The Difficulty of the Debut Novel: A New Thing?
An interview with Val McDermid by Daniel Pembrey
For debut authors like me, the process of launching a first novel can feel fraught and full of self-doubt. But was it ever easy? I wanted to put the question to Val McDermid, one of the most consistently successful crime writers working today, and at last weekend’s Bloody Scotland, I was kindly given opportunity to do so.
DP: You said in the press recently that you would find it hard starting out as a writer today — that the publishing industry is much more impatient and less forgiving of mistakes now. Why is this?
VM: Business models are changing in many industries, driven by accountants and from above. When I started out [in 1987], the bestsellers on a publisher’s list subsidised new writers. Now, there is far more pressure for every title on a list to make money from the start. Which is almost impossible to achieve, unless each title is popular commercial fiction.
DP: There is new technology, too — new distribution channels, and social media. Do you think that helps, or does it just add to the impatience and pressure for results?
VM: I think it adds to it, and the other problematic aspect is that, if you aren’t someone who is comfortable putting yourself out there, it’s extraordinarily difficult.
DP: I worry about that too, more widely, in public life — that good candidates are not coming forward because they’re put off by the level of exposure.
VM: I started off in my teens singing in folk clubs, and my school was big on extracurricular activities. So I took part in the debating society and all sorts of things. The idea of performance wasn’t alien to me, I’d been standing in front of audiences since I was quite young. But for many people, it’s very hard. Being a writer doesn’t mean that you’ve got performance in your blood.
DP: You started out as a journalist. Did that help with writing fiction?
VM: It taught me that writing is a job. You can’t pick and choose when you write a news story. You write when the news is happening. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, what’s going on in your life. You can’t be precious, wait for the muse to strike. You’ve got to get the words out.
DP: It sounds like it instilled a discipline in you.
VM: It did. And there are techniques you can use when you’re genuinely stuck with fiction. One of the things I do is send my character off to the supermarket. I get into the character’s head: “What am I going to have for my tea?” Eventually you move forward.
DP: That’s a handy tip, and I want to come back to your characters’ habits. Meanwhile, when awarding your Lifetime Achievement Award at Harrogate, Mark Billingham mentioned that you were known as “Killer” while working as a journalist … why so?
VM: I don’t know! I was dubbed that by the Deputy News Editor, perhaps because I went after the story.
DP: You didn’t give up.
DP: I found this old photo of you and I’m intrigued by your office set up here.
VM: Oh yes [laughter], that was 1975–76 when I was a trainee reporter on the Plymouth and South Devon Times.
DP: Four phones, and a TV on in the background …
VM: The reason for that was we were moving office and I was left in charge of the old office while everything else moved … the photo must have been taken on a Saturday, with the TV on for sports.
DP: On a more serious note, you mentioned interviewing Jimmy Savile in 1977 and taking an instant dislike to him. You’ve said he helped inspire Jacko Vance [the TV-star serial killer] from The Wire in the Blood.
VM: He [Savile] knew I had nothing that he wanted. He had a charming public persona, but he could be a very different person once out of the public eye. He was really obnoxious, “People don’t want to know that, they want to know this!” [*mimics Savile during interview*] He was a deeply unpleasant person.
DP: A lot of people were clearly aware of his other side, yet he prevailed for so long. How does society let that happen? It reminds of Nazi Germany — a kind of mass hypnosis.
VM: But we all know people like him, who can be very charming and yet have a totally different side. It’s a bit like a politician caught with the mic still on.
DP: Indeed. Was the The Wire in the Blood and its TV adaptation the turning point in your writing career?
VM: That was the big breakthrough, but the establishing breakthrough was The Mermaids Singing  winning a Gold Dagger. That made a big difference to my foreign rights sales and got me more review space, and so it snowballed. And then, five or six years later, when Wire in the Blood appeared on the screen, that was the big leap forward, here [in the UK] and abroad.
DP: How did the TV adaptation of Wire in the Blood come about?
VM: We’d had enquiries. When I left newspapers, I said I was never going to work with people I didn’t like or trust. If it was going to be made into TV, it had to be done well. Robson [Green]’s business partner Sandra Jobling was married to a big crime fiction fan, Ken, who loved the book and kept telling them [Robson and Sandra] to read it. One time, they all got into a people carrier and drove down to the South of France, and Ken played the audio book version. They were sold and it was good fortune that Robson looked like the version of [police profiler] Tony Hill I had in my head.
DP: I did my debut author reading here ahead of Mark Billingham and Peter Robinson’s panel. Both commented that the actors who’ve played their characters are different to how they imagined those characters. Though they also pointed out that other writers do start to write about the characters with actors in mind — Colin Dexter with John Thaw and Kevin Whately, for example.
VM: Robson loved Tony Hill. We spent a couple of days talking about Tony’s background and came up with a checklist of the key elements to include in the TV production, which they did. However, none of the other TV characters look like the people in my head.
DP: The central character in your latest book, Out of Bounds, is Karen Pirie. First, I love it that she likes good gin, because my Dutch detective character does too. But the thing that drew me in most was her grieving and her night walks through Edinburgh. Where did that come from? Do you know someone who suffers from insomnia?
VM: It’s a conflation of things. I have a few friends who are insomniacs. Also, Ruth Rendell used to walk around London at night. It’s one of the reasons she wrote so well about London. With Ruth dying last year, she was very much in my mind as I was putting that book together. I had to find a way to give Karen’s grief a physical representation. She’s an intelligent woman, but she is also a person of action; this is her way of dealing with it — to walk.
DP: You have fun with the story, too. I love the way you make Murray ‘the mint’ and Lees ‘the macaroon’. I’m waiting for you to create a character called Tunnock so that he can be ‘the tea cake’.
VM: Well, that’s the thing about cops. Like journalists, they love to give people nicknames.
DP: I suppose it’s a bit like black humour — a way of dealing with job stress. Now what’s struck me here, this weekend [at Bloody Scotland], is how much you do. You’re on panels, you’re singing at the bar, you’re doing journalism … How do you preserve your writing time for that next book, keeping in mind what people expect from a Val McDermid novel?
VM: Two things. First, I don’t think about what people expect, I just focus on the book I’m about to write. In terms of writing time, I learned early on how to ring-fence that. When I started out, I was the Northern Bureau Chief of a national newspaper. I wrote my first four books on Monday afternoons. It was a Sunday paper; Monday was my day off. It’s important to find your time to be productive, ring-fence that and spend other times planning your writing — while driving to work or whatever. That approach meant that when I did sit down to work, I was incredibly productive.
DP: Necessity as the motherhood of invention …
VM: Each book took two years to write on that basis. Now I ring-fence January, February, March. I stay at home and write. I don’t do events. I don’t even go out, because frankly the weather’s so shit. But you have to have ideas, too, and they can take years to mature. So far [*touches wood*] I’ve had an idea ready to roll each time I’ve sat down to write a new book.
DP: I’d like to ask a couple of pieces of advice, if I may. First, for getting the most out of festivals like this one.
VM: Check out the programme, don’t try to do everything, cherry pick your events. Try to be current with the authors’ work. Also make sure you get enough sleep! Because that’s the killer. At my first Bouchercon, I was on my knees by the final day because I stayed up all night talking to everyone. At the end of it I was like a zombie. I couldn’t even remember half the conversations I’d had!
DP: But I imagine you get a lot back from the audiences now. It must be a great buzz. I imagine it’s euphoric at times.
VM: It can be, yes, when it’s going well. Part of it for me is that I’m always trying to do better. It’s a drive to do something different, and that is fed by doing other things as well — radio dramas, silly quiz shows, Question Time.
DP: You get a store of material to work from — it gives you more fuel?
VM: Yes, and it also means you look at the world in a different way. Someone says something and you think, “Oh that’s really interesting …” It moves the writing forward, because it puts you in different places. It puts you in touch with different people with different aspirations and backgrounds; it stimulates different parts of your brain.
DP: I see your determination — which I can imagine other authors might lose after a few years … But I also see a curiosity. You still want answers to questions about society and things happening in life. I saw that in Out of Bounds [no spoilers], for sure. I don’t think that this curiosity is unique to writers, but perhaps writers have a unique way of being able to find answers to questions through fictional narrative?
VM: Yes, absolutely. I would characterise myself as intellectually restless.
DP: May I ask for one final piece of advice. What is the most important thing you would do differently if you were starting out today, having in mind the changes in the industry we were discussing at the beginning of our conversation?
VM: Because of the pressures on writers coming out of the blocks for the first time, I would say, Do not let your first book be published until you’ve written at least a first draft of your second. Because if the first book is a success, the pressure on you to produce a strong second book is phenomenal.
DP: It sounds engulfing.
VM: Engulfing, overwhelming … You’ve never written a book in those conditions before. When you write your first book, no one’s paying attention. With the second book, it can come horribly unstuck. I really recommend having the first draft of that second book done.
DP: I’m not sure I’d want that level of initial success.
VM: It can be immensely difficult to be thrown in at the deep end like that. Ian [Rankin] and I used to joke that it took us ten years to become an overnight sensation. But it gave us time to learn our craft. Almost nobody springs out of the blocks fully formed. I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone who wrote a brilliant first novel and has gone on to write brilliant books ever since. There’s a real value in being ready for when the spotlight’s on you — if you’re lucky enough to have that break out. It’s also a good rhythm to get into — for having the next book ready before it needs to be ready. I always end up smack-bang against the deadline, which is just how I work, because I was a journalist.
DP: You like the adrenaline of that?
VM: I need to be up against the deadline. It’s the way it is.
DP: I’d better let you get to your next appointment! Thanks so much for your time, Val.
Val McDermid’s debut novel came out in 1987. Since then she has sold more than eleven million books and won numerous literary awards, including the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award and, this year, the Theakston Old Peculier Lifetime Achievement Award. She also writes for radio and TV as well as appearing on TV — recently as a member of a winning team on Eggheads.
Daniel Pembrey was a spotlit author at Bloody Scotland 2016. His debut Amsterdam detective novel The Harbour Master is out with No Exit Press on 22nd September.
This article first appeared on crimetime.co.uk in September 2016