Val McDermid, the author of 23 crime novels, is one of the U.K.'s greatest Crime Writers. Her latest Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan novel, Fever of the Bone, is now out in the U.K. The Tony Hill/Carol Jordan Series has been adapted for TV as the Wire in the Blood Series. Her stand-alone novel, Place of Execution, will be shown in the U.S. on PBS, November 1 and November 8. Juliet Stevenson stars in the production, and just won a CWA Actress Dagger for her performance. Also starring are Lee Ingleby and Greg Wise who give hauntingly strong performances.
Place of Execution is a terrific production on so many levels, and one that will reverberate within you long after you've finished watching. Part of that is due to the excellent cast, and part of it is due to the brilliant novel by Val McDermid on which it's based. Told in two overlapping and interlocking plots, Place of Execution takes place in both the present day, as well as 1963 rural England with two different investigators exploring the disappearance of a 13 year old girl who vanished without a trace on a winter afternoon in 1963. This is not Miss Marple's English village. Place of Execution is a first rate thriller about the choices we make in our lives, the events that shape us and the hold of obsession over us. Don't miss it.
I caught up with Val to ask her a few questions about the production of Place of Execution.
Janet Rudolph: Your books have been adapted for TV before, is the adaptation of Place of Execution different from the previous adaptations?
Val McDermid: The main difference came from the split time frame in the original book. It meant that we had to have two actors for several of the key roles. And of course we had to get the period details spot-on because enough people have accurate memories of the 1960s to get on our case if we got it wrong!
JR: How do you feel about the adaptation of Place of Execution? (casting, etc?)
VM: Because I’d worked with the production company, Coastal Productions, on Wire in the Blood, I knew from the get-go that I was in safe hands. They’ve always shown respect for my work and the executive producer, Sandra Jobling, has such high production values that I wasn’t at all anxious going into the process. I felt even more reassured when she signed Patrick Harbinson to do the screenplay. Patrick is a British writer but he’s based in Hollywood and has written, directed and produced on several key US TV shows so he’s well-versed in how screen narrative works. Patrick adapted The Mermaids Singing for WITB and he’d written other episodes and he’s always served my work well.
Coastal always involve me in the process, so I was privy to casting discussions. But I was thrilled when we got our dream cast of Juliet Stevenson and Greg Wise. Lee Ingleby was more of an unknown quantity to me, but his performance as the young George Bennett is mesmerising. Juliet Stevenson just won the Best Actress Dagger for her performance, so you can see I’m not alone in loving what they did with the book! It is, I think, a terrific piece of work.
JR: Did you have any input into the screenplay?
VM: I saw every draft and my comments were always welcomed by the script editor. Some of them were acted on, some were not. That’s how it goes and you just have to be relaxed about it.
JR: Were you on set?
VM: I was there on the first day of filming and also at a couple of the period locations. I like to show my face and give the cast and crew my seal of approval. (I like to imagine they care...) But the glamour of filming wears thin very quickly.
JR: Anything strike you as particularly terrific, different or odd in the film adaptation?
VM: I think Patrick’s decision to make Catherine Heathcote a documentary film-maker rather than a journalist was inspired. It made everything about the storytelling visual, which is what good TV needs. And he found an extra twist in the story which I think intensified it for TV in a way that works better in that medium. It would have been too much in the book, but I think it works here.
JR: If you could change anything about the production, what would you change?
VM: It’s honestly impossible for me to think of anything. Well, maybe slightly warmer weather for the outdoor filming! The first day, we had to drive through a blizzard to get to the set.
JR: Any new plans in the works for a film or TV film production of any of your other books?
VM: There has been a French TV adaptation of The Distant Echo which I haven’t seen yet. And there are other things in development but not at a point where I can talk about them.
JR: Have you seen an increase in sales since your books have been filmed for TV?
VM: Definitely. It’s been a very symbiotic relationship – because of my existing success in foreign markets, Coastal have sold their adaptations in countries they wouldn’t normally expect. And then when the TV show appears, my sales rise.
JR: Do you see a difference between The Wire in the Blood series and this latest TV adaptation of Place of Execution?
VM: In terms of tone and style, yes. But not in terms of quality.
JR: Were you involved in Wire in the Blood and in what ways?
VM: Much the same – I was involved in pre-production conversations about directors, actors and writers. And I saw script at every draft. I have very intense discussions with the executive producer Sandra Jobling and Robson Green, the actor who plays Tony Hill. We talk about story and character and how they are going to develop certain things. There’s a good crossover too – one of Carol’s team, Paula, started out on the screen and is now a returning character in the books. The actress is very pleased about that!
And a few more questions to Val McDermid about her writing.
JR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
VM: Ever since it dawned on me that the books in the library didn’t just appear by magic and that telling stories was a proper job that was what I wanted to do.
JR: What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?
VM: I try to make every book better – or at least different – from the ones that have gone before. Sometimes I wish I could be a little easier on myself. But where would be the fun in that?
JR: What has been your biggest challenge as a person?
VM: Overcoming my natural propensity towards procrastination.
JR: How has your Scottish background shaped or influenced you as a writer?
VM: Hugely. I grew up in the Kingdom of Fife, an area that has always had a very distinct identity. Politically radical, socially conservative. The first ever Communist MP was elected from a Fife constituency. I grew up in a working class mining community in a household where it was recognised that the way to a better life was through education. So I was always encouraged to make the most of my talents but also given the absolute bedrock knowledge that I was as good as anyone else. My father was passionate about the poetry of Robert Burns and he embraced his egalitarianism and passed it on to me.
The Scots are a nation driven by contradictions -- the strict Presbyterian tradition versus the wild Gaelic heritage, meritocracy versus knowing your place, love of the homeland versus the need to go out and change the world. And we have a black sense of humour. All of this is a big part of the reason why I am the way I am.
JR: So you've finally written a football story. I know you've wanted to do this for a long time. Are you a big "football' fan?
VM: Yes. My love of the beautiful game is in my blood. My father would probably have been a professional footballer had he not fallen victim to TB as a young man, and he went on to be a successful talent scout for our local club, Raith Rovers. A few years ago, I was brought on board a rescue mission to save the club, orchestrated by Gordon Brown, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer and President of the Supporters’ Club. Now I’m a major sponsor – this season, we inaugurated the McDermid Stand at the club, in honour of my father’s achievements. And of course, as a nice bit of advertising for my books! My publisher, Little, Brown, also sponsors pitchside advertising boards. I like to get to games when I can and thanks to my iPhone, I can always keep up with match results wherever I am. We’re having a great season this year – we’ve been promoted to the Scottish 1st Division and we’re holding our own.
JR: Which do you prefer to write: stand-alones or series books? Can you say something about the strengths and weaknesses of both, from the writer's perspective?
VM: I enjoy both equally, though I would enjoy the series books less if I didn’t have the diversion of the standalones.
Each form has its own challenges. With a series novel, you carry the baggage of the past. Your core characters limit your storytelling possibilities by the nature of their capabilities and limitations and you have to find a way for them to deal with what you last did to them then move them forward emotionally and/or professionally.
With a standalone, your narrative imagination runs free as far as the story is concerned, because you can tailor credible characters to fit. Of course, once you start to deal with the characters, the same rules of capabilities and limitations start to weigh in and both forms grow closer the further into the process you get.
JR: What's your working day like? How do you manage to juggle family life with the pressures imposed on the bestselling author?
VM: My working day depends on how close I am to deadline. When the finishing line grows close I start around nine in the morning and often don’t finish till one or two in the morning. I only stop to eat and sleep and watch some box-set TV such as The West Wing or Homicide: Life on the Streets. In that phase, I will generally write something between 5,000 and 7,500 words a day. The most I ever wrote in a day was 11,500 words. I had to stop because my hands hurt.
Mostly it’s much less intense. I tailor my work commitments around my family as far as possible. I share custody of my son with my ex and I try very hard not to miss out on the time I have with him. It’s important to keep connected to the people you love, to stay grounded in the real world rather than the one you invent and control!
JR: Which of your books is your favorite and why?
VM: The Mermaids Singing. It was so different from anything I’d ever written before. Its success gave me a fundamental confidence that whatever story was clamouring in my head, I’d find a way to tell it.
JR: Do women write about violence in a different way than men?
VM: I believe so. It’s hard to generalise but I think it works something like this. When women write about violence against women, it will almost inevitably be more terrifying because women grow up knowing that to be female is to be at risk of attack. We write about violence from the inside, from the perspective of the victim. Men, on the other hand, do not grow up with the notion of themselves as potential victims so when they write about it, it’s from the outside.
JR: Has success changed Val McDermid?
VM: In some ways, inevitably. But not, I hope, in any of the ways that matter. I still buy things from the ‘reduced for a quick sale’ section in the supermarket...
JR: Is there a question I didn't ask that you wish I had. Just the question, not necessarily the answer.
VM: ‘Why in heaven’s name did you think that all-terrain quadbiking in the Scottish Highlands was an appropriate holiday pursuit for a fat 54-year-old???’ She said, nursing the bruised ribs and butt and skinned knees...
To read more interviews with Val McDermid, go HERE. To read Ian Rankin's At Home Online interview with Val McDermid, go to the Mystery Readers Journal website.
Place of Execution is available to watch online from November 2 through December 8, 2009.
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