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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Writers Talk About Writing - Leigh Russell

It's been a while since I've posted my series of author interviews here.

So let's put that right, with an interview with Leigh Russell, author of a bestselling series of crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. Barry Forshaw, the UK’s leading expert on crime fiction, says Leigh’s books “take the reader into the darkest recesses of the human psyche” although Leigh claims she has never killed anyone.

I've linked to the Amazon UK versions of all of Leigh's books (apart from STOP DEAD, which is out later this month), but you can find links to other versions, audiobooks, large print versions and more at  Leigh's website.

Now, on with the interview.


We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

STOP DEAD is the second of the London novels in the Geraldine Steel series. Once again the reader follows Geraldine Steel’s search for a killer who proves to be elusive as well as deadly. The only clues the police have to the killer’s identity are two samples of DNA found at the crime scenes.  The first of these matches the DNA of a woman who has been in prison for twenty years, the second is from a woman who has been dead for two years. This makes no sense, but Geraldine has to solve the mystery if she is to find the killer who has embarked on a killing spree.  STOP DEAD is available to download from 21st December, and will be out in print in 2013.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

The first three books in the series are set in Kent. CUT SHORT was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award for Best First Novel, ROAD CLOSED was chosen as a Top Read on Eurocrime, and DEAD END was voted Best Crime Novel of 2011 by readers in a poll on Crime Time. In DEATH BED my detective relocates to London. In each of the books she is struggling to track down a killer.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Initially my publisher offered me a three book deal for the Geraldine Steel series. Those three books all went on to become international bestsellers so my publisher signed me up for another three books in the series. STOP DEAD is the fifth, so I’m currently working on the sixth. I’m meeting my publisher in a few weeks’ time to discuss our next contract and I’m hoping he’ll ask for three more Geraldine Steel novels. If he doesn’t… I know where he lives (cue evil laughter)

You have taught a course on crime fiction to your students. If you had to pick just five books to put on a set text list, what would they be and why?

CUT SHORT, ROAD CLOSED, DEAD END, DEATH BED and STOP DEAD – because I would be able to share something about the process of writing the series, which they might find interesting. At the moment we are looking at Ian Rankin, Simon Beckett, and Alexander McCall Smith, which offer a wide range of settings and styles. Last year I used Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and Ian Rankin, looking at the development of crime fiction since the nineteenth century.

You've written a long-running series with your Geraldine Steel books. Do you ever feel constrained by her when you are writing, or will you be sad to someday let her go?

Before I started, I would have thought it was easier to write from the point of view of a detective than a killer.  The opposite proved to be the case when I was writing my debut, CUT SHORT. My detective has to behave in a way that readers find credible. I have a lot of fans on the police force, and try to make her as authentic as possible in her professional as well as her private life. So I did feel constrained by her when I started writing. With my killers on the other hand, I have always been able to allow my imagination free rein. As the series has gone on, I have got to know Geraldine and it will certainly be strange when the series comes to an end and I have to let her go. But there is still a way to go before then, as my plan is to write twenty books in the Geraldine Steel series.

One of your secondary characters has taken centre stage, and may well be starring in a series of his own. Can you tell us a little more about him?

Ian Peterson is a character I have liked from his first appearance in CUT SHORT. Like Geraldine, I’ve tried to make him fairly normal, the kind of bloke everyone would know or be able to relate to.  I tend to save the peculiar quirks of character for my minor characters, and my killers. As Geraldine’s supporting sergeant, Ian Peterson has become quite a popular character in his own right so I’m currently exploring the possibility of a spin off series with him as the protagonist.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better? 

It’s not for me to say whether I do this well, but I enjoy creating characters. The Times critic, Marcel Berlins, described my writing as “psychologically acute” and Peter James wrote that STOP DEAD has “a deeply human voice”. Barry Forshaw said that my books “take the reader into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.” I’m not quite sure how I get there!
There are lots of things I wish I could do better – everything in fact! Location is probably my weakest point. In DEAD END my detective moves around the country and the scenes described are as far apart as Whitstable and Scarborough.  In DEATH BED, real locations in North London are described. I worked quite hard to show those locations to my readers.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

Yes. CUT SHORT grew out of an idea that occurred to me while walking through my local park. It was a rainy day and the park was deserted.  There is a tangled copse of trees and shrubs on one side of the path, opposite a children’s playground. As I approached the trees, a man appeared around a bend in the path, walking towards me.  I wondered what I would do if I walked on and saw a body in the bushes.  Afterwards I would be able to identify the man who had been there in the park, the man who had killed a woman and left her body in the bushes. I walked on, and of course there was no body in the bushes, but the idea stayed with me and when I got home I began to write the story down.  That turned into the first draft for CUT SHORT which went on to be shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award for Best First Novel.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

Sales of e-books have overtaken sales of print books in the UK this year. It took 4 years for that to happen in the US. Here in the UK it has taken just 2 years.  Even Waterstones, our largest remaining bookshop chain, is aggressively marketing kindles instead of championing print books.  Not that there’s anything wrong with e-readers. On the contrary, they seem to be encouraging people to read more. There’s a place for both e-books and print books, and as long as people are reading, the medium doesn’t really matter. My only concern is that if too few people buy print books, they will stop being financially viable. Books, bookshops, libraries and publishers will disappear.  There is no question the publishing world is changing very fast, and it’s difficult to predict where it will be a year from now.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

There are too many to list! To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Remains of the Day, 1984… the list is endless.

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader? 

It’s character for me every time. If I don’t care about the characters in a book although I may still enjoy the story, it won’t really grip me.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Write for its own sake. Being published is very exciting and gratifying, but the real buzz is writing. If you write just because you want to be offered a publishing deal, you are likely to be disappointed.

If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

‘Write what you know’ always strikes me as very limiting. It hardly makes sense, unless the phrase was dreamed up by someone who writes non-fiction. What’s wrong with imagining events and settings? Isn’t that the definition of fiction? I don’t suppose JK Rowling has personal experience of riding on a broomstick, any more than I have experienced what it feels like to kill someone.

Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?

To begin with I kept fairly quiet about my writing but as the series has become so successful, it has become impossible to conceal, even though I write under a pseudonym. The reaction has been very supportive and positive, and there still seems to be a lot of kudos attached to being a traditionally published author.

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

I try to make my books believable as I think that makes them more frightening. This involves a lot of research, if the stories are going to seem authentic.  With this in mind, I consult a host of people including police officers, fire officers, and medical and forensic experts. I’ve spent time with a murder investigation team and a team of firemen, and taken advice from many police officers, a professor of forensic medicine, the human remains department at the National History Museum… the list goes on…. At the same time my plots and characters are all fictitious and I have fun making stuff up.

People who are shortlisted for a CWA Dagger are just the nicest people, aren't they?

I’m not going to argue with that! Thank you very much for interviewing me here.

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