Interview: Val McDermid

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Val McDermid is something of a media personality these days, often popping up on TV and radio. She was even asked about writing an opera recently on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions. But it is her crime writing that has garnered a legion of fans who snap up her books as soon as they’re published. Latest addition to her body of work is Splinter the Silence, featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, which we reviewed here. In this new novel, the Scottish author has woven her tale around a thoroughly modern phenomenon – internet trolling. We have finally managed to track her down for an interview, and here it is… Enjoy!

Splinter the Silence is the ninth in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Can creating a much-loved set of characters become a burden to an author?
I can only speak for myself, and there is nothing burdensome about returning to Tony and Carol. Because I never write two books back to back with the same characters, I always return fresh and excited to explore what happens next. If that stops being the case, I’ll stop writing those books. It’s not like I don’t have other ideas in my head!

How far in advance do you plan? Do you already have the plot for book 10 mapped out in your head?
I don’t plan further ahead than the next book in the series. Generally, as I reach the end of one Tony and Carol book, I start to get a glimmer of where the next one might go, and the story that will take me there. So I know the broad story arc of book 10 but I won’t be starting it till late 2016 so there’s plenty of time yet for it to develop.

Splinter The SilenceYou’ve known them for so long now, do you sometimes see these characters as members of your extended family?
Thankfully there is nobody quite that dysfunctional in my real family… Although I ‘know’ Carol and Tony very well, I never fall prey to the illusion that they’re real. For a start, I can control them in a way I can’t control my real family!

Splinter the Silence has a very 21st century problem at its heart – internet trolling. What gave you the idea to base your story around it?
I’ve got a few friends who have suffered from particularly egregious trolling, so that gave me a personal dimension on something that’s been covered quite a lot by the media. I thought it was a phenomenon that would allow me to weave an interesting story around it. And it’s always good to be writing about something that provokes a strong response in my heart.

Social media is an essential part of an author’s toolbox these days. How do you view it?
It’s a mixed blessing. I welcome the opportunity to engage with friends and readers in a way that wasn’t possible formerly. It means I come across all sorts of fascinating stuff I might otherwise miss. But there’s also an incessant stream of trivia that can be distracting when I ought to be working! And there’s also a significant amount of genuine nastiness that seems to have been unleashed by the possibility of anonymity.

Have you ever been at the receiving end of trolling?
Not in any major way. I’ve had occasional nasty tweets but I just block the senders and get on with my day. But that’s impossible when you get a massive cascade of vile vitriol as some have done.

valmcdermid300How do you set about writing a book? Do you set yourself daily targets? Are you a planner or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
The only target I have is the deadline. I’ve done this enough times to have a sense of when I need to start and how far in I need to be at various points on the calendar. Usually I’m not quite where I need to be when I need to be there so I write in a state of panic mostly. Physically writing the book takes me about three months of seven-day weeks. I generally start about 10 in the morning and finish late in the evening. Or in the early hours, if it’s going well. When I start I know the shape of the story and some of the crucial turning points but not much more than that. I only ever know the details of the next four or five sections that lie ahead of me. I used to plan very carefully but my method changed about a dozen years ago. My editor thinks its because I became more confident in my narrative skills.

Some series authors seem to run out of steam after a while, but you are a glutton for punishment – juggling several at once with no sign of flagging. How do you keep them all fresh and exciting?
I get bored very easily… As I said, I never write books back to back with the same characters. It gives me – and them – space and time to breathe and consider what’s the best way forward.

Your early attempts at novel writing met with rejection. Did you ever dream of the success you’ve enjoyed through your work as a novelist?
No. I thought I maybe had five or six books in me. I hoped I’d find a readership. But the way things have worked out for me has been far beyond what I ever imagined. I’ve worked hard for my success, but I’ve also been lucky.

What advice would you give to any would-be author?
Stop talking about it and just do it. Also, stop tinkering with that first chapter. It’s never going to be perfect. Hammer on to the end then go back and revise it in the light of what you know now.

What’s next for you? And for Tony and Carol?
I’ve got some radio projects in the pipeline – drama and documentary – and then of course it will be time to write next year’s book, which sees the return of cold case detective Karen Pirie. And in 2017, there will be a new Tony & Carol book!

Read our review of Splinter the Silence here, and Val’s earlier book The Skeleton Road here.

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