writer Val McDermid has never been the victim of
cyberbullying, but sheís well aware of the effect it
has, often on women.
been lucky; I havenít 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 itís because Iím too scary. Iím
not sure thatís what you want your child to say about
the idea of cyberbullying ó think Gamergate, in which
anonymous agitators viciously attacked women in the
videogaming community ó 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
juggles two other crime series besides the Hill/Jordan
books ó the Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan series
ó 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.
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 weíll look at the crime novels of today to see
what people thought and did."
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 sheís
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 ó what an appalling, egregious thing to
suggest! When people say something like this itís just
an expression of opinion. Theyíre 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.
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?
Itís 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. Itís someone with an
ordinary life who gets drawn into the investigation for
a personal reason. Ö Itís a chance to tell other
peopleís stories, how crime affects an ordinary life.
get bored very easily. Ö Iíd be so frustrated if I
only had one set of characters to work with. Iíd have
to say goodbye to all these wonderful story ideas that
canít be shoehorned in. Iíve nothing but huge
admiration for Sue Grafton, who starts with A and goes
on. Thatís a tremendous commitment. It would drive me
Whatís 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
isnít that big! So I need to create the suspension of
disbelief. Thatís my job, really. Everybody knows real
murders arenít solved the way theyíre 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.
Have you always been a fan of crime fiction?
I think it was imprinted at an early age ó 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 Christieís "The Murder at the
Vicarage." When I ran out of library books Iíd
read Agatha Christie again. I got hooked on the idea of
the puzzle, so I sought out the rest of her books.
Is that why you gravitated toward crime fiction as a
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 Paretskyís
Indemnity Only. That really was a lightbulb 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.
You wrote a contemporary version of "Northanger
Abbey" for The Austen Project ó was that
intimidating, rewriting Jane Austen?
When they first asked me, I said, ĎDonít be
ridiculousÖí 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 didnít 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