During the madness and mayhen that was the 2011 Festival, journalist Sonia Kilvington caught up with international bestselling crime writer Val McDermid, whose novels featuring clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan have sold millions of copies worldwide.
The early Tony Hill novels were serialised for television and became the highly acclaimed drama Wire in the Blood, featuring Robson Green. Val McDermid is also the author of many thrilling stand-alone novels, including A Trick of the Dark and A Place of Execution, which was recently televised and starred Greg Wise and Juliet Stevenson.
Originally from Fife and an award winning journalist, Val had a very unusual education…
I believe you were involved in a hot house education program with Gordon Brown?
Not at the same time, he is quite a few years older than me. We were both part of a program that Fife Education Committee did in the 1960s, where they basically culled the top pupils from the primary schools in the area and put us through high school a year early. They separated us out in a class of our own; the original idea was that we would do seven years in high school, but most people wanted to leave with their cohorts so we ended up being ready for university a year early, which ultimately meant that we were very young, so I was only sixteen when I did my Oxford entrance. I think it produced two types of people. Those like Gordon and me who were very driven and success orientated and those who crashed and burned along the way. It was quite stressful in ways that were not necessarily appreciated at the time.
With hindsight do you think it was a good idea?
No, I think it was a really bad idea. It might have worked better if they had mixed us in with the rest of the academic year, but we were set aside in a different class called E for early, although everyone said it was E for experiment. So by the time we got into the mixed population of the third year, everyone knew we were the weirdos and so we never quite fitted in.
How did you find St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, coming from a working class background?
In a funny kind of way I think that I had fewer problems than a lot of people. Fife is a very distinct place; you have the Firth of Tay to the north and the Firth of Forth to the south and until the mid-1960s, when we got the road bridges, it was difficult to get into Fife. It was quite inward looking, quite parochial, but what we did have was a strong sense of political radicalism. My father was a big adherer of the poetry of Robert Burns; he was member of the Bowhill People’s Burns Club. I grew up imbued with the notion that I was as good as anybody else and I did not have any chip on my shoulder when I went to Oxford; I didn’t feel like these people were going to do me down, I kind of went there with the feeling that I was there because I deserved to be. It was a culture shock; there was no doubt about that! The first thing, which was extremely difficult, was that I had to learn to speak English. In Fife people speak with a strong dialect in a strong accent and they speak very quickly, so when I went to Oxford they literally could not understand what I was saying. I had to learn to speak a kind of English they could understand. It was great to be somewhere where people judged you on the quality of your mind and nothing else, really. I saw it as three years of opportunities I was determined to make the most of. I was brought up with this notion that if you have a talent you have a duty to use it properly.
After Oxford you became a journalist?
I worked for ‘The People’ back when it was still a newspaper. We did a lot of investigative journalism, a lot of human interest stories. Really, it was in the late 1980s when it changed into the celebrity driven, scandal driven, tabloid garbage that most of the red tops, or all of the red tops, are these days. Back then, when I first went there, it was a highly regarded newspaper, particularly for its investigative journalism.
How far did you go with that career before becoming a novelist?
I trained with the Mirror group in Devon for two years and worked in national newspapers for twelve years. I ended as the Northern Bureau Chief of ‘The People’ for three years.
I believe you had a run in with a wrestler at the time – was it Big Daddy?
It was Big Daddy; Daddy beat me up! What I didn’t realise at the time I went out on the story, was the freelance who had tipped us off had previously tipped off everyone else earlier in the week and I was not the first journalist to knock on his door, several journalists had been there before me and failed to stand up the story. By the time I arrived I think he had enough; not that that excuses him chasing a woman up the steps and beating her. I got someone else’s kicking I think. But it was a very scary experience. His house was one of those with steps down into a yard, very typical sort of Yorkshire and he came after me and was punching me in the ribs and the kidneys. He chased me up the stairs; it was very frightening. I had no idea that my photographer could run that fast!
You won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award for The Mermaid Singing, your first novel featuring Tony Hill?
I was genuinely surprised because at the time, back in ’95, The Mermaid Singing was not the sort of novel that would win the Gold Dagger – it was the sort of book that won the Silver Dagger. It used to be that back then, the Gold Dagger was the best novel of the year and the Silver Dagger was the runner up and there had been quite a lot of modern, less conventional novels that had won the silver at that point, people like Liza Cody and Mike Phillips. I thought if I was going to win anything it would be the Silver Dagger and I was really taken aback on the night.
The television serialisation of Wire in the Blood was done by Coastal Productions with Robson Green – I think you were an extra in one of the episodes?
It was actually in two episodes, I was in the first one and one of the episodes in the last series. When he saw the rough cuts of the first episode, Robson said, ‘I wouldn’t give up the day job if I was you.’
You wrote The Torment of Others in Tuscany?
I wrote most of it in Tuscany in ten days. My deadline was approaching and I was in a state of panic, as I couldn’t write the book for one reason or another that I still don’t entirely understand. I thought that I needed to go somewhere with no distractions, no phone, no internet, no radio or TV. I couldn’t think of anything else to try at that point. I think it was partly the Scottish Presbyterian guilt kicking in.
In the novel Beneath the Bleeding, Tony is incapacitated. Was that written at the time you had your own knee operation?
I had had both my knee operations done very successfully by then; you don’t waste anything, you just use the experience, you just gobble up your own life and then you gobble up everyone elses. I wanted him to be out of the game for most of the book. So I thought ‘I know what that feels like, so I will do that’.
What did you think of the television adaptation of A Place of Execution?
They did a very good job of it. I thought Juliet Stevenson was wonderful. I was really well served by a really good cast in that and a good adaptation. The writer who adapted that, he is the writer who adapted The Mermaid Singing episode of Wire in the Blood, Patrick Harbinson; he is a very talented adapter.
Were you pleased to receive the lifetime achievement award, the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, in 2010?
It was very gratifying; I just hope this doesn’t mean I have to stop! That is an honour given by your peers, conferred by the Crime Writers Association, so it’s that kind of recognition for your work; it’s a lovely thing to have.
Do you find the crime writing community friendly?
Yes, crime writing is a friendly world. You only have to spend time at the festival here in Harrogate. There is a genuine sense of community. I think it’s mostly because pretty much every crime writer I know is a fan; we are also readers, we love the genre, so you know as well as being here with fellow writers, full stop, you are also spending time with people whose work you have read and enjoyed for many years. So there is a real pleasure in that as well, and we love each other’s books because we love the genre; I think that is a basis for the conviviality you see around here. People respect each other’s work and also I think there is no sense of competitiveness because of the voracious appetite of most crime readers. Most crime readers read a lot of books. If I say to someone you should read another writer, I don’t think they are then going to stop reading me to read those other writers, they are going to read them as well as me…And we do like a bit of gossip as well!
In your stand-alone novel, A Trick of the Dark, did you use personal memories of your time at St. Hilda’s?
They have a crime and mystery conference every Summer and I was there one year, sitting by the river, one Saturday afternoon in the sunshine, and there was a wedding happening in college and I realised that I recognised the mother of the bride, who had been someone who had taught me. I then realised, obviously, that the bride must have been someone I had babysat, as I used to babysit her kids, and I immediately thought, what could be the possible outcomes of this? What could the history be, that causes things to happen in the present and I thought about that for a while and it seemed to me, and because I have a devious twisted mind, I decided that the best thing that could happen would be that the bridegroom would be dead by bedtime. But it was years before all the pieces fell into place structurally, so that the story could come together. I was able to use the experience to give the book a certain sense of authenticity, I suppose, but it is emphatically not autobiographical in any sort of factual sense. I absolutely did not kill anybody!
Do you ever feel that your readers or publishers try to type cast you?
I think people get very invested in series characters and I am not interested in just one kind of book. I am not a one trick pony. I can’t write two books back to back with the same characters, it’s boring for me. My publishers want me to write the books that I am excited about as they know that’s the way to get the best books from me. I have never written anything because someone told me I should write it. I have never written anything to please the market or please the publisher. I have always written a book that matters to me, because there is no point in doing anything else. If you are not writing a book that matters to you, you may as well be working in Tesco’s.
What is your new book like?
The new book is a new Tony Hill. It is very dark book with Tony and Carol Jordan. It revisits a character from Wire in the Blood; the TV celebrity who was also a serial killer of teenage girls. Jacko Vance is back! He has escaped from prison, and he has had a long time to plan his revenge…
The Retribution by Val McDermid – The new Tony Hill thriller – is available now
For more information on Val McDermid visit her website: