Having met lovely Rugh Dugdall and heard her read from her novel Humber Boy (you can find out more about that here) I’m thrilled to welcome her on Linda’s Book Bag today to celebrate her latest novel My Sister and Other Liars.
My Sister and Other Liars
Sam is seventeen, starving herself and longing for oblivion. Her sister, Jena, is mentally scarred and desperate to remember. Between them, they share secrets too terrible to recall.
Eighteen months earlier, Sam was still full of hope: hope that she could piece together Jena’s fragmented memory after the vicious attack that changed their family forever. But digging into the past unearthed long-hidden lies and betrayals, and left Sam feeling helpless and alone in a world designed to deceive her.
Now, in a last bid to save her from self-imposed shutdown, Sam’s therapist is helping her confront her memories. But the road to recovery is a dangerous one. Because Sam has not only been lying to her doctors: she’s been hiding dark secrets from herself.
An Interview with Ruth Dugdall
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Ruth. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and congratulations on today’s publication of My Sister and Other Liars. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Hi Linda, I’m Ruth Dugdall and I write crime novels. Sounds like the beginning of an addicts meeting, which just about sums it up. In fact, crime is all I’ve ever known about; I first entered a prison when I was 18, and I started working with criminals straight after graduation, aged 21. When I qualified as a probation officer I thought I was in it for the long haul, like a stick or rock if you broke me in half I’d have had `probation officer` written through my core. But the writing was always there, just as a hobby, all along. When The Woman Before Me won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2005 I decided to see if I could make a go of writing. It’s been a long, difficult, journey but I’ll never regret that decision.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about My Sister and Other Liars?
Like all of my novels, the story is inspired by real events. It is set in Ipswich, where I grew up, and also on a hospital ward for women with eating disorders.
Sam is a teenage anorexic living on a council estate in Suffolk. Her sister, Jena, was attacked and left brain damaged on Sam’s 16th birthday, and the police have made no arrests. Frustrated, Sam decides that if the police can’t bring Jena’s attacker to justice then she will. Even if it kills her.
My Sister and Other Liars opens with a couple of quotations about memory. Why do you think writers are seemingly so obsessed with memory and identity?
`Memory is the diary we all carry with us`, and yet it is completely unreliable and so subjective. I am fascinated that siblings can talk about their childhood and find themselves completely disagreeing on the same experiences. We can remember things that haven’t happened, simply because we were told about them, and we lose other things completely.
When I was interviewing criminals I was always struck by their `story` of the crime, and how it was at odds with the victim’s story, but they believed it totally. My job was to shift that belief, and I came to understand that `memory` and our sense of `self` is a fragile, malleable thing. Which makes it perfect fodder for writers, especially crime writers.
The `unreliable narrator` is often someone whose memories cannot be trusted, often because they are mentally unstable or are substance abusers. In this case, Jena’s memory is fractured because of the attack, which caused brain damage, so she only partly remembers. Sam, who witnessed the attack but cannot describe the attacker, is unable to trust her memory because she is young, it was dark and raining, and yet she digs deeper, unable to rest until she can remember everything.
Often it is best not to remember.
You say your books are about ordinary people who behave in extraordinary ways. How far do you think we all have the capacity to behave like the characters you present?
For me, the evil killer waiting in the shadows is simply not interesting, or realistic. After working with so many criminals I’ve had this belief re-enforced again and again: people can behave monstrously, but they are usually not monsters. This is a far more terrifying idea, because it means any of us, given the right toxic mix of environment and opportunity, could do something bad. This idea is a central one for me, and I keep returning to it with my characters. I describe people who seem and look ordinary, and then lift their skin to see what lies beneath.
Your novels are very gritty and showcase workers such as probation officers within the justice system that other books tend to ignore. Why do you choose to write about these characters?
Fact: probation officers have more direct contact with criminals than any other profession.
Yet they are (almost) invisible in crime novels and films, replaced by journalists and psychologists who, in reality, would have limited access. After I won the Debut Dagger it took 5 years to find a publishing deal, and one reason was that publishers didn’t believe the public would be interested in the role. I think that’s very sad, as these workers are really the backbone of the criminal justice system and deserve to be represented.
Humber Boy was set in Hull, your home town, but you now live in Suffolk and have lived in Luxembourg. How does location affect a writer do you think?
Location is important, but even when I lived in the rather refined and rarefied Luxembourg, I still sought out its gritty corners. Apart from Nowhere Girl (set in Luxembourg) my books are set in Suffolk. The county is east of everything, and the town where I live is at the end of a motorway which only leads here. Any further, and you end up in the North Sea. So the town is a bit like a `closed room mystery`, where people know each other and if something happens one of them had to have done it. Here we are, in a small town, under a wide sky, with the sea stopping us from dropping off the side…I love it and there’s no shortage of inspiration.
You’ve honed your writing technique through short stories as well as your novels. How has your writing developed to the point of writing My Sister and Other Liars?
Novel writing is a marathon, it requires time every day, building up the right muscles and the stamina to see it through to the end. Short stories are more like a sprint, and I love having that contrast. My short stories are very different to my novels, much lighter and more comic, and are published in magazines such as Women’s Weekly.
Unlike running a marathon, though, there’s never really an end point with novel writing, instead there are a series of deadlines. Even publication doesn’t feel like the finish line because it’s then about how the book is received and how it sells. This certainly keeps me on my toes, and there are often times when I wonder why I put myself through such a masochistic process, but then I lose myself in a scene and forget my doubts. That’s the magical part, the addictive part.
When I heard you speak at an event, you said that writers write because they feel compelled to do so. How do you feel when you’re not actually writing?
When I’m not writing I’m not a writer, I’m other things. But I never feel more `myself` than when I’m lost in a story.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
I enjoy research, and take it very seriously. I’m currently working on a novel called Innocence Lane and Suffolk Constabulary have allocated me a Detective Sergeant to act as an advisor, which makes me one lucky writer. My detective has synaesthesia, and so I’m in contact with the President of the Synaesthesia Association and I’ve also liaised with a professor who specialises in the subject. Next week I’m going to a shooting range to learn how to use a rifle…
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
That’s a good question. I love the editing process, when the novel exists in a rough form but needs honing, as I feel a bit like a sculptor with a block of marble, trying to get the shape right. I’m good at working with feedback, and always enjoy working with editors. The hardest part has to be dealing with rejections, which does come with the territory, but is still tough to handle. Every book I’ve published, with the exception of Nowhere Girl (which was sold as an idea) has accrued many rejections before finally being published.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I have a study, but I’m just as likely to be found in the lounge, sat on the sofa with a laptop balanced on my knee! A writer can write anywhere, in fact other locations are good for the imagination, so I always have a pen and notebook with me. Nowhere Girl was written as I explored Luxembourg’s neighbouring countries so was mostly written in cafes.
I know you are always willing to speak to audiences about your writing. How important is it for authors to connect either virtually or in real life with the people who read their books do you think?
I don’t think it would be possible, these days, to have a successful novel if the author wasn’t willing to promote it. A bold statement, I know, but I think readers have expectations that they can know more about the author or the process, we live in a time when book groups are on every corner so readers are sophisticated and critical, and they want answers. I never turn down any invite, I travel far and wide to speak to people. The Women’s Institute is my favourite organisation, I have about 30 WI talks booked for this year, and they are always vibrant and characterful meetings.
You run workshops in schools on occasion. Why do you do that?
I have visited schools where the pupils have studied my novels, and I also like to run creative writing courses to inspire kids. I went to a failing comprehensive, and when I was fourteen a poet came in – I wish I could remember his name, but I can recall his face perfectly. He took a group of us and we did poetry for a week, and it was probably one of the most important weeks of my school life because it opened a door, showed me something was possible that I hadn’t considered before. To go into a school and do the same thing, is my way of paying back.
And, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I read widely, and will read several books at once. I’ve just read Roanoke Girl and loved it, very powerful, and focused on similar themes to My Sister & Other Liars. I finished The Handmaid’s Tale yesterday, for the zillionth time. I have a select list of books that I re-read yearly, as a way to remind myself of what can be achieved in a novel and this is one of them, along with The Secret History and Sharp Objects.
My Sister and Other Liars has a cover that suggests another identity inside the person to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please)?
The cover was designed by Thomas Mercer, and I loved it from first sight. I think they got the vibe just right.
If you could choose to be a character from My Sister and Other Liars who would you be and why?
I don’t really do appealing characters, so that’s a tough one. I think I’d be Monica, the spunky drama student, as she’s making the best with what she’d been given and she’s not going to take any nonsense.
If My Sister and Other Liars became a film, who would you like to play Sam and why would you choose them?
Andrea Riseborough is an actress I admire and she always chooses intense roles. At 35 she’s too old for Sam, but she’d be great for Jena and I think she’d be up for it.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that My Sister and Other Liars should be their next read, what would you say?
Girl, Interrupted meets We Were Liars. Domestic noir, from the perspective of a teenage anorexic.
Thank you so much, Ruth, for your time in answering my questions and congratulations on My Sister and Other Liars.
About Ruth Dugdall
Ruth studied English at university and then took an MA is Social Work. Following this she worked in the Criminal Justice System as a social worker then as a probation officer. Part of this time was spent seconded to a prison housing serious offenders. She continues to work within the Criminal Justice System, most recently in Luxembourg.
Ruth’s novels are informed by her experience and are “authentic and credible”.