YOU would be looking at the comedian Sarah Millican for some time before thinking she was perfect to interview the bestselling crime writer Lee Child. Well, you might be, but Val McDermid wasn’t.

The acclaimed crime writer is a fixture at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, a friendly affair at which writers and readers mingle, often in the bar of the Old Swan Hotel, where the festival is held.

Val has programmed this year’s festival. So, Val, how did everyone greet your Sarah Millican moment?

“They sat there with their mouths open for a minute,” says Val, 57.

“Then they all got on board and thought it was a great idea.”

Val believes the festival cannot stay the same. This explains her more surprising decisions, including hiring a comedian to interview the writer of the Jack Reacher novels.

“What people don’t know about Sarah Millican is that before she was a comedian, she worked on audio books and that’s how I met her because she did one of mine,” says Val.

“Lee Child is fantastically popular at the festival, he’s very charming and tall and urbane, but if you’ve seen Sarah’s programme on the television, she’s very good at getting these charming men on the back foot.”

Another attention-grabbing choice is an encounter between the literary writer Jeanette Winterson and Ruth Rendell, who, alongside PD James, is the queen of British crime fiction.

“Ruth and Jeanette are great friends, and when Jeanette started writing, Ruth leant Jeanette a cottage in her grounds to write in,” says Val. “They’ve been friends for years and I thought it would be good to have Ruth interviewed by someone who really knew her.”

Val McDermid is a former journalist turned prolific crime writer. She lives in Northumberland, but spends about two days a week in Manchester, where she used to work on the Sunday People.

At the time of the interview, she was proofing her 27th novel, Cross And Burn, the latest Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novel, to be published later this year.

Val is a book a year woman and very much a plot woman. She expounded on this in a recent Twitter exchange with another writer, Andrew Taylor: “Good prose never dribbles out, it has to be dragged kicking and screaming on to the page. Plot is peasy.”

“Story always comes first,” says Val. “I always like to start with a strong idea.”

To other writers, she advises that stories take time. “One thing you need as a writer is patience: the patience to let something percolate through: a story can be a long time in the process. It can take years for the story. I have had stories that have taken 20 years.”

Val’s favourite event at the festival remains the New Blood panel, when she interviews new crime writers, a panel she cherishes and has long nurtured.

“Yes, that’s my baby,” says Val. “It’s always very interesting to see the new perspectives these writers bring to the genre. It’s also very popular because the audience that comes to Harrogate likes to find new authors.”

The York-born writer Kate Atkinson, a literary figure who switched to crime for her Jackson Brodie novels, will be interviewed during the festival by the broadcaster Mark Lawson.

Val is a big fan, especially of the new, non-crime novel, Life After Life. “I think the new Kate Atkinson is the best novel I have read all year.”

She was less keen on the TV adaptation of Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. What she describes as “a long book stuffed with great characters” was turned into a 90-minute drama by the BBC. “I frankly think that if you hadn’t read the book you wouldn’t have understood it at all”.

Val is, however, full of praise for the adaptations of her Tony Hill, adapted for ITV as Wire In The Blood. “I think Coastal Productions did a very good job,” she says.

Next up for Val is a modern re-telling of the Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, at the invitation of a publisher.

“It’s the one that’s least read of her books and the only Austen book I would have considered. Northanger Abbey is a satire on the gothic novel, but the problem is that nowadays people don’t know anything about the gothic novel,” says Val.

“So I have to find a 21st century parallel with another literary form to satirise.”

With all those books to her name, does Val think she has changed the genre? “That’s not for me to say,” she says. “The genre has changed very much in the time that I have been writing, but that’s for other people to judge.”

Looking for something surprising about you, Val, I read that you are very good at knitting.

“I’m not very good at it, but I am good,” says Val. “I find it relaxing. I first started when I had given up smoking.”

So when one of our most noted crime writers finishes knitting gruesome plots, she knits wool instead.

• The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival runs from July 18 to July 21. For tickets phone 01423 562303 or for information email

• Julian Cole’s third York-based crime novel, The Baedeker Murders, is available at Amazon for Kindle for £2.07; the early two were published in the US by Minotaur Books and in the UK by Quick Brown Fox Publications.

Festival highlights

Thursday, July 18
Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and Festival Opening Party: 8pm, tickets £16.
Mark Lawson hosts the opening ceremony and the winner of crime fiction’s most hotly contended prize.

Friday, July 19
Ruth Rendell interviewed by Jeanette Winterson: 9am, tickets £13
Literary writer Jeanette Winterson opens the festival in conversation with Baroness Rendell of Babergh.

Touching Evil: 3.30pm, tickets £10
In a world where unspeakable crimes are committed, does crime fiction anatomise or glorify crime? Michael Ridpath chairs with Belinda Bauer, writing duo Nicci French, Alex Marwood and Stav Sherez.

Susan Hill: 8.30pm | Tickets £13
A prolific writer with a talent for storytelling, Susan Hill has celebrated over half a century as a published novelist. Hill’s venture into crime fiction, with the Simon Serailler series, has established her as an international success. Previously, she was best known for the Woman in Black. Hill will be interviewed by reviewer and author NJ Cooper.

Saturday, July 20
William McIlvanney in Conversation with Ian Rankin. 9am, tickets £13
William McIlvanney is the Godfather of Tartan Noir. He blazed a trail that dozens have followed with the Jack Laidlaw trilogy. He appears in conversation with fellow tartan titan Ian Rankin.

Val McDermid In Conversation with Sue Black: 10.30am, tickets £13
Val McDermid appears in conversation with Professor Sue Black, the director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University and one of the leading forensic anthropologists working in the UK.

New Blood: Noon, tickets £10
The return of the panel dedicated to showcasing debut authors. Val McDermid presents four of the brightest new talents on the scene: Derek B. Miller (Norwegian by Night), Anya Lipska (Where The Devil Can’t Go), Malcolm Mackay (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter) and Colette McBeth (Precious Thing).

Vera: 2pm, tickets £11
As crabby as Columbo, the unglamorous, down-to-earth Vera Stanhope has attracted fans worldwide. Writer Ann Cleeves discusses her creation with Brenda Blethyn, who plays her on television.

Lee Child interviewed by Sarah Millican: 5pm, Tickets £13
Comedienne and writer Sarah Millican interviews thriller master Lee Child.

Kate Atkinson 8.30pm, tickets £13
York-born Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Book of the Year for her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum and has been an international bestseller ever since. Her Jackson Brodie novels, starring Jason Isaacs as Brodie, were brought to the big screen for BBC1’s Case Histories. Mark Lawson interviews her.

Sunday, July 21
Charlaine Harris, 11.30am, tickets £13
Meet the writer wbehind the TV hit True Blood. Journalist and broadcaster Paul Blezard sinks his teeth into the New York Times bestseller.

• Box office: 01423 562303