Dot Marshall-Gent in conversation with
Leigh Russell is well-known to readers of Mystery People and was first interviewed for the December 2012 issue of this e-Zine to celebrate the publication of her fifth Geraldine Steel novel. She has since published eleven more novels featuring Steel, two additional crime series, two stand-alone psychological thrillers and a work of dystopian fiction.
She has won numerous awards for her writing and has sold over a million books.
Leigh also critiques for the Crime Writers Association, chairs the CWA Debut Dagger Award judging panel, and works as a Consultant Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund. Leigh attends many conferences over the course of each year and was Guest of Honour at this year’s MysteryFest in Portsmouth.
Her latest novel, Deep Cover, was published by
No Exit Press on 24th August 2021.
Dot: Hi Leigh and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People again. I’ve lots of questions to ask, but can I start by asking you to tell us a little about your latest book, Deep Cover.
Leigh: Deep Cover follows two interwoven plot strands as Geraldine Steel and her partner Ian Peterson pursue two different investigations, giving me scope to explore two very different stories. This came about partly because I am always looking for ways to make each book in the series different, but also, perhaps, because it was written during lockdown, and I was unable to visit York and write as extensively as usual about Geraldine’s location. Not being able to discover suitable places to dump a body is quite a problem for a crime writer!
Dot: I can imagine! I was particularly struck by the way you told the story through the very different points of view, belonging to Thomas Hill, Geraldine Steel, and Ian Peterson. Could you say something about why you wanted to offer these three perspectives?
Leigh: In my crime novels, I am always interested in the personality of the killer. In each of my books, the murderer’s character and motivation is unique, and Deep Cover is no exception. It is interesting to explore the
psyche of my killers, as well as to inhabit the mind of my detective. A killer has to intrigue me enough for me to build a whole story around him or her, and this was certainly true with the killer in Deep Cover.
Dot: Deep Cover is an interesting title and, of course, Ian Peterson is literally working undercover but would you say that the title also reflects the way the other two main characters, Geraldine, and Thomas, perceive, and perhaps deceive, themselves in the novel?
Leigh: For me, deciding on a title is one of the most difficult aspects of writing a crime novel. There are so many brilliant crime writers, all thinking up dramatic and evocative titles for their books. I do like to invent a title that has not been used before, but that is becoming increasingly challenging, if not impossible. And of course, when you do think of an original title, it is never long before someone else comes up with the same one. I love it when my titles are open to interpretation and am very pleased that you asked this question. In some ways, we all perceive and deceive ourselves in different ways, so Deep Cover could be taken literally or figuratively. That is one of the exciting aspects of fiction, that we are all free to interpret books - and their titles - in our own way.
Dot: And - a more pragmatic question - how do you manage to make the transition from one character’s point of view to another whilst you are portraying them in a single novel?
Leigh: That’s an interesting question. I do write from different points of view, mainly from Geraldine’s narrative voice, but also from the point of view of killers, witnesses, and victims. In Deep Cover there are probably more voices than usual, as Geraldine and Ian each have their own section of the plot. As for shifting from one point of view to another, I think as a writer you have to empathise with your characters in order to create them in a way that is credible for the reader. To quote Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, you have to ‘climb inside his skin and walk around in it.’ If you are able to do that with one character, then you can do it with other characters. The ability to make that leap of imagination is probably a prerequisite for writing fiction. Without it, I’m not sure how a writer would successfully create fictional characters.
Dot: Sixteen books in the Geraldine Steel Thriller series have been published with number seventeen in the pipeline. How do you keep such a long running series so fresh and where do your new ideas come from?
Leigh: Keeping a long running series fresh is a challenge. What differentiates my books from each other is the character and motivation of the killer in each story. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the killer changes from book to book. So, the murder investigation is very different in each book, as are all the characters, other than my detective and her team. As for where my ideas come from, I have absolutely no idea. I just speculate about the reasons why someone might be driven to kill, and once I have an idea, the story spins out from that starting point. It helps that I always have a publisher’s deadline to meet, so I can’t procrastinate for too long!
Dot: The last time you were interviewed for Mystery People you were still working as a teacher although you had already had great success with your first five books. At the time you said you were an obsessive and compulsive writer but that you weren’t disciplined. Has that changed over the past nine years and if so, how?
Leigh: My life has changed completely in that I gave up teaching some years ago to write full time. My ompulsion to write has not yet waned. William McIlvanney described writing as ‘an inexplicable compulsion’ and I agree with him that you cannot analyse the compulsion too deeply. As he said, ‘you don’t want to theorise it to death.’ So, I don’t ask myself how or why I write my books, I just write them and, so far, that seems to work. I remain as undisciplined as ever, writing whenever I can. I try to write every day, but life places many other demands on my time.
Dot: And, of course, you do still teach in the sense that you lead creative writing courses, and you have an online course running during October. How do these fit into such a busy writing schedule and what do you enjoy most about them?
Leigh: I thought it might be fun to run a creative writing course, so I popped a post up on Facebook, expecting about half a dozen people to express interest in a 6-week course. Since then, 85 people have booked places and I’m currently taking bookings for my 6th course which will start in February. I’ve had to learn how to host meetings on Zoom, which has been a learning experience for a technophobe like me. I am hopeless with
technology, but I do know how to write and am really enjoying sharing my tips and techniques with other writers. So far attendees have ranged from very successfully published authors to complete novices, but we are all writers. So, if anyone is interested in reserving a place, please get in touch with me!
Dot: I’ve just begun reading your 2021 dystopian work, Rachel’s Story. You describe it as a “significant departure from my usual crime and thriller genre…” Yet, I find that all your novels – even when a police procedural drives the plot – explore social, economic and relationship issues. Do you ever find yourself constrained by the crime fiction, or any other, genre, or is there freedom within a particular genre’s parameters?
Leigh: Yes, I find there is a lot of freedom when writing fiction. Paradoxically, in some ways having parameters may even leave a writer free to explore issues in greater depth. The crime genre allows us to consider how we behave as individuals and as a society, when we face problems. I offer no answers, but do raise such issues in my books, because it is important that the questions are asked. How do we deal with issues like gun crime, homelessness, domestic abuse, cyber bullying, mental illness, drug abuse, and so on? So, while my books are
murder investigations, they do touch on other issues that we all face both personally and as a society.
Dot: Several of your books are available as audio recordings and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Lucy Price-Lewis’s interpretation of the Geraldine Steel novels. Did you enjoy hearing your work performed and were you involved in the process.?
Leigh: I never read my books or listen to them once they are published. My interest lies in the creative process of writing, so once a book is published my work on it is done and I’m thinking about the next story. I’m not very involved in the production of my audiobooks and prefer to leave to professional readers. Of course, I am happy to answer any questions the narrators have, while they are working on producing the audio book, but writing the book is what interests me.
Dot: Following on from the last question, your website is a real treat and I love the readings you’ve posted. Do you enjoy the opportunity to perform, and do you think the ability to read your work dramatically drives the dialogue in your stories?
Leigh: I do quite enjoy reading aloud, probably because I used to love reading to my children when they were younger. We occasionally still read aloud to each other, and I now have a granddaughter to introduce to Peter
Rabbit - which is actually a very skilfully constructed story. With a lifetime’s love of words and language, reading, writing, and reading aloud are all a source of joy for me. Language is a powerful and beautiful gift.
Dot: I’m sure Mystery People readers will totally agree. When you aren’t writing, reading, or teaching you are meeting readers, attending conferences, and critiquing the work of other writers. When do you find time to relax and what refreshes you ready for the next challenge?
Leigh: Reading fiction and writing fiction are my main forms of relaxation. Other than that, my favourite pastimes are sitting with my husband in our garden on a sunny day, and spending time with my family.
Dot: Finally, can you say just a little about what we can expect when Geraldine Steel’s seventeenth thriller, Guilt Edged, appears early next year?
Leigh: I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that in Guilt Edged, Geraldine is searching for a killer! In this book, Geraldine struggles to cope with the possibility that she has released a suspect who kills again. So, you might ask whether the Guilt in the title is the killer’s alone. But if you want to find out how Geraldine copes with her situation, you will have to read Guilt Edged, which is published in January and already available to pre-order.
Dot: I am already looking forward to reading it, Leigh. As always, your enthusiasm for writing and language is inspirational as well as infectious. Thank you again for talking with me today.
Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties. She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues. Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.