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VAL McDERMID on The Distant Echo

Written by Georgina Burns

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"Like all writers I just cannibalized what I saw."

Georgina Burns interviews Val McDermid

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Val McDermid’s new book, The Distant Echo, centres on a tightknit friendship between four students in the university town of St Andrews in Scotland. The students are walking home drunk from a party in the early hours when they stumble upon the body of a young woman who has been raped and left to die. Without any other obvious suspects, the young men soon become the target for vigilantes and locals who believe they are guilty of the crime. Twenty-five years later the group has dispersed, but when one of their number is killed in a suspicious house fire and another in what look like a burglary gone sour, it seems as if someone is exacting their own kind of revenge and the group calls on its remaining strengths.

Writing lead male characters is nothing new for McDermid, who is probably best known for creating the character of criminal profiler Tony Hill, recently brought to our screens courtesy of Robson Green in the acclaimed ITV drama, The Wire in the Blood. But McDermid’s skills go that bit further in The Distant Echo, as she manages successfully to tap into the bonds that tie a group of young men together. In explaining her accurate portrayal, McDermid cites that age-old skill of a writer – observation: "I remember observing my contemporaries in that sort of exclusive group and I do know people who are still in the same social nexus now as they were twenty-five years ago. Like all writers, I just cannibalized what I saw around me."

Although you hail originally from Scotland, you currently live in England and have set the majority of your big thrillers in and around the Lancashire or Derbyshire area. Your new book, The Distant Echo, is set mainly in Scotland. What led you to choose St Andrews as the setting? Did you choose it because it resonated particularly with the story you had in mind? Have you spent much time in the area?

I grew up in Fife, about thirty miles away from St Andrews, and it was always one of my favourite places to visit. I have happy memories of everything from picnics to winning hockey tournaments there... I had the idea for The Distant Echo before I had the setting, but it seemed to me that it would only work in a relatively small community. Not many university cities fall into that category and it had the advantage that I knew what Fife was like in the late ‘70s, when the first part of the book is set. And of course, as soon as I started to think about it, I knew I could use the particular features of the place to great effect. The Pictish cemetery, the Bottle Dungeon, the Castle Cliffs... Irresistible, really.

In The Distant Echo, the group of lads who discover Rosie Duff's body call themselves the Laddies fi'Kirkcaldy and have known each other since school. Their friendship is a very powerful part of the story and all the dynamics of childhood friendships are played out within this eclectic group of students. Did you draw on any of your own past for this? Did you find writing about a male group more difficult?

I was much more of a loner than the Laddies fi' Kirkcaldy. Although I did have strong friendships, I don't remember ever being part of a tightknit coterie like this. But I do remember observing my contemporaries in that sort of exclusive group, and I do know people who are still in the same social nexus now as they were twenty-five years ago. Like all writers, I just cannibalized what I saw around me. Creating any important character is always a leap in the dark. It takes a while to get under their skin: to understand what motivates them, what hurts them, what frightens them. Writing from a male perspective is a slightly bigger leap than writing from a woman's point of view, but it's all about transforming observation with imagination into something that feels credible. Thus far, I've not had male readers complaining I get it all wrong, so I suppose I must be in the ballpark...

At the core of The Distant Echo is the fictional cold case review of the rape and murder of a young woman. The whole premise of the book reflects the scientific developments that have dramatically altered police investigations and clear-up rates. As a crime writer, do you find you constantly have to track new developments in these fields? Do you think there is a place for modern crime novels that don't reflect these changes in the modern police force?

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I think it's harder to write contemporary crime fiction without a working knowledge of the technological advances in investigative techniques. They form such a crucial part in the unravelling of a murder these days. The role of the amateur sleuth has been effectively curtailed by the nature of forensic investigation. But by taking a group of men who are not in any sense professional investigators as my central protagonists, I hoped that in The Distant Echo I could largely steer clear of the intricacies of forensics. I know quite a bit about the technical side of things, but I wanted to try to avoid that for once and explore the world of 'ordinary' people snarled up in a crime and its aftereffects.

There is a real atmosphere of accusation and suspicion in The Distant Echo. The family of the victim, Rosie Duff, and local people are convinced the four students are guilty of murder, while even the four themselves cannot be sure of each other’s innocence. Was it your intention to create such an atmosphere of mistrust? Have you looked into real-life cases where suspicion remains down the years, and then individuals are confirmed guilty or innocent with modern forensics?

The poisonous nature of suspicion and guilt was exactly what I wanted to convey in The Distant Echo; the reverberation of damage through the lives of people touched by murder. I've not made a particular study of real-life cases of this sort; I generally don't read much true crime at all. I'm always slightly nervous of unconsciously absorbing too much from the telling of real cases and inadvertently exploiting the real victims with what I write.

You mentioned in your author notes that The Distant Echo wasn't a book that involved an extensive amount of research. Did you set out to write a book that was more straightforward, or did the idea come first and the logistics second? Much of the story is about the reactions of the murdered woman's family and the students that found her. Did you spend much time researching the potential emotions involved, or did you go with your gut feelings and existing knowledge?

The idea came first, and as it developed, I realized that I already knew most of what I needed to know to write it. Which was a major bonus! Of course, there were lots of details along the way I had to refresh my memory about. I'm conscious that the things writers usually get wrong are not the things they're not sure about but the things they're absolutely sure they know. As to emotional reactions - I don't research them as such. But I spend a lot of time getting into the heads and hearts of my characters, figuring out what makes them tick and working out what they are capable of. Which I suppose is a sort of research. But for me it's more like having an elaborate and extended fantasy life. Sad person that I am...

In recent years the distinction has grown up between the more traditional "whodunit" crime novels and the more psychological "whydunits", where in some cases we know who the murderer is from the very beginning. You're something of an expert in both fields. In many ways The Distant Echo is quite a traditional page-turning whodunit, which keeps the reader guessing right to the end. Do you recognize the whydunit/whodunit distinction in crime writing, and do you think about it when writing your novels?

The development of the psychological thriller, the whydunit, has been one of the most interesting aspects of recent crime fiction. It's given the genre a new dimension, freshness, and richness, that is fascinating to explore as a writer. But I never really think much about what kind of book I'm writing when I'm in the thick of it. With me, it's always story that's paramount, because without a narrative thrust, it doesn't matter how interesting your characters are, how marvellous your prose style is or how evocative your sense of place is. As I work on the story before I start writing - which is a process that can take years - the form and structure dictate themselves. I've never been one to pay much attention to the rules.

The first period of The Distant Echo is set in the ‘70s and you vividly bring out the burgeoning music scene of the period, with many references to David Bowie and Pink Floyd in particular. The Laddies fi'Kirkcaldy love their music, and even take nicknames from bands and their albums. Was the ‘70s a particularly notable time for you? How do you like to remember them? Any particular musical favourites?

I came of age in the 1970s, so I remember it as a time of confusion, exploration, self-discovery and behaving badly. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, and rather too much alcohol. It was the decade that style forgot, though as we were living it we thought ourselves really rather cool. Musically, I remember the shock of punk. Blondie, The Clash, The Jam, The Skids, The Pretenders, The Rezillos. But secretly Abba too. And the first blast of Annie Lennox's amazing voice on those early Tourists singles. I've always been a music junkie. I always listen to music while I'm working, and writing the first part of this book gave me a great opportunity to listen to all the old favourites from that era.

Recently your profile has been raised by The Wire in the Blood, the acclaimed television adaptations of your series featuring criminal profiler Tony Hill (played by Robson Green) and DI Carol Jordan (played by Hermione Norris). Has seeing the actors play the parts you created altered your own image of Tony and Carol? Will there be any knock-on effects in your next book featuring the pair?

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It's not been a problem for me, because both Robson and Hermione are not that far from my mental picture of the characters. Check out the first description of Tony in The Mermaids Singing -- it could be Robson that's being written about. The major knock-on effect the series has had on the books is that the forthcoming Tony and Carol novel brings the two of them back to Bradfield and reintroduces some of the characters from Mermaids who are continuing characters in the TV series. That's actually been slightly harder. For example, in the book, Don Merrick is a Geordie, but he's played by Alan Stocks as a Scouser. So I'm finding that a little more difficult to envisage...

You're soon to embark on a UK tour, and I know you've recently been on a tour of the USA. What do your readers say to you about your books? Do they have a typical favourite? Do readers' comments ever have an effect on how or what you write?

I'm very lucky in that my readers generally want to share their appreciation of my books. Their enthusiasm is a great pick-me-up on those days when every word feels as if it's being dragged out kicking and screaming. What's gratifying is that readers' favourites span the whole canon of my work. Some people love the Lindsay Gordons, some the Kate Brannigans. Others want more Tony and Carol, and there are those who much prefer the stand-alones. What's intriguing is that readers sometimes see things in the books that have never occurred to me. Small details that recur, wider themes in the work - really, it's amazing how perceptive they often are.

I don't want to sound disrespectful towards my readers, but I never think about anybody else's reactions when I'm writing. I write the books I would want to read, and that's the only thing on my mind. I write what's in my heart and in my head, not what I think people want to read or what will sell. Otherwise, why bother?

With thanks to Harper Collins for their permission to reproduce the interview http://www.fireandwater.com
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