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Val McDermid: "I’m a writer of fiction but I’m also constitutionally lazy"

The Books Interview.

Your novel The Vanishing Point begins with a child being abducted. How did that idea first occur to you?

I went through O’Hare Airport in Chicago a few years ago with my son, who was seven at the time. I’ve got knee replacements, so I always set off the security alarms. At O’Hare, until recently, if you’d set off the alarms and there was nobody to pat you down, you were put in a Perspex box and you just had to stand there patiently until somebody came round to deal with you. And you weren’t allowed to take your kid in with you.

So I’m inside this box and my boy is waiting for the bags to come through. I wonder, “What would happen if somebody came over and walked away with him?” I thought that would be a high-octane place to start.

And this event collides with the life of a British reality TV star, Scarlett Higgins.

The opening is a way to go into the backstory. What the novel is really about is the human relationships that lead up to the moment when somebody walks away with a child in an airport. The contemporary crime novel is at its best a novel of character. That’s where the suspense comes from.

Why is crime fiction a good vehicle for looking at the lives of celebrities?

I think that crime is a good vehicle for looking at society in general, because the nature of the crime novel means that you draw on a wide group of social possibilities.

It seems to me that one of the things that happened with a lot of literary fiction in the 1980s and 1990s was that it became very concerned with the academy and less with how people live their lives. We got to a point where the crime novel stepped into the breach. It was also a time when the crime novel stopped being so metropolitan. You had writers like John Harvey writing about Nottingham, Ian Rankin writing about Edinburgh and me writing about Manchester.

Scarlett resembles no one so much as the late Jade Goody, yet I felt she was a rather heroic character.

We all present versions of ourselves. The person you are at work is not the same person you are at home. The face we present in our most intimate relationships is not the face we present to the world.

When I was starting to think about the kinds of characters that would be at the heart of the book, I went away and read a few celebrity memoirs, which was quite painful. I read more issues of Hello! and OK! than would normally be warranted by visits to the dentist. In some ways, writers are like magpies: we go around picking up the bits we want.

Do you do a lot of research for your books?

I’m a writer of fiction but I’m also constitutionally lazy. My family were very working class. I was in the first generation to go to university and a number of my cousins are scientists who have to do proper research and need to think about stuff and talk to their peers. They get annoyed with me because I get to make shit up. They say, “If we just made shit up, we’d get the sack!”

You have to do what is required for the feeling of authenticity, which is not the same as having every single detail nailed down. It’s not the same as accuracy. I cannot be doing with those crime novels – police procedurals – where they tell you every single thing the police do and every step the forensic pathologist takes. It drives me nuts. I’m so bored with it all.

So the storytelling aspect is important to you?

Absolutely. That’s what drives me. I’m looking for something that pulls the characters together. It’s one of the reasons I love Hilary Mantel’s books. She tells stories that are inextricable from the lives of the people whose stories they are. Leaving aside the way she uses prose, it’s her nimbleness with story and character that is fascinating.

I gather you’re working on an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

It’s a project HarperCollins is putting together. It’s invited six writers to rework the Jane Austen canon in a contemporary setting. I was asked to do Northanger Abbey because it’s kind of an outlier. It’s not just a straightforward romantic novel like the other books of hers.

Val McDermid’s “The Vanishing Point” is published by Little, Brown (£13.99)

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?