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  • Writer's pictureSTEVE COOKE AATA

Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson provide affirmation, inspiration, and food for thought

Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson provide affirmation, inspiration, and food for thought in times of Covid-19

Val McDermid’s and Jeanette Winterson’s Literature Matters: Breaking Ground, recorded six months before the world had heard of Covid-19, could not be more prescient in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion. A must listen for both readers and writers during these troubled times.

In a 2015 article for The Guardian, Val McDermid, one of the UK’s most celebrated crime writers, wrote: ‘When people lose trust in politicians, they need to find it elsewhere. Maybe, because they trust writers to tell some kind of truth buried in the fictions, we’re being listened to in a way we rarely have before.’

In this event, Val is joined by Jeanette Winterson to reflect on the ways in which crime fiction has developed over the last half century, how what we read shapes the people we are, and whether we should all be listening more closely to writers.

Val McDermid has published more than 30 works and has sold over 15 million books worldwide. Her latest psychological thriller Broken Ground, which is the fifth in a series of books featuring DCI Karen Pirie, was published in 2018, the same year in which she was one of the Man Booker Prize judges.

Jeanette Winterson is a best-selling, award-winning writer, whose works of fiction and non-fiction include Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, The Gap of Time, The Stone Gods and the seminal, semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She is Professor of New Writing at the University of Manchester.

They provide affirmation, inspiration, and food for thought for all readers and writers.

They affirm the importance of writers in troubled times:

Val proposes that writers have always found a way to tell the truth, ‘we can address the difficult questions, we always address the things that trouble us. She gives us an example of a story that at the time couldn’t be told, that of Jimmy Saville, a story she explored in Wire In The Blood, illuminating how the modern shield against criminality is to be famous. ‘I explore why people do what they do. I may not understand why some people do what they do, but in their head, there is a reason’. Jeanette underlines with how you can work out what is troubling you through your stories and your characters, ‘the end of the book is not the end, it is just where you stop, you are never finished with the things that obsess you’.

They reflect on the inspiration that can be obtained from reading dead writers:

Val outlines how some writers survive because they have a way of speaking to us over the years, such as Shakespeare and Jane Austin, a transcendent quality of finding their way to the future ‘although they don’t know that at the time’. Jeanette exemplifies with, ‘Mary Shelley had grasped something that she could only tell in a story that only now 200 years later are we starting to see through Artificial Intelligence, a way of making a new life form, her vision has leapfrogged over those 200 years. Read as much from the past as you never know when a particular connection will happen. Reading books from the past enables you to be a time traveller, to find out what people did and thought.’

They also offer us food for thought about the future of storytelling:

Val raises the recent rise in audio books as more and more people take on long commutes with city living becoming more expensive. Adding, ‘As you can consume a book while you are walking a dog or doing the dishes people are returning to the long form story. Every time there is a new format people have said that this is the end of storytelling.’ Jeanette reinforces with, ‘There will always be story-telling, people will always need to sit down and hear something, I am committed to story-telling but not necessarily to the format, before there is writing, before there is reading there is storytelling, reading is such a new thing, it didn’t start until the mid-19th century, before then the book was for the few.’

In summation Val reminds us that only about 2% of published writers make a living out of writing, ‘In the first 30-50 pages I try to get the reader to care about the characters, so they continue reading’.

Jeanette concludes with, ‘if you can change the way one person thinks then you have begun a real change in the world!’

Recorded on: June 27, 2019

Recorded at: British Library Knowledge Centre

Sponsored by: Royal Literary Fund

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