A All of us hope our books will succeed, but I avoid disappointment by having very low expectations. That self-defence mechanism means I’m delighted when a book is well-received rather than upset because it hasn’t done better. I was thrilled to be long-listed for the Orwell Prize and absolutely overjoyed to win the CWA Gold Dagger. I love the world of crime-writing, and the good opinion of my peers matters greatly to me. I take great pride in being the only person to have won the Non-Fiction Gold Dagger and the Last Laugh Award.
Q What motivated you to write about the victims of the Omagh bombing?
A As a journalist covering Northern Ireland, I was all too aware of the suffering caused by violence. I knew Omagh well, and in August 1998, the day the bomb went off, a close friend rang to tell me his wife and two small children had been shopping there and had escaped by seconds being wiped out. Although they were lucky, I know something of how painful were the after-effects and it made me take this particular outrage more personally than usual. While some of the perpetrators of the bombing were known to the authorities, there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges.
In 2000, through a mutual friend, the crime-writer Simon Shaw, I was asked by the father of a murdered twelve-year-old to help with launching a civil case against the alleged bombers. I came to know the victims who were taking the case and to learn about the sheer horror of the bombing and the terrible effects of grief. And I thought it vital that ordinary people should be helped to fight back against their persecutors. We were told it was mission impossible, but we went ahead.
A I’m an historian by training and my first books were historical biographies. I’ve always thought it was first and foremost the job of an historian to tell the truth even if it’s unpalatable. I take the same view of journalism, which I took up in the early 1990s because I thought that - in an effort to seduce paramilitaries towards peace negotiations - most of the media were going easy on the brutality, criminality and corruption of the IRA its Sinn Fein mouthpiece and their loyalist counterparts. There’s enough censorship about without journalists gagging themselves because they think they’re political players. In consequence, along with the few like-minded journalists I had to get used to being abused routinely for being anti-peace. As one of us – up with the Orwellian lunacy of being abused as warmongers by mass killers – wrote: “Just because I’ve never murdered anyone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”
While I try to tell the essential truths about the worlds I describe in my fiction, I hugely enjoy exaggerating, embroidering and just making things up. Often, when I’m writing non-fiction and trying to get everything right, I think longingly of how much I’ll relish letting my imagination rip in the next novel.
Q Given that you claim to be ‘squeamish and prone to nightmares’ can you tell us what attracted you to write about crime?
My background is mixed: my paternal Irish Catholic militantly republican grandmother (who had a photograph of Hitler at the bottom of her bed and claimed the Holocaust was British propaganda) was married to an English Methodist-turned-Quaker, and my Irish Catholic apolitical maternal grandmother was married to an Irish Catholic Home Ruler and British Army quartermaster. My father was urban and an academic historian: my mother rural, and passionate about literature, language and poetry. For two decades my major intellectual passion was Northern Ireland and the need to understand, expose and defeat terrorism from any quarter. I was brought up as a (sceptical) Catholic nationalist, but as many of my own tribe decided I was a turncoat, almost all my closest friends in Northern Ireland are Protestant and unionist. I made friends with the devoutly religious Orange Order for a time, even thought they knew I was an atheist. I’m best known in Irish nationalist circles for a biography of Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion, in unionist circles for The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions and in English circles for my books on the press and for the novels making fun of the British Establishment. I once had choice on a summer’s day of attending a merry shindig in Dublin, a Buckingham Palace Garden Party or observing a violent stand-off over a disputed Orange parade at Drumcree. Cursing, I chose Drumcree. These, days, Islamic terrorism is a preoccupation and I find myself in punch-ups with anti-semites and Islamist apologists.
Q Your wonderfully eccentric characters are great fun to read. Are they ever based on people you know?
Q While your crime fiction is hugely entertaining, it satirises the establishment. Is your intention purely to entertain, or do you have a more serious purpose in writing?
Q Do you plan your plots in detail?
A Absolutely not. I know where I’m setting a novel, I think about it and research it, but when it comes to the plot, I’m doing well if I know who’s going to be the first corpse.
Q Do you have a writing routine?
A No. I write a lot of journalism (at the moment I have an article for the Irish Sunday Independent and three Daily Telegraph blogs to do every week) and I do a fair bit of speaking and a lot of socialising as well as participating in social media, so there’s no chance of routine. But when I begin a book I try to cut down on other commitments. Before the days of non-stop communication, I could write a book in a few weeks. Nowadays I’m fighting to find time and they take months.
Q Can you tell us what you are currently writing?
A As soon as Killing the Emperors has been published, I’ll begin to concentrate on the next novel, which is about human rights lawyers. I have lots of views about them, but I need more long conversations with friendly lawyers and to do more reading before I plunge in. My publishers want a book a year, so I don’t think non-fiction will be getting much of a look-in for the foreseeable future. But who knows?
The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders’ (1984)
The English School of Murder (1990)
Clubbed to Death (1992)
Matricide at St Martha’s (1994)
Ten Lords A-Leaping (1995)
Murder in a Cathedral (1996)
Publish and be Murdered (1998)
The Anglo-Irish Murders (2000)
Carnage on the Committee (2004)
Murdering Americans (2007)
Killing the Emperors (2012)
An Atlas of Irish History (1973,1985,2005)
Patrick Pearse: the triump of failure. (1977, 2006)
James Connolly (1981)
Harold Macmillan: a life in pictures (1983)
Victor Gollanz: a biography (1987)
The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist, 1843-1993 (1993)The Best of Bagehot (1993)
True Brits: inside the Foreign Office (1994)
The Faithful Tribe: an intimate portrait of the loyal institutions (1999)
Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street (2003)
Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice. (2009)
Leigh Russell studied at the University of Kent where she took a Masters degree in English and American literature. A secondary school teacher, specializing in supporting pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties as well as teaching English, Leigh Russell is married with two daughters and lives in Middlesex. She is the author of four books Cut Short, Road Closed, Dead End, and Death Bed, published May 2012.