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McGuinness came third. Now it is time for HARDtalk. My


guest today makes her living out of crime, often violent, disturbing


crime. Val McDermid is one of Britain's most popular novelists.


The stories of twisted killers and flawed detectives are part of a


modern genre of graphic crime fiction that is far removed from


the stories of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Her stories now


entertain millions around the world. Val McDermid, welcome to HARDTalk.


It is nice to be here. I want to begin at the very beginning of your


career. You had been a working class girl in Scotland and made it


into university. You entered journalism and were working in a


national newspaper. It seemed your career was set to take off, but


then you switched to fiction writing, why? That was what I'd


always wanted to do. Ever since I realised that writing was a job


that you could get paid for, that was what I wanted to be. I wanted


to tell stories for a living. I realised fairly early on that


people like us did not get to write straight out of the bat. You had to


work on it. I was told that you always had to have a proper job. I


became a journalist. All the time, I was trying to write fiction.


were working on a tabloid and obviously, one of the staples of


tabloid journalism is crime. Were you beginning to look at real crime


and thinking to yourself, "I can turn this into fictional gold?"


really. I did not do much crime reporting. I worked for a Sunday


paper, so there was not a lot of direct covering the stories in the


news. I have never been drawn to using real crime cases as a


springboard for fiction. I think mostly because when I was a


journalist, I saw enough of the aftermath of sudden, violent death


and did not want to do something that felt like I was feeding off


somebody's grief. I also understood that however much you think you


know about what is happening in a case, you do not know the entire


story. I could very easily, inadvertently, cause more pain and


grief by wandering into the mindspace of real emotions.


Recently, we had a Swedish writer on and he said, "We hold a mirror


up to crime to observe society." Is that the way you see crime writing?


It used to be that way. There is truth in that. I think a lot of the


time in the 80s and 90s, the literary novel abdicated that role.


It became much more interested in literary theory than it did in


narrative and engaging with the reader. Where there is a vacuum,


people tend to feel it. Around that time, crime fiction became an


attractive alternative for people interested in writing novels about


society. That leads me to an obvious point, that is, reading


your novels leads one to believe that you must have a pretty bleak


view of modern society. It has to be said that extreme, horrifying


violence is at the centre of many of your stories. It is at the


centre of some of my stories because it is violent and shocking.


The crime novel is no longer just entertainment. It has become quite


something quite different. It examines who we are and why we do


the things we do. The kind of characters at the heart of my books


are people who deal very directly with these kinds of cases. It seems,


somehow, dishonest to write about these things and not be direct


about what they are and what they do. There is a very difficult line


here and there is a line between exploitative and showing what


violence is and what it does. just wonder then how you find the


line. You say it is not just entertainment, but first and


foremost, it is entertainment. Let's face it, people buying your


books and other crime novels want to be entertained. The story is


entertaining. The characters are interesting because the situation


is interesting. That is what draws the reader in. How can horrifying


and brutal violence - I can't even begin to explain some of the things


that happen to the characters in your book because they are so


horrifying, but how can that be entertaining? I think you are


exaggerating there. I am really not. The mutilations, the torture that


is inflicted on some of your characters, it is outrageously


horrible. I would say that it is a lot less horrifying than what we


hear on the news at regular intervals about what is done by our


own security forces. What I am saying is that it is not why people


are coming to the books. How do you know that? The way that they talk


about the books. I get a lot of correspondence with people who read


my books. What they talk about, primarily, is the characters. They


talk about the characters and their relationships with each other. They


speculate on the roots of the relationships and where they may go.


I try to throttle back the directors of the violence as much


as possible, while remaining honest about what violence is and what it


does. I do not see that we have to airbrush when we write about these


things, but equally, I do not glorify the things that happen. I


do not think, "This will really wind them up." So there are lines


you will not cross? There are a lot of lines. There are writers I will


not read because I find their work disgusting. Who? I am not saying,


it is not my job to slag off other writers. It is not my job to come


on here and put down other riders. They make their choices. They are


not the choices I would make. Every time I write a scene that involves


violence, which is by no no means in all of my books, whenever I


write the scene, I am sitting there looking at it from a technical


point of view. I am always looking at it from that point of view of


have I gone too far? Interestingly, I talked to a clinical psychologist


about the stuff I write and asked if it is psychological plausible.


More than once, he has said to me, "Yes, he would do this, he would


also do this." He would then go on to enumerate things that other


killers had done. Sometimes it goes way beyond what I would have to say


to convey to the reader what this character is like. It is


interesting the talk about the process of writing and how you do


it. In your mind's eye, is there also a reader and a consideration


on your part of the impact of some of the scenes? I do not think about


the reader when I am writing because I think you then begin to


self-censor. What I am thinking about when I am writing is that I


am writing a book that I would like to read. I am always thinking about


whether it would work in a technical sense. I am always


looking at it from the perspective of, is this effective as a piece of


writing? Not, is this going to shock the people? If you start


going down that road, you start to second-guess your own work and your


own decisions. At the end of the day, a novel comes from inside the


writer. It is what I want to say and it is how I want to express


myself. I am the only person to who I am answerable. I wonder if you


have changed over the years. You have written an awful lot of novels


now and I just wonder, I'm not suggesting all the novels involve


this sort of violence, but plenty do, I wonder if you have noticed


yourself becoming desensitised to violence? I do not think so. If


anything, I think I am more sensitive to it. When I am reading


other people's books, I think I become more readily disgusted by


what I'm reading. I do find it quite amusing, in some ways, that I


have become the poster girl for writing violence, purely and simply


because I was at the heart of a media storm about a supposed row


between me and Ian Rankin. When you examine the texts, I am right down


there. You mention this row with Ian Rankin, who is another well-


respected Scottish writer. His point seemed to be that that a lot


of the graphic crime novels today are being written by women. He went


on to say, "Most male crime writers would flinch morally from over


describing an act of violence against a woman - a rape or a


murder." He went on to say that women writers went to a place that


men were not prepared to go to. have said many times what I have to


say on this subject. What I would say is, I do not think this is an


accurate statement of the position of the genre at the moment. I think


there are plenty of male writers who write practically about all


sorts of violence. I do not think it is the exclusive preserve of


women. I do not think it is also the exclusive preserve of lesbians,


which has also be said. The degree to which most crime fiction


involves a male perpetrator, a lot of it involves male perpetrators


inflicting terrible pain and violence on women. Is that a fair


comment? Is that the way you see it? It is not the way I see my own


fiction. I do not sit there and think about my fiction and think


about who I'm going to inflict violence on. For me, a book always


starts with a story and something that interests me. It starts with


an idea that I want to explore. I do not sit there thinking, "What


lovely violence am I going to perpetrate in this book?" That


could not be further from my mind. That is not what I think I am


starting out from them. Of course we write about violence. We are


writing about murder. Murder is not a tea party. Murder is not the


crossword puzzle of Agatha Christie. The novel is the entertainment of


which murder is part and parcel of the story telling. What is actually


at the heart of the best crime fiction in Britain these days is


character. It is what happens when you put people under pressure and


we see how they react and how they behave and what that tells us about


themselves. I do believe that we get the crimes that we deserve in


our society. When you live in a materialistic society, you will get


crimes of materialism. You'll get Let me quote a point that was made


by in author who is also a long time crime fiction reviewer, she


quit because she said she was sick... She quit the business of


reviewing certain novels. She said she was sick of too many novels


that depicted situations of sadistic misogyny. She said dead,


brutalised women sell books and dead men do not. That is a cynical


view but it is a view that has some merit. No. There is a certain area


of the genre that does glorify misogyny and sexual sadism. But it


is not the core of the genre. It is not the books that have respect. We


would not say this is the best of contemporary crime fiction. There


is always an element of dross. 95% of any field of artistic endeavours


has that. It always annoys me that crime fiction is thought of to be


the worst of the output when other genres are praised. Let's stop


trying to sensationalise what we're doing here. Let us look at the good


stuff, the quality staff and about writers that care about what they


are doing. They are concerned about the storytelling. You have studied


crime writing over time. You have written about a host of other crime


writers. Is it true to say that there has to be a resolution? Does


the bad guy have to, in crime fiction, have to be captured or


killed? It is not as clear-cut as it used to be. In the early days,


the villain had to be gift-wrapped and headed to the policeman.


Nowadays, we are a bit more sophisticated than that. It is not


unusual for there to be a resolution that is less than clear-


cut. Sometimes the villains appear to walk away. What also happens is


that the central issues are resolved but the side issues are


not. So there is a sign that things are not as clear-cut. You say


you're depiction of violence is meaningful and that they are saying


something about the nature of society. The reason that it is


still fiction is because, at the end of the day, is that the reader


sees the order has been restored and that the villain has been put


to an end. If that is not the case, then would not crime books be


unsettling and fear inducing? think they should be. People say to


me they find some books disturbing. That is good because if you do not


find it disturbing you might need professional help. In general, the


genre creates a moral landscape but bad things happen to people who do


bad things. There is still room in the genre for more experimental


things and experimental ways of ending a novel. Patricia Highsmith


writing at a time where the moral landscape around her was not how it


is today. She wrote novels where Tom Ripley did not come to a bad


end. Do you actively seek to escape from this formula that surrounds


crime fiction? I always have. readers are not delighted when you


stray from the formula. I do not take all my readers with me to all


my books. That is fine. I am too much of an ambitious writer to be


constrained by the market. You have written short stories and non-


Can you imagine that as you develop as a writer, you might abandon


crime altogether? I suppose. But what angers me about crime is that


the genre has become much wider and deeper than when I first started


writing. When I started writing it was just the basic police


procedural. Now a lot of new styles and turns have emerged. It seems


that anything I want to write about will fit into that category. I am


also a bit of an adrenalin junkie. It is exciting. I do not know if I


can sustain the adrenaline on a book that is not dealing with such


things. It strikes me that quite a number of your detectives, the good


guys, are troubled. They are good people but they are very difficult


and have deeply flawed personalities. They are also not


very happy. Does that reflect you and some of your own unhappiness?


Is that something that feeds into the way you portray characters? You


also had a difficult education growing up. There was nothing


traumatic. It just was complicated. I skipped a year in high school. I


was with a group of people who were regarded as experiments by the


system. I think I am a pretty happy person. I have not had a traumatic


life. I am aware that my life has been a smooth passage, so far. The


things that cause pain and grief have largely passed me by.


I was just thinking about what Gordon Brown said. He shared your


educational past. He was groomed for academic success at a young age


and he said it had done real harm, mental harm. Did you come away from


that experiment feeling the same way? I think I was one of those


better off. One of the lasting things was an overpowering need to


succeed. An overpowering drive. I only started to relax around 50. A


lot of people crashed and burned. I saw a lot of people suffering


around me. You always thought you had to do better? Yes. The top kids


were taken out and sent to high school. We were not spread evenly


throughout. We were in separate classes and groups. Everybody


called us the experiment. By the time we were mixed into the general


population, we were labelled as experiments. The staff was also


giving us the message that we were supposed to do better than everyone


else. It is not easy when you try to fit into a social group that is


older than you. One-year makes a big difference at that age. I did


not think I fitted in at all. One of the reasons was that I wanted to


be a writer which has always considered to be an outsider like


role. Always an observer. And then there was also the part of my


sexuality. When I was a teenager there were no lesbians. They were


like mythical creatures. There was no template, no books, no films


portraying lesbians. I knew the difference was there but I did not


acknowledge it. You went from working-class roots to Oxford which


is patently not for working-class people. They knew when into a


newsroom which was full of men. And into crime writing which some in


novel-writing looked down at the limited of crime fiction.


Scottish have a word that means something like bloody minded. I was


brought up in a household where the message I was given was I could be


whoever I wanted to be. Even though on the surface I had some


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