Polar bears are obligate carnivores. If they
don’t eat animal protein, they sicken and
die. In the same way, I feel like an obligate writer. When I’m not writing, I am
restless and uncomfortable in my skin,
bad-tempered and intolerant, insomniac
and impossible to please.
When I say “writing,” I don’t just mean
the act of putting words on a screen or scribbles in a notebook. I mean the whole process of storytelling, from the
first twinge of curiosity to the final signing-off on the page
proofs. When life distracts me from this, when my head is
too busy with other stuff to have room for these activities, I
feel like a cat in a sack.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged in acts of
imagination. I was an only child, introduced early to the
world of books by a mother who believed reading was the
key to an education that would offer me the opportunities
circumstance had denied her and my father. The opening of
doors into the contents of other people’s heads
was a revelation to me—not just because their
stories were interesting in themselves, but be-
cause I soon understood that I could trespass
in their worlds and use them as jumping-off
points for my own adventures.
And that’s where my relationship with nar-
rative began. Whenever I was stuck in a room
full of boring adults, or out with the dog on one of our
walks along the coast or through the woods, or enduring an
interminable bus ride, I’d be off on an imaginative journey
of my own. Often, it had its origin in whatever book I’d
been reading last. But it was just as likely to be rooted in
one of my regular favorites— Treasure Island or Susan Inter-
feres or The Chalet School in Exile.
I think this was also when I learned the basic skills of ed-
iting. Back in those childhood days, I often found my stories
grinding to a halt with nowhere to go, dead-ended without
possibilities. So I would back up to where the story still had
energy and interest, and see whether
I could push it in an alternative di-
rection. Those explorations of other
options taught me that no story was
set in stone, that there were always
other narrative avenues to be tested
to see if they could carry the freight
of the characters and their lives.
Those early adventures in narrative made me happy. More than simply rescuing me from boredom, they
became an end in themselves, something to look forward to that filled
my head—and my heart—when I
couldn’t be reading. That set the
template for the rest of my life.
Writing in all its various stages and
processes has occupied my interior
life ever since. And when it gets
crowded out, so does my joie de
Val McDermid is the bestselling author of 28
previous novels that have been translated into
more than 40 languages. She lives in the
north of England. Her next book, The Skeleton Road, will be published by Grove Atlantic in December.
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