• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024
Val McDermid

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Perhaps befitting of the best-selling crime author, Val McDermid’s EIBF appearance on Monday 21st August opened with a long sponsorship video from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. The evening event in the ECA’s Sculpture Court was a sell-out, with most of the crowd at least sixty-five and over. 

McDermid appeared on a stage to loud applause in a vivid paint-splash dress that wouldn’t be out of place among the uni’s art students.

Hughes’ first question to the author was, “Was writing what you always wanted to do?”  McDermid replied that growing up in a working-class household in 1960s Kirkcaldy, the Central Library was a “home away from home” for her. She remembered the Chalet School series as what first got her into reading and writing, and what made her aware of the University of Oxford’s existence.

Asked to speak about her Oxford years, McDermid said she had never been to England except Blackpool before applying and chose St. Hilda’s purely because it had “the prettiest prospectus”. She said when she arrived at the age of 16 speaking “braid Fifer” that nobody understood her. Throughout the interview, McDermid revealed her skill as a very funny storyteller, repeatedly putting the audience in fits of giggles.

Despite being from a severely disadvantaged background relative to other students at the time, McDermid said she didn’t arrive at St. Hilda’s with a “chip on her shoulder”. “My Dad was a Burns man,” she said, bringing her up with the Burnsian idea of “a man’s a man for a’ that”. Her mum was a strong feminist too, a position McDermid has inherited and threads throughout her crime novels.

Moving onto her writing career, McDermid said she began writing bad poetry as a teenager. Upon graduating with a degree in English literature, she did what she believed was expected of Oxford students and pursued writing “the great English novel”. Although the result never found a publisher, it was eventually turned into a radio drama causing McDermid to think she might be “the next Harold Pinter”.

Unfortunately, McDermid found herself unable to replicate her success and was eventually fired by her agent, a moment she described as “the lowest point in my career”. She decided then to write “what I understood”: as a long-time fan of Agatha Christie, crime fiction came naturally. However, McDermid wasn’t a fan of the “police procedural set in the Home Counties” that dominated UK crime fiction in the 1980s.

McDermid said she wrote her first novel, Report for Murder (1987), on Monday afternoons. It was published as a paperback by a woman’s press but went unreviewed, as newspapers at the time only reviewed hardbacks (the majority of which were by men). However, owing to word-of-mouth the novel became a sleeper hit and has never been out of print since: a major “point of pride” for the author.  Much of the feedback for that novel, said McDermid, revolved around it having a “lesbian” protagonist. This gained a great deal of positive attention at the time, not because the character’s sexuality was emphasised, but because it was just part of who she was.

Hughes prompted McDermid to talk about her years working for the Daily Record after university. The author said it gave her “a huge database of characters” for future novels, and taught her that writing was a job: “You’ve just got to do it.” However, McDermid also recalled an industry environment of systemic misogyny, highlighting The Mirror’s HQ in Manchester which at the time had 567 journalists, of which only three were women.

Asked by Hughes “how she survived”, McDermid joked: “I’m from Fife.” She elaborated that she was good at what she did and fought her corner until over time her male co-workers “forgot I was a woman.” A further point of pride was seeing the same co-workers fired during a period of downsizing, while she was one of the few who kept on for her skill.

Hughes then questioned McDermid about her writing process, to which she replied that she usually starts with a “what if”, from which a plot and characters naturally form. Depending on the novel, she has to do varying levels of research: she highlighted archive newspapers as an excellent way to gain “the gossip of the time: texture, colour, prices, fashion, TV, music.” When writing, she uses the Pomodoro Technique and rarely goes on Twitter. 

On the gruesome events in her novels, McDermid said she simply writes “what needs to happen” depending on what genre of crime fiction the novel fits into. She walks a line of what is or isn’t too much, spending a lot of time “trying to get it right” and not being “cheap” regarding violence. She said that as she started as a crime writer, she found US pulp and hardboiled fiction “very distasteful”, with one-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs of female victims. Hence, she always aims to give any of her victims in her stories an agency and “hinterland.”

This prompted Hughes to ask if women write about violence differently, to which McDermid agreed. She argued women experience the world differently, writing about violence from the inside (the things they’ve imagined being done to them), while men tend to write it as external or observed.

She also described immense changes in the Scottish crime fiction community since she began in the 1980s, as Scotland’s “long dark nights”, black sense of humour, “Caledonian anti-syzygy”, and growing self-awareness as a nation have fuelled a boom in crime fiction. When she first appeared at the EIBF in 1993, she recalled feeling “overwhelmed to be taken seriously enough”, as at the time genre fiction was seen as “throwaway holiday reading”.

The host’s final question to McDermid before the panel ended was what kept her writing. McDermid’s reply was simple: “I get bored. Writers don’t really retire.” 

Image “Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019 – Luke Turner, Kate Charlesworth and Val McDermid 03” by byronv2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.