An interview with author Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell writes the bestselling Geraldine Steel mystery series: Cut Short, Road Closed, Dead End, Death Bed. She has received many accolades, including a place on the Top 50 Bestseller list Amazon UK, Best Crime Book on Crime Time poll, Great Crime Sleuth on Lovereading and Top Read on Eurocrime. Her Geraldine Steel character is Kindle’s No. 1 Bestselling female sleuth. Leigh’s books have been shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award.

Leigh kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her books, the writing life and how she became a writer.

Do you write your books with the ending in mind, planned out, or do you just write and see where it takes you?
I work out my plots in advance. Writing a book is like going on a journey. You know where you are starting from, and where you are heading, but the route from one to the other has to be planned. I need to know when to point my reader in the right direction, and when to take them on a little detour by throwing in a red herring. It would be difficult to do that without knowing where the story was leading. That said, my narratives often veer off track while I’m writing. Sometimes I follow a stray idea, sometimes I have to rein my characters in and stick to the main plotline I have planned out.

What made you decide to write crime stories? Is this your favourite genre to read?
I never made a conscious decision to write crime stories. An idea struck me one day as I was walking in my local park, and when I reached home I began to write out the story that was in my head. On the strength of that manuscript I was offered a three book deal. The idea went on to be published as Cut Short, which was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award for Best First Novel, and the first in an internationally bestselling crime series.

How difficult (or otherwise) did you find it to get inside the minds of your killers and write from their perspectives?
Barry Forshaw writing in Crime Time says that my books take the reader “into the darkest recesses of the human psyche”. It’s a fantastic compliment, but I’ve no idea how I get there. All my writing is driven by curiosity over what drives one person to kill another human being. Each of my books explores a different killer’s motivation. The murderers are so much more interesting to write than the ‘good guys’. The motivation for each of my killers, in Cut Short, Road Closed, Dead End and Death Bed, is what drives the narratives.

The identity of the killer in Cut Short was revealed very early on. Why did you do decide to do that?
Cut Short follows parallel stories of the killer and the detective. While the police are hunting for the serial killer, the reader knows they are looking in the wrong place. This heightens the tension as the reader wonders how many more people are going to be killed before the police stop the killer.

I read Cut Short and then Dead End and I felt there was quite a difference in the level of violence between the first and third books, almost like a killer becoming more and more used to the killing and upping the ante every time. Was this deliberate, or, like the killer, was it easier for you to write more grisly detail as time went on?
The violence in Cut Short isn’t really described, but all of my books follow murder investigations so they all touch on violent themes. I never write detailed descriptions of violence. That doesn’t inspire me. I’m far more interested in what is happening inside the killer’s mind than in his or her victim’s physical insides. There are some crime authors who are medically trained and can write quite clinically about blood and guts, but I’m rather squeamish! That said, my victims can be killed in dreadful ways as this raises the stakes for the reader. The nastier the murders are, the more tense the book becomes until the killer is caught.

There are lots of women in prominent positions in the Geraldine Steel series. Was it difficult to create so many female characters and set them in what could still be seen as the man’s environment of the Police force?
I deliberately gave Geraldine a female boss at the start of the series, since women have broken through the glass ceiling to reach senior positions these days. Although the gender politics is very much in the background of the murder investigation, it is still important. Geraldine has a female detective chief inspector as her boss, and continues to work with her sergeant, Ian Peterson, who has become a popular character with readers in his own right. This is established in Cut Short, and continues in Road Closed and Dead End. In the new title in the series, Death Bed, a new female character is introduced – but I’m not giving away the gender of the killer. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know that!

The Geraldine Steel series, so far, is based in Kent – have you any ties to the county apart from your time at the University of Kent?
No. In fact, in the following book Geraldine relocates to London. But as the series continues, she maintains her ties with the characters in Kent: her sister, her old school friend, and her previous sergeant.

Have you always wanted to become a writer? How did becoming published come about for you?
Although I’ve always read a lot I had no aspirations to write myself. Having had an idea for a story, and written it down, I sent it to a publisher who has a well-known crime imprint. To my surprise they contacted me after two weeks and offered me a contract for a series.

What are you reading at the moment?
Since I started writing, I sadly don’t have much time for reading. In addition to writing, like all successful authors I have to spend a lot of time promoting my books. Fortunately I enjoy meeting readers and talking about writing, whether I’m signing in bookshops, giving talks in libraries, colleges or prisons, or appearing at literary festivals. I also run creative writing workshops for The Society of Authors and at Get Writing which is hosted by the University of Hertfordshire, so my life is pretty busy! Of course I read a lot of crime fiction – Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Simon Beckett, Lee Child… to name just a few. There are so many talented writers in the genre.

Your fourth Geraldine Steel book, Death Bed, is about to be published. Can you tell us something about the story? DI Steel has moved to London which I imagine will completely change the pace and drama of the story.
In many ways the pace and drama remain the same with Geraldine pursuing a murder investigation while the death toll rises as she hunts for the killer. Her move to London is a huge change for her personally as she adapts to a different team, and explores a new area. It gives her a shake up, while still keeping to a familiar formula. I hope readers are going to like her new sergeant. But Geraldine doesn’t leave her old life behind her altogether. She returns to Kent to visit her sister, and keeps in touch with ex-colleagues.

Thank you very much for interviewing me here, with such interesting questions!

Leigh Russell’s books are available in paperback and as e-books here.

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10 Responses to An interview with author Leigh Russell

  1. Claire says:

    Hi Polly. I really enjoyed reading this. Some great questions. As someone who has aspirations *ahem* to write a book one day, this was very interesting. Particularly the answer to the first question – I am finding that I’ll come up with an idea for something, start writing, and then can’t continue..because I haven’t got a well thought through plot. (The problem being that I’m too impatient to get started.) I’m reading a book at the moment ‘Plot and Structure’, and it does seem that for many writers it is easier to have a road map to follow. Leigh Russell’s comments seem to back that up.
    Writing from the perspective of a killer must really test the powers of one’s imagination, as one can’t draw on personal experiences to help, as you could if you were writing in the romantic genre. I wonder if this is in a way more liberating, as you are not influenced or limited by your own experiences?
    Fascinating stuff. Claire x

    • Thanks Claire. I always think it’s interesting how crime writers think up their murders. I wonder if they write something that they might like to do in real life but can’t for obvious reasons. It’s something you can give full range on to the imagination!

  2. Zazzy says:

    It was an interesting interview and after looking up a few reviews, definitely an author I want to read. Thanks, as always, for the recommendation. Wish they were available on kindle, though. They could already be in my hot little hands.

  3. Very, very interesting to read. I’ve often wondered how crime writers get into the minds of their villains – I think part of that journey is becoming acquinated with the darkest, often hidden, recesses of our own minds. I think I might have a novel in me somewhere, just starting to be brave enough to consider doing this, and I think I would consider her approach; getting the barebones of the plot onto paper first.

    • So glad you enjoyed the interview, Sarah. How crime writers get so close to their villains really fascinates me too. Very excited about your new novel idea! Let me know how that goes. Nanowrimo in November might be a good place to start…?

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed this interview. I am always super fascinated by the drive of a writer, and how they systemise the way they write. Some go by the seat of their pants, and others more structured! Thanks for the post, was very inspiring!

    • Thanks Lynsey – I’ve got another interview in the pipeline with a very newly published author, so I hope there will be more useful information there too.

  5. Thanks again for interviewing me, Polly. I hope readers enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed reading their responses here, and thank you to everyone who took the time to comment. It can be quite liberating writing from the point of view of a killer. I can go anywhere with these characters, because readers can’t say “That’s not realistic. A killer would never think like that” – unless the reader had some personal experience… !!!

    • That would be an interesting situation, Leigh! I’m sure there are as many different types of killer as there are ways to kill. As you say, you could go in absolutely any direction you fancied. Thanks again for answering my questions.