Her books are often dark and grisly, but there is nothing remotely moody about the bestselling crime writer Val McDermid herself. There was a lot of giggling and guffawing going on while she talked about writing to fellow novelist Tiffany Murray.
Tiffany started by asking about the different kinds of books she writes, often working on several things at the same time.
“The Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series and the Lindsay Gordon books are very dark and really direct about what violence is and what it does. The standalone novels are much less bloody, much less confrontational about violence. They deal with how secrets from the past come up on you; things that you think you’ve sorted out but which creep up behind you and bite you when you least expect it. Then there’s my series involving the detective Kate Brannigan, which are typical private eye novels, in the first person, full of wisecracks. The books are also very much a social history of the city of Manchester through the 1990s, when I was working as a journalist there.”
Tiffany wondered how being a journalist for many years had influenced her fiction writing.
“I think the one really important lesson that I took away from journalism is that writing is a job; it’s not something to be precious about. You don’t have to wait for the muse to strike. If you’re a journalist, you write when the story happens. Whatever’s going on in your own life, you can always write 1,500 words. For me that’s a good writing habit to have. You just need to sit down at your desk every day knowing you have to write a certain amount, then you can make that better later on. Some days you’ll write 1,500 words of rubbish and you end up binning almost all of it, but if you don’t start off with the determination to put something on the page, you can’t make it better. Don’t try to write the perfect first chapter, because you never will. And by the time yo get to the end, the first chapter will be different anyway. Get it down, then go back and make it better.”
But it wasn’t just the discipline of journalism that helped Val with her fiction.
“When you’re working in newspapers, you’re parachuted into people’s lives, usually at a time of crisis, either when something has gone very wrong or when something really good has happened. I saw people from all walks of life, from all sectors of society, of all ages, living in all sorts of places, from the highest to the lowest in the land. I saw it all at first hand. I spoke to these people and got a flavour of their lives, which has provided me with a huge database of situations, and people, and descriptions that I can draw on when I’m sitting down and writing. When I need a certain type of character, I just think, who have I come across in my life who might give me a starting point? Writers are cannibals. We eat our own lives and then we eat the lives of those around us. But years in newspapers gave me a lot of lives to eat.”
Tiffany asked Val if she still does her research herself.
“I think you have to do it yourself, because otherwise you don’t get that moment when something inside your head goes ping! That moment when you think, that’s really interesting! I usually try and find an expert on whatever it is I’m in interested in and go and talk to them, usually over a few drinks in the pub. Then you don’t just get the answers to your questions but also a lot of stuff that you didn’t even know enough to ask about. And what is more interesting is that you get the sociology of the information, of what it’s like to be a forensic pathologist, what happens day to day. And when you put those little details into your book, it really humanises the information and the reader feels that you really know what you’re talking about.
Tiffany commented that it is very important for writers to interact with other humans now and again.
“We spend too much time interacting with screens and talking to the voices in our heads.” Val replied. “ I often think that if we didn’t write it down, we’d be in a mental health unit. We hear voices in our heads and we talk back to them. But just writing it down makes you a writer not a nutter.”
Tiffany asked what Val was working on at the moment.
“This year I’ve got three projects on the go. I am writing the eighth Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novel, Cross and Burn. Then the Wellcome Collection, the big medical museum in London, is organising a big exhibition for next summer called From the Crime Scene to the Courtroom, which is all about developments in forensic science, and they wanted me to write a book to go with it. I said at first I couldn’t do it, as I just make stuff up, but they talked me into it and it’s going to be a series of interviews with forensic scientists. A former publisher has also approached me about a project, involving several writers, to rework the novels of Jane Austen in a contemporary setting, taking the characters and the story of the book, but refiguring it in the modern world. Some of the crucial plotlines in Jane Austen’s books rely on the length of time it takes a letter to get from place to another, and of course all that has completely changed. But human nature is still the same; you just have to come up with different reasons for people’s behaviour. I’ve taken on Northanger Abbey and I’m trying to find a different cadence, a different rhythm in the sentences. So that for me as a writer has been an interesting challenge, a way of making me extend my capabilities.”
For Val McDermid writing is all about setting herself new challenges, thereby assuring neither she nor her readers ever get bored. I hope she enjoyed her visit to Segovia. You never know, it might even have provided her with the inspiration for a new story.