> Val McDermid on Darkland Tales, why the story of Queen Macbeth appealed, and her thoughts on the popularity of crime fiction. - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Val McDermid on Darkland Tales, why the story of Queen Macbeth appealed, and her thoughts on the popularity of crime fiction.

Alistair Braidwood interviews Author Val McDermid for SNACK

Polygon’s Darkland Tales have quickly become an essential series of books, offering the reader not only exhilarating writing, but fresh insights into the darker corners of Scottish history and the characters found there, all written by some of the finest authors around. To date, these include Denise Mina’s Rizzio, Jenni Fagan’s Hex, Alan Warner’s Nothing Left To Fear From Hell, and David Greig’s Columba’s Bones.

The latest sees the queen of Scottish crime, Val McDermid, taking on an infamous figure who we may think we know – but only a few are aware of the truth. Familiar to most as the model for Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Gruoch ingen Boite was a real, 11th-century Scottish queen. In novella Queen Macbeth McDermid brings her story to life as only she can, with a vivid and often vicious depiction of medieval Scotland based on Gruoch’s life and times.

SNACK asked Val McDermid to talk about her entry into Darkland Tales, why the story of Queen Macbeth appealed, and her thoughts on the popularity of crime fiction in Scotland today.

How did you approach writing about a figure who is so well known culturally, but not necessarily historically?

I decided to put Shakespeare to one side and embed my character in the place and time she lived in. I imagined what kind of woman it would take to live what we know of her real life, and took it from there.

When approached to write a ‘Darkland Tale’, why did you choose Gruoch as your subject?

I didn’t choose – Lady Macbeth was offered to me, to write about as I chose. I thought it would be an interesting and challenging project.

Was this a story you knew, or perhaps thought you knew?

I really didn’t know any of the historical details; all I knew was that the Shakespearean character we know had almost no historical basis.

Do you think you can access history through fiction in a way that non-fiction is never able?

I think you can make sense of what we know of the historical past through the imagination when so much of the factual information is lacking. It’s like having a sketch in front of you then colouring it in.

There is a thought that Scotland has been poorly served in terms of being educated about its own history. Would you agree?

I don’t recall learning much about Scottish history when I was at school; what we did learn were the ‘story’ versions, like Robert the Bruce and his spider, or Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing over the heather, or David Livingstone exploring Africa to bring Christianity to the ‘savages’. There wasn’t any of the serious stuff like the Clearances, or our role in colonial history. It was a fantasy, really.

You’re well known for researching the procedures involved in your crime novels. Is researching history a different undertaking?

Not really! It’s a case of working out what I need to know then searching out the information.

Is there a different approach to writing in novella form, as all the Darkland Tales are?

There isn’t the space for a complex narrative, so you have to find a different way to bring extra dimensions to the story, and the obvious way is to focus on a central character and have the events and the story revolve around them as it unfolds. That was my approach in Queen Macbeth. 

It seems to me that increasingly crime fiction crosses genre, be that with history, horror, romance, or even science fiction. Do you agree? And, if so, does that make it more diverse in general?

Crime fiction has a long history of reinventing itself to allow its practitioners to explore whatever narrative world they’re drawn to. One of the things I love about the genre is that it allows me to tell whatever kind of story I want in whatever setting suits me, and still feel the buzz that comes with solving a sudden violent death! And for readers – they’re always going to find something to suit their taste.

Why do you think crime fiction is so popular in Scotland?

Well, it’s popular everywhere… But I think it’s no coincidence that Scottish crime fiction came to the fore relatively recently. The breakthrough novel was William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which was published in 1977, just before the devolution referendum. It was the start of an era when we started asking ourselves about what kind of country we were and what kind of country we wanted to be, and it coincided with a point in time when the crime novel was expanding socially and geographically.

The two impetuses came together and Scottish crime fiction became the accessible form where we could examine ourselves. And have a bloody good read in the process!

Queen Macbeth is published by Polygon Books

Main Photo Credit: Charlotte Graham

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