Welcome to Words and Music with me, Katherine (aka Bibliomaniacuk) and Leigh Russell, author of 16 crime novels which have sold over 1 million copies, winner of several prestigious awards and currently appearing at Crime Fest 2017 in Bristol!
Leigh, it’s really lovely to meet with you again and chat about your favourite words and music, particularly as we are actually at Crime Fest itself celebrating the world of crime fiction! Are you excited to be here?
It’s always fun coming to CrimeFest, I’ve got to know so many fellow authors and readers from coming along here over the years. It’s always a great event. I chair the Crime Writers Association Debut Daggers Award – the longlist for which is being announced tonight- and that award is celebrating new authors coming through. So Crime Fest is a celebration of established authors as well as celebrating and encouraging new authors too.
I’ve really enjoyed the fact that the event is so informal that you find yourself sat in the audience listening to a panel and then realise that there are other ‘real live authors’ sat a few seats away from you. I’ve also been struck how approachable and friendly everyone is.
Yes, it’s a different world from when I was growing up! When I was a child, I was always an avid reader but authors were people that lived somewhere far away in mysterious towers so I never met an author or see them speaking anywhere. There weren’t the same amount of creative writing courses available that there are today either so I never had the opportunity to meet an author. It’s really lovely to be able to mingle with readers and other authors.
I’ve just come from listening to the panel you were sitting on which was about the appeal of serial killers. I’d like to come back to some of the things you talked about there but firstly, we are also here to talk about your new book, the latest Geraldine Steel Mystery called Deadly Alibi – out on the 25th May with No Exit Press. What is Deadly Alibi about?
I always find this question a bit difficult to answer because I’ve already handed in the book which follows Deadly Alibi and I’m writing the one that comes after that, so it’s a bit tricky to sometimes remember where I had got to as I’m two books ahead! Anyway, what can I tell you without giving any spoilers away?! The story is that a man’s wife is killed, he is the obvious suspect but he has an alibi. Then the alibi disappears and everything spirals all out of control from there. I don’t want to tell you anymore without giving anything away!
Well, I’ve read it and it is fantastic but I’m not going to give anything away either! So on to your three choices of music. Could you tell us about the first piece you have chosen today?
Yes, I’ve chosen three pieces from my youth and three pieces which have been very formative. It’ll be no surprise to you that words are very important to me in music and I can only remember the tune if the words are attached. For me it’s the words which resonate.
It’ll come as no surprise that my first choice is Bob Dylan. For me, he is able to capture the real angst and anger of being a youngster. I want to choose the song The Times They Are A-Changin’. I think this song will be relevant to any teenager which ever era they are growing up in and I just love the lines:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticise
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command.
I remember hearing that as a teenager and just thinking, yeah, you don’t understand me! Now, as a mother and a grandmother, I do wonder what sort of world my granddaughter is going to be growing up in. It is going to be such a different world from the one I grew up in and things are changing so fast.
I’m writing a new series with a female protagonist Lucy Hall and Lucy is a young woman in her twenties. I thought this would be easy as I can just about remember what it was like to be in my early twenties but actually the world is completely different -it’s completely changed, there were no mobile phones, no internet and I think Bob Dylan really captures that here.
Can I just ask you a bit more about the challenges you are finding about writing female characters as it seems as if there is quite a shift in the type of female protagonists we are coming across in police procedurals at the moment. What challenges have you come across to ensure your protagonist is convincing as a young female in today’s world?
That is an interesting question. It is hard to keep up with the changes in police procedure which you can’t do via the Internet and things are changing rapidly in this current climate. I think the main difference is that the institutional sexism has gone. The sexist barrier that was there against women has gone and many of the top jobs in the Police Force are now held by women.
The real challenges for me are to keep thinking about what it is like to work in that world. In Cut Short, my first Geraldine Steel book, Geraldine goes on a blind date and the guy is talking about his day then he says to her, ‘How was your day?’ Geraldine has just come from the mortuary after having seen a girl who was brutality murdered – how do you handle that situation? What do you say?
Similarly Geraldine’s sister is horrified by what Geraldine has to deal with in her job but Geraldine has to remain emotionally detached or she wouldn’t be able to do her job. But does that make her monstrous? So I think my main challenge is always about having to write convincingly about the things that face Geraldine.
Do you think that there is more pressure to fight against that need for emotional detachment as a woman or as a female character?
When I first started writing, my detective was male but I got to the point when I wasn’t sure where his character was going and I decided to change him to a woman. I developed Ian Peterson, who works alongside Geraldine, into a spin off series and my husband got very excited as he thought it would mean we could start going to lots of football matches but then I realised that’s a cliché. I’m not going to write stereotypes – yes, he’s a guy but a person first and foremost and that means he can be anything. I don’t think men find it any easier to emotionally detach themselves. Ian Peterson has an issue because he is squeamish and finds the mortuary and murder scenes difficult whereas Geraldine is more clinical and dispassionate in that situation. There are differences between the male and female characters but they are not gender bound, just different personalities.
Could you tell us a bit about your second choice of music please?
Yes, again it’s from my youth. It’s the Beach Boys and a song by Brian Wilson. In contrast to Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys write songs about the fun and joy of being young. My two song choices reflect the two sides to being a teenager – you have the angst of it all but it also a time for a lot of fun.
I’ve chosen ‘God Only Knows’ because of its powerful expression. It’s such simple language. What could I be without you? Such a big question but such a simple statement. It’s like Shakespeare, when he’s asking the biggest questions, the deepest questions – what is it all about? – he uses the simplest verb ‘be’. ‘To be or not to be?’
My experience of music is very much influenced by the words that accompany it.
Both choices of music so far are from your teenage years. It’s obviously a time that’s very vivid to you. Has it ever crossed your mind to set some of your books in the past – maybe not hundreds of years ago, but maybe 20 or 30 years ago?
Music is evocative but whether I can really remember enough about that time to recreate a novel or write convincingly about it is something else!
One the one hand it would be good as I could avoid a lot of problems about the Internet and mobile phones, but I would have to do so much research! I’m not a historian and I don’t really have time for that sort of level of research at the moment. If you are going to write an historical novel then you really have to know a lot about that period – not just the events or the language but how they thought. You need to be so immersed in it and although on the one hand, the way we think or react hasn’t changed that much, our cultural ways of thinking are very different. I think it requires lot of research so no, not at the moment but maybe in the future…!
Could you tell us about your third choice of music please?
Again this ties in with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet as I’d like to choose West Side Story. The music is just wonderful and it really says something about the magic of stories. Whenever I see a brilliant production of Romeo or Juliet, or hear music from West Side Story I am always moved to tears. It’s ironic, as I know how the story ends even before it starts, but it still moves me and shocks me and I think that is the magical.
I do listen to music that is not songs and I love Mozart but here I’ve chosen music with words as I think that is what really resonates for me.
Do you have certain songs you listen to when writing or do songs distract you as you’re trying to write your own words?
I can’t write with music on! I can write with the radio or TV on and I can write with conversations going on around me because I can almost zone out but I can’t zone out of music – it must tap into a different part of the brain or something! Sometimes I need silence, but sometimes that can be a distraction too!
Thanks so much for your choices of music. Do you have three choices of ‘words’ – or books! – that you would also like to share with us as examples of books that have had an impact or influence on your writing?
Yes, I do! I would choose ‘The Complete works of Shakespeare‘, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee’ and ‘The Remains of the Day‘ by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Finally, we’re at Crime Fest spending our weekend visiting other panels and hearing about lots of new books. You mentioned before that you were looking forward to seeing Bill Beverly talking about his new book Dodgers and announcing the CWA Debut Dagger Longlist later on and you are also promoting your new title Deadly Alibi, but what comes after this? What’s next for Leigh Russell?
I have finished the next Geraldine Steel book after Deadly Alibi and I’m just working on the edits now. I’m a quarter of the way through the one after that which is due out next year. I like to be a little bit ahead of schedule as I’m always thinking about the worst case scenario! I was once ill for three months and couldn’t write but I still met my deadlines! Maybe that’s why I am a crime writer, because I am always thinking about the worst thing that could happen!
Thank you so much Leigh, it has been lovely to talk to you. Thanks so much for sharing all your choices of music with us and for those who want to get hold of Deadly Alibi, it is published in paperback on 25th May 2017 by No Exit Press.