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Interview: Ruth Leigh, writer

26 April 2024

‘As an author, you want people to be happier when they’ve finished your book than they were before’

I became a freelance, writing in the Christian charity sector in 2008. Writing fiction came calling in lockdown — an experience I share with many — but it was always the one job I wanted to do above all others. I’ve had lots of interesting jobs, and didn’t write my first novel till I was 53; but, as a child, I always said: “I’m going to be a writer.”

Charities desperately need writers, because they all produce newsletters and member-benefit magazines. You want to know what your money’s doing. You want to know the names of the people you’ve helped, and why it’s making a difference in the world. So, it’s got to be a mixture of inspirational storytelling and practicality. It’s an art form, I would say.

Writing’s starting to pay more of the bills, largely because I’ve diversified. I do freelance work, run creative-writing workshops, go to lots of events to sell books, speak, and edit. In the best tradition of struggling creatives, I also work two days a week in a local restaurant, which means I don’t have to burn the furniture just yet.

I’ll never forget getting my first gold star for a piece of fiction: two lines written in crayon in my wobbly six-year-old handwriting in Class Three from Mrs Camus, and realising that you can be praised for making stuff up. I also had free rein to read anything in the bookcases in the family home.

Isabella M. Smugge (as in Bruges) [the main character in Leigh’s fiction] is the UK’s premier mumfluencer, an incredibly successful and starry Instamum who makes pots of cash from telling people how to live their lives. She moves to a little village in Suffolk thinking she will be the Queen Bee, and starts to discover all kinds of things about herself. She’s terribly pretentious and annoying when we first meet her, but, behind all the pretence and bragging, there beats a kind and compassionate heart.

It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be a 21st-century Emma Woodhouse until someone suggested that in a review, but I can see that she might be. She has no self-awareness, and can’t see what’s going on, but, slowly and painfully, she begins to. She’s making it: she’s a work in progress. I’ve published three novels about her, and the fourth is in the proof stage.

I love Barbara Pym so much. The sub-culture of the Church is a God-given opportunity to be funny. I’m not a fan of most Christian fiction, where everyone sees the light and becomes a Christian. That’s not how life works. Isabella starts to be involved in the church, she has an experience of the Holy Spirit, she’s starting to pray, but it’s a funny book: there are lots of pitfalls. She goes one step forward, two steps back. I don’t want her to be absolutely sorted.

Isabella is very typical of the British population. She thinks there’s probably a higher power somewhere, she probably ought to go to church at Christmas and Easter, and, when she moves to the country, the only person who reaches out to her is the vicar’s wife.

Isabella thinks the vicar’s wife is very happy, makes jam, and sings hymns, but she is a recovering alcoholic whose faith keeps her going.

I love the charities I write for. They inspire me, and I have the privilege of interviewing people doing the most wonderful things. I write for Church Growth Trust and Feba at the moment, telling the stories of faith communities sharing the good news of Jesus and bringing hope into people’s lives. Feba uses the internet and social media now, especially in unreached countries high on the Joshua List — the countries in the world where it’s most dangerous to be a Christian, or people don’t have access to knowledge. During Covid, they were able to give advice on health and keeping safe; and they work with women, giving them power.

I’m a huge supporter of the Beehive Children’s Foundation, run by two friends supporting young girls who are victims of abuse and defilement in Kenya, loving them and their babies in a family home environment (beehiveafrica.org). I also support Care for the Family, and local charities such as HomeStart.

Sometimes, it’s difficult. I once had to write a blog about a very dull aspect of the building trade. There was no stand-out story or call to action, and it was like wading through congealed treacle.

Stories affect people’s spiritual growth and development enormously. We’re hardwired to hear and respond to stories. Look at the parables and the stories Jesus told which had crowds captivated. Without stories and literature, I don’t know where I’d be, and I’ve seen so many friends respond to books and gain comfort and strength from them.

I love Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women for its elegance and spareness. Every year, I re-read Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, about an 11-year-old boy with a rare facial deformity. It is so human, so compassionate. And I like to read the Rosie trilogy by Graeme Simsion, the Australian writer, at least once a year. I like novels about a protagonist who is different, overcoming challenges. It’s great comic writing, but with moments of such poignancy and depth.

I want to make people laugh hysterically, but also to make them sad. People tell me why they love Isabella, and one said she’d met someone on the TransPennine Express reading the second book, laughing like a banshee. Two ladies came over to take pictures of the cover with their phones. She said: “Whenever I’m sad, I take all three books, I lie on my bed, and it helps.”

As an author, you want people to be happier when they’ve finished your book than they were before. I first wrote about Isabella in lockdown, ecstatic that someone gave me permission to write a book and publish it. I didn’t think about the impact, but someone in the village told me that, when her daughter had to go into a mental-health secure unit, she said: “Take Ruth’s book in with you.” Then she got a text: “I read Ruth’s book and it really helped me.” It’s not me. Jesus gave me the gift, and he’s using it to help people.

My childhood was a rather challenging one: no television, not many friends, but lots of books. Far too much responsibility was put on me as a child, and I escaped from worries through reading, something which laid the foundations for a career in writing. Nowadays, as the mother of three teenagers and a full-time writer, my daily life consists of a lot of ferrying around — which I love — mundane tasks, and lots and lots of writing.

I was brought up in a Christian home. Church, for me, was a place of safety and nurture, where I learned about someone I couldn’t see but who loved me. As a little girl, I remember hearing Bible stories in Sunday school, and drinking in every word.

After a break in my teenage years, slowly but surely, I found my own faith when I was 26. Since then I’ve been working it all out, as we do, learning to trust God and to listen to him more. I’m fortunate to be in a lovely church where I help with youth work and learn so much from my fellow Christians. My own experience of church informs Isabella’s, as she takes her first few faltering steps into faith.

Unkindness makes me angry, and taking advantage of the weak and helpless, injustice, greed.

Reading makes me happiest, and spending time with family and friends.

I have enormous faith in the coming generation to change our world for the better. I often go into high schools to deliver workshops, and there I find generous, compassionate, kind young people, who just need a few words of encouragement. I believe they will be the ones to make the future better.

I pray for peace, to be able to trust God more. For help and advice with difficult things in my life. For my friends and family who don’t know Jesus yet to meet him.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Jane Austen, please. I love her work, and I’ve written a collection of Pride and Prejudice short stories. I’d ask her all about how Sanditon was going to end, and find out more about her life and views. The time would fly.

Ruth Leigh was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Isabella M. Smugge books, beginning with The Diary of Isabella M. Smugge, are published by Instant Apostle at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-912726-40-0.

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