Leigh Russell is the author of numerous critically acclaimed novels, among them Cut Short (2009), which was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award for Best First Novel, and Road Closed (2010), which was listed as a Top Read on Eurocrime. With Dead End (2011) Leigh’s detective Geraldine Steel was Number 1 on amazon kindle’s bestseller chart for female sleuths, and reached the Top 50 Bestsellers List on kindle for 2011. Stop Dead will be out in print in 2013, and available as an e-book in December 2012.
Leigh met me at The Slaughterhouse were we talked about hard scenes and sexual pathology.
What is the hardest scene you have ever had to write?
At the risk of sounding glib, it’s always the one I’m writing. A scene is in my head as I’m typing this, so please forgive any slips of the finger as with the siren blazing they made their way through the busy streets… Sorry – what was the question again? Oh yes, I was just explaining that the blow would have crushed a human skull… But to answer your question seriously, I find it most difficult writing final chapters, perhaps because it signals a kind of letting go. While you are writing, the narrative is yours. You can experience the world of the book in your head, and imagine readers doing the same. Once you’ve finished, the story flies up above the parapet and you can only hope it isn’t shot to pieces. Meanwhile, as the author, if you are like me, you will probably already be lost in another world as there was a loud crack, like a window breaking, and he slumped forwards…
Tell us about Death Bed.
Readers often ask whether my books are based on personal experience. Of course I wilfully misunderstand in replying that I have never killed anyone! But perhaps the reason my writing “takes the reader into the darkest recesses of the human psyche” (Barry Forshaw reviewing my work in Crime Time) is because my writing is driven by my fascination with people. What is it leads an individual to behave in such an extreme manner? There is always an element of insanity in the act of murder, but could any one of us be driven to kill, in the ‘right’ circumstances? And what drives serial killers? In my books I explore the motivation of my killers, while following murder investigations through the eyes of my protagonist, Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. In DEATH BED, Geraldine relocates from Kent to the Met, specifically North London . Once again, the murder case develops into an urgent hunt for a serial killer.
Who are your literary influences?
As a rule, I try to read UK authors as procedures differ in the US, but I have to mention the great and brilliant Jeffery Deaver who is a fan of mine! And I admire Lee Child – who is about twice my height, as are Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham, two more favourites. I am drawn to Frances Fyfield, who writes quirky characters that I love. But there are so many great crime writers, including the brilliant Peter James who describes my next book, STOP DEAD, as “taut and compelling, stylishly written with a deeply human voice”. Outside of the crime genre, my tastes are quite eclectic, from Dickens to Ian McEwan, Austen to Kazuo Ishiguru, Edith Wharton, F Scott FitzGerald, the Brontes… all of them write so beautifully. My one all time favourite, if I had to choose, would be Shakespeare.
I’ve strayed from identifying authors who have influenced me to listing writers I love reading. I can’t really claim that my writing is influenced by Shakespeare (I wish!) although he did create the most moving crime stories ever written – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Lear… I’m off topic again, aren’t I?… You can see why I need to plan my crime novels so thoroughly!
To what extent do you think sexual pathology motivates men and women to kill and how does it differ between the genders?
This is an interesting question (as the politicians say when they don’t have an answer…) As this isn’t an area I’ve researched, I can only talk about my own experience – my experience of writing fiction, that is! In two of the five crime novels I’ve completed so far, the murderers are sexually motivated, driven by extremely warped impulses. One of these killers is male, the other female, so I’ve been quite even handed about this. For the killers in my other three books, sexual pathology isn’t overtly a factor at all. I have no idea whether this reflects the incidence of sexual pathology in real murder cases, although I have contacts who could provide that information if I ever needed it for a book.
If you were to give advice to yourself as a younger woman what would it be?
It’s surprisingly liberating being too old to be described as “a younger woman”. I wouldn’t want to turn the clock back. I’d happily settle for stopping it right now though. As for advice – what you want is out there, somewhere, but no one is going to hand it to you on a plate. If you know what you want, work for it, maybe fight for it, and above all else be lucky. It worked for me!
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Amazon reported recently that sales of e-books (excluding free downloads) exceeded sales of print books (paperback and hardback combined) by 114 to 100. Waterstones will be selling kindles in the autumn and the shift to e- reading will receive a boost at Christmas. Opinions on e-books are divided, but like them or loath them, their rise is inevitable. E-readers have many advantages over print publication. They facilitate access to books. A reader can finish a novel at ten o’clock in the evening, and be reading the next in the series five minutes later without stirring from his chair. No more travelling to a bookshop only to find they have sold out of the title you want. Thanks to this easy access, e-readers are encouraging people to read more than they did before.
So do we need print books? In a world where everything is becoming increasingly technological, and virtual, and ephemeral, a print book embodies more than a physical counterpart to an e-book. It is tactile and permanent, connecting us to our culture and our history. With the rise in popularity of e-books, physical bookstores face a growing threat. When Ottakars and Dillons folded, they were taken over by Waterstones, in 1995 and 2006. By the time Borders folded just three years later, their stores were taken over, but not by bookshops. Now our only remaining bookshop chain is no longer financially viable, but survives only with the support of a Russian billionaire. My experience is the same as most authors, with e-books selling tens of thousands more than print books. As authors we have little to gain from the survival of bookshops. But I passionately believe that we all have a lot to lose.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
As an author you must strive to remain objective throughout the writing process, recognising that a scene you personally find deeply moving might not have that effect on readers. It’s fine to be self-indulgent if you are writing only for yourself, but if you intend displaying your writing in a public arena – and expect other people to invest in your work – you have to be aware of them when writing. Crime fiction is plot driven and I have cut many phrases and passages that I loved writing, because they didn’t serve the story. The book was better for it. As an author you cannot allow your self to be self-indulgent, and must guard against falling in love with your own prose. Other people may not share your view. Graham Greene must also be commenting on how an author travels through life partly as an observer, storing up feelings to be exploited when writing. It makes authors sound rather callous and detached from their own experience. Perhaps this inspired the opening line of Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ “Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-etre hier.” (“Today mother died. Or perhaps yesterday.”) I like to think authors are not generally as dissociated from experience as Camus’ existentialist anti-hero!
What are you working on at the moment?
The fifth book in the Geraldine Steel series, STOP DEAD, will be available to download for Christmas 2012 and I’m hoping it will be on a special Christmas offer on kindle. STOP DEAD will be out in paperback in 2013. So right now I’m working on the sixth book in the series and have written nearly 50,000 words. It’s good to be ahead of schedule. It gives me space to do other things. I’m very excited that my publisher has asked me to write a second series to run alongside the Geraldine Steel books, and I’m also working on that. And I’m busy co-ordinating the CWA’s new manuscript assessment service for aspiring crime writers, preparing workshops for the Society of Authors, university visits, and I’ve been invited to run a creative writing course on a Greek island in 2013. It’s enough to be getting on with!
Do you think genre is limiting?
I don’t think the crime genre is limiting in the slightest. Quite the opposite. Crime fiction explores moral issues and human motivation, both of which offer endless variety. Characters in crime fiction range from virtuous and heroic to flawed, damaged, deranged, evil, and any other term that can be used to describe human behaviour. Many people read the genre not just for thrilling plots, but for what the stories say about human nature.
What do you see as the future of publishing?
No one knows what is going to happen with publishing, even in the immediate future, so speculation is rife. Stories are going to continue, in one form or another, but who can say whether traditionally published print books will survive when enough people have changed to e-readers. One problem with e-books is that anyone can make their own writing available, without any recourse to publishers, editors, proof readers, or any other control of quality. With fewer and fewer people buying print books we will eventually reach a tipping point where books are no longer financially viable. It may not take very long. Stories predate written books, and it looks as though they may be going to survive them. But once most people have switched to e-readers, there will be no need to actually read them. Why not listen to stories instead? E-readers could become like ipods, as we develop into a post-literate society. With the technology we have at our disposal, we don’t actually need to be literate any more. And I don’t think that will make the world a better place.
Thank you Leigh for an informative and great interview.