Ex Libris

Val McDermid in Topping & Co, St Andrews

January 14, 2020

Val McDermid was so young when she first visited her local library in Fife that she couldn’t even say the word, calling it the ‘labrador’ (after her family’s pet).

Kirkcaldy Library rapidly became, though, a home-from-home. Soon enough, young Val was working her way methodically around the shelves. She would come up with ingenious, cheeky ways to bypass the librarians and gain access to the forbidden grown-up shelves.

This education laid the foundations for the illustrious writing career that has followed: with over sixteen million copies sold in more than thirty languages, today Val is often called ‘The Queen of Crime’. Bluntly, this career would not have been possible without the public library system (in Val’s own words).

This episode covers those formative years - how the library helped Val not only escape herself but also find a sense of identity - before broadening into an exploration of the library’s continuing legacy for Val, exemplified by her campaigning efforts to save other such ‘palaces for the people’.

We also learn about her writing process: Ben unpacks with Val the similarities therein with the professional workings of her fictitious criminal profiler, Tony Hill. How she must always be several steps ahead of her readers…

Val speaks to Ben not at the library, though, but within a cosy nook of her favourite indie bookshop - Topping & Company in St Andrews. It’s a beautiful shop. Val is old pals with founder Robert Topping. She loves this place so much that she even arranged for her home bookshelves to be handcrafted by the shop’s go-to joiners.

Joining the conversation is Topping’s Senior Bookseller (and poet), Michael Grieve.  Kirkcaldy Library was Michael’s local branch too while growing up. The duo make for warm, kindred spirits amid the shop’s artisan shelves, sliding ladders and seemingly endless signed first editions.

 

...

 

Please find below a full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Val McDermid in Topping & Co:

 

This episode of Ex Libris comes to you from bonny St. Andrews.  We're here to meet the queen of crime herself.  Val McDermid’s books have sold 16 million times over in more than 40 languages.  So it's a garlanded career, and one that is owed to the public library system, in Val’s own words.  I can't wait to ask her more about that debt to libraries.  She has elected, however, to meet in a bookshop.  The scene of today's crime is Topping and Company here on Greyfriars Garden.  Joining the conversation today is Michael Grieve, senior bookseller at Toppings.  Let's head inside now into the book-lined warmth. The fires are on and books are the best sort of insulation after all, not just from the cold.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Val, Michael, thank you so much for meeting us and talking here in this lovely nook in Toppings.  Val, why is the shop personally special to you?  I know you have fond attachments to libraries, but it's a beautiful, beautiful store.

 

Val McDermid:

It is a beautiful shop, but my relationship with Toppings goes back a very long time.  I've known Robert Topping since the early 1990s, when he was running Waterstones in Deansgate, their flagship store there.  And when my first books were coming out, Robert was incredibly supportive.  That, for me, sort of forged our friendship and we've stayed in touch ever since.  And then when Robert started opening wonderful, independent bookshops, because that was huge for those of us who love his style of bookselling, and this one is very dear to me, because, you know, I grew up in Fife, and to have a bookshop like this in Fife would have been an absolute dream for me growing up.

The first time I came into the shop, I just fell in love with the shelves, beautiful shelves, all handmade, different levels, and beautiful beading.  I said to my partner, I said, “We need to have a house that will go with these shelves”.  Subsequently, we do now, we have a townhouse in Edinburgh, and we have sorted shelves all over the house.  We have a library basically on the first floor that was made by the same joiners who installed the shelves here. We have ladders that go around corners.  It's lovely, and it's what I've always dreamed of, I suppose, to have that kind of place, to have a room of books in that way.  I walk in there and sit down in my reading chair, and I just think it's all worthwhile.

 

Ben Holden:

And Michael, can you speak a little bit more to the history of the store?

 

Michael Grieve:

Well, as Val was talking about, Robert used to run Manchester Deansgate, and it was by all accounts the best stocked, most richly diverse Waterstones in the country at the time.  And it was when they started slimming down their operation, when they were taken over by HMV.  Robert refused to slim down with them, and was shown the door, and he decided to set up to show them how to do it, and opened the first bookshop, first Topping and Company in Ely in Cambridgeshire, in about 2002.  And it was between Ely and St. Andrews, they opened up a shop in Bath, but St. Andrews came about when Cornelia Topping was going to university in St. Andrews, and Robert walked past this shop with a big ‘For sale’ sign on the front of it, and thought he and Louise Topping had met in St. Andrews, they were planning on coming up here later on in their life, and all the stars aligned, I think.

 

Val McDermid:

And Robert also has a very distinctive style as a bookseller; he believes in the book and so he gets passionate about it.  I remember at Deansgate when he was there, someone had published a book about the architecture of Manchester, and it was a very beautiful book, it was a lovely object and Head Office had said he could order 20.  So Robert ordered 1000.  They sold every one.  They were in stacks around the shop!

 

Ben Holden:

It’s very homely, actually, the way the books are sort of everywhere here, sort of toppling over, but also beautifully, a huge number of signed first editions of all these, I mean, almost everything seems to be signed by the author.

 

Michael Grieve:

All of the four bookshops in the company have their own events programmes.  So when we get somebody like Val in to sign a stack of books, they get shared equally.

 

Ben Holden:

And Val, we are in a shop, and obviously with our podcast, we celebrate both libraries and bookshops, but I know that the library growing up was a very important place for you in Kirkcaldy.

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, I grew up very much in a working class family, and there wasn't money to spare for books.  This was the days before cheap mass market paperbacks were everywhere.  And there just wasn't money to spare.  But my parents were of a generation where they really believed that the way to make sure your kids had a better life was through education and through reading.  And my mum used to take me to the library, in fact, before I could read, she took me to the library before I could say library.  In fact, I used to say we were going to the ‘labrador’, that was the kind of dog we had.  So she’d take me to the library and read me books, and then, of course, when I was six years old, they did an astonishing thing, and this was not the reason why they moved, but they moved to live opposite the central library in Kirkcaldy, which is a very good library. 

In Fife, we have a tradition of philanthropy towards public buildings, you know, Carnegie’s first public library in Dunfermline, and the library in Kirkcaldy was given by the Nairn family, who were the big linoleum magnates.  Kirkcaldy was famous.  It was the world capital of linoleum.  And so I would just go to the library pretty much every night after school and read my way around the shelves.

 

Ben Holden:

My Scotland’, your beautiful book, which gives you a sort of tour of the country via your life and your writing.  There's a very special section right at the outset about the library.  Would you mind reading that for us?

 

~ Val McDermid reads an extract from her book, ‘My Scotland’ ~

 

Much more important from my perspective is the impressive neoclassical sandstone building that sits above the verdant Memorial Gardens and houses the library and art gallery.  It was a byproduct of linoleum, a gift from the Nairn family, the principal of a dozen manufacturers in the town. 

When I was six, my parents moved house to live across the road from the library, and my fate was sealed.  My parents were working class, that cohort of respectable poor, who believed that education was the way to a better life for their children.  We couldn't afford books, but when I was still a toddler, my mother used to trail me half a mile across the council housing estate to the branch library to read me picture books.  By the time we moved to the town centre, I could read by myself and I was already enthralled to stories.  

The library became my home from home, and I read my way around the shelves.  Back then, you could only take out four books at a time, and in presbyterian Scotland, two of them had to be non-fiction.  The line had to be held against the relentless encroachment of frivolity.  But even on the non-fiction shelves, I managed to find stories, ‘Tarka the Otter’, Norse myths and legends, border ballads and tales and plenty of others. 

I love stories.  My life has been bookended and bookmarked by hearing them, reading them and telling them, but from those early days in Kirkcaldy, the stories that have carved out the deepest impression in my memory and my heart have one common feature, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘Treasure Island’, the Chalet School series, ‘I Robot’, what they share is a sense of place.  In my mind's eye, I can see where each of these stories unfolds.

 

~ Interview continues ~

 

Ben Holden:

Brilliant.  Thank you so much.  And so this was your second home, as you call it, and did the building and all the imagined worlds inside it, did that allow you escapism throughout your youth?  Did that continue for the following years there?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, I mean, that was my window in the world.  It was, I suppose, a door that opened into other possible lives.  Kirckaldy is in Fife, and Fife geographically is quite a distinct and isolated part of Scotland in a funny kind of way that's right in the middle of the central belt.  Until we got the road bridges in the 1960s, it was quite difficult to come to Fife, you had to make a very specific decision to come here.  You didn't get here by accident.  And we had, I think, a very distinct view of ourselves as being different and distinct.  It was politically quite radical. We were the first to send a communist MP to Westminster, for example.  But the flip side of that was it could be quite inward looking.  So almost all of the people who taught me at school, for example, came from Fife.  They'd gone off to university and come back to Fife, and that was the expected pattern of your life.

The school I went to had the view that if you were bright, you went to Edinburgh or St. Andrews, and if you weren’t quite so bright, you went to Stirling or Dundee.  But, either way, you came back to Fife.  And if you were really, really sort of a bold person, you might work in Edinburgh and commute.  There's a very strong sense of belonging.  And I knew instinctively from a very early age that I wanted more than that, I wanted something different that I didn't fit with that confined life.  At the time, I thought it was because I wanted to be a writer, and that somehow set me apart.  It took me a long time to understand that a large part of it also was my sexuality, because there were no visible lesbians in Fife when I was growing up.  I mean, there was no visible lesbians most places, but very particularly here, I mean you’d have been more likely to find a unicorn than an out lesbian wandering about Fife!

And so I didn't have a name to put on who I was, because if you can't see it, you can't be it.  You have to be able to imagine something, you can't imagine it without some sort of template to start that imagination off.  And so, yeah, for me, the library was the first step on a journey of escape because it showed me worlds beyond my window and the library was directly responsible for me going to Oxford, in a perhaps not expected way.

 

Ben Holden:

I know you got in at 16?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, but I read the Chalet School books when I was growing up.  The Chalet School books were one of my favourite series of books, girls school stories, set first in Austria, then in Switzerland.  I learned a lot of things from the Chalet School books.  They were actually a proper series, in the sense that the books followed on from each other, and things had consequences.  If you read The Famous Five, they all seem to take place in the same summer, and nobody ever has any self consciousness about anything.  Nobody ever says, “We can't go into the dark caves, because the last time we went into the dark cave, something terrible happened”.  Nobody notices, you know, it's like, it doesn't matter what order you read them in, but with the Chalet School books, if you broke your leg in one book, you were still limping three books later.  So there was that sense of progression and therefore of engagement and commitment to the characters. 

And there's also the sense of mystery and puzzle, because it was the library, so you never read them in sequence.  You just took whatever one was on the shelf.  So you'd go book 27, book 43, book six, and gradually, you form the picture.  And you’d have these moments of revelation - “That's why she behaves like that!”.  And so I love that aspect of it. 

But for me, one of the key things or two things really, that were key to my future, one was that one of the characters grows up to become a writer of girls school stories in a way that we’d now see as very meta-fictional, but back then was just what she did.  And then one of the books, she gets a letter from a publisher, and in this letter, there's a cheque.  I thought, “Oh my god, you get paid money for this.  You write books, you get paid.  It's a job.  I could do that!”  And the other thing was that everybody who went onto further education from the Chalet School, either went to the Sorbonne, and I knew my French wasn't good enough for that, or they went to Oxford, or they went to the Kensington School of needlework.  So for me, it was obvious if I was going to spread my wings and extend my horizons, I had to go to Oxford.

 

Ben Holden:

So you hadn't been to Oxford at this point?

 

Val McDermid:

Before I went to Oxford, we'd had one holiday in England.  We'd been to England for a week in Blackpool, which obviously prepared me for Oxford [laughs]. 

 

Ben Holden:

I know that you've also said a library card is a powerful weapon to change lives and where we can learn about other places, other ways of seeing the world, other lives.  There you go:  “We learn how to value what we have, to mourn what we've lost, to dream of what we might become”.  So that's very much in keeping with this.  So what sort of age was that when you were reading those books?

 

Val McDermid:

I think I was about eight or nine when I discovered that if you wanted to be a writer, you got to make money out of writing, that was when I decided that was what I wanted.  I think I'm very lucky.  I think most people take a while to discover their passion, to find out what they want to do with their lives.  I knew from the age of about nine that that was what I was going to do.

 

Ben Holden:

But you must have also, your parents must have given you that security of that can-do spirit of the, as you said, you didn't necessarily have the role models around in terms of your sexuality, but also presumably in terms of the writers as well.  But you got that in your head that that’s what I'm going to do.

 

Val McDermid:

Everybody laughed at me.  I mean, everybody just went, “Don’t be ridiculous.  People like us don't do that”.  But I was determined and I was very lucky.  Also my father was a great Burns man, Robert Burns man, and he really did believe, a man's a man for all that, and you shouldn’t let anyone call you master, you know, but the only thing standing between me and my dreams was me, so I was always encouraged to go for it, have a goal and to be determined.

 

Ben Holden:

And were there any books in that library?  Obviously, you've talked about the series and the impact that had, and you can see the impression of that in terms of your own series, but were there mysteries or in terms of the genre novels, the crime novels, were there things there that sort of sowed any seeds in your head in terms of the types of things you wanted to write?  I know you’ve written all sorts of things, but notably the crime novels.  Were there any seminals, I know you read Buchan and you read Robert Louis Stevenson, and that you were omnivorous, but were there any sort of seminal works?

 

Val McDermid:

Well, I read the Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys, you know, I rather envied Nancy Drew’s little red roadster.  But what really turned me on to the genre of fiction was a kind of accident really, my grandparents were not readers, the only book they had in the house apart from the Bible, and that in itself was a mystery, it was Agatha Christie's ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’.  And that was a book I started reading when I was probably about nine or 10.  Because I’d turn up at my grandparents for the weekend or for a week in the school holidays with my library books, and I'd run out of library books and so I’d fall back on Agatha Christie.  Linguistic scientists tell us that you can read Christie if you have a reading age of nine, because her grammatical constructions are so limpid, and her language is so clear, and simple, that it's possible to understand the text pretty readily.  So I read ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’, and I thought this was great.  I loved it.  I just was entranced by it.  And I read it and I re-read it again and again. 

I look at it now, and I think it's probably lucky that my first proper crime novel was Christie at the peak of her powers.   It’s a beautiful construction, you've got this sort of overarching main story, and then you've got lots of subplots that kind of interlock, so that when you have a sort of hiatus in the main story, there's something terribly exciting going on with the subplot.  And every one of those subplots has got, you know, set up, development, pay-off, and it's just, they all interlock.  I mean, if you drew it out, it would be this lovely, sort of geometrical thing.  But I mean, I wasn't thinking of it in those terms when I was reading it back then, I mean, I understand now what the charm of it was.  I got hooked on this.  I have to read more of these.

 

Ben Holden:

And you were re-reading at that point?  At that age, though, that's going to really sort of get emblazoned into you or imprinted somewhere.

 

Val McDermid:

It definitely imprinted that idea of how to use structure - I couldn't have told you that at the time.  And I was determined to read more of these books once I discovered that Agatha Christie had written more than one book.  And the problem was that they were in the adult library and there was no way to get, it's not like now when everything's on open shelves.  It was totally off limits.  So I did a bad thing, I stole my mum's library tickets.  I went to the library and I did my most pitiful face and said to the librarian, “I have to get a book for my mum.  She's not well”, and god bless those librarians!  It worked for five years until I was old enough to get my adult library tickets.

But as I read my way around the excellently stocked crime section of Kirkcaldy library over the course of those years, but because you know, you never get away scot free, your past always catches you out; and a few years ago, I went back to Kirkcaldy library to do a gig, and I took my mum with me, because she’s still living across the road from the library, and to my astonishment, a couple of women who'd been librarians when I was a kid were there.  As I introduced them to my mum, one of them said to my mum, she looked quite shocked, she said, “Mrs McDermid, I thought you must be dead!”.  My mother said, “Dead? Why would I be dead”?  The librarian goes “With you being a bed-ridden invalid all of those years!”

 

Ben Holden:

So the funny thing is, though, of course that you were reading the queen of crime, and now that mantle is often yours.  You've sort of become the queen of crime.

 

Val McDermid:

Yes, I find that quite strange, because particularly as a Republican, a journalist once dubbed me the “gobby shop steward of crime”, and I think that's probably the more accurate description of my mindset.

 

Ben Holden:

I know P.D. James, who was also sort of had that mantle didn't like it much.

 

Val McDermid:

No, I think it's, it's just one of these things.  There's a label that you get attached to you, usually for reasons of marketing, I think more than anything.  It's kind of invidious, really, because there's no such thing really, as a writer that speaks to everybody.

 

Ben Holden:

And there aren't kings of crime, are there?

 

Val McDermid:

Lee Child once referred to himself as my consort. 

 

Ben Holden:

But that said, you know, crime as a genre is often talked about in terms of, and we're in a bit of a golden age of crime, a lot of female authors; you've talked a bit about the female point of view in terms of writing, about the the sort of experience or the threat of violence, rather than a man's point of view.  And of course, there's a lot of controversy around certain shows and depictions of violence against women.  So there is also some gender interesting sort of discussions to be had within the genre, perhaps?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, but I think what's important is that there's no doubt that women are often, more often than men, the victims of sexual violence.  And you know, I'm not going to stop writing about these things.  I think what's important though, is that you write about these things with a degree of awareness that there is a line you need to not cross, you need to rein in, you need to say enough to be honest about what violence is and what it does, and the impact it has on the way it contaminates the lives it touches without revelling in it, without it becoming a kind of pornography of violence.  But what my books do and what a lot of other women writers now, what our books do, is we have characters, female characters, with agency.  So the victims are not the only women you see in the books.  You see women who take responsibility, you see women who have an important role to play in the unravelling of these crimes and the resolution of these crimes.  So it's not like the olden days, if you like, of sort of like Raymond Chandler, where the only women in the books were the victims, the vamps and the vixens, you know, now we take responsibility, and we are the agents of vengeance, I suppose.

 

Ben Holden:

I know you've sold 16 million copies and in 40 languages, it's astonishing.  And Lee Child has also said that your books have a rare and self sufficient integrity, which is a very succinct and nice way of putting it, and in other words, you've mastered murder as a fine art.  I only mentioned that because in your ‘Mermaid Singing’ novel, you reference De Quincey's treaties on murder.

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, it's a very satirical essay on murder considered as one of the fine arts.  I took quotes from that as the epigraph for the chapters.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, they're beautiful.  I have one here. I'll read it if you don't mind:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder, than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse and a dark lane.  Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed to be indispensable to attempts of this nature”.

Which is great stuff, although gentleman is, again, a little limiting, but the components there seem to be in line with what you were describing, what you were learning from Agatha Christie, and also in terms of your own novels.

 

Val McDermid:

I'd like to think so.  I think the contemporary crime novel, at its best, is about almost everything except the act of murder.  I mean, we write about all kinds of things.  And the crime, if you like, is the lure to draw the reader in, while we spin our tales that cover all sorts of aspects of modern life.  Everything from politics to romance, find their way into our books. We write about all kinds of things, but the string that pulls the reader through is the crime and its resolution.  And that gives us, I suppose, gives us free rein to write whatever we want to write. 

I'm very lucky to be writing crime fiction at a time when the genre has become so expansive.  You know, when I started out in British crime fiction, really, you had village mysteries and police procedurals, and that was about it.  You had Ruth Rendell kind of out there on the fringes writing her sort of dark psychological novels, but mostly, what people were writing were these kind of home counties novels about small towns and villages, or about the Metropolitan Police solving everything.  I started writing at a time when, I suppose, independent of each other, a group of writers writing regional crime novels, you know, John Harvey writing in Nottingham, Rachel writing in mid Yorkshire, Ian Rankin writing in Edinburgh, and we were taking murder out of that cosy home counties environment and setting it down in places where it was a part of a different fabric.

 

Ben Holden:

And it seems, yeah, listening to you talk about the old days, they sound quite backward, not just in the scope, but in terms of, it's amazing to think that...

 

Val McDermid:

But they were quite conservative socially as well.  I mean, there was a very strong conservatism running through the genre, I mean there are always outliers, but the the mainstream of crime fiction up to, I suppose, the early 80s was quite conservative.

 

Ben Holden:

And looking at ‘The Mermaid Singing’, I was quite struck in terms of Tony, the profiler, who of course has had huge longevity as a character, in terms of his process, and all your novels are full of beautiful process, which is for a reader incredibly satisfying, and all the research is threaded in there, but it's really rich; but his process, not to get too meta, but sort of began to make me wonder if it was similar in terms of how you are yourself going about conceiving of the characters, their motivations, and sort of being.  You’re always one or two or three steps ahead of us as the reader, but then, in terms of getting inside Tony's head, he was sort of always inside everyone's heads, it struck me in a slightly sort of similar fashion.

 

Val McDermid:

I think there's a lot of truth in that.  I mean, if you can't get inside the heads of your characters, you're never going to be able to write a character who spends his time getting inside the heads of other people.  People sometimes ask me, is it harder to write the murderer, or is it harder to write the villains?  How do you manage to get inside their heads?  I say it's just the same as writing any other character.  You have to figure out why they do the things they do, what motivates them, what's in it for them?  What drives them to do these things?  And it doesn't matter if you're writing about the detective, or you're writing about a minor character, or you're writing about the murderer, you've still got to understand why they do the things they do, and it's got to make sense in terms of their world.  People don't do things for no reason, even the most apparently random choice that a criminal makes will have its roots somewhere in their history or their world view.  So you have to figure all that out.  So yeah, I suppose in that sense, writing a character like Tony Hill is about externalising the process that you go through as a writer.

 

Ben Holden:

And also the conjuring of imagination in terms of his placing himself into the scenes and into the characters, the minds of these people that he's trying to...

 

Val McDermid:

And I'm always looking backwards, when I'm starting out, I kind of know what the crimes are going to be, so I have to reason backwards, I know what the outcome is so I can reason backwards.  And so I can put everything in place to make sense.  Whereas when somebody's doing this for real, somebody who is actually a profiler, they have to reason forwards.  They've got a limited amount of information and they've got to try and figure out from that limited amount of information where the end game is going to be,  whereas I have the advantage of knowing what the end game is from the start.  It’s so funny, I've actually had a couple of occasions, where there’s been sort of serial offences going on, I've had newspapers ring me up and say, will you profile the killer? And I go, “No, of course I won’t!  I can’t just make stuff up!”

 

Ben Holden:

But there's loads of, again ‘Mermaid Singing,’ I’d love to, if you don't mind, I’ll read one other thing:

That's how I do the job.  Gradually, the evidence makes me eliminate some of my initial thoughts.  Eventually, some sort of pattern begins to form.  This time, he was going to be as close to a clue as he's ever been.  For a man who lived his life behind the shield of learned behaviours, penetrating a killer’s face was the only game in town”.

Which is fantastic stuff, but also, again, just made me think of, without overdoing this, your own process.  Did you feel that you were onto something with that novel in particular, because it was a big success, of course, and you were doing some interesting things in terms of the genders of the victims and the UK profiler was a new sort of thing as well.  But did you feel like you were onto something, of course, it turned into, as well as the series of novels, ‘The Wire in in the Blood’ TV series, the novel also won the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger Award for novel of the year etc.; I know you've won more awards than I probably have time to list, but that one, that was a bit of a game changer for you?

 

Val McDermid:

What I've discovered is most of psychological profiling seems to be a really exciting thing to write about.  And at the time that I wrote ‘The Mermaid Singing’, nobody in the UK was writing about this at all.  I mean, it was the first sort of profiling novel in the UK at that time.  I'd read Thomas Harris, and on the basis of that, I went away and read all the non-fiction I could find about it.  There's a marvellous publication called ‘The FBI Book of Sexual Homicide’ - that was my bedtime reading for quite a while.  And I was just, I was completely fascinated by this.  It seemed to me to be a really exciting and different way of approaching the idea of writing about crime.  And I discovered very quickly that we do things differently in the UK from the way they do it in America, and in America, the FBI trains up their agents in what they call behavioural science, effectively psychology, and then they go out into the field. 

But in the UK, we don't have the number of these kinds of serial offences for it to be practicable to have some sort of specialist unit within the police.  So they summon people who are clinical psychologists, for real, they do this, this is their day job.  They spend their days working with serial offenders or one sort of another.  So I thought this was really interesting, because it creates all sorts of tensions right away, you know, the cops never like being told what to do, what to think.  So I thought, this is fascinating.  I've never seen anything quite like this before.  How exciting is this to work with?  And I thought if I make Tony Hill’s liaison person a woman, that also creates a different dynamic, because you get another set of tensions there, because at the time, it's hard to think about it now, but back in the early, mid 1990s, there were not many women in senior jobs in CID.  So women were not very highly regarded often by their colleagues, so I thought that gave me another whole set of tensions to go on. 

And I thought this is creating all these different possibilities for narrative and possibilities for relationships.  It was very exciting when I started thinking about the book and working on it.  And I suppose I wasn't thinking about it in terms of it being a game changer when I was writing it, I was just thinking I've got this great story to tell.  And that's all it really is, I suppose, when I sit down with a book, I'm not thinking about it in any terms other than I'm really excited about telling the story, because I think if you start looking at how it's going to be received or what readers are going to think about it, and will readers like it if I do it this way rather than that way, that way madness lies and that way bad books lie.

 

Ben Holden:

But the excitement and the enthusiasm which sort of infused the writing process in what became the novel, you felt especially a sort of, “I'm onto something”, or you really enjoyed…

 

Val McDermid:

It’s because it was fresh.  I mean, I had felt in my different ways just as excited about when I started writing Lindsay Gordon books or the Kate Brannigan books, they excited me, the idea of what I could do with those books was exciting to me.  I was lucky that with ‘The Mermaid Singing’ it hit the right nerve at the right time.

 

Ben Holden:

‘The Wire in the Blood’ quote is an Eliot quote from ‘Four Quartets’, but it's quite elusive or at least to me what the meaning is, “The thrilling wire in the blood sings below inveterate scars, appeasing long forgotten wars.”

 

Val McDermid:

Who knows?  It’s poetry.  It means what you want it to mean.  I don't think things have to be that explicit.  Yeah, I think it's quite nice to have a title that the reader picks up and goes, ‘Oh what’s that about”?

 

Ben Holden:

And your newest novel, ‘How the Dead Speak’ is the latest instalment in the Tony Hill series. So they've been through an awful lot, that series, as you described in the library, now you've created several of these series.  Tony's, actually the prison library features, I was pleased to read, there's also…

 

Val McDermid:

I had to find something to do with him.  The nature of the story, I had to find a story for him inside the jail, and didn’t just want it to be the sort of standard fare of, you know, so the people getting a shiv in the shower sort of thing, I wanted to make it a little more nuanced than that.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and it is a legal requirement for prisons to have libraries.  And yet it's not a legal requirement for schools to have libraries.

 

Val McDermid:

But it's also not funded by the prison services, it’s funded by the local authority, prison libraries.

 

Ben Holden:

What do you look for now that you've done several of these successful series, when you're sitting down, what are the starting points for the characters, as opposed to a standalone, is it a very different sort of process?

 

Val McDermid:

When I start to feel the shape of a story, when I start to have an idea of what I want to write about, and how the story is going to play out, what kind of story it is, it becomes very clear to me very quickly if it fits into one of the series that I write, or if it's going to have to find another set of characters to make the story work.  There’s certain kinds of stories that Tony and Carol can tell, there’s certain kinds of stories that Karen Pirie can tell.  And then there’s stories that don't work for either of them.  And I think, I've always, from the start of my career, written different kinds of books which, for me, has given me the freedom always to be writing a book I’m excited about.  I think it must be awful for people who only write one series character, because they must throw away so many stories that just don't work.  You know, if you've got a private eye as your central character, there's only a certain kind of story you can tell in the first person; if you’ve got a cop as your central character, then you can only tell cop stories, whereas I've always kind of taken the view of I want to have the freedom to tell the story that excites me.  So whenever I sit down to write a book, I'm excited because this story has gripped me by the throat and needs to be told.

In fact, sometimes Tony and Carol started as a standalone.  I didn't intend that to be the start of a series, but as I came towards the end of ‘Mermaid Singing’, I thought these characters are really interesting, both in terms of their professional lives, and their personal relationship, the chemistry between them, I can take this further.  And I thought I might get three or four books out of it.  Well, you know, ‘How the Dead Speak’ is number 11.  The same with Karen Pirie, she started off as a minor character in a standalone, and a few years after that, I had an idea for a novel about a cold case set in Fife.  I thought, well, I've already got this cold case cop in Fife, nobody will remember I've used her before, and then Karen suddenly took on a life of her own - so like, you know, five of them next year, there'll be six.

 

Ben Holden:

And they span 25 odd years as well.  And as you said, in terms of the genre, you've, along the way, kind of chronicled various changes in society.  And in the new book, it's not the De Quincey, Tony gets the epigraphs himself which is cool.  And he says in one of them, “One of the less obvious effects of austerity has been the increase in the numbers of the visibly vulnerable.  For predators, it's been a gift wrapped opportunity to expand their choice of victims”.

 

 

Val McDermid:

There are more people out there that nobody misses.  There are certainly people who will take advantage of that.  As a sort of sidebar to that, back in the 1980s, late 80s, early 90s, a group of chief constables got together in England, about half of England's forces, they met for a weekend in a country house, and brought along their unsolved murders.  And at the end of that weekend, their conclusion was that there were probably at least three previously unsuspected serial killers working in England, preying on sex workers.  And that was that, I mean, I never heard anything came of that, nothing more was written, there's no result, these guys were not put away or found or anything.  But there was a clear belief that methodology and the nature of these crimes indicated that there were individuals perpetrating several of these crimes.  And for one reason or another, they were never tracked down.  So it's not a big leap to say, you know, you have people who are ready, they are predators, and it's quite clear that there are more vulnerable people out there for them.  So the logical conclusion is, you know.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a sobering thought.  And on austerity, we might as well get into, you know, the library closures, which is a touchstone of this podcast.  Sadly, in Scotland, 69 libraries closed between 2011 and 2018, but there were 30 in 2017.  I don't know what the numbers will be for this year, and Fife got hit especially hard, and I know that you were campaigning and doing your bit to try and stop that scourge.

 

Val McDermid:

It’s low hanging fruit isn’t it, the library?  It's hard to prevent happening, even though we have a first minister who champions reading and who reads herself. 

 

Ben Holden:

She's incredible actually, though.  She’s a voracious reader.

 

Val McDermid:

Yes, she is.  In fact, the year I was Booker Prize judge, she used to take the mickey out of me.  She reads on Saturday nights, and she quite often tweets about what she's reading.  And when you're a Booker judge, you're not even allowed to say what you're reading, because that would indicate what had been submitted, and she would tease me on Saturday night saying, “I'm just reading such and such a book, what do you think of it Val McDermid”?  But even with that, it wasn't enough to prevent library closures. 

I think it's incredibly short sighted.  It's not just writers who were made by libraries, it’s doctors, it’s nurses, it’s architects, it’s builders.  It's anyone who wants to open their eyes and have a wider horizon.  And I think closing libraries is burning your seed corn.  I think part of the difficulty is that politicians never go into libraries.  They are the middle classes.  They can buy a book if they want a book.  They don't see what happens in libraries.  Now libraries are not just a hushed place where people sit quietly looking at reference books, now, libraries are a hub for the community in all sorts of ways.  All sorts of clubs and societies meet there, all sorts of groups.  For a lot of people, it’s their only access to the internet, because not everybody has WiFi, not everybody has a computer.  So the library becomes a resource for the community.  It's not just a place to borrow a book.  And the failure to understand that seems to me to be symptomatic of the line, this wall between political classes and the people that they are supposed to be looking after.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and it's awful, obviously, in a personal sense to think of young Val, you know, your second home, the Kirkcaldy library, which we went past on the train earlier.  I looked out the window, and it was right there as well.

 

Val McDermid:

It's a very good library.  There was a beautiful refurb of it as well, a few years ago, a two million pound refurb, and they put a new cafe in.  And there are new libraries being built, and there are some quite interesting partnerships being made between supermarkets and local authorities, this deal of you can put your supermarket in this new shopping mall in the centre of the city, but you've got to put a library above it.  So things like that are happening which is positive.   But I think that, you know, the overall picture is still pretty grim.  You know, they talk about, “Oh well, you can have volunteer run libraries”, but the volunteers, of course, do a great job, but they're limited.  They're not librarians.  They're not trained librarians.  And there are no funds for restocking these libraries, it’s gloom and doom, I'm sorry, it makes me very cross.

 

Ben Holden:

Well this is the raison d'etre of the podcasts, so please be cross.

 

Val McDermid:

Particularly in the time of austerity, when people are again in a position where they can't afford books.

 

Ben Holden:

And what about independent bookshops, then?  This one seems to be flourishing, but then it's a beautiful, beautiful place, as we said, but how would you paint the landscape there, what's, very different sort of, you know, apples and oranges, but what's your take on why these shops have worked and the landscape generally?

 

Michael Grieve:

I think the question of independent bookshops is quite largely a question of where you are.  Edinburgh, particularly, I think, at the moment, is spoiled for lovely independent bookshops, in a way that places like Glasgow and Fife outside of St. Andrews often isn't.  And as Val was sort of intimating, I think it is a class thing, I think it's often to do with income and availability of books as a thing to be owned, rather than as a thing to be borrowed.  Well, this is the tragic thing about library closures, as well, it’s the communities that need them the most are usually the communities where the libraries are closing down as well, which is  really, really awful.

 

Val McDermid:

It’s not the libraries in the middle class areas that have closed down, because the middle classes are articulate, and they know how to complain, it’s the libraries on a council estate where the local people don't have at their disposal the easy mechanism for complaining, for protesting, for making it stop, because it's not part of the culture that they have grown up with.  I remember back in Newcastle working with Ann Cleeves, we were campaigning to save a library in a pretty rundown council estate and this library had been built in a little shopping mall in the 1980s, and the only other things that were open in the shopping mall was the betting shop and the payday loan place.  I mean, it was quite clear that the library was the hub here.  Where are you going to go to find out about your benefits?  You’re not going to go into the betting shops and say, “Excuse me, can I borrow your computer for a minute?”  It’s devastating to them.  But independent bookshops are surviving….

 

Michael Grieve:

...because they become the community hub often as well.  And so here, there's always a tea and coffee on the go.  And many of the good independent bookshops in Scotland are places where, I know Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh are helping people who are homeless register to vote in the upcoming general election, and they were offering that as a service, and in the absence of those services being provided by libraries, often independent bookshops can become the place where people can come and ask for advice on how to find information, come for a place to relax and have a coffee and read a book, and it's not necessarily as driven on sales, obviously, fundamentally it is, but the atmosphere of being an open and warm space.

 

Val McDermid:

But you also have in indie bookshops, it's incumbent upon you in a way to cultivate your readers, you have to remember what people like, you have to remember what that this, you have to figure out what the next thing is that they might be interested in.  That's a way of helping people to explore and to make new discoveries.

 

Michael Grieve:

When you have people who come in and you see them buy something and you ask them about it next time, you go, “Oh well, you tried this”, so then they recommend a book to you and you read it.  The community of readership, I suppose, is the shared link between the….

 

Ben Holden:

The ongoing conversation down the ages as well that these sorts of institutions allow us to have.  And this is a podcast, as we know, about libraries in bookshops, I always like to ask Val, you've already touched on your library at home.  How, without being too nosy, how fastidious are you with your books?  Are you an alphabetical sort of person?  Are you a regimented kind of reader or?

 

Val McDermid:

The fiction is arranged alphabetically, because, otherwise, how do you find what you need to go back and look at again, whether it's to reread it or to refer to it.

 

Ben Holden:

You’re preaching to the choir, but I know people who don't always abide by that.

 

Val McDermid:

I often go back for a very specific reason to a book, you know, because I'm thinking about, I might be writing an article or something, and I want to think about that particular book.  Or I'm just, I just get sort of, “Oh, I need to re-read so and so”, I need to know where they are.  But I'm slightly less organised in other areas of my reading life, I mean, in my office, there’s a chunk of non-fiction, and it's not arranged according to anything other than it looks like it should sit next to that book.

 

Ben Holden:

And Michael?  I know that, here, all the time you are immersed in it, but at home, does it come with you in terms of how you organise yourself at home?

 

Michael Grieve:

All the books that fit on a shelf are alphabetized, all the books that do not fit on the shelf are stacked in rough total collocations with one another, which often relies on hauling books, if you're looking for something in particular.

 

Val McDermid:

What do you do with your unread books?  How do you organise them, do you organise them?

 

Michael Grieve:

They tend to be sat next to my arm chair until I get down to them.

 

Val McDermid:

I’ve got a random wall of unread books. 

 

Michael Grieve:

They’re a sort of stratigraphic thing, you have to sort of work down to them, and if they end up right in the bottom, you know, you probably should pull them back up again.

 

Ben Holden:

The time will come, they each have their moment, don’t they?  They are biding their time waiting for you.

 

Val McDermid:

And I think even with the number of shelves that I've got, I mean there’s a shortage of space, and every now and again, you think I have moved this particular book through three houses, I'm really not going to read it.  I should really give it to the charity shop, so that it may find the person who will read it and love it, because it has sat there unloved on my shelf for 15 years, and I'm not going to read it now.

 

Michael Grieve:

But isn't that the beauty of having a book is that everything else you buy runs out or you grow out of it, or it goes off, a book is very patient, it will sit and wait until you're ready for it.

 

Val McDermid:

It's true.  And then there are the books that you've picked up five times over the years and given up on, and finally you pick it up for that last time and it speaks to you.

 

Ben Holden:

Speaking of which, it would be lovely if, Val, you wouldn’t mind browsing these gorgeous shelves and choosing a new book with Michael.  You've spoken in the past about the power of browsing, and this last sort of button on the podcast is designed to celebrate the serendipity of these places.  And I know that you've spoken about the algorithms of buying online where you don't get challenged, you don't go thinking out of your reading box, as it were.

 

 

~ Val McDermid is invited to select a book from the shelves of Toppings & Company ~

 

Val McDermid: 

 

I know exactly where it is because it leapt out at me.  Here we go - ‘Sensible footwear.  A Girl’s Guide’. It's a memoir-cum-history of LGBT activism over the last 50 years.

 

Michael Grieve:  Where does the title come from?

 

Val McDermid:  I think that’s because lesbians have sensible shoes!  So I’ll take that one.

 

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries and independent bookshops.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Follow those accounts also for a chance of winning signed copies of Val’s gripping new novel, ‘How the Dead Speak’ in hardback, as well as her fascinating work of non-fiction, ‘Forensics:  The Anatomy of Crime’.

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

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