Famous Scottish crime writer set for Lesbian Lives Conference in Cork

Ahead of her talk at the Lesbian Lives Conference in Cork next month, NICOLA DEPUIS talks to Scottish crime writer Val McDermid about growing up gay, her writing and her upcoming trip to Leeside
Famous Scottish crime writer set for Lesbian Lives Conference in Cork

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, who will feature at the Lesbian Lives event in Cork.

“IT’S like when you go to the fairground, and you go on a roller-coaster. You scream and scream and scream - ’cause it’s so scary, but then you queue up to do it all again. It’s a safe place to be scared, I suppose.”

Val McDermid, often dubbed ‘The Queen of Crime’ or ;The Queen of Tartan Noir;, is telling me why she thinks readers are attracted to crime fiction.

“I think there’s an element of sublimation as well,” she adds. “In Norway, they emerge from winter and open up their cabins at the fjords and the forests, and all the family get together and spend Easter together in the cabin. It’s also the month when all the thrillers and crime novels are published in Norway. 

"And I think it’s because you’re stuck in a small cabin with your family for a week, and reading about murder means you don’t actually commit it. It’s a life-saver.”

With this in mind, Val, who has sold more than 17 million books to date and is translated into more than 40 languages, can be said to have saved a lot of lives – and not just through her crime writing, but also through her representation of lesbian and gay characters in her books. Val’s first three novels, beginning with Report for Murder in 1987, featured the UK’s first openly lesbian detective character, Lindsay Gordon.

They were published by the Women’s Press, a small feminist publishing house, and one of the reasons Val wrote them was to put “something out there for the next generation of young women finding themselves, something to give them a sense of another possibility”.

Author Val McDermid, who will feature at Lesbian Lives, in Cork. Picture Nick Bradshaw
Author Val McDermid, who will feature at Lesbian Lives, in Cork. Picture Nick Bradshaw

This representation was something Val, now 66, didn’t have growing up in Fife.

“There were no visible lesbians, no lesbian novels, no lesbians on telly, really it just wasn’t part of the landscape. There were no alternatives to heterosexuality.  You just feel like an outsider and you don’t really understand why. 

"At least young people coming through now understand that there are alternatives to sexual normativity, which was an impossible realisation for someone of my generation.”

Val admits that it would also have been impossible for her first novel to have been published by a mainstream publisher.

“Even in the late ’90s, when I suggested to my agent a novel with a lesbian theme, she said it would be ‘commercial suicide’. However, she’s thankful that this literary landscape has changed (in no small part due to her own work), even though she feels it’s still challenging for people in rural communities.

“I think for a lot of people who are not part of urban society, for them the notion of being gender fluid or non-binary or queer is still out of reach. If you have nowhere to be part of a community, it’s very very difficult to live your life in a way that feels comfortable,” says Val.

“I know the online community provides a way to feel comfortable to be yourself, but it’s still not the same as sitting down with people face-to-face and talking through your experiences and your feelings, and just having a laugh with like-minded people.”

It was through like-minded people that Val came to her own sexual realisations at Oxford University.

“One of my friends gave me a copy of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, and I’d never read anything like it in my life. I’d never encountered a feminist text before, and I read this and it was mind-blowing,” says Val, who married her partner, Jo Sharp, in 2016.

“I had this complete moment of epiphany really, a different way of looking at literature, at the world. And that brought me into the orbit of feminists, and the feminists led to the lesbians. But what made it concrete, I suppose, is I fell in love with someone who fortunately fell in love with me.”

After university, Val worked as a journalist for 16 years, before turning her hand to crime novels.

Surprisingly, crime novels weren’t her first choice of material.

“I tried writing other things but I failed basically, and I realised that the thing I was doing wrong was I didn’t really have a visceral understanding of what I was trying to write,” says Val, who has now had 45 books published.

“I didn’t understand how radio drama worked. I didn’t understand how theatre worked. But I’d been reading crime fiction since I was about nine, and I love it. And I thought, I know how that works, so writing a crime novel might be possible.”

When asked if she’s ever been tempted to try a true crime story, her answer is a definite ‘no’. 

“I’m not a fan of true crime. When I was a journalist, every six months or so a story would come up linking back into the Moors murders”, says Val, referring to the infamous murders of five children outside Manchester in the 1960s.

“Over the years I spoke to a lot of people who were touched by that case. I spoke to the families of the victims. I spoke to police officers who had been involved in the hunt. I was the first person to get an interview with Ian Brady’s mother 20 years after the original event. I spoke to prison officers who worked in the prisons where Myra Hindley was held. I spoke to psychologists who worked in the secure unit where Ian Brady was held.

“I came to understand pretty quickly in that process that every time one of these stories came up, it opened wounds that people were trying to heal. It caused pain and grief all over again.

“If you’re treading on ground that’s going to cause other people problems, I just don’t see the need for it.”

Val describes her work as being grounded in “a different reality”.

“My work is to imagine things. I have a lot of contacts in forensic science, so when I talk about crime and investigation, I try to be as authentic as possible. But the characters, the lives, are not from the real world. 

"It’s not about real grief, real loss. I do get twitchy, and feel quite sensitive about it.”

Val will be coming to Cork in March to speak at the 25th Lesbian Lives conference, which is being held in Cork for the first time. This won’t, however, be Val’s first time in Cork as she was one of the judges at the first Frank O’Connor International Short Story Awards in 2005.

“It’s a great town to wander around,” she says. “I love cities that have a river running through them. There’s a great atmosphere and beautiful buildings, so I hope I’ll get a wee bit of time to wander around again.”

For more see www.ucc.ie/en/lesbianlives2022

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