There can be no doubt that Val is one of Scotland’s most prolific writers. It’s not just crime fiction either. There has been plays, radio dramas, a children’s book and non-fiction books including the astonishing, Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime where her admiration for the work of forensic scientists is laid bare.
Val’s first novel, however, was published in 1987. It was the first British crime novel with a lesbian detective. This was the time of Thatcher government creation of section 28, making it illegal for local authorities to support anything that may promote same sex relationships. I asked her how hard it was to get her book out there.
Getting published wasn’t the issue. At that time there were 3 or 4 independent women’s publishers. I was actually published by the Women’s Press. It was, as you say, getting beyond that. Getting it into bookshops and getting it into people’s hands. One of the issues was that in those days papers didn’t review paperbacks, and the Women’s Press only produced paperbacks, so when the book came out we didn’t get a single review. But it somehow got into people’s hands and they passed it on through word of mouth. Booksellers and readers spoke to one another and it’s never been out of print since first publication. It’s a source of wry pride to me that I earn more every year from (my first book) Reports on Murder than I did when I first got the advance for it!
You recently chose 10 writers to showcase the quality and breadth of LGBTQ writing in Britain today. Do you think we should have separate spaces for ‘women’s’ fiction and LGBTQ fiction in bookstores, libraries and prizes, or do you think that these labels increase a sense of cultural separation?
No, I don’t think we need separate spaces or prizes, however, I do believe people need to be made aware what is out there, because very often the mainstream ignores what is out there. They don’t get prominently displayed so I do think we need to keep pushing to make people aware of what’s out there. Readers want to know what is available for them. It’s similar, if you like, to the Baftas last night; people were complaining about the lack of diversity. There’s lack of diversity in the movies. So it’s about letting people know what is available.
In terms of your creations are there any you are particularly proud of? Do you identify with any of them in particular?
I don’t really identify with any of my characters. It is an act of imagination, the same kind of leap of faith really that goes into creating a serial killer as goes into creating a protagonist investigator, so all the time you’re not thinking of putting yourself into something, your drawing on your experience of the world. You draw on what you observe in your own friends and family. People sitting on the bus, people on TV. It’s really about assimilating all the things you have encountered. And during my career as a journalist, I still regard that as a great blessing that back then I encountered all kinds of people and situations which gave me a great data set of information to draw on.
You’ve recently completed a book called My Scotland, a book that takes you to landscapes that are special to you and where your characters reside. How important is setting in your novels?
Setting is extremely important element of fiction generally but crime fiction in particular. I think because we are asking our readers to engage in a big suspension of disbelief. Everybody knows that murders are not really solved in the way we write about them in our books. It’s not Detective Inspector Grumpy and his sidekick who has to buy all the drinks. The reality is quite dull and repetitive, so we have to persuade the readers to come with us and believe in what we are doing. If you give people a really authentic feel for a place; if you tell the truth about a place then they will believe the lies we’re telling them.
I do think, from my perspective as a reader the books that staymost strongly with me are the ones that have that very strong sense of place – David Mamet Chicago or Raymond Chandler’s Los Angelies. These are books that stay in your mind. I remember the first time I went to Chicago and I knew the place already. And that was from reading [Sara] Paretsky.
You’ve described yourself as having a “devious and twisted imagination” and you’ve commented that women write scarier fiction than men do. Why is that?
Women have a visceral understanding of what violence is because we are brought up to see the world as a potentially dangerous place. When we are little girls we are told be careful of the dark. Don’t go down that place by yourself. Don’t do that by yourself. I don’t believe there is a women around who has not been walking home late in the evening and heard footsteps and immediately flashed forward to a imagination of what terrible things could happen. We’ve all been there, we’ve imagined these things. So when we come to write about these things, we’re very much writing about something that we’ve already experienced in our heads even if we’ve not experienced it ourselves. Men grow up with a very different view of the world. They are not inculcated with the idea that the world is a dangerous place that will do bad things to them, and so, they write about it differently. It is a socialisation which provokes in us an understanding of what the potential of violence is. I do not think it is innate.
How did you end up being part of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers? How did it all come about?
It is good fun, we all love it. Three of our guys were in a festival in New Orleans and they got up and did a very ad hoc performance of a couple of numbers at an open mic night. They came back and decided they should do this again and who could they grab hold of, “Oh, Val will be up for it!” We’ve got a very strong backline with Doug Johnston, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste, who have all been in bands since they were wee boys and they are really talented musicians. That’s the core of the band. The rest of us just dive in and enjoy ourselves.
I ask Val if she can account for the boom in crime writers and writing in Scotland. Tartan Noir being a well-worn tagline in newspapers and reviews.
Of course it’s not just crime fiction, we have a great literary landscape across the board. Crime fiction in Scotland is in fact it took a long time to get started. Really it was only when William McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw in the 70s that crime fiction could be set in Scotland and that crime fiction could be set outside the met police and little villages in the English countryside. Once McIlvanney had opened the door a crack that writers such as myself and Ian Rankin saw the possibility of opening that door a bit wider.
Val is chatting and performing with The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers at Paisley Book Festival on 29th Feb. For more information about the festival go to www.paisleybookfest.com
Photo credits – Val top – KT Bruce, Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – Alan Veste