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 http://www.valmcdermid.com 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 police detective, Carol Jordan, is refreshingly real and normal, unburdened by the quirks and disastrous personal problems that some fictional female cops have. She doesn’t drink on the job, she’s not snarky and defensive, she's a strong person but doesn’t act as if her main goal in life is proving she’s more of a man than the men around her. Where did Carol come from? Did you create her as a deliberate balance to Tony Hill’s tortured persona? Or did you base her on real women detectives you’ve known or observed?
VM: Thank you. When I first created Carol and Tony in The Mermaids Singing, I thought I was writing a standalone, not the start of a series, so I didn't do any long-term planning for either character, just gave them the personalities and histories that would work in terms of that novel. But, as soon as I'd finished, I realised how well they could carry other stories between them and so the series was born.
My first intention for Carol was that she should be a good cop, driven by a powerful sense of justice, but set apart from her colleagues because of her gender. She would be the bridge between Tony and the police. As the book progressed, she developed a more rounded personality.
She's not based on any one individual, but she's drawn on my observations of women operating in a predominantly male world, which in my case was the world of national newspapers in the 1980s. (I worked in the northern bureau of Mirror Group Newspapers. When I joined in 1979, there were three women journalists on a staff of 137. No, that's not a misprint. 3/137.) As the series has progressed, I've allowed her to assimilate the weight of what's happened to her and around her. She's probably my favourite of all my characters.
SP: You’re best known for your thrillers, but you’ve also written some lighter, traditional mysteries. Which is easier for you? Which comes most naturally to you?
VM: I've been lucky enough always to have written the stories I was passionate about. They often take a long time to travel from the initial seed of an idea to the finished book. 'A long time' can be as much as 20 years!
There's a different set of challenges between series and standalones. With a series, the central character nexus is always the starting point, with the abilities and the limitations of those characters steering how the story can develop. With a standalone, the plot is the primary driver, then I have to sit down and work out whose story it is and why these people would do the things I need them to do to make this damn book work.
But writing books with a different tone -- Fever of the Bone vs. A Darker Domain -- is as much a pleasure as it is a challenge. I can't write two similar books back to back -- I get too easily bored!
SP: How do you divide your time between travel/promotion and writing?
VM: Badly! I seem to spend the months between August and December traveling and promoting. I don't go anywhere the first three months of the year because I deliver at the end of March. I spend the rest of the time doing a bit of promotional stuff -- festivals and the like -- and thinking about the next book.
SP: Are you able to write while you’re traveling?
VM: I prefer not to work on novels while I'm traveling -- short stories and journalism work OK, though -- but I have learned the hard way that, when I have to, I can finish a novel on trains and planes and in hotel rooms. Yuck.
SP: I’ve heard that one of your favorite diversions is playing the guitar. What kind of guitar do you have? What kind of music do you play? Do you have one favorite piece you play over and over, perhaps when you’re trying to work out a plot problem in a book?
VM: I have two acoustic guitars because I divide my time between two houses. I have a Yamaha FG-160, which I've had for 37 years, and a Martin D-16-GT, which I've had for seven years. I play what I suppose one would call contemporary folk. I've not been playing enough lately. I need to get back into the habit of picking up the guitar daily. The last really challenging thing I taught myself was “Tonight” from West Side Story -- a bit off my usual beat but my son wanted to play it on violin and needed the accompaniment.
Sandra Parshall is the author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries. She serves on the national SinC board as Chapter Liaison.