Leigh Russell’s work has been described as being in the tradition of Ruth Rendell, Lynda la Plante, Frances Fyfield and Barbara Vine. Her novel Cut Short is a gripping psychological thriller that introduced to us D.I. Geraldine Steel, a woman whose past is threatening to collide with her future. Leigh talks to You’re Booked about her journey from being a teacher to an author who Jeffery Deaver praised for delivering a “seamless blending of psychological sophistication and gritty police procedure…. you’re just plain going to love DI Geraldine Steel.’
The teaching profession seems to lend itself to writing – Joanne Harris for example – and it’s a bit of a cliché that teachers are worn down and stressed out. Do you see a co-relation to choosing the crime genre and being a teacher? Is it a way to release frustrations?
The Times Educational Supplement recently ran a four page feature on my writing where they listed a ‘Book Club’ of Dan Brown, Joanne Harris, Michael Morpurgo, Saci Lloyd, JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, all former teachers. I’m not sure there’s a relationship between the crime genre and teaching, but the link between writing and teaching English is clear: a love of words and stories. There’s another connection for me, which is my interest in people. As a teacher, you are constantly observing pupils, trying to find ways to engage them which involves working out what makes them tick. This means you think about them a lot, and in some ways children are easier to observe than adults as they haven’t always learned to conceal their feelings.
Why crime? Did you grow up reading the genre?
There wasn’t a conscious decision to write crime, no Grand Plan. About four years ago an idea occurred to me, I began to write, and haven’t managed a day without writing since. It was like turning on a tap; I’ve been hooked ever since. Crime stories in particular fascinate me. I enjoy the challenge of devising an intriguing plot and creating a variety of characters, and am interested in the questions it raises. What is it that drives someone to kill another person?
For those that are new to your books, how would you describe them?
My books are categorised as “gripping psychological thrillers” and many reviews use the term “page-turner”. When my debut CUT SHORT was shortlisted for the New Blood Dagger, the CWA described it as: “Strong story-telling that draws the reader in to this disturbing debut novel that uses settings from Christie with a much darker plot line.”
There was a recent case in Yorkshire about a teacher who is going to a tribunal after she published a book online that featured scenes of kids drinking, smoking and swearing. She was sacked as the school felt it was inappropriate after she admitted lifting her real life experiences – I guess being a teacher, do you always have to have that self image in a way censoring what writing you put out to the world?
There’s been so much interest in my work in the media and online that it’s been impossible to conceal my success as an author from my pupils and it didn’t take them long to discover my pseudonym, but I keep my two areas of work separate. As I recall, the teacher you mention wrote a novel based on her students and I never base my characters or their actions on real people. Without knowing the details of the case I can’t really comment, but I believe she behaved inappropriately in writing about her students in an attempt to involve them in her book. There’s no substitute for a strong storyline and engaging characters.
What is it about the crime genre that so attracts writers and readers alike – why do you think we like to read about stuff that in reality we’d never want to encounter?
There are many reasons why the crime genre is so popular. At a basic level I think it’s about good versus evil and the appeal of seeing the bad guy caught. Crime novels build a vicarious fear in the reader culminating in the restoration of moral order. There’s also the problem solving aspect of crime novels that is very appealing.
Crime fiction can square up to issues of morality, of right and wrong, do you think that’s the teacher in you?
All crime fiction has a moral core. Without any distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters why would the reader care who won the conflict? Of course, criminals aren’t always depicted as evil. Robin Hood is the obvious example of a hero who operates on the wrong side of the law, and there are thousands more. But those stories still follow a clear moral code. I would never condone the actions of my own criminals (they are murderers, after all!) but I try to understand them because until I can see the world through their eyes I can’t create them as believable characters.
Everything that we do in life affects us to some extent and I’ve been teaching for a long time, so I find it impossible to say how far my writing is informed by my experience as a teacher.
Do you regret not coming to writing earlier or do you think you need life experience to write well?
It surprises me that I stumbled on my passion for writing so late in life, but it would be churlish to harbour regrets when I’ve been so lucky in my writing career, attracting the attention of a publisher just two months after I started writing and being offered a three book deal straight away for CUT SHORT (2009), ROAD CLOSED (2010) and DEAD END (2011). My publishers have already asked for more books in the series, so it looks as though the series will run for a while.
It sounds like a lot to juggle – would you want to write full time?
This is something I’m considering but for a relative newcomer to writing it might be premature. It’s only eighteen months since CUT SHORT was published. In any case I like to be fairly manically busy so I’m enjoying my current lifestyle, juggling teaching, book promotion, and writing.
Is there anybody you particularly admire in the crime genre or who inspired you?
There are many many crime authors I admire – Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Frances Fyfield, Simon Beckett – far too many to list here. I usually read UK authors, but am a huge fan of Jeffery Deaver who has just described me as “a brilliant talent in the thriller field”. I’m thrilled that he’s been invited to write the new James Bond novel, Carte Blanche.
Do readers write to you? If so, what’s the weirdest thing anyone has said?
Yes, lots of readers write to me, from all around the world. Fans send me photos of my books in places I’ve never visited – Japan, South Africa, Texas, Bangkok, Istanbul, India – I find it very exciting.
I suppose the weirdest thing anyone has said to me is, “Hello, I’m your dalek, can I leave my bag under your table?” after a dalek had asked me to sign a book for him.
If there was one book you wish you’d have written, which would it be?
There are so many authors I admire and so many books that I love: The Remains of The Day, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird… again too many to list here. I studied English and American literature for four years at university and have been teaching English for a long time, so I’ve read widely and my reading tastes are fairly eclectic. Sadly, since I’ve started writing, I have very little time free for reading.
Where would you want to see yourself in five years’ time?
If anyone had told me five years ago that I would be a bestselling author now, I would have been surprised – I only started writing four years ago. So I wouldn’t even try to look ahead five years. But I’m sure I’ll be writing!
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d like to thank you very much for interviewing me here with such interesting and challenging questions.
Leigh Russell writes the Geraldine Steel series:
CUT SHORT (2009) ROAD CLOSED (2010) DEAD END (2011)