The only way to make sense of Emma is as a lesbian romance.’ So I knew I wasn’t going to get that one. Whatever Alexander McCall Smith does with Emma, it’s not going to be a lesbian romance. “There will be no sensible shoes in his Emma!”

Yet another book out this year is Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime, interviews with experts of various disciplines, published to accompany a Wellcome Trust exhibition. She gave us a story about being taken up to a pinnacle of the Natural History Museum where an entomologist had some bizarre experiments going on: suitcases with pigs heads in them to see which flies could get through the zips, for example.

Is she becoming increasingly interested in science?

“I think so because the science has become more interesting in the last ten years. The developments have been amazing.”

The first question from the audience was about who her favourite writers were and, sneakily tacked on was a much more interesting one about which way she’s likely to vote in the independence referendum.

“I have after a long period of swithering decided that I’m voting Yes. If you vote No, you’ll only have to do it all over again in ten years’ time.”

[EDIT 22/8/14: While I was writing this, The Guardian published a piece by McDermid about her reasoning.]

Has writing about conflicts in the two Karen Pirie books been part of a moral message?

“I don’t set out to deliver a message. If you start out that way you write a bad book because you’re too busy thinking about the special pleading. What’s important is the interrelations of the characters and the storytelling. I am a politically engaged person, but a non-aligned person. I do have very strong views and passions and that finds its way into my work. As a writer you can’t escape from who you are and how you see the world.

Sometimes, though she said that she doesn’t always know until quite a while after the book comes out what it’s about. It took someone at a book festival almost 18 months after its publication to tell her The Mermaids Singing was about gender, for example.

She had advice for those wanting to write: “Read as much as you can, devour as many books as you can get your head round. You’ll often learn as much from a bad book as from a good one.”

On how her own writing career started, she said that she’d originally wanted to write “great literary fiction”. “I attempted a novel but it was truly terrible. I still have it. Every now and then I take it out to remind myself how badly I can write.”

Eventually, though “I ended up turning to crime … as I decided I should write something where I understood the mechanics of what I was supposed to be doing.”

Sara Paretsky’s first novel, sent to her by a friend in America, also inspired her as it had a female lead with a brain and a sense of agency and, importantly, an urban setting: “much more realistic than the world of the English village which to me, growing up in Fife, might as well have been science fiction.”

Luck, she said is also a key element. British publishers were looking for something to capitalise on the success of women writers such as Paretsky and Sue Grafton. “If I’d written [Report for Murder] five years earlier, there would have been no market; if I’d written it five years later the market would have been saturated.”

And talking of saturation, the rain had finally eased off, so we could all go home happy and dry after a thoroughly engaging and funny hour.

The Skeleton Road is out on 11th September.

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