Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has been in the business of killing people for the past 26 years. She is best known for her Tony Hill series.
You would think when meeting her that she might be a little scary. Instead I am met by a cheeky-faced woman who is openly welcoming, and whose Scottish drawl brings to mind visions of the highlands, bitterly cold weather, and lively nights in the pub.
McDermid orders a caffe latte and gestures to me as to what I would like to drink. I notice an empty coffee mug discarded to her left. It seems that coffee is a requirement to becoming a successful, best-selling author. All the international authors that I’ve met tend to drink it.
When asked why crime fiction, McDermid responds because she “failed at other things”. She failed as a literary novelist. And although she had success as an accidental playwright, the key to that success eluded her.
“I had always loved crime and read all the Agatha Christie books, so thought I would try crime”.
Luckily for McDermid this first attempt paid off. She is now considered the Scottish queen of crime fiction. Perhaps her success can be attributed to where she finds the material for her books.
McDermid explains that when writing her novels she draws on her experience of the world, and then looks at how different people react to various things.
“What you might think is out of character is actually very character driven. And what makes a thriller is to lose that which you hold most dear”.
The Vanishing Point is McDermid’s latest novel. It deals with every parent’s worst nightmare.
Stephenie Harker, a ghost writer, is travelling through the security gates of O’Hare airport with her godson Jimmy. She is pulled aside when she sets off the metal detector and watches in horror as a uniformed man leads her boy away. In an attempt to get to Jimmy, she is brutally wrestled to the ground and tasered. By the time she is able to tell the FBI what has happened, Jimmy is long gone. And the only way to determine who may have taken Jimmy is to delve into his troubled and unusual past.
Inspiration for The Vanishing Point struck McDermid when she was travelling through Chicago airport with her son. She’s had knee replacements and set off the metal detector. She wondered what would happen if someone were to take her son.
“Security is unidirectional in America”.
The Vanishing Point allowed McDermid to peal back the skin of a celebrity. And she paints a picture of the narcissism that is fame and “the commodification of people through reality tv”.
“I find people who are famous for being famous depressing. A character can allow you to express outrage at certain people. It is my way of addressing issues”.
She does, however, try to step back from her prejudices and take a broader view.
“My characters are drawn from a life time of being nosy and watching people. Val the writer is probably nicer than Val the person”.
I mention that it seems like women crime writers tend to be more brutal than their male counterparts.
“We are coached into being a victim from a young age. Men write violence as spectators. Women write from an interior position, where we feel and experience the terror that a character could find themselves in.”
But having said this, McDermid doesn’t lose sleep over what is going to happen to her characters. The job of a writer is to point to things that are unsettling. McDermid’s novels are a commentary on people, and what they would do in difficult situations?
“People who do bad things are not necessarily monsters. I look at things with a dispassionate eye. There are shades of grey. Everyone is flawed. We all have at least one murder in us. It is the fear of being caught that determines who does and who doesn’t”.
I mention that in South African, despite the high percentage of brutal crimes, we still love crime fiction, and I ask McDermid why she thinks this is.
“It is a sense of conciliation and comfort. Order is restored to the world at the end. We feel less scared”.
I ask if she ever suffers from writers block.
“When writing you can’t wait for inspiration to hit, you need to write yourself out of a block.”
If McDermid’s muse is missing in action, she will more than often send her main character off to somewhere mundane like a supermarket in order to see where the story will next take her.
But McDermid is not only a crime writer, she has also written a children’s story.
My Granny is a Pirate is a tale of a granny who "captured many pirate ships but was always home for tea".
I ask why she hasn’t written more children’s stories.
“I’d happily keep writing children’s stories if I didn’t have to do children’s events. There are always a few misbehaving kids. So I’d throw chocolate coins particularly hard at those few who really annoyed me during my talks”.
From this I gather that it may be awhile before McDermid pens another children’s book.
In ending our interview I ask if McDermid plans to carry on writing.
“As long as the public read my books; and as long as I have characters in my head dying for their stories to be told, I will keep writing”.
The Vanishing Point is considered to be McDermid’s best novel yet. It is a psychological thriller that will leave you utterly shocked at the end.
Head on over to Kalahari.com to buy a copy of The Vanishing Point.
Are you a fan of Val McDermid? What is your favourite book of hers and why?