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'My novels don't spook me as I'm in control ... but I woke screaming after reading one book'

As top Scottish thriller-writer Val McDermid celebrates her 30th novel, she tells Hannah Stephenson why she thinks it's much harder for new novelists these days

Published 03/09/2016

Write on: Val McDermid is a prolific writer
Write on: Val McDermid is a prolific writer
Murder she wrote: Hermione Norris (left) and Robson Green in the TV adaptation of Wire in the Blood

Dubbed the queen of psychological thrillers, Val McDermid may have spent years making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, yet she insists that she and her crime writer pals are actually quite a jovial lot.

She catches up with her Edinburgh neighbour Ian Rankin and fellow novelists Mark Billingham and Denise Mina at crime festivals - and there's no dark atmosphere or sense of foreboding, so frequently found in their novels.

"Crime writing's a very friendly, sociable world. We have festivals dedicated to crime writing. We all get together and it's very convivial. At Harrogate, everyone ends up at the bar."

Her 30th novel, Out Of Bounds, celebrates a career which has spanned more than 30 years, selling more than 11 million books, translated into 30 languages. This year she was honoured with a Outstanding Contribution Award at the Theakstons Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

The forthright feminist and lifelong Raith Rovers fan can't quite get her head around her career's longevity.

"When I started out, I thought I had five or six books in me. I didn't look far enough ahead. I find it quite hard to believe. I look back and think, 'Where did all the years go?'"

Her ambition and drive push her to new goals with each book.

"If you want each book to be better than the one before, you are raising the bar constantly. In that sense it feels like more of a mountain to climb each time. I want to be the best writer I can be, which means pushing myself harder with every book."

In her latest story, a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, while a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from 22 years before. But finding the answer to the cold case is not straightforward.

Meanwhile, DCI Karen Pirie finds herself irresistibly drawn to another mystery which has its roots in a terrorist bombing two decades ago, and again, finds nothing is as it seems.

McDermid may research dark subjects, but she never spooks herself, she says.

"My own work doesn't spook me at all, because I'm in control. It's my world, where I'm God and nothing happens without my say so.

"Other people's work freaks me out from time to time. I remember reading one of Denise Mina's books and waking up screaming in the night. Michael Robotham is also someone whose books I find quite unsettling."

Cold case investigation has allowed her more freedom as a writer.

"As Karen investigates historic cases, I can go anywhere with her. I can look at stories through a different end of the telescope and twist the kaleidoscope so you see things differently," she says.

"I live in the here and now. I take an interest in politics, I take an interest in the world around me and those interests inevitably seep into the work. The issues that drive me find their way into the books."

Over the years, she's dipped her toes into television and was pleased with the series Wire In The Blood, adapted from her books, starring Robson Green as clinical psychologist Tony Hill and Hermione Norris as DCI Carol Jordan. But she's not bothered about venturing into TV again.

"For me, the only purpose of adaptation is to draw people to the books. I'm a writer. So I would have to be confident that any adaptation was going to be well done and well made," she says. "To climb into bed with anyone who wanders along and offers me money to adapt one of my books holds no interest for me whatsoever."

McDermid returned to Edinburgh several years ago, after a "life change. It was time. My life had changed in some respects and made it possible to come home. I had got divorced".

She'd previously shared a home in Northumberland with her then civil partner Kelly Smith. They share custody of their son, now 15.

"In term time, I spend half the week in Manchester, because that's where my son is. I've been doing this for a long time now. We are all relaxed with the lives we have to lead.

"Of course," she adds, "I worry about my son's future, given the current state of the economy, the prospects of Brexit, the global situation ..."

McDermid (61) comes from a working class background in Fife - her father was a shipyard worker - and she was the first person from a state school in Scotland to attend St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she studied English.

"It was a culture shock and lots of things were different. For a start, I had to learn to speak English. I had a broad Fife accent and a lot of dialect. I had difficulties being understood.

"But I was lucky in that the college I went to, St Hilda's, had a very egalitarian feel to it and it wasn't a place where there were cliques of rich girls.

"You were judged on the quality of your mind, and people didn't care if your father was a dustman or a duke. That was very exciting and opened up a lot of doors for me that would otherwise never have been opened."

After university, she became a journalist - but only to pay the bills to support herself writing fiction. She made a small wage from her early books.

"My first book (Report For Murder) was published to a resounding silence in 1987, but ironically has never been out of print. What always makes me smile is that, every year, I earn more from that first book than I got as an advance for it."

Her fourth novel - the first to feature private eye Kate Brannigan - clinched her a two-book deal; this was when her career started to really take off.

It's harder to make it as a novelist now, she reflects, partly because of the hype which so often pushes debut novelists to great heights before they've really started.

"It used to be healthier for individual novelists, because you had a chance to learn your craft. I don't think anybody springs out of the blocks fully-formed and as good as they are going to get.

"It puts a huge amount of pressure on writers at the start of their career if they get the huge advance and big fanfare of trumpets and the posters at the railway stations. If the second book isn't as good - and they often aren't - you can destroy a career before it's got off the ground.

"Ian Rankin and I always joke about how it took us 10 years to become an overnight sensation. That's a healthier thing for a writer. You need to understand there are things you have to learn, and it's hard to do that under the glare of the spotlight."

McDermid is currently writing three plays for Radio 4, and has ideas for the next couple of books.

Thirty novels on, her own career doesn't look like waning any time soon.

"Sorry to the people coming up behind me," she says with a smile. "But I'm not about to move over."

  • Out Of Bounds by Val McDermid is published by Little Brown, £18.99

Belfast Telegraph

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