About The Author
Val McDermid grew up in Kirkcaldy on the East Coast of Scotland and spent a lot of her childhood with her grandparents in the mining village of East Wemyss. She read English at St. Hilda's College, University of Oxford -- at 17, one of the youngest undergraduates they'd ever taken on, and the first from a Scottish state school.
Thinking that she would never make a living as a writer - her first choice - she became a journalist, spending two years training in Devon, and winning a clutch of awards, including Trainee Journalist of the Year. For 14 years she worked on national newspapers in Glasgow and Manchester, ending up as Northern Bureau Chief of a national Sunday tabloid.
While in Devon she started work on her first novel, which a friend encouraged her to turn into a play. It found its way onto stage at the Plymouth Theatre Company when Val was only 23, and she later adapted it for BBC radio as Like A Happy Ending.
She wrote her first crime novel, Report for Murder in 1984, and it was published by The Women's Press in 1987. She went on to write more than 25 bestselling crime novels including The Wire in the Blood and A Place of Execution, which were adapted for tv series. She has also written non-fiction, short stories and a children's book, frequently reviews for various national newspapers and is a regular broadcaster for the BBC. Among her many awards are the CWR Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year, the Portico Prize for Fiction and the Cartier Diamond Dagger.
In this exclusive Q&A, Val talks about Northanger Abbey, the second title in publisher HarperCollins' Austen Project, which pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen's six complete works. Taking these cherished stories as their base, each author has written their own unique take on one of Jane Austen's novels. You can read more about Joanna Trollope's reworking of Sense and Sensibility here. Alexander McCall Smith's Emma follows in autumn 2014.
Below, Val talks about her first reaction on being invited to bring Northanger Abbey into the present day, why the action was transposed to Edinburgh and the challenges of finding a cadence and rhythm that sat comfortably alongside the style of Austen's work without being a pastiche of it. You can also read an extract from the book here.
Author image © Charlie Hopkinson
Questions & Answers
What was your first reaction to the idea of The Austen Project?
I'll admit, I was a little uncertain about the concept. Jane Austen is a towering figure in the literary landscape; how could anyone aspire to improve on her achievement? But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that reworking her novels in a contemporary setting might encourage people who hadn't experienced the originals to give them a try. It was still a pretty daunting prospect, though!
Northanger Abbey is the least well known of all of Jane Austen's novels. Was their some enjoyment on your part in breathing life into a slightly maligned classic?
I felt that I had perhaps a little more scope than the other authors involved in the Austen Project because a lot of readers will be coming to my version without too many preconceptions. The other delight of Northanger Abbey is that it's probably got more scope for fun and games than the other five novels, so again, that offered enticing possibilities.
Bath really was a uniquely concentrated social experience in the 1800s, what made you think of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a comparison?
Clearly Bath wasn't going to work as a setting for the novel in the 21st century. I needed to find somewhere people go for a particular purpose for long enough to encompass the action of the book, and Edinburgh in August was the perfect match. It's not just the Fringe - there's the main International Festival, the Book Festival and the TV festival all filling the city with movers and shakers and consumers of culture. People go to Edinburgh to see and be seen, and the social life is as important as the performances. The ideal backdrop for the book.
How did you tackle creating that naïveté that is so essential in our modern protagonist Cat Morland?
That was one of the toughest challenges. In a world where teenagers spend so much time on social media and consuming YouTube, it was hard to imagine a background for Cat that would provide that essential innocence and unworldliness. So I set her down in a small Dorset village, the daughter of a vicar, and kept her close by having her home-schooled.
Did you feel you had to change your writing style for this novel, as a crime author?
I had to find a different voice for this novel, not so much because it wasn't a crime novel, because my novels encompass a wide range of tone and style within the genre anyway, but because I had to reflect the prose of the original. I didn't want to write a pastiche of Austen or attempt ventriloquism but I knew I had to find a cadence and rhythm that sat comfortably alongside the style of Austen's work. And I had to get that straight in my head before I started. I reworked the first few pages many times before I felt I'd got it right.
John Thorpe is a completely excruciating character but utterly compelling and hilarious, I feel like you might have had some fun writing him?
To be honest, I had a lot of fun with most of the subsidiary characters. Austen is such a shrewd reader of character, the building blocks were all in place. All I had to do was find a contemporary equivalent for their concerns. John Thorpe is obsessed with impressing Catherine with his carriage; it was only a short leap of the imagination to think, 'Ah. Top Gear.' Then I was home and dry . . .
Friendship is so fraught in teenager's lives, and in Isabella you have created a young woman who is as charming as she is devoid of a moral compass - why are these friendships so potent, and so persuasive?
I think for most young women their female friendships are at the centre of their lives. It's the place where they confide, the space where they explore the idea of emotional intimacy, the arena where they can tentatively work out their relationships with the opposite - or, indeed, the same sex. And because it's a bit like being in love, we can be blind to the flaws of our friends because they meet other needs in us.
The Abbey is a massive symbol of wealth, and its owner, the mercurial General Tilney is a figure of the establishment, is that part of its allure for Cat?
Cat has grown up in an environment where money was tight but unimportant, yet there's undoubtedly a glamour to being invited to the Abbey and she is overawed by her surroundings and her host. But I think it's more important to her because it fits with all her fiction-fuelled fantasies. She's more interested in telling herself stories than in being impressed by reality.
At the end of Austen's Northanger Abbey the narrator cannot make up her mind whether she is recommending 'parental tyranny', or rewarding 'filial disobedience' - what is your lesson to the readers?
My lesson is the same as Jane Austen's - that fiction is not always a helpful guide when it comes to how to live!