Daljit Nagra and Val McDermid are hardly an obvious pairing for a literary event. The former is a poet who writes about the British-Indian experience through his playful use of language, while the latter is a top Scottish crime writer and stalwart of ‘Tartan Noir’. Yet, they have an interesting point of commonality – both are fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, and signed the same page of its historic Roll Book (McDermid in 2016, Nagra in 2017). Accordingly, the Durham Book Festival has brought Nagra and McDermid together in association with BBC Radio 3, to discuss their very different careers with Shahidha Bari.
How much crossover is there between the two writers? “I read the odd crime novel, and watch quite a lot of crime on telly,” Nagra says. McDermid admits that “When I was a teenager, like so many wannabe writers, I wrote poetry, mostly quite bad – I had some published in magazines as an undergraduate, but now I mostly consume poetry”. Yet, Nagra detects poetic influences in McDermid’s latest novel, Still Life, for its “efficiency of writing”, notably the chilling opening set during a fishing trip: “their first catch of the day was a drowned man”. Nagra’s current project, a book-length poem, promises to be more structurally complex – he describes a “five-dimensional room”, used to reflect the different planes and forms of the English language in a multicultural society.
Despite their very different literary routes, Nagra and McDermid are able to discuss their similar experiences as writers from non-traditional backgrounds. “I went to one of those schools where we were supposed to go get a job in a local factory,” says Nagra. He attended Royal Holloway, University of London to study English, but still didn’t feel like he was “entitled to write – that was for different people”. His parents were actually disappointed that he went to university at all – “they wanted to set up an arranged marriage for me”.
“I grew up in a working-class background in Fife,” says McDermid. “People like us didn’t become writers, but I formed the ambition very early on, because of my extensive reading in the local library”. She recounts a book series she read as a child, featuring a character who writes books and gets a letter from her publisher containing a check. “I had a lightbulb moment – oh my goodness, this was a job! You could get paid money for it, that’s what I would be when I grew up! My family and friends laughed, but I had some teachers who supported me.” McDermid attended Oxford University to read English, and published her first novel, A Report for Murder, aged 32.
Despite authoring dozens of books, McDermid concedes that “I’m still waiting for the moment when I become a writer – there’s always that sense of imposter syndrome, you’re waiting for them to say that there’s been a terrible mistake. So much of what I do is in that sense of self-doubt.”
Nagra, who also lectures at Brunel University and was the BBC’s first poet in residence, admits his insecurities too: “when somebody asks what I do, I just say I’m a teacher at a university and I present a radio programme – once I said I was a poet and the conversation just dried up, no one knew what to say.”
Personally, I first encountered Nagra at school, when his poem ‘Singh Song’ appeared in my GCSE English poetry anthology. His first collection Look! We Have Coming to Dover! is also a set text in some A Level specifications. Despite this confirmation of his status on the national curriculum, Nagra’s literary identity feels tenuous to him: “Only when I’m writing do I feel like a writer, I feel like it’s unhealthy to have the vanity to say ‘I’m a writer’.”
Voice is a distinct point of interest for both writers. McDermid grew up speaking Scots at home, and jokes that even now she is using her “Radio 4 Scottish voice”. Nagra has built his work around a playful approach to English, influenced by the different languages and dialects with which he surrounds himself: “I can’t reproduce Punjabi in English, I’m not trying to be authentic, so I manufactured a fictional voice, which was very freeing – I could play around with syntax and words and do all that stuff, I loved it.” He enjoys creating mood and complex characters with metaphorical language, using the “different Englishes” he finds in a range of contexts and environments.
Crime fiction might not seem like a varied genre, but McDermid takes pleasure in the opportunities it lends: “All these different worlds that collide, which allows us to write about the world we live in. Today, people go to Dickens to find out what life was like in Victorian times – in the future they will go to crime fiction to learn how we live now”. Originally inspired to write by “the feminist new wave crime fiction coming in from the US” in the 1980s, McDermid dwells on different settings and attitudes in her fiction. “Whatever idea I have, I will be able to find a way to tell that story… when I sit down to write a book, there are moments when you think ‘it’s too hard’, but I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”
As interviewer, Bari steps back and offers the pair the chance to ask each other a question. Nagra wants to know how McDermid, having sustained a literary career for over three decades, keeps herself inspired: “for me it’s curiosity, things that intrigue me or capture my interest – once I start looking at things I find stories in them, it’s always the engine of what I do. Sometimes it takes years, but eventually it becomes a novel. “
As a novelist, McDermid makes it her business to know where her stories are going. Is it the same with poetry, she asks? Nagra admits that he never knows how his poems will end: “that’s what keeps me inspired. It’s usually the fourth, fifth or sixth ending that comes along which I tend to go with. It’s a summation of everything else in the poem, taken to another level or with another spin on it. It’s a really exciting thing.”
Finally, these two Royal Society Fellows are allowed to pick one of their historical predecessors they would most like to meet. Nagra, ever a poet, opts for Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “he was always anxious, nervous, jealous of Wordsworth. I’d just want to sit and hear him talk about poetry.” McDermid entertains the idea of sitting down with T. S. Eliot and asking “What did you really mean in that bit of the Four Quartets?” but finally settles on a fellow female crime writer: “In the end I’d pick Agatha Christie, who was elected [to the Royal Society] with a sense of controversy. I’d ask her what it was like to be an RSL fellow when you don’t feel entirely welcome.”
You can listen to Nagra and McDermid’s conversation here.
Image: Anna Kupstova