Val McDermid on becoming the queen of crime and her love affair with Alnmouth
PUBLISHED: 16:56 08 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:01 20 February 2013
Former tabloid newspaper journalist Val McDermid on becoming the queen of crime and her love affair with Alnmouth. Interview by Paul Mackenzie Photography by John Cocks
A tranquil Northumberland garden in one of our loveliest villages may not seem the typical setting for a series of grisly crimes, but this is the scene of scores of murders, misdeeds and gruesome wrongdoings.
In a stone building in this garden Val McDermid creates the stories which have made her a world famous name. Her books are regulars in the best seller lists, her characters are known to millions and the stories dreamed up in this garden have become hit television shows.
But crime wasnt always a fiction for Val, who worked for years as a journalist with the red top tabloids before they became tainted by the activities of the now defunct News of the World.
When I went to The People it was still a proper paper with good investigative reporting and good sport but then it started the inexorable slide into the gutter, she said.
I knew I didnt want to be doing it any more. The last straw for me was waiting outside Julie Goodyears house to see who would come out of her back door.
I looked around the office and knew I didnt want to be like them. I had to either open myself up to that pain and the horror and pay the high emotional price or else close myself off and pay an equally high but different emotional price.
I think a lot of the revelations about what went on at the News of the World were disgraceful and disgusting. While hacking dead peoples phones bemuses me, the thing that shocked me was using private eyes to do the investigations. That would not have occurred to us and it has, inevitably, got a knock on effect for what I do now because to have the private eye as any kind of hero is seen in an entirely different light now.
As a child growing up in Scotland, Val had a passionate love of books, the library across the street from her house became her second home, and that opened up a world of possibilities. When I was about eight or nine I began to understand and I knew it was what I wanted to do I thought I can make stuff up. But the whole world of writing was beyond the ken of anyone in our family, it just wasnt a job.
Her parents (dad worked in the Forth shipyards and mum was a bookkeeper) assumed Val would leave school and work in the town but she was selected as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been a few years earlier for the schools fast-track scheme and went, against the schools original advice, to university at Oxford.
The school didnt want me to apply because they said I wouldnt get in and that would reflect badly on them. When I told them I was going to apply anyway they locked me in a room for three hours a day to prepare for the entrance exam just me on my own. I could have died in there, they wouldnt have known until the three hours was up. Of course when I got in, they took the credit.
She left St Hildas College with an English degree and a place on the Mirrors journalist training scheme. After two years with a local paper in Devon she became a news reporter with the Daily Record in Glasgow.
I realised there that journalism could be useful and I still believe that working class people deserve a media that is entertaining and informative.
I enjoyed the achievement of getting the stories but not the work itself. I didnt go into journalism with any crusading ambition and I turned down moves to London because I knew I would have to be completely committed to it. I was trying to write fiction but my early efforts were pretty terrible.
By 1988 I was northern bureau chief for The People and I was working from 8.30am to at least 10pm, if I got home at all, so during the week there was no prospect of writing and that meant I had to be disciplined about it.
I ring-fenced Monday afternoons, between 2pm and 7pm, because working for a Sunday paper that was my day off. I didnt answer the phone, open the door or cook the tea. I spent all week rehearsing what I would write, thinking through where the story would go next and running scenes in my head.
Her first two books sank without trace but she jumped at the chance to take voluntary redundancy six months before Robert Maxwells death and the subsequent collapse of the pension fund.
The pay-out gave her a safety net for the first two years while she tried to establish herself and she said: I would never have forgiven myself if I hadnt gone for it and I always had the security of knowing if it all went pear-shaped I could go back to something because I had been on the nationals for 13 years.
I had always read a huge amount of crime fiction and thought Id give that a go. I made the central character a journalist because I knew what they do. That first book came out to not a single review. Then I read Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky and it was so different to anything else and that was the moment I knew this is what I wanted to write. That kick-started me.
I knew what crime readers were like there was no better way to sell those early books than to have a successful book, then readers start searching for others youve done. The first Brannigan book came out in 1991 and I got a two book deal.
I have been astonished by how things have worked out since then. Very few people make a living, let alone a good living, out of writing.
Its a living which has allowed Val, who has now written 25 novels and has a shelf full of awards, to escape the crowded streets of Manchester and settle in Northumberland, an area she knew well from childhood holidays spent with family in Hexham.
I wanted to be by the sea again, she said. Alnmouth is a place where I feel very much at home. Its a proper village with a proper community, not just a dormitory village. It has more than its fair share of holiday lets but its a place with lots of activities going on the arts festival, volcano night, quiz nights, the golf club and theres restaurants, the post office a deli, the village hall good real stuff happening all year round.
We have miles of beautiful sandy beach, stunning views, an array of good pubs and cafes and were only four miles from Alnwick, with its spectacular castle and gardens, and Barter Books, possibly the best second-hand bookshop in the country. Barter Books also have a terrific cafe which does magnificent toasted sandwiches.
* The Retribution, Vals 25th novel, is out in paperback this month.
The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of North East Life
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