Val McDermid | ‘My relationship with the landscape has always been very strong’


The queen of Tartan Noir and all-round publishing stalwart Val McDermid is going back to her roots with her next non-fiction book. My Scotland examines how she has used distinctive settings, particularly in Scotland, in her books.

“I often find myself talking about the importance of the sense of place in writing fiction, particularly in writing crime fiction,” says McDermid of her impetus for the book. “Often the books we remember best are the ones that have a strong, vivid setting. You think of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, or Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, and you get a real sense of what they’re like. I started thinking about why I write about the places I choose to write about, Scotland particularly, now that I’m back living in Edinburgh. I thought it might be interesting to do something that’s kind of a cross between memoir and travelogue.”

Organised book by book, My Scotland goes through McDermid’s titles and their settings: from Edinburgh by night and the Fife of her childhood, to the north-west Highlands and the Isle of Jura, the book “ranges pretty far and wide”. She says: “My relationship with the landscape has always been very strong. I grew up in Kirkcaldy, which is post-industrial these days, sandwiched between woodland and beaches with big parks. So for me, being out in the open was always a big part of my childhood.” It is still a big part of McDermid’s life and writing process: when I speak to her, she has just returned from a walking holiday in Germany, and when writing she tries to get out and walk around. “I find that it undoes the logjam.”

McDermid likes to have a strong visual sense in her head when writing, with all the places she’s lived and worked feeding into that, and sometimes immediately knows when a place will work as a dramatic setting. “Robert Louis Stevenson once said that the Hawes in South Queensferry was ‘a place crying out for a murder’. Sometimes you go to a place and you think, ‘Oh this is really interesting, I could do something very exciting here’ but other times, I’m sitting thinking about what the story is and how it’s going to develop, and the kind of settings that I need to make the story work. Then I go through the mental card index and think about places I know and places I’ve been that will work for this particular story, for the right atmosphere.”

As well as her strong sense of place, McDermid’s Scottish heritage infiltrates her writing in other ways: “There is such a thing as a Scottish sensibility; we grow up with a different culture, a different history. In almost every respect our culture is different, even down to language, whether it’s Gaelic or Scots,” she says. McDermid will be working with fellow Scot Alan McCredie (her teammate on BBC Radio 4 panel show “Round Britain”), whose photographs of Scotland will illustrate the title.

When she’s not writing, McDermid has her fingers in many literary pies: in 2018, she judged the Man Booker Prize (“I think one would say having judged the Booker Prize is a wonderful thing to have ‘done’”), was named a patron for Scottish BookTrust, and spent her 15th year programming Harrogate Crime Festival, which she co-founded. She says of it: “I remember my agent [Jane Gregory] saying to me: ‘It’ll only be for one year, it’ll only be a couple of meetings.’ Here I am 15 years later, still on the programming committee and enjoying it tremendously. It’s become a wonderful festival.”

Although the festival constantly manages to secure a host of famous authors—2019’s edition will see James Patterson and Jo Nesbo take the stage—McDermid is adamant that it is not “just a festival of starry names”. “We have always been committed to working with new writers and with people at all stages of their careers,” she says. “Every year I chair the New Blood panel, which is four début authors getting a chance to address an audience of voracious readers who are desperate for fresh blood. But we also focus on people mid-career, and people right across the spectrum.”

Strength in breadth

As for the “legacy” of Scottish crime fiction, McDermid says the word is too restrictive for the energy and momentum behind Tartan Noir. “I think Scottish crime writing is definitely alive and kicking,” she says. “It’s consistently developing in new directions, and people are doing really exciting things with it. You’ve got someone like Doug Johnson, who in his last novel Fault Lines imagines a volcanic island suddenly emerging [in Edinburgh]. And Chris Brookmyre, who on the one hand is writing Victorian medical crime novels with his wife, and on the other is writing sci-fi crime novels about artificial intelligence. So, there seems to be no lack of fecundity in the Scottish crime writing field at the moment; it’s very exciting. It’s also quite terrifying—I feel like I have to keep looking over my shoulder and thinking about who I should push under the bus.”

Further, the range of fiction being published in the UK overall is increasingly dynamic. “I found [judging the Man Booker] absolutely illuminating. It was really interesting to see a snapshot in a year in fiction. We had a surprising number of dystopian novels, novels about gender, novels that dealt with politics, and it felt like a lot of novelists were writing with a great awareness of the troubled times that we’re living in. In a way, a lot of the books made me think again about my own work, because at their peak writers are taking chances, taking risks, and it made me sit down and think, ‘Am I pushing myself hard enough?’” We won’t have to wait long to find out: McDermid’s 33rd fiction title, How the Dead Speak, will be published in August.


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