Together with Ruth Leigh - An interview to inspire by Tracy Williamson
novel: The Trials of Isabella M Smugge which follows on from ‘The Diary of Isabella M Smugge. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wanted to ask Ruth about what went into her writing such a sequel. I found her answers really inspiring, making me want to try writing a novel myself (my lifelong dream!). I hope you’ll find the interview inspiring too.
Ruth you’ve just published your 2nd Isabella M Smugge novel! Well done, that is a wonderful achievement. I was so excited to receive my copy and got stuck into it straight away and loved it! How does it feel to hold book 2 in your hands and know that thousands of eager readers will be devouring it?
They really do want to read it Ruth! As someone who is an avid reader and always wonders ‘what happens next’ when a book comes to an end, can I ask if you always knew as you wrote ‘The Diary of’ that there would be a book 2 (and maybe even books 3 and 4 . . .?)
Yes, you finished ‘The Diary’ on one of the greatest cliff hangers I’ve ever read. I even asked you if I could be missing some pages! But no, it was the correct ending. So did you plan that especially so that you would have a thread in a new book that would make readers eager to find out what happens?
So you did! I’d forgotten that. Yes! I did. “Give the people what they want” and “Always leave them wanting more” are two of my mottos. I’d loved writing the first book so much that I wanted to keep going, and that ending had everyone asking when the next book was out. So I suppose it was quite a good marketing strategy.
That’s a great motto! I’ll have to remember that, Ruth.
I can get myself in a pickle sometimes by going into too much background detail when sharing a personal story. How did you deal with the need to be creating a new story and a new season in Isabella’s life while being aware that some readers may not understand what had already happened in book 1?
So did you plan the twists and turns of the story beforehand? If so how much before and did you find you were able to stick to your plan or did it change and take off in unexpected directions as Isabella’s character and choices evolved?
That’s really interesting and wonderful how all the details of our lives can become part of a story. One thing I love is the way Isabella grows in her self-understanding and goes deeper in her awareness of her own foibles and motivations. Would you say that has come out of your own personal experiences?
I found it really challenging to see how Isabella deals with huge issues like shame, fear, hurt, loss and the need to take life changing sacrificial steps. Is this a motivation and vision for you in writing these stories? That we will all become more self-aware and enabled to see life differently?
Who is your favourite character to write and explore in The Trials and who do you find most difficult? Why?Tough question, Tracy! I’ve probably got more than one favourite character. I really loved writing the horrible ones! Mummy, Mimi and Lavinia are loads of fun, I think because I’ve spent most of my freelance career interviewing truly good, kind, compassionate people and to be able to create characters who are nasty was a lot of fun. As to exploring, I enjoyed finding out a bit more about Davina and Toby in book two. Isabella is quite dismissive of them in the first book but to write them as real characters and to see her start to change her mind was challenging, but very rewarding. I did find them quite difficult to write. Davina struggles with a string of miscarriages and just wants a child of her own in book one, and as the creator of this world, it was lovely to be able to give her her heart’s desire. I don’t really know a couple like them, but once I had the language right (“I feel like such a chump”, “a smashing wife” etc) they began to come into focus.
Do you have any tips for those who would love to write a sequel to a first story?
Yes! Make sure you give yourself plenty of scope. Agatha Christie always said she regretted creating Hercule Poirot as an elderly man. Readers had to really commit to a willing suspension of disbelief as he carried on solving crimes well past his hundredth birthday! If you even suspect that there is more than one book in you on the same topic, create a sizeable family. Isabella has got three sisters-in-law and four brothers-in-law, plus her sister and family so that’s enough to keep me going for a bit. Drop in hints about characters, even if they’re dead. If you look back to book one, you’ll find a deeply embedded future plot line about Bishop Smugge. No one has noticed it thus far but I know it’s there. Don’t close doors on yourself. Even if your character is struggling with or doesn’t speak to another character, leave yourself wriggle room for the future. A reconciliation (Suze and Issy). A full-on face-to-face confrontation and possibly fist fight (Issy and Lavinia Harcourt). Create a broad canvas even if you only apply a few brushstrokes to it. Isabella has family all over the place and often alludes to events and people off the cuff. That’s not an accident. I am now thinking about relatable, believable narratives and characters for future books.
‘Relatable’ I think Isabella is speaking!
Ruth I have absolutely loved both books as you have such a gift in enabling us to see ourselves through the lives of your characters. I found The Trials both very entertaining and relaxing to read as well as being extremely thought provoking and spiritual. What was your aim in writing it and dare I ask if we can look forward to more?
Thank you Ruth, a wonderful interview and I hope The Trials of Isabella M Smugge’ finds its home in millions of hands and hearts in the coming weeks.