Five True Things and a Novel into the Bargain -- Ruth Leigh
Hello! We haven’t met, so I thought I’d kick things off by telling you five facts about me. Like an ice breaker. As if we were all together at a party. Remember those?
I hate fresh tomatoes with a passion. I once found myself at a dinner party faced with a vast slice of the said fruit prettily sprinkled with fresh herbs. Rejecting it was out of the question, so I cut it into four and washed each chunk down, unchewed, with gulps of white wine.
Bill Bailey called my baby cute (he was, too).
I can recite all the books of the New Testament in order. Just sayin’.
My fifteen times great grandfather was the Bishop of Gloucester, burned at the stake by Mary Tudor.
I once won a Walnut Whip eating competition (it was a grudge match back in my carefree twenties).
Now we’re acquainted, let’s go!
I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly thirteen years, an obsessive and voracious reader all my life and a novelist since I wrote my first work of fiction last year in lock down. That book, the diary of Isabella M Smugge, came from a jokey blog I wrote for More Than Writers last April. Isabella was a two-dimensional character written for laughs, pretentious, successful, living in a vast Georgian mansion, widely published and listening to the laughter of her happy children playing the lute. The next month, I wrote a serious piece about why there are so many “look at me, my life is perfect” posts on social media and what unmet needs and desires might lie behind them. I chucked in Isabella again because I liked her name and she seemed to fit.
The day that blog was published, I received a message out of the blue from a literary agent asking me to write two sample chapters and a story arc. Speechless with joy, I did so, and the result is “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, available in all good bookshops (and let’s be honest, is there any other kind?) on 19th February.
I’m a ludicrously fast reader, to the extent that people sometimes look sideways at me and mutter “That is WEIRD”. I suffer from a rare disorder, NEBP (Not Enough Books Paranoia) which means I must take at least two books with me wherever I go. The family holiday to Brittany in October half term sees me packing at least thirty-five, just in case and on a train journey, I will generally read a novel in two sittings. Depending on the length of the journey.
The upshot of all this is that I have a giant header tank at the back of my brain, full of plot and character and narrative drive and so on, which has been quietly sloshing around for about fifty years (I learned to read aged four). When lock down hit, three quarters of my freelance work dried up and I found myself with time on my hands. So, writing a novel seemed like a splendid idea.
Isabella went from being a jokey one-off to a fully rounded human being. As I typed, I discovered that she was married to a devilishly handsome hedge fund manager (of course), had a loyal Latvian au pair, a grumpy Polish cleaner, a horrible mother, an estranged sister and a venal, chain smoking agent on her fourth husband, who was rumoured to sleep in a banana leaf coffin. I couldn’t tell you where all this came from. It simply poured out. Which was good.
I knew the kind of book I wanted to read in lock down, so I suppose that’s what I wrote. Funny, lots of jokes, many at Isabella’s expense, but a growing sense of empathy with her as she revealed her painful childhood and deeply buried sadness. I’ve read enough novels to know that every character and every scene has to drive the narrative forward, and that a mix of humour and pathos is generally a winner.
I wasn’t sure what people would make of it or if they would even like my heroine. She’s snobbish, pretentious and has little empathy at the beginning of the novel. However, comments and reviews began coming in with the phrase “page turner” peppering most of them.
One of the most difficult questions to answer on the proposal form to the publishers was “Who do you think your novel will appeal to?” My answer “Gosh, I don’t know, everyone in the world, hopefully” wasn’t going to cut it. However, to my delight, I found that my youngest readers of eleven and twelve were not only enjoying it but writing book reports on it at school. I gave a copy to my elderly parents (ninety and ninety-five) and tried to explain what hashtags were. I didn’t hold out much hope that they would understand it, let alone enjoy it.
To my amazement, when I popped round to drop off their food and medication, I found them bright-eyed and excitable, both clutching a copy of Isabella and ready to critique her. “She does spend a lot of time on that Instagrathingumny, doesn’t she,” observed my mother, who wouldn’t know a meme if it bit her on the ankle. My father asked for more, saying that the cliff hanger at the end of the book had left him wanting to know what happened next.
With that in mind, I’m writing The Trials of Isabella M Smugge which will answer some of the questions from book one and develop many of the characters. Will Lavinia Harcourt, Fleet Street’s most embittered journalist, lay off Isabella? What about Horsey Davina and Toby? Will Mimi stay married to husband number four? And what about the next in the best-selling “Issy Smugge Says” series of self-help manuals penned by our heroine?
Writing fiction is completely new to me, but I love it. All those years of reading, starting with Enid Blyton and graduating to Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did and A Little Princess before galloping through the classics in my teens and reading everything I could lay my hands on after that, has really paid off.
I’ve read plenty of excellent advice to aspiring writers over the years, but without a doubt, the one which resonates most with me is this from Stephen King. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot.”
What he said.
Images by Pixabay and Unsplash
Ruth Leigh is a novelist and freelance writer. She lives in Suffolk with one husband, three children, a kitten, eight chickens and six quail.