Val McDermid’s innovative new work to honour writing duo

Val McDermid. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
Val McDermid. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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The author Val McDermid hopes to turn on “thousands” of new readers to the works of Dame Muriel Spark courtesy of an innovative multimedia project which shines a light on Scotland’s literary past.

A new short story by the veteran crime writer being staged as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations features Spark, who was born in 1918, as a central character.

The work, New Year’s Resurrection, focuses on the life and work of Susan Ferrier, a 19th century novelist from Edinburgh who was widely read in her day but has long been relegated to a footnote in Scottish literary history.

McDermid’s specially commissioned story, the plot of which is a closely guarded secret, sees Ferrier approach Spark in an attempt to rebuff those critics who ignored women writers.

The work, equal parts literary endeavour, art installation, and interactive walking tour, will be unveiled in Edinburgh this evening as part of a collaborative project called Message from the Skies.

The initiative, co-commissioned by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, will see elements of McDermid’s story projected on buildings and landmarks across the city. People will also be able to download a smartphone app to help them navigate the city and follow the story.

The Wire in the Blood author said she hopes to encourage a new generation of readers to discover the work of Ferrier and Spark for themselves.

McDermid explained: “The most remarkable thing about Susan Ferrier is that she has all but disappeared from our consciousness.

“In her lifetime, her novels were wildly popular, earning her significantly more substantial publisher’s advances than Jane Austen. And yet now almost nobody knows her name. Susan Ferrier deserves better than this.”

McDermid said her short story sees Ferrier attempt to “recruit” Spark to help “confound” those who heaped scorn on female novelists.

While Spark remains one of Scotland’s most internationally respected writers, McDermid said she deserves to be more widely read in the 21st century.

She added: “Muriel Spark is a writer who’s not so much under-appreciated as under-read. Readers who discover her are captivated by her unique style and the way she constantly wrong-foots us.

“Her distinctive take on the art of fiction has influenced writers as diverse as Ali Smith and Ian Rankin. I hope the celebrations of her centenary bring her thousands of new fans.”

Message from the Skies is due to be launched at 5pm, with the first chapter being unveiled in Parliament Square. As well as McDermid, the project has been created by Philip Howard, a director with theatre company Pearlfisher, Edinburgh-based architectural projection mapping specialists Double Take Projections, and three of Scotland’s finest composers and sound designers: Michael John McCarthy, Pippa Murphy and RJ McConnell.

Others who have helped to bring the story to life include graffiti artist Elph and actors Sandy McDade and Phyllis Logan, who play Ferrier and Spark respectively.

Organisers of the project drew inspiration from the 19th century tradition of publishing novels chapter by chapter.