Cambridge Literary Festival interview: Val McDermid tells how her novel reveals the sexism of 1970s journalism
If you wanted to get on in a tabloid newsroom back in the late ’70s, you needed sharp elbows, recalls queen of crime fiction Val McDermid of her first job.
But the elbows weren’t just necessary to force your way into the news conference and to grab the best stories. They were also a defence against sex pests.
“The routine groping by the photocopier soon stopped after you elbowed them in the nuts a couple of times, you know,” she says of her more ‘hands-on’ colleagues.
The sexism at the paper was a constant battle for a young reporter, explains Val, who has set her new novel, 1979, in the newsroom of a daily Scottish tabloid during that turbulent year.
“You had to really fight to get your hands on any of the bigger stories,” she says. “Miracle babies and people who have found love after they had been separated for 20 years, amazingly, getting back together again – these were what you were given. Basically, fluffy stories that involve children and women. I mean I did so many stories about miracle babies over the years, I could start my own orphanage.
“Sometimes you would come in with a really good story and it would be taken off you, and given to one of the guys because it was a crime story or it was a story to do with the education correspondant’s beat or something like that.
“I experienced sexism just going to work every day. I was absolutely determined not to give in to that sort of thing, so I gave as good as I got. And by and large, if you stood up to people in the office, you didn’t get directly combative responses, but certainly it was obvious from the kind of stories that you got to do that you weren’t taken seriously.”
She also came out as a lesbian at just 19, but was not hassled at work about it, because she says “they didn’t dare mention it”.
Once she had finished her degree at Oxford University, Val spent 16 years working as a journalist, first at the Daily Record in Scotland and then the Sunday People in Manchester. But after being forced to cover a series of tragic stories, she eventually became disillusioned with the job.
“I don’t feel nostalgic for those days at all,” she says.
“It was a pretty brutal working environment. And I think a lot of the kinds of jobs that we did, and the fact they were potentially brutalising us as human beings, was one of the reasons I wanted to change my life.
“In 1989, I covered first Lockerbie and then Hillsborough and after that I started to think, I’m turning into somebody I don’t want to be. I think you respond to that in one of two ways: you either take it in, emotionally, and that’s damaging in one way, or you build a wall and cut yourself off from it, and that’s damaging in another way. And so I found those stories really, really hard to do.
“I was there on both of those occasions pretty much as soon as they happened. Previously I’d covered the terrible disco fire in Dublin where 49 or 50 teenagers died in a fire in a nightclub where the exits had been chained shut. I remember flying into Dublin and just spending the day, knocking on doors, talking to people who just lost their teenage kids. And afterwards, honest to God, I think half the journalists who’ve been through these major events are probably suffering to some degree or another with PTSD. Only that wasn’t invented in my day.”
These experiences plus “the rush to the gutter of the tabloid press in the 1980s” pushed Val to give up her day job and concentrate on fiction.
She says: “When I first went to the Sunday People it had a great reputation for investigations and human interest stories and sport. But everything changed and when I found myself sitting outside the houses of soap stars at six o’clock in the morning to see who came out, I decided this was not the life for me anymore.”
I had no idea what world the book would be emerging into in August 2021
Her latest novel is her 35th and marks the start of a new series featuring reporter Allie Burns who is chasing her first big scoop.
As the title explains, it is 1979. It is the winter of discontent, and there are few women in the newsroom and she needs something explosive for the boys’ club to take her seriously.
Soon, Allie and fellow journalist Danny Sullivan are exposing the criminal underbelly of respectable Scotland and they soon make powerful enemies.
Then Allie discovers a home-grown terrorist threat and comes up with a plan to infiltrate the group and make her name, but if she puts a foot wrong at any time it could be fatal.
Why did she choose to look back at this period?
Val explains: “ I finished my previous book, Still Life, early on in the first lockdown. And I had no idea what to write next because I couldn’t set a book in the present day as I had no idea what world the book would be emerging into in August 2021.
“At that point, we didn’t have any vaccines on the horizon, people were dying in increasing numbers. It was a very scary time, so I thought I have to go backwards.
“I set it in the world of journalism because I did understand that. And also because, in journalism, you kind of have a front row seat on the events of the time.”
She plans a whole series of books, one for each decade until 2019 – “the last year of normal life”.
Each will follow Allie through her life, although Val admits she has not planned out the whole series yet. The books are intended to be a reflection of our changing times.
“I was interested in the way that so many things have changed over that period of time, technology has changed, politics, social relationships, our gender relationships have changed, and the media has changed enormously,” says Val.
“Even food has changed. It’s hard to think of anything in our lives that hasn’t changed in some way or another, since the late ’70s, and I think it’s interesting to reflect on what those changes have meant to us.”
Val will be discussing her new novel at the Cambridge Literary festival on Friday, October 1 at 7pm.
Book tickets at cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.