Feb 23, 2009
An interview with Val McDermid
Last week I went to hear crime novelist Val McDermid speak about her newest novel, A Darker Domain, which was just released in the U.S. McDermid is the author of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books that are the basis of the British TV series Wire in the Blood, but I like her standalone mysteries best. A Darker Domain is a standalone set in Fife, Scotland, involving a cold case about a missing person.
She gave a funny talk about her career and writing A Darker Domain, and then she read an excerpt aloud to us. She revealed a useful trick for giving a reading: Rather than read the excerpt word for word, she edited it to be read aloud by omitting certain sections or sentences. This made the story flow better to the listening audience.
McDermid has also written two other series: one about lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon, and the other about private eye Kate Brannigan.
Back in 2006, when her Lindsay Gordon series was being republished in the U.S., I interviewed McDermid for Curve, but most of that interview never made it into the magazine due to space limitations. I always thought that was a shame, because she talked at length about her writing process, how she includes queer characters in her books, and The Grave Tattoo, the book that came out just before A Darker Domain.
So after going to her reading last week, I dug up the interview. I thought it would be nice to give it a second life on my blog. Here it is:
An Interview With Val McDermid
Malinda Lo: Your Lindsay Gordon books are finally being reprinted in the United States. How do you feel about that?
Val McDermid: Well, it’s good for me to have them all back in print and in circulation. They’ve always been published by small presses and it’s sometimes difficult to get continuity in the marketplace, but I feel really confident now with Bywater Books … I’m very glad that people can get a hold of the books now.
When you first wrote them, did you automatically send them to a small press first? Was that always your plan?
I did. I wrote the first Lindsay Gordon book [Report for Murder] in the mid-1980s, and at that point in the U.K., there really wasn’t any way that a major commercial publisher was going to take on lesbian crime fiction. The timing was such that the only place I could even contemplate sending it was one of the feminist houses. I sent it to the Women’s Press, and they accepted it right away.
ML: Your most recent Lindsay Gordon novel, Hostage for Murder, sounded like it might be the last in the series. Are you planning to do more with her?
VM: I don’t know. I thought Lindsay was done after Booked for Murder. I had no plans for another Lindsay after that, but the story came into my head, and Lindsay was sort of knocking on the door in my mind for quite a little while before I actually found the time schedule writing the book.
The thing with me as a writer [is that it] has always been the story that was paramount for me. So, because I write different kinds of books — because I write different series and I write standalones — I’ve found myself in the fortunate position of always writing the book that I want to write: the book that excites me. I’m not in a position where if you’ve only got one series you’ve got a set of characters, maybe a cop or a P.I., you’re always having to look for stories that fit them. But with me it’s the other way around. It’s the story that fires me up, and I then have to figure out if it’s one of the series books or if it’s a standalone. But because I have different tones and different styles of writing, whatever story it is that’s burning to be told has a voice it can be told in.
ML: Do you have any preference for one style over the other, or is it just really the story?
VM: No, it’s the story. I’ve never written a book because I thought it was the right book to write in commercial terms. I’ve always written the book that was sort of clamoring next to be written, you know.
ML: Every time I talk to authors who’ve written very commercially successful books, they always say the same thing, and I think that you just must have some sort of instinctual commercial storytelling sensibility.
VM: I don’t know, I think I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve had the right book in the right place at the right time on several occasions. And it’s not through planning. You know, when I wrote the first Lindsay Gordon book it never occurred to me that she was going to be anything other than a lesbian. And if I’d written that book five years later or five years earlier, it would have been hard to get published. But because I wrote it at exactly the point that I did, it was very easy to get published.
And when I wrote the first Kate Brannigan book, the American private eye writers like Sarah Paretsky had really started to break out bigger in the British market, and British publishers were desperate for something homegrown. And again with The Mermaids Singing, which was another different kind of breakout book; nobody in the U.K. was writing the serial killer novel, and certainly I don’t think anybody else was writing quite the way I did with Mermaids Singing. But again, that wasn’t in my head at all. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, here’s a good way to break into the big time commercial market.” It was just [that] I had this great idea for a story and that was the only way I could tell it.
ML: Do you see any trends right now in the British crime fiction market?
VM: There are definitely trends. There’s a strong thread of the psychological suspense novel. There’s also — which I don’t think you see very much of in America — quite a gritty, noir trend that has not [had] a huge mainstream audience, but has a definite niche. Something that’s been emerging in the last few years is a tendency to write books … set in the recent past, you know, in the ’70s, in the ’80s, partly because people were interested in writing about those periods in our recent history, but also partly because in lots of ways it’s much easier to write a crime novel set then, because you don’t have to actually contend with where the technology is taking us.
ML: Right. You’ve done a couple books that kind of flash backward, including The Distant Echo, one of your standalones.
ML: I’ve always been immensely impressed with the amount of detail that you fit in there. What kind of creative process do you go through to make sure that you get everything in place, to make sure that everything makes sense and all of the plot adds up in the end?
VM: Well, it’s kind of weird because I have been going through a kind of transition in terms of my process. When I wrote my first book, I really didn’t know what I was doing. Most people are in that position when they write their first book. And I just started at the beginning and kind of worked my way through to the end, and all I really knew was who my detective was and who was going to get dead, and who the murderer was — or who I thought the murderer was at that point. I wasted a lot of time writing myself into corners and blind alleys, so I ended up tearing up a lot of stuff and going back and back-tracking and rewriting. I found that quite frustrating because I still worked a full-time job. I was the Northern Bureau Chief of a national newspaper and I didn’t really have the time to waste, as it were.
So, with the second book I did a bit more of an outline, just a couple-page outline, and that seemed to work a lot better. By the time I got to the third book I was on to much more detailed outlines, so I would write almost a scene-by-scene breakdown of the whole book. And that really worked for me … up until about two books ago. With the Kate Brannigan books I would do a series of file cards. … I would use blue file cards for the main plot, yellow ones for the subplot, pink ones for personal life and green ones for the sub-subplot. And kind of mix them in until the shape of the story felt right.
But in the last couple of books … it’s been kind of weird because I’ve managed to get the beginning all mapped out and the ending mapped out, more or less, and the middle just wouldn’t fill in the blanks, as it were. I just kept running into the sand when I tried to plan out the middle. And eventually, with deadlines looming, I just had to trust my instincts and write through it. Both books kind of got a bit hairy in the sense of having a very short time frame left to finish.
ML: Which ones were these last two?
VM: Well, the rough one was The Torment of Others, and the other is the one that’s coming out next year, The Grave Tattoo. So they were written in a very different way. I kind of knew what the beginning was, and I knew what the ending was, and I had a vague sense of where the middle was going, but I just had to write through without the safety net of an outline. That’s been kind of weird, you know. It’s been a very scary thing when you find what you think is the writing method that absolutely works for you time after time, and suddenly you lose it. For me it’s been quite difficult and quite scary. But interestingly, my editor, [who has] looked through my work since ’91, says it’s the strongest first draft I’ve ever handed in. So go figure.
ML: Tell me a bit about The Grave Tattoo.
VM: It’s set in the present day, and it takes place partly in London and partly in the Lake District. But it has its roots in historic events of years ago.
Essentially, the idea for the book came from years ago [when] I was with a group of crime writers having a weekend away in the Lake District, and we had a guy come talk to us about murders in the Lake District in the 19th century. He just said in passing, as a throwaway line, “Of course William Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian went to school together.”
There was always a longstanding rumor around the Lake District that Fletcher Christian didn’t die on Pitcairn [Island], that he came back. And that just made all my antennae sort of tingle, and [my] brain flashing red-alert going, “That’s really interesting!” It just seemed like such an odd coincidence, and I kind of filed it away in the back of my brain, and over the next few years, every time I had a chance to find out something more about Fletcher Christian and the Bounty story … I would just figure out what I could and carry on.
I eventually started working on the book quite furiously about 18 months ago, just starting to do lots of background reading. And I came up with a theory … that Fletcher Christian did indeed come back [from Pitcairn]. Of course, if he had come back he would have been a wanted man. He would have had to be a fugitive, you know, but he would have wanted to put his side of the story [out], and by the time he came back, his old friend William was a famous poet and [could have been] who he told the story to.
So the story revolves around this idea: Did Fletcher Christian come back? Is there a manuscript? Is there a long narrative poem about the Bounty? If so, if it does exist? Is it real or is it forgery? And the book is kind of about the search for this putative manuscript. And of course, because it’s my book, people start dying.
ML: I’ve noticed that you always insert a gay or lesbian character at some point in your books. It’s fun for me to guess who they’re going to be before they, you know, come out. I’m not always right. Did you put some gay characters in this one too?
VM: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think right from the beginning, you know, even writing a lesbian detective [series], I never wanted to write books that were special pleading. I don’t want to live in a ghetto, so why would I want to write in a ghetto, in a sense. I’ve always tried to write about gay and lesbian lives within the wider picture, the kind of lives that most of us lead.
Most of us don’t live lives that are exclusively gay. And even if you do live lives where your only friends are gay and lesbian friends, and the only socializing you ever do is with gay and lesbian people, and the only people you work with are gay and lesbian people, even then you don’t actually go to the supermarket in a particularly homosexual way or do your laundry in a particularly homosexual way. The vast majority of our daily lives are made up with doing the same kinds of things that everybody else does. And that’s the way I always wanted to write about being gay, that yes, if you are gay it’s an important part of who you are, but it’s not the only important thing about you.
ML: That’s for sure. How do you feel about the TV series, Wire in the Blood? Is it still in production in the U.K.?
VM: Yeah, we’re just about to start filming the fourth series … and that will be four episodes. One of them is an adaptation of The Torment of Others — quite a loose adaptation in many ways, but it’s got the essential storyline of Torment of Others. I think they’ve done a great job. They’re very dark; they’re very intelligently plotted.
The most important thing for me is that they’re faithful to the feel of the books, and they’re very high quality television. So what happens is they do bring more readers to the books. What I wanted was something that people who had read the books would enjoy, you know, with the reservations that it’s not as rich and textured as the books are. But anyone who saw the television and then went to the books would not be disappointed.
ML: Are you involved in any of the adapting at all?
VM: Well, I don’t write scripts because, frankly, I think writing it once is sufficient. But I do read the scripts when they’re in the process of being developed, and I do have the opportunity to express any strong feelings I have. And my views are always listened to.
ML: Oh, that’s great.
VM: I have a very friendly relationship with Coastal Productions who make the series, and they made it clear right from the beginning they wanted my involvement, to the extent that they wanted to be faithful to the books, because they love the books.
ML:Who’s your favorite character that you’ve invented?
VM:Well, you know, it’s really tragic. Here I am, a lesbian author, created lots of gay characters, and the only one I really fancy is Carol Jordan … who is, you know, totally straight. Carol Jordan does not have the faintest inclination towards a moment of bisexuality. And she is the one for me. It’s tragic.