· Welcome to the Triskele Bookclub, Jess, so, to begin, can you tell us a little more about The Lies You Told Me, and its origins?
The Lies You Told Me is a sort of psychological thriller - a family mystery. It’s about a woman called Klara, whose mother left her and her father when she was a little girl, and later died. Klara grew up hearing stories about her glamorous mother, Sadie, from her father, and has a few memories of her, but that’s it. The book opens when Klara is sent a key in the post, along with a letter telling her that she does not know the truth about her mother. The key turns out to belong to a lock up garage in South London, which contains a trunk full of Sadie’s belongings, including a diary... So Klara goes on a journey of discovery through her mother’s past. The novel is a dual narrative, as we get extracts from Sadie’s diary, and the reader has to piece together some of what happened, because Sadie isn’t always the most reliable of narrators.
The idea for the book came from a line in one of my favourite poems, Autumn Journal by Louis MacNiece. The line is ‘all of London littered with remembered kisses...’ It got me thinking about the mental maps we all have of places, and how memories linger, and change, and I began to build on that idea.
• You have wide and varied range of characters in your novels, what do you look for in an interesting, unique character, and would you say your books are character-led or plot driven?
I’d say that my novels are plot driven in that I think a strong story is absolutely key for me - both as a writer, and a reader. But strong, interesting and realistic characters are always at the core of that plot - the two have to work in conjunction with one another, really. Interesting characters can come from anywhere, but it’s really important to me that they aren’t too ‘nice’ - most of my characters have at least one serious flaw, many of them are downright unlikable in lots of ways - but, I hope, plenty of humanity as well. I can’t bear characters that don’t have that depth and edge.
• When developing a new character, where do you start?
Getting the name of a character right is crucial - I tend to have a vague sense of the character that I’m building, and then I go to their name - once I have that, they crystallise in my mind and then they’re there.
• Who do you think are some of the classic all-time-great fictional characters and why?
Oh, so many! It’s such a personal thing, but I tend to like dark, badly behaved, often quite mad characters the best. Stella in Asylum (probably my all-time favourite book), Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, all of Tennessee Williams’s mad Southern women such as Blanche Dubois, Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls...
• Where do you stand on the subject of research – love or loathe? And how do you handle it?
I enjoy it - it’s one of the things about writing novels that is so interesting, really, you get to find out about all sorts of random things that you wouldn’t otherwise come across or need to know. Though it’s also possible to do too much research - it can become a procrastination technique if you’re not careful. The internet is hugely useful when it comes to this, not so much for simple fact checking, but things like video footage on You Tube and old photographs. I use visual research like this a lot. For The Lies You Told Me I looked at lots of old modelling photos and advertisements from the early seventies, when Sadie was working in the fashion industry. Things like this really help me get a flavour of what I’m writing about.
• You also write non-fiction, but are there any other fiction genres you’d like to try your hand at? Do you have an inherited crime gene itching to get out? (Jess is the daughter of crime author, Susan Hill.)
Oh yes, lots! There are plenty of books I want to write. I’m moving more into the psychological thriller/family thriller type genre with this latest book, and I think I’m more suited to writing that end of the crime genre as opposed to detective stories, but you never know. I have a long standing fascination with forensic and investigative psychology, so that may well feature at some point in the future... I like to keep challenging myself with each book, is the main thing.
• You’ve followed the traditional route into publishing, via an agent, but what is your opinion on the current move in the market towards acceptance of quality, independent published books entering the mainstream?
I think we’re living and working in really interesting times in publishing. Technology is changing the way we consume books, and the way they can be made available, and the industry is having to change in response to that. It’s maybe harder to make a living as a writer now than ever before, but it’s also a very exciting time to be doing so. There are people doing fantastically well out of self-published books, and I have huge admiration for anyone who does so - it’s not an easy route to take.
• Who were your favourite authors as a child, and have any of them influenced your writing?
I was obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I used to pretend I was tapping trees for maple syrup and hiding from ‘Injuns’...! They really fired my imagination, so though I wouldn’t say they directly influenced the way I write today, they had a big impact on the writer I am.
• When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
I started off writing screenplays when I was 20. I had one film that I co-wrote produced, and then drifted into writing non-fiction and journalism. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realised - or admitted to myself - that I really wanted to write fiction.
• Tell us three things about you your readers may not know?
Hm... I have a BSc in Psychology, and harbour a yearning to do a Masters in Investigative Psychology. I once appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, playing the role of a fondant fancy. I got married in the church where Shakespeare is buried.
• What advice would you give to a writer trying to make their mark on today’s tough publishing market?
Listen to your own voice, your instincts as a writer. The market will always have space for something truly fresh, original, exciting. And be prepared to knock on a lot of doors - you have to develop a thick skin. Rejection is horrible, but it happens to all of us. You just have to get back up and keep going.
• Finally, can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
A new novel! Which will be my 5th. But it’s somewhat under wraps at the moment, as it’s based on some things that happened in my life. It’s in the early stages, as I had a baby girl last year, so have been somewhat slowed down by her arrival... I’m also going back to screenwriting, and I have a spec TV script being read by some producers, and various other TV and film ideas in development as well. I’m really enjoying writing drama again.
Interview by Gillian Hamer
Website - www.jessica.ruston.com
Pinterest board that goes with the book - http://pinterest.com/jessruston/the-lies-you-told-me/
Twitter - @jessruston
Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/jessicaruston