Val McDermid in Conversation at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival
By Sarah Morgan
When it comes to special guests at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, they don’t get more important than Val McDermid. She is, after all, one of its founders.
So it’s rather fitting that she was the one entrusted with getting three days of murderously good talks off to a flying start.
“It was quite tricky because some publishers hadn’t been this far north,” says Val, when asked how difficult it was to get the now much-loved annual event off the ground. “We went around all our friends to twist their arms to come and, bless them, the writers came and the readers did too.
“The second year more started coming; the third, we were beating them off with a stick!”
She then adds: “I didn’t think it would become this – staring out at a sea of faces on a cold July morning.
“What I was passionate about was new writing. The support wasn’t really there like it is now, they just had a trickle of publicity. Readers didn’t get enough access to new stuff to feed their habit, and I saw myself as their drug dealer!”
This dedication to those publishing their first books led to Val’s New Blood panel, which takes place on Saturday this year. From 2024, it will be replaced by an award for best new debut novel.
You might think that writers wouldn’t encourage fresh faces who may steal their thunder, but as is often said at Harrogate and beyond, the crime writing fraternity is one big, happy family, and Val thinks she knows why.
“Part of it was that for a very long time, crime writing was not respectable. Generally, by the literary world, it was perceived as having no literary worth, so we huddled together for warmth.
“Also, we’re constantly dealing with big emotions on the page. We’re not writing as therapy, but we’re processing our experiences, something people spend thousands in therapy on, so we’re perhaps happier than most writers.”
“Keeps me fresh and fascinated”
Like many crime authors before and since, Val started her professional life as a journalist, although it was always just a means to an end.
“It was only ever what I did to make a living until I became an author. I’d wanted to be one since I was about nine. It came from reading the Chalet School books, where one of the characters became a writer. I thought, ‘I could do that, I could lie!’”
Her years in journalism did, however, inspire her latest series about Allie Burns. It will eventually take place across five books, each 10 years apart and beginning in 1979. The next will be the third, simply titled 1999.
The series was conceived during lockdown, a time Val admits, like many of us, made her anxious due to the changes occurring seemingly on a day-to-day basis. As a result, she thought she needed “to go back to where I knew there was solid ground. I decided to go back through my writing career. I thought I could use my experiences and those of my friends.”
The result has been a resounding success, which won’t come as a surprise. After all, she’s hugely popular having sold 20 million books around the world.
But 1999 won’t be the next McDermid to hit the shelves. Instead, that honour goes to the latest instalment in her Karen Pirie series (and for fans of the TV adaptation, there’s a second run due next year).
And after that? Only Val knows, but thankfully, retirement isn’t one of the options.
“As long as the ideas keep coming, why would you stop?” she laughs. “My ambition is to go out like Ruth Rendell – she was in her eighties when she died and in her handbag was a memory stick with the first draft of her final novel on it. So as long as the ideas keep flowing, I’ll keep going.
“I like doing different stuff, it’s what keeps me fresh and fascinated. I’m just glad I’ve had the kind of career where I can indulge myself.”
Her devoted readers and the fledgling authors she’s helped are too – long may it all continue.