This is the article that was in The East Anglian Daily Times!
When Ruth Dugdall won a national crime-writing competition - a biggie - it looked as if a pukka book contract was hers for the asking. There were whispers of £50,000 advances and she gave up her day-job. It didn't quite go to plan . . . But, four years on, she's discovered publishing deals are like buses: you wait for ages and then two come along at once. Steven Russell reports
WELL, here's a paradox and a half. Ruth Dugdall is bright, bouncy, full of laughter. Yet her fiction takes her into some dark corners. Some very, very dark corners. Think stalking, babies at risk, a teenage vigilante, and (sorry) cannibalism. Perhaps it's not surprising: as a probation officer in Suffolk she actively sought to work with some of the UK's worst young rapists and murderers. Even giving birth didn't put the brakes on her fertile imagination: Ruth was thinking of plots and motivations while lying in her hospital bed. Husband Andrew, arriving the following morning, was greeted with an enthusiastic “I've got this idea! I've got this idea . . .”
She cheerfully admits some people find it weird and contradictory that a normal-looking and sparky mother-of-two can have all these macabre thoughts swirling around inside.
“What happens is people will read my book and think it's about me, somehow. One of my mother-in-law's friends said to her - after she'd read The James Version, 'cos there's some sexy bits in it - 'I didn't think Ruth was like that . . .' Like what? Didn't think I knew about sex?!”
Ruth recently read an extract from her story The Sacrificial Man to a writers' group she attends, “and one person said (in a caring, concerned tone) 'I really worry about you . . .' It just makes me laugh! This isn't me; I'm not this character. I have not got an internet lover who's going to arrive and be garrotted! It's fiction. There might be bits of me in those books - of course there are - but I'm very conventional and sane.”
She insists her tales are very moral, portraying visceral events as disgusting, rather than a good idea worth copying. Her fiction, in a way, is a kind of therapy: about being able to safely manage and control fear.
“I like to be in control, and crime and bizarre behaviour is kind of outside that control. I always felt that if I could understand things I could manage them.
“Also, I come from a northern family who tell stories. My parents aren't readers; what my mum, especially, does is tell stories. She tells 'bad' stories - ugly stories. She doesn't tell stories about people getting engaged or married; it's 'Did you hear about that child who was sucked into that swimming pool pipe?' or the member of my family who was impaled on a fence as a toddler.
“It took me years to work out that that's where the story-telling comes from.”
Ruth was born in 1971 and spent her early life in the Hull area, before moving to Ipswich when she was seven and her dad got a job down here. She went to Chantry High School and read voraciously - invariably darker material. “Books were always a place where you could fit in - create your own little world.”
After A-levels at Westbourne school she read English and theatre studies at Warwick University. A visit to prison - not as an inmate, obviously! - convinced her she wanted to work in jails after graduation, using drama therapy and suchlike to help offenders.
Ruth got a job with an Ipswich-based charity that helped people get their lives running better. Then, aiming to work in prisons and use drama and writing, she did an MA in social work at the University of East Anglia. She qualified in 1996 and worked in Lowestoft.
“I loved being a probation officer,” she reflects as son Eden, four, lays out his train set. “They get a really bad press, but I think they do a great job. People generally have the totally wrong idea about what they do. They think they're there to befriend offenders and give them cups of tea and sympathy; actually, it's all about challenging them and getting them to accept what they've done and think about the victim.”
When the Carlford Unit opened in 2000 at Hollesley, near Woodbridge, she actively sought to work there. The prison takes some of the most serious young offenders in the country. Not an obvious choice for a place of work, you'd think.
“I've always sought out situations that I want to know about, and maybe that frighten me as well. I think that's why I became a probation officer. If somebody says something that is shocking, I want to know more! I think this is important for writers and artists: I will ask that question other people won't ask.”
Ruth wrote short stories, often drawing on work-related experiences. At the turn of the millennium -working in Lowestoft and living in Halesworth - she took a writing night-class in Bungay. The first story she wrote was from point of view of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in England.
After the course leader said she should consider writing a novel, husband Andrew bought her a lovely notebook that Christmas, with “Novel, by Ruth Dugdall” written on it.
During a Sunday walk around Polstead, near Hadleigh, she remembered the local story of Maria Marten and the Red Barn Murder. The molecatcher's daughter was apparently killed in 1827 by lover William Corder, son of a wealthy farmer.
Maria's remains were found the following year, after her stepmother dreamed Maria had been buried in the Red Barn. As a probation officer, Ruth thought that explanation extremely unsound.
Curiosity aroused, she went to the record officer at Bury St Edmunds the following weekend to read the trial notes, concluding it was fairly obvious Ann Marten had coached her young son to give evidence against Corder.
The two women were similar in age and both considered attractive. Stepmother Ann was effectively also caring for Maria's child from a previous affair, and Maria perhaps seemed to be having more fun. “The jealousy and tension between the women in that house would have been extraordinary. I thought 'That's what the story is, for me.'”
Ruth thus did her research and essentially wrote the book in chunks.
After she and Andrew had first child Amber early in 2002, they talked about how long Ruth - “I'm not a domestic animal . . .” - should stay off work. Hubby said: Just look after Amber and do the book. Take a year - but write the novel. “I think he's come to regret his words!” she laughs. “He comes home to a tin of beans on the side and a loaf of bread!”
Rather serendipitously, Ruth, now in Felixstowe after they moved south, won £1,000 in a Sleep Council competition in the EADT. She used the money for childcare, which gained her precious time to write.
The James Version that summer won a competition at the Winchester Writers' Festival. Ruth didn't intend to self-publish, but as the prize was 50 bound copies it seemed logical to pay for extra ones and sell them.
Wise move. Outlets such as Waterstones, Ottakers and even WHSmith took it, thanks to its local flavour, and 700-plus books were sold. Ruth returned to social work - not back to a prison environment this time but, instead, training student probation officers.
She'd started writing The Woman Before Me as soon as The James Version was finished. Without giving the story away, there's a strong stalking aspect, with Ruth drawing generally on elements of life she'd experienced during her career.
She's worked with stalkers - offenders who got hold of keys and entered houses at night, say - and feels strongly that they're frequently treated too leniently by courts. “If someone stole my TV, that would not bother me nearly as much as someone entering the house and going through my underwear drawer.”
The Woman Before Me is “the novel that really taps into the fear. The most terrible thing is to lose a baby”.
Late in 2005, the story topped more than 400 entries to win the highly-respected Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger - open to novels not yet published commercially.
Winning is no guarantee of a professional book deal, but it's a great omen. The judging panel is made up of editors and literary agents and, at that stage, all previous winners had secured publishing contracts. So did Ruth expect to be next?
“Yes! They (book industry movers and shakers) were talking to me about the minimum advance we would take . . . 50 grand . . .”
The story was looked at by about half a dozen publishers. Some thought it too dark; too relentlessly bleak. And what was its genre? It didn't qualify as a “misery memoir”, because it wasn't a true story. “They also said it was too uncomfortable for readers to be in the head of the criminal for a whole novel.”
Ruth admits being a bit naïve about the industry at that stage, too, in that publishers wanted to be presented with a finished product: stories needed to be honed and polished - with the help of external advisers and editors. It couldn't be promising but raw.
It all went a bit anti-climactic - not great, really, especially as she left the probation service early in 2006.
The Sacrificial Man was the next big hope. (Do skip this bit if you're squeamish.) Ruth had been intrigued by the report of a German man who advertised on the web for a lover happy to be killed and eaten. She found it was not uncommon and the theme inspired her novel.
Tired of waiting for the big boys to take a chance on her, Ruth approached small independent publisher Solidus Press. Director Helen Miles fell for The Sacrificial Man and offered a genuine publishing contract for 2010. “Thank god!”
Then Andrew drew her attention to a competition: the second Luke Bitmead bursary, run in conjunction with Legend Press and honouring a young writer who died at the age of 34. Ruth always felt The Woman Before Me had deserved to be published and was given up on too early. So she sent it off.
And - hallelujah! - it took the £2,500 prize. Her reaction - officially recorded on her blog - was ohmygodicantbelieveitsomeonepinchmecosthemostamazingthinghappenedandiwon! And she burst into tears rather dramatically on what, with Luke's family present, was an emotional evening all round.
“Having a book is like having a child go out into the world and get knocked over and bruised, and then finally find a home. The main emotion was one of relief - that in 2010 two of the books are going to be published, after people sort of washed their hands of them.”
That's because the other part of the prize was a publishing deal. Even better, Helen Miles at Solidus and Tom Chalmers at Legend - being independent, sensible and flexible - are working together to ensure the books complement each other, with similar covers and so on.
Legend will publish The Woman Before Me next summer, with Solidus bringing out The Sacrificial Man later.
So 2010 looks like being a vintage year for Ruth, after all that plugging away. “Now that I'm finally on that bus, I'm damn well going to enjoy the ride!”
RUTH Dugdall is a committed writer - committed with a capital C. She aims to write every day - squeezing in three hours last night, for instance, when the children were in bed. Weekends, birthdays, even Christmas Day . . . none of them an excuse for work not to be done.
“I am a writer who writes every day,” she says. “I always have a notepad with me, whatever bag I've got. If I'm in Caffé Nero, and notice someone, or overhear something, you can pull the pad out. Someone was telling me the other day how her mum was obsessive with the rug, and combed the fringes. I thought, 'God, that's good! Use that . . .'”
She jealously guards her time when Eden is at nursery. “You have to ring-fence it. People have this idea that when you're writing you have your coffee and brownie and it's lovely and you wait for the muse to come. Ha! You have to make yourself write, even when the muse is on holiday.”
Ruth's currently keeping three plates spinning: editing The Sacrificial Man with Solidus, polishing The Woman Before Me before sending it to Legend Press, and writing new novel Family Snap. After being accepted on an Apprenticeship in Fiction scheme - an Arts Council initiative designed to nurture emerging writers - she's got mentoring help from crime fiction author Laura Wilson.
Ruth relishes deadlines, so she's set herself a daily target on each piece of work. Manageable chunks are much more achievable, she finds.
“I am a control freak. I have a timetable and I have to hit it every day: however many chapters, or however many pages. I tick it through.”
Happily, husband Andrew - human resources director with the online retailer Play.com - is hugely supportive. He's heavily into music, so he's often doing that while his wife weaves her words.
Although they were at Warwick University at the same time, they actually met years later on a film course in Ipswich.