Interview: Val McDermid, author of ‘Splinter the Silence’

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is the author of 30 novels that have been translated into more than 40 languages.
Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is the author of 30 novels that have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Crime writer Val McDermid has never been the victim of cyberbullying, but she’s well aware of the effect it has, often on women.

“I’ve been lucky; I haven’t really been trolled at all, though I do have a public profile here in the UK that goes beyond writing,” says the author of 30 novels, who was born and lives in Scotland and has been compared to such crime royalty as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. “My son says it’s because I’m too scary. I’m not sure that’s what you want your child to say about you!”

Still, the idea of cyberbullying — think Gamergate, in which anonymous agitators viciously attacked women in the videogaming community — fascinates McDermid, 60 (“I find it disturbing and fascinating in the way you see a road accident happening in slow motion”). In her latest novel Splinter the Silence (Atlantic Monthly, $26) she tackles the subject head-on when psychologist Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan (who has just been hired to head up a new task force) team up to track down a possible serial killer who may have taken cyberbullying to a terrifying new level.

McDermid, who appears Tuesday and Wednesday in South Florida, juggles two other crime series besides the Hill/Jordan books — the Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan series — and also writes standalone thrillers. Splinter the Silence also deals with the subject of alcoholism, because McDermid sees the genre as the perfect way to explore serious contemporary topics.

“We read Charles Dickens to find out what life was like in Victorian England,” says the author, who counts Rendell, Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill and Michael Robotham among her favorite crime writers. “In the future we’ll look at the crime novels of today to see what people thought and did.”

Q. Do you know women who have been cyberbullied?

Friends have had horrible experiences. J.K. Rowling had some unspeakable abuse for no reason other than she’s been successful, and she speaks out about things she thinks are important. Caroline Criado-Perez was trolled mercilessly for daring to suggest Jane Austen be on a banknote — what an appalling, egregious thing to suggest! When people say something like this it’s just an expression of opinion. They’re not molesting your children or killing your dog or having an affair with your wife. One feels over the last 25 years attitudes have shifted and people have made progress in terms of social responses, but all we need is anonymity to be as awful as we always were.

Q. When you have an idea for a novel, how do you decide which series to write it for? What makes you decide to write a standalone?

It’s the story that comes first with me. I think about what kind of story it is, where it fits or if it requires a new set of characters to tell that story. Can Tony and Carol investigate or does it need a different approach? In my standalone novels protagonists are not conventional investigators, not cops or private investigators or journalists. It’s someone with an ordinary life who gets drawn into the investigation for a personal reason. … It’s a chance to tell other people’s stories, how crime affects an ordinary life.

I get bored very easily. … I’d be so frustrated if I only had one set of characters to work with. I’d have to say goodbye to all these wonderful story ideas that can’t be shoehorned in. I’ve nothing but huge admiration for Sue Grafton, who starts with A and goes on. That’s a tremendous commitment. It would drive me slightly mad.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge of writing a series?

The most difficult thing for me is keeping a sense of authenticity, keeping it credible. Truly the number of serial killers in Bradfield and the surrounding areas isn’t that big! So I need to create the suspension of disbelief. That’s my job, really. Everybody knows real murders aren’t solved the way they’re solved in books, so my first duty is to take readers on a journey of suspension of disbelief, to give a sense of authenticity rather than accuracy. A lot of that comes from character and a sense of place driving the story.

Q. Have you always been a fan of crime fiction?

I think it was imprinted at an early age — grownup books had to have dead bodies. I started reading Agatha Christie. I used to spend a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid, and they had one book besides the Holy Bible: Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage. When I ran out of library books I’d read Agatha Christie again. I got hooked on the idea of the puzzle, so I sought out the rest of her books.

Q. Is that why you gravitated toward crime fiction as a writer?

I came out of university [Oxford] with an English degree and an overinflated idea of my abilities as a writer. I was writing the great English novel. But I tried literary fiction and was a dismal failure. I had a fantastic collection of rejection slips! I thought, what I really should do is stick to a genre where I know how it works. What kickstarted me was Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. That really was a light bulb going on in my head: You can write a crime novel with politics and female protagonists! That got me started. Luckily enough Sara and Sue Grafton were popular, and British publishers were looking for something similar.

Q. You wrote a contemporary version of Northanger Abbey for The Austen Project — was that intimidating, rewriting Jane Austen?

When they first asked me, I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ Then the more I thought about it, I realized it could be fun, and it would challenge me and stretch me. So with my heart in my mouth I said yes. Sorting out the practicalities of story and plotting was not that difficult. The thing that took the time was getting the voice right. I didn’t want to write a pastiche of Austen. I had to find a different register from how I write crime novels, a different rhythm and voice. That took the most effort. Once I was confident in that voice, it then became fun. It was like going on a holiday almost, it was so different from what I normally do.

Meet The Author

Val McDermid appears:

Tuesday: 8 p.m., Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Wednesday: 7 p.m. Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach