UKA Interview Val McDermid
I grew up in Kirkcaldy on the East Coast of Scotland, a small town famous for producing linoleum and for being the birthplace of the economist Adam Smith. It was at the heart of the Fife coalfield, and I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents in the mining village of East Wemyss.
To everyone’s amazement, including mine, I was accepted to read English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – at 17, one of the youngest undergraduates they’d ever taken on, and the first from a Scottish state school.
I survived the culture shock of arriving in a place where no-one understood a word I said, and seized every experience I could get my hands on.
I had always wanted to write, ever since I realised that real people actually produced all those books in the library. But everyone told me that it was impossible to make a living from writing, that I needed to have a proper job. I knew I wasn’t the sort of person who would be suited to a proper, nine to five job with a neat hierarchical career structure, so I became a journalist.
I spent two years training in Devon, winning a clutch of awards, including Trainee Journalist of the Year, then for fourteen years I worked on national newspapers in Glasgow and Manchester, ending up as Northern Bureau Chief of a national Sunday tabloid – a title that sounds far grander than the reality, I should confess
Meanwhile, I was attempting to become a writer. I wrote my first attempt at a novel when I was working in Devon. The best thing I can say about it was that I actually finished it. It was a typical 21-year-old’s novel – full of tortured human relationships, love, hate, grief, angst, not to mention the meaning of life. It was, naturally enough, rejected by every publishing house in London. But an actor friend who read it thought it would make a good play. So I turned it into a script and showed it to the director of the Plymouth Theatre Company. And he decided it would fit perfectly a season he had planned of new plays by new writers. So there I was, at 23 a performed playwright. It wasn’t what I had intended, but I was happy with it. I later adapted the play, Like A Happy Ending, for BBC radio. And I was commissioned to write another play, this time for a touring company in Lincolnshire and Humberside.
But I didn’t have the practical skills to make a success of writing drama, and the agent I had then didn’t do anything to help me acquire them. In fact, he fired me because I didn’t make him enough money. (so who’s got the last laugh now?) So I decided to turn my hand to writing a crime novel, because I’d always enjoyed reading the genre, and I’d been very excited by the New Wave of American women crime writers, who made me wonder if I could write something similar with a UK setting.
I started writing Report for Murder in 1984, and it was published by The Women’s Press in 1987. The rest is history… I finally gave up the day job in April, 1991, and I’ve been making my living by writing ever since. I was the Manchester Evening News‘ crime reviewer for four years, and I still review regularly for various national newspapers. I also write occasional journalism and broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland.
I divide my time between South Manchester and Northumberland and have a son and three cats.
Q: When did you first decide to write?
A: As soon as I realised that there were real people who wrote all those books in the library, and that writing was their job. Probably when I was about five or six.
Q: What was your first success?
A: When I was 16, a poem I wrote for the school magazine was chosen by a national newspaper as the best poem from all the school magazines in Scotland, and they reprinted it. Of course, they didn’t pay me, but it was a thrill nevertheless.
Q: What comes first – idea or character?
A: With me, the story is always paramount. Once I have the basic shape of the story, I know very quickly whether it fits the form of one of the three existing series that I write or whether it’s going to be a standalone. Then I start to develop the characters in a sort of biofeedback loop with the story. The more I get to know the characters, the more they influence the final shaping of the story. But the story also influences the characters, because I need to figure out what sort of person would do the things that need to happen to make the story work. It’s a constant and often lengthy process.
Q: Are your characters based on real people?
A: Almost never. Obviously, my knowledge of real people makes a huge contribution to my capacity to create credible characters, but the books are populated by creatures of my imagination. However, the great advantage of being a crime writer is that you do get to kill off people who have annoyed you in real life… Interestingly, when you show the unpleasant side of a real person, they never recognise themselves!
Q: Why did you choose to write for this genre?
A: I’m interested in writing novels of character. Nothing strips away the protective layers from a personality like crisis, and there is no greater crisis than murder. Also, the crime genre has become so expansive in recent years that it is possible to write novels that have a wide range of tone and style, so it’s constantly challenging to work within the genre and push the frontiers back.
Q: Before your ‘big break’ how many hours a day did you spend writing?
A: When I had a full-time job, I used to write on my day off, a Monday. I would write from 2pm to 7pm once a week, and the rest of the week I would plan what I was going to do with my writing time to make it as productive as possible. As soon as I started to write full-time, I treated it as a job, spending about eight hours a day at my desk.
Q: And now?
A: Now, I tend to spend the mornings doing admin, catching up on email and phone calls. I write pretty solidly from 1pm to 5pm, producing between 1500 and 2000 words a day.
Q: Do you plan?
A: I plan very carefully. I would find it impossible to write the sort of multi-layered plots I prefer without figuring out exactly where the story is going and how it gets there. I can spend two to three years working out the detailed story of a book before I’m ready to write it.
Q: How many drafts do you complete?
A: I revise daily what I’ve done the previous session. Every couple of weeks or so, I print out the previous 50 pages and do a read-through to check everything is flowing as it should. Then at the end of the first draft, I do a read-through revision of the whole thing. After my editor and my agent have read the typescript, I usually end up doing one revision and maybe a subsequent fine tuning.
Q: How has the Personal Computer helped your work?
A: It’s made it a lot easier. My handwriting is illegible, even to me, and my typing is fast but not always entirely accurate!
The most significant advantages are the ability to move text around easily and to make later changes without having to retype whole chunks of the manuscript.
And of course, access to the internet has made many aspects of research a lot easier.
Q: How long does the process of writing a novel take from the initial idea to final polished typescript?
A: It takes me about six months to write a novel, but the process of getting to that point can take years.
Q: What struck first for you, a publisher’s acceptance or being taken on by an agent?
A: A publisher’s acceptance. Then I got an agent.
Q: As a successful author, what do you now know, that you wish you had known before you gained success?
A: That I would have to learn to be a performer as well as a writer!
Q: How can the beginning writer gain the edge when seeking publication?
A: Research the market. By which I don’t mean checking out what’s selling. I mean finding out which agents represent the kind of book you’re writing, whether you’re more comfortable with a small agency with strong personal editorial attention or a large agency where they focus more on the purely business aspect. Check out agents new on the scene, who are often eager to find fresh talent and develop it. Publication without an agent is very tough these days, and getting the right agent at the start can make a huge difference to a career.
Q: Should securing the services of an agent be a priority or are publishers still willing to sift the proverbial slushpile for the next best seller?
A: Editors don’t read slush piles anymore. They’re dealt with by minions who have no clout, and it’s almost impossible to emerge from the slush. Agents know which editors are interested in which kinds of books and a smart agent will also know how to put a writer together with an editor whose personality fits the writer’s. It’s more than just selling — it’s almost like matchmaking.
Q: How in depth is your research?
A: I tend to research as I develop the idea, figuring out what I need to know and finding out sources who can provide the information. But there are always holes that you never discover till you’re actually in the middle of the book, and sometimes things you don’t know you need to know till you’ve finished the first draft. I think it’s important to be as accurate as possible, but one shouldn’t be shackled by reality in a work of fiction! Research is also like an iceberg — what ends up in the book is usually a fraction of what you’ve had to dig up along the way.
Q: How did/do you handle rejection and how many (if any) did you have before your success?
A: My first crime novel was accepted by the first publisher who read it. But I had tried to write literary fiction before that and had plenty of experience with rejection! I felt downcast, naturally, but I also reckoned they probably had good reason to turn me down, so I needed to go back to the drawing board and work a bit harder at writing and story-telling. Some rejection letters were very helpful, pointing out aspects of the books that didn’t work, and I tried to learn from that.
Q: Who chooses the book title?
A: I do.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just finished the third in a trilogy of dark psychological thrillers featuring profiler Tony Hill and police officer Carol Jordan. I’m now writing the sixth in the Lindsay Gordon series, Hostage to Murder, and then I’ll be writing another standalone thriller.
Q: How do you organise your writing day?
A: See above.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and submissions for the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best first crime novel, for which I am one of the judges.
Q: What book do you wish you had written?
A: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Q: The phrase ‘Write about what you know’ worries many beginning writers, what is your opinion?
A: It’s always easier to write from a perspective that’s close to your own life. It takes a bit of practise to walk in somebody else’s shoes for any length of time. Most beginning writers lack confidence, and writing about a world you are familiar with does mean you have one less thing to worry about…
Q: Do you know the ending to your books before you get there?
Q: What is your view on the Internet and the writer?
A: It’s a great research tool, it’s a good opportunity to promote your work to a wider readership and it’s made it much easier for a lot of people to have access to the wide range of books out there via on-line retailing. It’s also a terrible distraction…
Q: What is your opinion on the e-book?
A: Once we have lightweight waterproof readers with screens that look like a proper book page, I think the e-book will become a significant part of the market. I don’t think that it’s going to be a very successful way of bypassing a conventional publishing structure. I’m sorry if this sounds brutal, but if people can’t find a publisher to take them on, there are probably good reasons for this. Unmediated sites that provide otherwise unpublished books are always going to contain a vast raft of manuscripts that will not ever find a readership because they’re simply not good enough. I think print-on-demand is an excellent opportunity for writers with out-of-print backlists and readers eager to complete their collections. It’s also a boon to small publishers who no longer have to invest large amounts of capital in warehouse stock.
Q: Do you have any nuggets of advice for the prospective writer?
A: Read. Learn all you can from writers who have performed this strange alchemy well. And don’t spend months trying to make Chapter One perfect. Drive yourself on to the end of the first draft, then go back and make it better.
Thank you very much, Val.
Val’s website can be found here: http://www.valmcdermid.com/