Unsurprisingly, Nicola Sturgeon’s interview with Val McDermid proved one of the highlights of this year’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. They share the same nationality, obviously, but both women are articulate, highly intelligent – and blessed with a great sense of humour. They both are also – and this may surprise you – huge football fans. Sturgeon supports Ayr United and McDermid supports – and co-owns – Raith Rovers. Now, that’s my definition of success: owning a football club. I wonder how much it would cost to purchase my beloved Arsenal FC?
Putting such frivolous thoughts aside, let’s return to the subject in hand: crime fiction. Actually, before we do that, let’s talk about another passion of McDermid’s that may surprise you: rock music. Were you aware that she, along with Mark Billingham and several others, form the line-up of a band called Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers? And that they performed at Glastonbury this year? “We’ve surprised people by actually being quite good”, McDermid commented, dryly. At one of their recent gigs, the band were assisted by a certain Nicola Sturgeon, during ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: “We’ve found our ideal backing singer”, quipped McDermid.
Back to books: and Val McDermid has just published number 11 in the ‘Wire in the Blood’ series, which features the much-loved Tony Hill and Carol Jordan characters. “You give your characters a hard time, Val: you’re not always kind to them”, began Sturgeon. Indeed, book 10 ended with Tony Hill jailed for murder. “Is there any future happiness planned for the unlucky pair?”
Agreeing that life is not easy for Tony or Carol, McDermid explained that she focuses on what working in the emergency services does to people: “It takes a toll”. But: “I try to write stories that draw readers in and aren’t just misery fests”.
‘Wire in the Blood’ fans will be saddened to hear that this will probably be the last Tony and Karen book, at least for a while: “It’s difficult for an author to accept when a series comes to an end, but you do come to a point when you wonder how to keep things fresh. Whilst I’m not saying never again, I don’t want to sell my fans short”.
Pressed as to how much of herself is in the characters she writes about, McDermid admitted: “Elements of every one. But those superficial resemblances don’t necessarily make them me.” Acknowledging the truth in Sturgeon’s statement that her books depict “the reality of modern-day Scotland”, she added “I’ve always tried to set my novels in a real place, socially. My books are positioned very particularly in a time and a place, but it’s the story that drives my writing and the other factors are built in”.
Authenticity, McDermid told us, is key; her characters need to reflect modern day society as it is. Likewise, diversity: “I’m trying to paint a picture of the world I live in – and, to an extent, the world I’d like to live in. Without tub thumping”. Lindsay Gordon being a lesbian, she added, “…is just one element of who she is”.
A fair comment – but many fiction writers have faced challenges or prejudices in the past when writing about gay characters. McDermid herself has admitted in the past that she thought she might have to leave Scotland because “it wasn’t receptive to my approach”. But, she reflected today, “I was lucky to begin writing about Lindsay when there was an appetite in the UK, thanks in part to authors like Sara Paretsky, who had paved the way”. Musing over how times have, thankfully, changed, McDermid recalled a number of “strange” radio interviews conducted by middle-aged, male interviewers telling her “I’ve never read a lesbian novel before”.
It was inevitable that the subject of politics would rear its head at some point and Sturgeon duly obliged, asking McDermid whether, were she to write a political novel, she could come up with a plot stranger than what we’re currently living through? “The rise of extremism is very frightening”, nodded McDermid. “We’re dealing with it by making jokes about Trump and Boris when actually we should be very afraid”.
Those problems don’t just exist in the U.S. and the U.K., though. “Around the world there are countries where attitudes are going backwards and it’s downright dangerous to be gay”.
Flipping the question around, is Nicola Sturgeon at all tempted to follow in the paths of other politicians and write a novel? “Yes”, Scotland’s First Minister told us, “although I’m not sure whether I have the talent. It won’t be for a while – hopefully! – but when I do, I’ll have the best mentor”.
Back to her “good pal Val’s” books and Sturgeon was keen to find out how the Festival’s co-founder publishes a book every year, especially considering how much research each involves – and McDermid’s other commitments, which include a professorship. “I write in 20 minute chunks and do other stuff in-between”, McDermid responded. “Luckily, I have no problem in finding ideas; they come from everywhere. As long as that keeps happening, I’ll keep on working.”
McDermid’s advice to aspiring crime writers is to “ring fence time in your diary that is sacrosanct. Whatever happens, don’t deviate from it. It’s amazing how the time builds up, week in week out. Figure out what your most productive time of day is. And you must read a lot: it’s how you become a better writer and you learn from both good and bad books. Reading helps you explore the world around you”.
Crime writing, McDermid concluded, remains so popular because it’s like watching lightning strike someone else’s house: it’s quite comforting when it happens. Also, the world feels like a dangerous place, but crime novels bring a sense of resolution. And – echoing M.C. Beaton – “Everyone feels murderous from time to time. Don’t pretend you haven’t!”
That, sadly, was the end of a highly entertaining encounter between these two Scottish powerhouses and the end of this year’s Festival, for me. I did, however, manage one more foodie fling before bidding farewell to Harrogate: stay tuned…