A couple of days ago I connected with Leigh Russell—a UK thriller writer with two titles fresh on the shelves (CUT SHORT and ROAD CLOSED), another soon to be published (DEAD END) and a fourth and fifth title for the series in the works. The fan girl part of my personality was jumping up and down and I won’t pretend I managed to be cool when she volunteered to be interviewed here.
It’s always wonderful to find a new author—and even more wonderful if you discover them early on and they’re prolific. I hope the writer in you enjoys Leigh’s comments, that the reader in you seeks out her books, and that the Christmas shopper we’re all called to be these days is relieved with a great idea about how to make a reader on your list very happy (or, at least, held in chilling suspense for 350 pages!).
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1. CUT SHORT, your first novel, introduces D.I. Geraldine Steel as she relocates to a small village (that’s right, guys, village, not town—we’re in the UK in this book), expecting peace, quiet and safety—a sheltered place to deal with the damage of her past. Instead she’s ensnared in a brutal serial murder investigation with herself as the killer’s next intended victim.
How did this story occur to you? Did the idea come fully formed? Did it originate with a character popping into your head?
Leigh: I was walking through my local park one day. It was raining and the park was deserted. As I approached a bend in the path beside a tangled copse of trees and shrubs a man suddenly appeared on the path, walking towards me. I’ve no idea where the idea came from but I wondered what I would do if I saw a body in the bushes and so became involved in a terrible crime, as a witness. I walked on and of course there was no body in the bushes, but the idea stayed with me and when I reached home I began to write it down. Who was the dead girl? Why was she killed? Who killed her? I became so engrossed in the narrative that I completed the first draft of my debut thriller in six weeks.
2. I understand that you broke into print in a way that most authors only dream about, receiving a three book deal just months into your writing life. Can you describe your personal journey from first deciding you wanted to write through to publication for us?
Leigh: F Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’ That was certainly my experience. There was no deliberate decision to write, I simply had an idea, started writing – and haven’t been able to stop since. I’m absolutely addicted! When I finished my manuscript I decided I might as well send it to a publisher who specialises in crime fiction, although I never really expected to hear back from them. You can imagine my surprise when two weeks later they called me for a meeting and soon after that signed me up for three books. I wrote somewhere that I fell into writing like Alice down the rabbit hole.
3. And now that you’ve “arrived,” how is publishing what you envisioned it to be? How is it not?
Leigh: We hear a lot about publishers who are distant and unhelpful but that hasn’t been my experience because my publishers are lovely people to work with. What I hadn’t realised was how much time I would spend promoting my books. I enjoy getting out and about meeting people and am passionate about supporting bookshops and libraries so most weeks I devote time to signing in bookshops. Just this week I signed in three bookshops and judged a short story competition for a writers group, and that’s fairly typical. I give talks at literary festivals, visit book groups and colleges, and give interviews to newspapers, on the radio and online – like this one! It’s all great fun but more time consuming than I’d anticipated.
4. Discovering that a book you enjoy is only the first in a series is a delight for any reader, and I was particularly excited to find out you’d done more with Geraldine. She’s a bit of tough character—very enigmatic—and by the end of CUT SHORT, though the ending was fantastic, there was still a lot I wanted to know about her.
Then I found out she had a series and I was excited because you’d left so much room to continue developing her (some series’ authors tell all, show all in Book 1 and don’t leave space for natural character growth and change).
Had you intended all the way along to write a series for D.I. Geraldine Steel or was it just good luck that you set your novel up to perfectly lead into one?
Leigh: Most authors plot the arc of their main character before they write the first book in a series, planning out the character’s journey throughout. I had no idea my initial manuscript would become a series so didn’t plan ahead in that way. As it turns out it was lucky I didn’t reveal too much about Geraldine in Cut Short. In Road Closed she sets out on a personal journey that is developed in Dead End in a plotline that will continue through quite a few books. I also have another idea for her, picking up on a character who is only mentioned briefly in Cut Short. Now I have a clear idea where Geraldine’s heading in her life, I have the end of the 20th book in the series in my mind and I know exactly how she is going to end up – although I might change my mind and come up with something entirely different.
5. What do you enjoy about writing a series? What are the challenges?
Leigh: I am enjoying developing my main character more and more as I get to know her better, but what I appreciate most about writing a series is that whenever I finish writing one book, the next one is waiting to be written. It means I haven’t had time to worry too much about how my books will be received, as I am constantly moving on the next story. One challenge is whether to write specifically for my growing fan base who are getting to know Geraldine, or for readers who are picking up one of my books for the first time. Another challenge for me is setting. In Cut Short and Road Closed I was rather vague about location, as I’m not very good with places. In Dead End I begin to tackle this, setting one scene in a real seaside town. In the following book Geraldine relocates to a real place.
6. Give us the blurb version of the plots for ROAD CLOSED and DEAD END. Please. 😉
ROAD CLOSED. When a man dies in a gas explosion, the police suspect arson. The Murder Investigation Team are called in to investigate. The case takes on a new and terrible twist when a local villain is viciously attacked. As the police enquiries lead from the expensive Harchester Hill estate to the local brothel, a witness dies in a hit-and-run. Was it coincidence – or cold-blooded murder? The Murder Investigation Team has problems of its own – and so does Geraldine Steel. A shocking revelation threatens her peace of mind as the investigation races towards its dramatic climax.
DEAD END. When the corpse of Abigail Kirby is discovered, police are shocked to learn that the victim’s tongue was cut out while she lay dying. Shortly after coming forward, a witness is blinded and murdered. Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel’s flirtation with the pathologist on the case helps her to cope with the distress of finding out she was adopted at birth. Abigail Kirby’s teenage daughter runs away from home to meet a girl who befriended her online. Too late, she realises she has made a dreadful mistake – a mistake that may cost her life. Detective Sergeant Ian Peterson uncovers a shocking secret about the serial killer who has been mutilating his murder victims. Does the sergeant’s discovery come too late to save Geraldine Steel from a similar dreadful fate?
7. To date, all your books (published and in the works) are thrillers of a dark variety. Did you set out to write creepy stuff or did it find you? Do you write in other genres as well, or do you hope to?
Leigh: You’ve probably realised by now that my stories found me, as I never set out to write a series of crime thrillers. I had an idea and ran with it and here I am. As for other genres, I might want to expand my range one day, but I have no time to explore other genres at the moment. If anyone had told me two years ago that I’d have written two bestsellers by now, I would have laughed, so I try not to predict what might happen next. The future is mysterious, doubtless peppered with surprises, and I’m just hoping for the best.
8. My kids are pretty blasé about “Mom” being a writer. Not that I don’t share details about my day or projects occasionally, but for them, it’s a lot like anecdotes about dishes or gardening—occasionally interesting, but not at all focus worthy.
You have two young daughters. What is their take on your career? How does (or does) writing about and investigating the topics that you explore in your books colour or affect your parenting?
Leigh: My daughters are not that young! I only started writing when they had both grown up and left home. They are members of my small and select group of readers and their comments are always very helpful. They love reading proof copies of my books, although they aren’t always happy with my behaviour. Last summer I was doing some research in London where Geraldine Steel will be relocating in my fourth book. I discovered a great location for a scene in the book and told my daughter excitedly, ‘I’ve found a perfect place to dump a dead body!’ She had quite a startled look on her face as she told me to ‘shhh’, while looking nervously over her shoulder.
9. What’s your favourite part of being a writer for a living? What do you like least about it?
Leigh: I love everything about writing.
10. What book(s) are you reading right now and what’s on your to read-list?
Leigh: Since I started writing I have very little time to read and when I do have any free time I tend to be writing. Authors I enjoy reading are Jeffery Deaver (who is a fan of my own books), Mark Billingham, Ian Rankin, Val Mcdiarmid, Sam Millar (another fan of my work)… the list is too long to include them all. I also admire many authors outside of crime fiction, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as less contemporary authors like Dickens, Edith Wharton, Hardy, Steinbeck, Harper Lee – again, the list is a long one.
11. What would constitute a perfect day for Leigh Russell?
Leigh: I would get up late, write all morning, write all afternoon, and then spend the evening with my family. After that I would stay up half the night writing when everyone else was asleep.
12. Last but not least, do you have any word of advice, wisdom, or encouragement for aspiring novelists?
Leigh: I always give the same three pieces of advice to aspiring authors: Work hard, be brave, and be lucky.
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I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty darn inspiring. It’s fantastic to hear an author who’s doing it for a living still be so excited about the whole process. I love that she loves writing—and her books sound great, right?
If you’d like to read more about Leigh Russell in her own words, visit her online at No Exit Press or on her blog at
http://leighrussell.blogspot.com . You can buy her books (the first two anyway—DEAD END comes out early in 2011) in all major book stores. For your convenience, I hyperlinked the book covers to Amazon.ca for you. And if you’re interested in the kind of work Geraldine Steel does, check out this link: How to become forensic scientist
Happy reading and writing this month, all!