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

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

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

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

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modern genre of graphic crime fiction that is far removed from

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

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

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

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

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into university. You entered journalism and were working in a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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grief by wandering into the mindspace of real emotions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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attractive alternative for people interested in writing novels about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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here and there is a line between exploitative and showing what

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

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

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

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

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entertaining. The characters are interesting because the situation

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

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

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

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

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

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is inflicted on some of your characters, it is outrageously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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there are plenty of male writers who write practically about all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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that depicted situations of sadistic misogyny. She said dead,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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that the central issues are resolved but the side issues are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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things and experimental ways of ending a novel. Patricia Highsmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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and have deeply flawed personalities. They are also not

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

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

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also had a difficult education growing up. There was nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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throughout. We were in separate classes and groups. Everybody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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