That’s crime writers for you; coming across an unusual event with a happy outcome, and then making it worse by killing someone [in a book]. In Meet the Author event with Dr Val McDermid, organised by the University of St Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, Val described how she came to write The Distant Echo by murdering former students, and how someone unwittingly provided her with the spot for the original death.
This was a well-run online event, as you’d expect from a leading university, when treating their students to a talk by one of their Honorary Doctors. After an introduction by the Principal, Sally Mapstone, Val talked to Professor Gill Plain, who teaches a crime fiction module. With two new books, Val had lots to say. Still Life is her new crime novel, and then there is her 2020 bonus book, the Christmas is Murder anthology.
Sitting in her library, with a lovely Christmas tree next to her, Val talked about various aspects of her writing career, and not only stuff I’d heard before. At the beginning of the year there was only Brexit as a cloud on the horizon, until it became obvious that there would be more. Her yearly pattern of writing, followed by events, was broken, and the short crime stories in Christmas is Murder filled a gap.
Val had a bout of Covid in March; 17 days when she can’t really account for what she was doing. Writing took longer when spending a lot of time on following the news. The online events she did lacked the sense of camaraderie she loves, and she misses the conversations with colleagues. Walking with friends helps.
She doesn’t think people will want to read Covid books. Coming up with an idea for a quintet of novels set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019 respectively has given her some breathing space.
Meanwhile, we have her new short stories that were a struggle to write, including the one titled Holmes for Christmas… Val hopes for a Christmas equivalent of Norway’s Easter crime reading.
The conversation moved on to Hamish’s hipster porridge. Yes, really. Seems Val has been ‘Cooking the books’ on YouTube. There will be a Christmas special, and maybe one for New Year, but she will call it quits while she’s still having fun.
Generally she knows where she will start a book, and where it will finish, but the road in between she can only see glimpses of as she writes. For the new Karen Pirie novel, Val had to make up some sort of art, which turned out to be a collage of a person, cut into pieces and reassembled as a portrait. Or something like that. And it’s important to keep track of what you are withholding from the reader. She introduced a new detective as a plot device; someone who might now stay on.
When asked who people will still read in a hundred years’ time, she hoped she’d be one of them, but more seriously said it will be the game-changers, and compared this to who we read today, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and Allingham and Marsh. Authors with memorable characters. So perhaps William McIlvanney, Patricia Highsmith, P D James and Thomas Harris.
I shall have to look into these cooking sessions.