“I’ve never suffered from a shortage of ideas,” says Val McDermid, speaking to Alan Morrison at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival about her new novel The Skeleton Road, featuring a cold case investigation which leads from the rooftops of Edinburgh to the scarred past of Croatia. “It’s a scary place, the back of my head.”
The Skeleton Road is inspired in part by a lecturer McDermid befriended whilst at Oxford, who travelled to the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, running seminars and lectures on philosophy for the people who lived there at a time when spreading knowledge in such a manner was forbidden. Caught up in the Siege of Dubrovnik, McDermid’s friend was later granted freedom of the city for her courageous efforts. “I knew I had to write about this,” says McDermid. “As writers, we cannibalise everyone’s lives around us.”
A sequel of sorts to 2009’s A Darker Domain, set in Fife during the miners’ strike, The Skeleton Road could be the second in what might become a series featuring DCI Karen Pirie. “I meant A Darker Domain to be a standalone,” says McDermid. “I don’t always have absolute control over where my imagination goes – I have a feeling she’s not going to leave me alone.”
Asked if she intends to set more books in Scotland, McDermid replies she thinks it likely. “I’m living in Scotland now,” she says, before mischievously making it clear that “me and Mr Rankin are still speaking to each other.” She then goes on to talk of how returning to her home town of Kirkcaldy always brings her back down to earth; a place where, no matter how many books she writes and awards she may win, she will always be “Jim McDermid’s lassie.”
Morrison goes on to ask McDermid’s opinion on the current state of crime fiction, a genre which is now being treated more seriously by the literary establishment. “I have huge respect for the sophistication of my readership,” she says, and is confident that whatever themes she chooses to write about, “my readers will come with me.”
A prolific author (“I’ve written four books in the last eighteen months and I haven’t slept”), McDermid has recently enjoyed success beyond crime with children’s book My Granny Is A Pirate and her contribution to The Austen Project, this year’s contemporary update of Northanger Abbey. She admits she was surprised to be approached to contribute to the reworking of Austen’s novels (“I’m just a scummy crime writer and I swear a lot”), but found the prospect “too good to resist”, a decision which readers have benefited from as a result.
After revealing she will, after a lengthy period of indecision, be voting yes in the forthcoming referendum, McDermid goes on to respond to a question on whether she intends her books to contain any specific political or moral viewpoints. “I don’t set out to deliver a message,” she says. “Ultimately what comes through is my own views.”
“I think about the story I’m trying to tell,” she says. “People can pick a fight afterwards if they want to.”