(Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted by Michael Lipkin, a Chicago freelance writer and editor, who spent 13 years as the literature editor for a major publishing company. Lipkin now writes Noir Journal and in December looked back at David Goodis’ Street of the Lost for The Rap Sheet’s “forgotten books” series.)
Author Leigh Russell (shown at right) earned a Masters degree in English and American Literature after studying at the University of Kent, in the historic south England coastal town of Canterbury. She now lives with her husband and their two daughters near London. Russell has worked for most of her adult life as a high-school English teacher, has taught adult evening classes, and has trained to support children and adults with learning difficulties.
But in her mid-50s, she began writing a story that very quickly developed into her tense debut thriller, 2009’s Cut Short (No Exit Press). That novel went on to be shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Dagger Award (though it ultimately didn’t win), and became a bestseller in Britain. The book was listed as a top read for 2009 by Eurocrime and was well-received as well by U.S. critics; Jeffery Deaver called it “a stylish, top-of-the-line crime tale,” while The New York Journal of Books described it as “gritty and totally addictive.” Russell followed up Cut Short with Road Closed (2010), and now has a third--Dead End--being prepared for release by No Exit Press in May 2011.
The lead figure in these works is a female homicide cop in her 30s, Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel, a transplant to the ostensibly quiet rural town of Woolsmarsh. Although the crimes and police probes in each book are completely separate from one another, together they help to illuminate the complex history of Russell’s principal character.
I recently had the chance to ask Russell about her writing, her protagonist, and how much she loves “the mind of a twisted killer.”
Michael Lipkin: First off, congratulations on the great success of your first two mysteries, Cut Short and Road Closed. Can you tell Rap Sheet readers a little about each of those tales?
Leigh Russell: In Cut Short Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel is under pressure to track down a serial killer before he claims another victim. ... Cut Short sold out four times in its first year, so my publisher was very happy! In Road Closed Geraldine Steel’s own life story begins to unfold. Once again she is trying to find a killer whose identity remains mysterious until the end. Road Closed has sold as fast as the first in the series and has been equally well received. … I try to make my books realistic and believable, because I think that makes them more frightening, and I think it’s the combination of gripping plot and plausible characters that readers like about my books.
In Dead End, which will be published [soon], the reader learns more about Geraldine’s own story, and she is faced with another challenging--and slightly horrific--murder case, accompanied by her sergeant, Ian Peterson.
ML: How does it feel to suddenly be a bestselling author? Does it change your way of thinking or the way you write?
LR: I definitely feel more confident about my writing, after receiving so many excellent reviews for both my novels so far. Dead End is with my publisher and I’ve already finished writing the next in the series--where Geraldine has a bit of a shake up--and am thinking about my fifth Geraldine Steel novel. I can’t stop writing!
ML: I know this is every novelist’s least favorite question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Where do you get your ideas and the material for your stories?
LR: I have no problem finding ideas. I wrote in an article once that I can see dead bodies anywhere. It sounds ghoulish, but it isn’t. Writing crime thrillers is like problem solving, fitting the pieces of a jigsaw together. I start with a body and then the questions follow fast. Who is the victim and what is their story? Then I move on to the next part of the puzzle. What does the reader need to know about the killer? What motivated him or her to kill? Finally, I bring my detective conducting the investigation into the murder, and develop her story. And there you have it--the book has written itself.
ML: Does DI Geraldine Steel represent parts of your own personality and character? If not, where does that protagonist come from?
LR: I write psychological thrillers because people fascinate me endlessly. Although plot drives my narrative, it is character that interests me most. But I genuinely have no idea where my characters come from. They must be a mixture of people I’ve met or observed, but they are never based on anyone I know. They are a complete flight of imagination. I’ve no idea how my killers can be so convincing, but that’s the magic of imagination!
ML: Time really flies. It seems like Cut Short just hit the bestseller lists, and now the second Geraldine Steel novel is out and doing well. Were you able to write Road Closed in less time than your first book?
LR: I write very fast. When I wrote the first draft of Cut Short I had no idea anyone else would ever read it, let alone publish it, so I was very self-indulgent and finished the draft in six weeks, writing in my spare time. I was lucky enough to be accepted by a publisher just two weeks after I’d sent out the manuscript. The manuscript then went through a fairly extensive editing process. The edit for Road Closed was a much lighter touch, so the process was a lot faster. Last year I wrote Dead End and [its sequel], and hope to have the synopsis for the next one finished soon, so that I have something to write. I can’t get through a day without writing. As Eugène_Ionesco said, “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”
ML: In a review I wrote of Cut Short, I referred to it as a police procedural with noirish elements. Does Road Closed strike a similar balance?
LR: I hope so. My agent has told me I should “unleash my dark side,” and crime fiction in general seems to be moving closer to horror, with authors vying with one another to become ever more brutal and shocking. We are all moving away from anything that can be described as “cozy,” but gratuitous violence doesn’t inspire me. Give me the mind of a twisted killer to explore, and I’m off!
ML: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Road Closed, especially as regards the development of Geraldine Steel’s character?
LR: I really enjoyed writing Road Closed. As in Cut Short, I explored my killer’s motivation, and there is something of a puzzle for the reader to try and unravel, complete with a clue. Geraldine’s story begins to unfold when she makes a shocking discovery ... but I’m not going to tell you any more! You’ll have to read Road Closed and find out for yourself!
ML: Have you been or will you be doing any book tours? And is there any chance that you’ll come to the United States?
LR: I am continuously traveling around the UK as bookstores contact my publisher, asking for visits, and I am out signing in bookstores almost every weekend. I would love to visit the U.S. to sign books, but I have limited time--and funds! I have been to the U.S. We spent our honeymoon in the Florida Keys, and visited New York in October 2001. That was a sad time, but we were pleased to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of America by flying to New York a month after the tragedy of 9/11. I would love to return on a happier mission--I really fancy a grand tour of the States! So if any U.S. publishers are reading this, please contact my agent. I’m open to offers!
ML: Who are your own favorite mystery writers, those who have influenced your own work--especially writers from England?
LR: Mystery writers I admire include many U.S. authors like Jeffery Deaver and Lee Child, but I also love many UK authors like Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Sam Millar, and Simon Beckett, and also Ruth Rendell, P.D. James ... there are so many!
ML: Related to that, who are your favorite writers in general?
LR: That’s such a difficult question. My reading tastes are very eclectic. I read all sorts. Some of my favorite authors are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, [Charles] Dickens, [William] Shakespeare ... but I can’t pick out particular books.
ML: So what classic or contemporary English mysteries would you recommend that others be sure to read?
LR: This is a hard question! The iconic [Arthur] Conan Doyle is a brilliant writer of classic mystery writers. I admire how the reader is given all the clues necessary to solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and how there is never any information kept back until the end. Contemporary mysteries could be any by Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, [or] Simon Beckett, because they are all exciting and intriguing and very readable.
ML: Because you haven’t yet forgotten what it was like to be an aspiring mystery author, let me ask what advice you’d give to other such writers.
LR: I always give the same advice to aspiring writers: work hard, be brave, and be lucky.