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 because 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 narrative 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 Interferes or The Chalet School in Exile.
I think this was also when I learned the basic skills of editing. 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 direction. 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 vivre.
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.