Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Conversation with Val McDermid, Part 1 of 2 Parts

by Sandra Parshall

Val McDermid is the internationally-known author of the Tony Hill suspense novels and many others. She serves on the national board of Sisters in Crime as an at-large member. A native of Scotland, she now divides her time between Northumberland and South Manchester.

Visit her website at for more information -- and to see a 1974 photo of Val playing guitar on the lawn at Oxford and a 1977 picture of her with Prince Charles.

Recently, Val shared her thoughts about crime fiction and gave a glimpse into her own writing life.

SP: Your books are popular in many countries. What makes some books click with readers in different cultures, while others appeal only to the home audience? What’s the universally appealing ingredient?

VM: I've often wondered myself what readers in Tokyo or Buenos Aires make of life on the mean streets of the North of England! The only answer I can come up with is based on what I enjoy in novels set in other cultures -- the characters chime with my experience of the world. I recognise their attitudes and reactions and that's what anchors me in a story whose environment is unfamiliar. So when I read Andrea Camilleri or Karin Fossum, I find myself in the familiar world of human behaviour that makes sense to me. I hope that when readers pick up my books, they have that experience too.

SP: Do you see differences between U.S. and British attitudes toward violence in crime fiction, and violence toward women in particular? Do you have any thoughts on why so many women enjoy serial killer novels in which female victims are mutilated, tortured and murdered?

VM: I don't see much difference between U.S. and British crime fiction in terms of the way we write about violence. There's been an ongoing debate in British mystery circles about the issue of how violence is portrayed, particularly about women both as creators and consumers of books that explicitly deal with violence against women. As far as reading it is concerned, I think there is a complex set of motivations in play. Women are brought up believing they are potential victims of violence -- 'don't walk down that alley, don't go out alone after dark, don't talk to strange men...' These are the voices we all have in our heads and one way to confront those fears is to read about what can happen, but in an environment where we know we're safe and where we know there will be a protagonist who will wreak some sort of vengeance on the perpetrators. I think of it as a way of cauterising fear. And of course, it's fun to be scared in a safe way -- think of fairground rides, where we scream and scream and scream, then get off and stand in line to do it all over again!

The big plus of having been conditioned to look at the world as a potentially threatening place is that women get to understand the fear of violence and powerlessness from the beginning. Generally speaking, when women write scenes of violent attack, it's written from the inside, from the perspective of the victim. That's what makes it all the more scary when women write violence -- the reader's experiencing being on the receiving end. With a few notable exceptions, when men write similar scenes, they write as spectators. And that's just not so scary. Maybe that's why women who directly confront what violence is and what it does get so much more stick than men doing the same thing.

SP: Do you think crime fiction on the whole, in all countries, has become more graphic in recent years? Does this mean we’ve all gone a little crazy and possibly dangerous, or is it simply an effort by writers to match the real violence we see on TV every day -- to present crime as it really is, instead of cleaning it up?

VM: The crime novel has moved on a long way from the cosy drawing room of Agatha Christie or the stylised knight errant of Raymond Chandler. One of the challenges contemporary writers have taken on is to write much more honestly about the society we live in. So when a writer is dealing with crime, it's necessary to be direct and authentic. There's still a place for the mystery novel as pure entertainment, but I think the really interesting writing comes when we try to auta realistic picture of the world we inhabit. But that doesn't mean writing tacky gorefests. I've no interest in the kind of novel whose prime directive seems to be to shock and disgust and there are authors whose books I will not pick up for that reason.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries. She serves on the national SinC board as Chapter Liaison.


Anonymous said...

Agree 110% with VD comments,I only "discovered" VD a couple of years ago,& she is my favourite crime thriller writer...she writes like I would,if I had the talent...Lang may her Lummie Reek..Cheers Val......Jennie Wren

Sandra Parshall said...

This was fun -- getting to ask Val anything I wanted to.

Kaye George said...

"" Generally speaking, when women write scenes of violent attack, it's written from the inside, from the perspective of the victim. ""

I've never thought of this in that way before, Val, though maybe I should have. You've put together how women are raised with the end product of a woman mystery writer so neatly!

Thanks for this wonderful interview, Sandy and Val, both! Val, you're one of my favorites.

Marni said...

Sandy,I was able to interview Val McD several years ago at Bouchercon and found her to be a fun and very human. She brings a sense of reality to all of her series, despite her varied protagonists, and that makes her one writer I'll continue to read~

L.J. Sellers said...

Interesting insight into why women read and write about crime against women. (I quit reading serial killer books because I can't stomach the violence.) I've recently discovered Val's books and I'm looking forward to reading more. Thanks for a nice Q&A.