© Nick Taylor

Brief encounter: Val McDermid

People might be surprised to know I’ve busked in the Paris Metro to earn money for food and wine.
March 3, 2021

What is the first news event you can recall?

Yuri Gagarin orbiting earth in Vostok 1 in April 1961. I was already in love with stories, and this felt like something that had escaped from a story into the real world. The idea of humans in space was thrilling, and even at the age of five, it filled me with hope and expectation that we’d conquer the galaxy.

What is your most embarrassing moment at a book-signing?
A cousin I hadn’t seen for 30 years turned up at a signing and was very put out that I didn’t recognise her or remember her supposed memories of my childhood. I didn’t think that was such a big deal in itself but she made a bit of a song and dance about it in front of the other people in the queue.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, when and where would that be?
Mistress Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford, 30th May 1593. Then I’d finally know the circumstances of Christopher Marlowe’s death and find out whether my theory is correct…

What is your favourite quotation?
Not very original, I suspect. Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s at the front of my mind every time I start to write something new.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?
As patron of the Scottish Book Trust, I’d give it to them to expand their Bookbug programme that supplies every child in Scotland with their own books.

What do you most regret?
The things I never got around to asking my parents about their early lives—and my early life!

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’ve busked in the Paris Metro to earn money for food and wine.

What have you changed your mind about?
Scottish independence. At first, I genuinely didn’t know which way I was going to vote in the 2014 referendum. I’d lived in England for a long time, but it was only when I returned to Scotland that I realised the country I’d come back to was not the country I’d left. I looked at the difference having a Scottish parliament had made and realised I’d much prefer to live in a country unshackled from the self-interested shambles of Westminster.

What’s the perfect book to read in a crisis?
I’ve enjoyed The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. In 75 bite-sized chunks, she tells the stories behind paints, dyes and shades. I read a section every morning in the dead of winter and it lifted my spirits to think about colour in a pretty monochrome world!

Can you teach someone to be a writer?
You can teach them how to construct grammatical sentences, but that’s not “being a writer.” You can help someone improve their skills, but becoming a writer is mostly about the work you’re prepared to put in yourself—reading critically, considering, editing, discarding, rewriting. That’s what makes a writer.  

Val McDermid’s latest book, “Still Life” (Sphere), is out now