Queen of crime fiction Val McDermid joins the Borders Book Festival online audience this Sunday (August 23), as she talks about her latest book, Still Life, featuring DCI Karen Pirie in her sixth adventure.

The book, McDermid told the Border Telegraph, is set in February this year, which meant having to work the coronavirus lockdown into the plot.

"I started writing Still Life in January and finished writing it slightly later than normal, at the beginning of May," she said.

"I've been planning the book for about three years but from about this time last year I was like, this is going to be [set in] February 2020, because it needed to be set in winter.

"And then events overtook me."

But the award-winning author was not thrown off course by the unfolding of COVID-19, and worked carefully to incorporate real-life events into the story.

She said: "I just thought, I have to be really careful how I do this and not have some sort of heavy handed 'little did they know...' sort of stuff.

"I had to try and drop a couple of discreet hints at it without labouring the point, so it's present but it's not in your face."

In 2017, McDermid wrote a series of dramas called Resistance, for Radio 4, about a pandemic resistant to antibiotics.

This was turned into a graphic novel at the beginning of 2020, which was due for publication this summer but put on hold by the author.

McDermid said: "We made a conscious choice not to publish it just now because it feels exploitative, so we've postponed that until next spring, in the hope that by then there'll be a clearer picture, and it won't feel quite like we've jumped on a passing bandwagon.

"It's difficult to [write about lockdown] without being exploitative."

McDermid was so wary of avoiding the "lockdown literature" bandwagon that she had decided not to set her next book in the current day, she said.

"I actually can't write my next novel against the contemporary times.

"My books are all set in the here and now – the sense of time and place is very important in them – and because everything is changing almost on a daily basis at the moment, I decided that, for the next book anyway, I'm going to go back in time.

"So the next one's going to be set in 1979."

For her turn at the Borders Book Festival, McDermid will not be appearing in the usual recorded Zoom call but in conversation with fellow author Zoe Strachan in her own home – "Socially distanced, obviously" she pointed out – in a format she believed was important to make the event "a special occasion".

The crime writer explained: "I think the trick is to try and make each event a special occasion, somehow or other, because it very quickly can become just a talking head, saying the same things.

"[Talking via Zoom] is exhausting, because there's nothing coming back at you from the audience.

“Normally, in an event, it's a dynamic relationship between the authors and the audience; the audience responds to what you say, they laugh in the right places, they gasp in the right places.

"But when you're just talking into nothing, it's really hard work to keep your energy and focus up. It's something we've all been discovering."

Zoom chats are not the only thing worrying McDermid as society emerges from lockdown.

She is also hugely concerned for the fate of the arts and all live events.

"I worry substantially about what the future for the arts is," she said.

"It's OK for people like me, for writers; we just basically sit in a cupboard anyway and people are still reading, thankfully – reading more than ever. They want to escape into their own imagination.

"But, frankly, I think it's very worrying for any of the performing arts.

"It's not just a luxury. The arts generate a huge amount of money for the economy, millions of pounds, and the idea that will suddenly stop is just horrifying."

Famously, McDermid and fellow authors Doug Johnstone, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste are members of the rock band Fun Lovin' Crime Writers, regularly gigging at book and music festivals.

McDermid said: "I can't imagine having a Fun Lovin' Crime Writers gig – how can you have a mosh pit, with people dancing, in today's climate?

"How can you have theatrical events?

And the lack of festival buzz in the capital city – "there's no posters everywhere, there's no people handing out leaflets for their fringe shows, there's no tents in Charlotte Square..." – has had another side effect.

McDermid said: "It's not just that you're not getting to see things and be part of things.

"It's not just that August is when I meet all my pals who are all in Edinburgh performing and they're always here for the book festival.

"It's actually a lack of stimulation because one of the things I find every year going to events – book festivals and theatre events – is that it actually sets things running in my own head, it sets my imagination running, it becomes part of the stimulus that allows me to write. And so all that is missing."

Fortunately, McDermid has a catalogue of protagonists to keep her company and provide plots for upcoming books.

"When I sit down to start a new novel I'm kind of revisiting that character," she said, "and there's a sort of excitement picking up with them again – 'What have you been up to? What's happened with you? How did you process what happened in your last book?'

"But I do know they're not real. I do know I've just made them up."

To see Val McDermid in conversation with Zoe Strachan, go to bordersbookfestival.org/online-event/val-mcdermid-still-life

The Borders Book Festival is sponsored by Baillie Gifford.