Author Val McDermid on being the queen of crime fiction and her love affair with Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 15:31 08 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:01 20 February 2013
Former tabloid journalist Val McDermid on being the queen of crime and her love affair with Cheshire Interview by Paul Mackenzie Photography by John Cocks
A leafy Cheshire suburb may not seem the typical setting for a series of grisly crimes, but this is the scene of scores of murders, misdeeds and gruesome wrongdoings. This is home to Val McDermid, the cream of crime writers, whose most successful character Kate Brannigan investigated misdeeds on Manchesters streets.
But crime wasnt always a fiction for Val, who worked in the city for years as a journalist with the red top tabloids before they became tainted by the activities of the now defunct News of the World. She left journalism to forge her new career before the murky activities which led to that papers demise, and she said: When I went to The People it was still a proper paper with good investigative reporting and good sport but then it started the inexorable slide into the gutter.
I knew I didnt want to be doing it any more. The last straw for me was waiting outside Julie Goodyears house to see who would come out of her back door.
I looked around the office and knew I didnt want to be like them. I had to either open myself up to that pain and the horror and pay the high emotional price or else close myself off and pay an equally high but different emotional price.
I think a lot of the revelations about what went on at the News of the World were disgraceful and disgusting. While hacking dead peoples phones bemuses me, the thing that shocked me was using private eyes to do the investigations. That would not have occurred to us and it has, of course, got a knock-on effect for what I do now because to have the private eye as any kind of hero is seen in a different light now.
As a child Val had a passionate love of books, the library across the street from her Kirkcaldy house became a second home, and that opened up a world of possibilities. When I was about eight or nine I began to understand and I knew it was what I wanted to do I thought I can make stuff up. But the whole world of writing was beyond the ken of anyone in our family, it just wasnt a job.
Her parents (her dad worked in the Forth shipyards and mum was a bookkeeper) assumed Val would leave school and work in the town but she was selected as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been a few years earlier for the schools fast-track scheme and went, against the schools original advice, to Oxford.
The school didnt want me to apply because they said I wouldnt get in and that would reflect badly on them. When I told them I was going to apply anyway they locked me in a room for three hours a day to prepare for the entrance exam just me on my own. I could have died in there, they wouldnt have known until the three hours was up. Of course when I got in, they took the credit.
She left St Hildas College with an English degree and a place on the Mirrors journalist training scheme. After two years on a local paper in Devon she became a news reporter with the Daily Record in Glasgow.
I realised there that journalism could be useful and I still believe that working class people deserve a media that is entertaining and informative.
I enjoyed the achievement of getting the stories but not the work itself. I didnt go into journalism with any crusading ambition and I turned down moves to London because I knew I would be completely committed to it. I was trying to write fiction but my early efforts were pretty terrible.
By 1988 I was northern bureau chief for The People and I was working from 8.30am to at least 10pm, if I got home at all, so during the week there was no prospect of writing so I had to be disciplined about it.
I ring-fenced Monday afternoons, between 2pm and 7pm, because working for a Sunday paper that was my day off. I didnt answer the phone, open the door or cook the tea.
Her first two books disappeared without trace but she was given the chance to take voluntary redundancy six months before Robert Maxwells death and the subsequent collapse of the pension fund. Her pay-out gave Val a safety net for the first two years but she said: I would never have forgiven myself if I hadnt gone for it and I always had the security of knowing if it all went pear-shaped I could go back to something because I had been on the nationals for 13 years.
I had always read a huge amount of crime fiction and thought Id give that a go. I made the central character a journalist because I knew what they do. That first book came out to not a single review.
I read Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky and it was so different to anything else and that was the moment I knew this is what I wanted to write. That kick-started me. I knew what crime readers were like there was no better way to sell those early books than to have a successful book, then readers start searching for others youve done. The first Brannigan book came out in 1991 and I got a two book deal.
I have been astonished by how things have worked out since then. Very few people make a living, let alone a good living, out of writing.
Val, who has now written 25 novels and has a shelf full of awards, was living in Buxton when she started writing fiction and she added: Place is very important to me. Place of Execution is set on the White Peak in Derbyshire.
I lived in Buxton for 12 years and fell in love with the landscape there can be a quarter of a million people there on a busy day and you wouldnt be able to see another soul. It demanded to be written about.
Manchester is the backdrop for the Kate Brannigan novels six over eight years. And they are a social history of Manchester as much as anything else. n
* The Retribution, Vals 25th novel, is out in paperback this month.
The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Cheshire Life
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