Legendary Scots crime writer Val McDermid is busy using lockdown to go back to the future as she works on a brand new series of novels.
With all the uncertainty surrounding life in the time of coronavirus, Val – who will be one of the main attractions at next month’s Granite Noir crime-writing festival – feels she can’t use her usual, contemporary voice in her writing. So instead she’s using the past as a starting point.
“All my books are clearly set in place and time, so it’s impossible for me to see how I can write a book about the present day at the moment. There’s nowhere to stand that isn’t shifting sands.
“So I’ve embarked on a quintet of novels set at 10 year intervals, so 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019, with the same protagonist, though not necessarily doing the same job.
“It’s kind of like a sequence of five crime novels that will hopefully say a little bit about the journey we’ve all come on in the past 40 years. I am writing 1979 at the moment, which is great because I know exactly what happened in 1979. There are no surprises!”
Writing new character is ‘scary’
And the new sequence doesn’t centre around any of Val’s established characters from her much-loved series, which include cold case detective Karen private eye Kate Brannigan, journalist Lindsay Gordon and the Wire In The Blood team of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan.
Instead she’s introducing a new female character, journalist Allie Burns.
“That’s scary, because it’s been a while since I’ve done that.”
While some crime writers are happy to build their novels around one character, Val is forthright about why that’s not for her.
“I get bored. It’s as simple as that. When I gave up the day job and started writing full time, I wrote two Kate Brannigans back to back. Half-way through the second one I thought ‘I’m bored stiff with this woman… I don’t want to spend every day with her,” she said.
“I need the variety and to shake it up a bit. The advantage is when I come back to a series character after I’ve been away for them a year or two I’m ‘oh, it’s great to see you again, what have you been doing?’
“I can’t imagine being Sue Grafton and sitting down writing A Is For Alibi knowing there is another 25 of them to go.”
Val and partner contracted coronavirus
She’s taking time out from writing for Granite Noir, produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts, which will be held from February 19 to 21. It will be going online for its fifth outing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
We were both ill for about a week then a couple of weeks after that we had the brain fog and complete exhaustion.”
Kirkcaldy-born Val has first-hand experience of coronavirus. She and her partner, Jo, both contracted Covid in March last year.
“We had the so-called mild form quite early on. We were both ill for about a week then a couple of weeks after that we had the brain fog and complete exhaustion. But thankfully, compared to how a lot of people have had it, we’ve been very lucky.”
Val has already done several digital festivals in the past few months and believes it can actually reach a wider audience for events like Granite Noir, which for 2021 has a line-up including author talks from household names like Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo and David Baldacci, as well as other digital events and workshops.
“Doing it virtually is going to be quite a different experience. The joy of it, of course, is that many more people will be able to come along to the events than can come up to Aberdeen at this time of the year,” said the award-winning writer.
“I think a lot of audiences have been finding their audiences have been doubled or quadrupled with people coming from all round the world to see the events.”
Downside to being online
But is there is a downside to talking to an audience that isn’t actually in the same room with you?
“It is more difficult to do these things virtually because you’re not getting any sense of how you are going down,” Val said. “You don’t know if they are enjoying you or bored stiff. Are they laughing in the right places, are they getting your jokes.
The first couple of times I did these events I paused for the laugh… there wasn’t one so I had to plough on.”
“The first couple of times I did these events I paused for the laugh. There wasn’t one so I had to gather myself and plough on regardless.”
For Granite Noir, Val is collaborating with Backlisted Podcast, which has racked up more than two million downloads among book fans as they revisit and discuss books that have been out for many years. She will be looking at Inverness‐born Josephine Tey, a crime writer popular from the 1930s through to the 50s.
Val has been a headliner at Granite Noir before – including performing in the band Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, which comprises other novelists including Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre. There’s no plans for an online reprise for this year’s festival.
“We’d love to do a gig, but we can’t perform at the moment. Besides, it would be rubbish without an audience. We’re a party band. We need the audience to give it that wow factor for us. But we all really miss it.”
She has fond memories of appearing at the hugely popular event, staged by Aberdeen Performing Arts.
Bizarre moment of recognition
“It always a delight and such a good atmosphere. I had one of the most bizarre moments of recognition of my career when I came to do Granite Noir last time. We did a gig and were walking back down Union Street quite late on in the evening and just having a laugh. I heard someone shouting: ‘Val McDermid, it’s Val McDermid’. I turned round and there was a guy standing in a shop doorway shouting: ‘It really is you!’ He started singing ‘One Val McDermid… there’s only one Val McDermid’.”
As well as Granite Noir, Val is about to see the publication of a graphic novel she’s crafted with artist Kathyrn Briggs. Resistance, drawn from a radio series Val penned about four years ago, follows the rise of a deadly global pandemic.
Essentially, the drugs don’t work, the plague is coming and we are all going to die.”
She got the idea after attending a Wellcome Trust project bringing together radio dramatists and producers and scientists to discuss a topic before pitching an idea to Radio 4… in this case it was antimicrobial resistance.
“Essentially, the drugs don’t work, the plague is coming and we are all going to die. It was quite terrifying. I thought the only thing I could write is an apocalypse, so I pitched a three-part drama about a bacterial plague rather than a viral plague and it aired to great acclaim.”
It was decided to give it a second life as a graphic novel, so Val joined up with American artist Kathyrn, who was in Dundee at the time, because of its reputation as a centre of excellence for comic book artists.
It’s a scary book in the sense it is about a global pandemic that brings humanity to the brink of the end.”
“It was all ready to roll last summer but we thought that was not the time because no one of us really knew what was happening with Covid. It’s a scary book in the sense it is about a global pandemic that brings humanity to the brink of the end.
From print to screen
“We are going with it this spring, because people have a clearer sense. Although we are all anxious at one level, I think people are not quite as afraid of the unknown as they were a year ago,” said Val, adding it was unsettling to have life catch up with her fiction.
Some of her works have jumped from the printed page to the television screen, most notably Wire In The Blood, which starred Robson Green. Filming is about to start in April on a TV series about Karen Pirie, set in St Andrews. The Lindsay Gordon novels are also in development.
Val has few qualms about her characters making the transition to the screen, working with trusted TV producers to make quality television. She sees it as a perfect introduction to her books.
“It’s a different beast, television, and tells stories in a different way. You just have to say, that’s telly and this is the books. You know what, it doesn’t make any difference what they do, I still have the books.
My sole desire in all of this is that
it brings people to the books.”
“Even with Wire In The Blood we changed horses in midcourse, if you like, when Hermione Norris left after three series and we brought Simone Lahbib in as a different character altogether. But I carried on writing Tony and Carol books because they are my books and they can’t change that.
“My sole desire in all of this is that it brings people to the books. They see it on the screen, for some reason they’ve not read my books before and it brings them afresh to find my books.”
Happy with Pirie casting
While she can’t say who has been cast to play Karen Pirie in the new show – from the same producers as Line Of Duty and Bodyguard – Val did confirm she was “very happy”.
Also on TV, the BBC recently screened Traces, the Dundee-set forensics thriller starring Molly Windsor and Martin Compston, which was based on an original-idea by Val and she worked on the development of the series.
“When I pitched it I said it would be good to do something set in Scotland that wasn’t in Edinburgh or Glasgow. We had the additional thing of all our forensic consultants are based in Dundee, so it made life easier if the series was set there as well,” said Val.
“The reaction has been terrific. People have been really enthusiastic about it and binge-watching it, demanding to know when series two is coming out. I can answer that question. It is due to start filming at the beginning of March. I’ve seen the scripts and it looks absolutely electrifying.”
That was the moment I realised being a writer
was a job you got paid money for.”
It is something of an understatement to call Val prolific. Her global book sales have smashed through the 17 million mark and she has been translated into 40 languages.
She still remembers the moment that she wanted to become a writer… when she was a wee girl growing up in Kirkcaldy.
Fanatical about Raith Rovers
“I formed the notion of being a writer very early on because I was a voracious reader. In one of the novels I was reading one of the characters had grown up and become a writer of girls’ schools stories. She got a letter from a publisher with a cheque in it. That was the moment I realised being a writer was a job you got paid money for. I thought ‘I can do that, I can make stuff up’.
For all her global success, she has never forgotten her roots. She’s a fanatical supporter of Raith Rovers, where her dad was a football scout – as well as a brief stint with Aberdeen FC. There is a McDermid Stand at Stark’s Park.
She believes her Fife upbringing played a role in her success.
I was led to believe I could be what I wanted to be
and I had a right to be what I wanted to be.”
“Everything you live with shapes you as a writer and informs the way you see the world.
“What I did learn was that I had the right to my voice. My dad was a great Burns man and I was brought up on A Man’s A Man For A’ That. I was led to believe I could be what I wanted to be and I had a right to be what I wanted to be. That has always been at the back of my mind.”
The achievement she is proudest of is being an honorary fellow of her old college in Oxford, St Hilda’s, where she was the first student accepted from a state school.
“The notion of a lassie from a cooncil hoose in Kirkcaldy being a fellow of an Oxford college is quite staggering,” said Val who also holds honorary titles from several universities, including St Andrews.
For now, her hope is that people flock to Granite Noir online.
“Make the most of it, challenge yourself, go and listen to people you would never imagine listening to, don’t just go to your old favourites.”
For full details about Granite Noir, which is produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts, visit www.granite.noir.com