The diary of Isabella M Smugge – Ruth Leigh

Isabella is a modern social media type of Bridget Jones. Did you borrow the idea of your character from Helen Fielding? It honestly never occurred to me. The Diary of Bridget Jones is one of my favourite novels, so it may well be that my subconscious was shouting “Go on, Ruth, borrow a bit of Bridget for the Age of Influencers!”

Did this influence your choice in making it a diary? Very quickly, I decided that Isabella’s story was best told in diary form. I think this is probably because some of my all-time favourite novels are written in this style. The Sacred Diary (Adrian Plass), The Diary of a Nobody, Adrian Mole, The Diary of a Provincial Lady – there’s a certain informal way of writing and it gives you a natural story arc. It gives the author a chance to make subtle changes to the characters as they write.

Is Isabella modelled on anyone in particular, yourself, siblings, close friends etc? Or is she modelled on a type of upper middle class country dwelling woman? This is a question I asked myself mid-write. I couldn’t think of anyone remotely like her that I’d ever met. I was on the phone to a dear friend down in Cornwall, I mentioned Isabella to her, described her and said, “I just can’t think who she’s meant to be.” Kath said, “I’ll tell you who she is, Ruth. She’s all those mothers we used to see at toddler group who made us feel completely inadequate. The ones that breezed in, fully made up, smiling, having lost all the baby weight and not covered in weird stains. The woman who made me feel that I was failing at everything. She’s exactly the opposite of me, that’s for sure.

Isabella seems like the eternal optimist, at least until later on in the book. Would you say that this is you? Undoubtedly. I am ludicrously optimistic, to the point of complete denial. House on fire? Never mind, I don’t have to worry about the dusting. Cataclysmic floods? Oh well, I expect it’ll be better tomorrow.

Each section of the book is followed by a twitter handle. Real or imagined? Oh, completely imagined! The irony is that I am the opposite of social media savvy Isabella. I do Twitter and Instagram because I have to, but it doesn’t come naturally. I have a deep-seated loathing of hashtags, which makes it all the funnier that I ended up creating so many for the book.

What about Issy’s husband, Johnnie is he modelled on anyone in particular or the au-pair, Sofija? Johnnie is your classic City Bad Boy. I suppose bits of him come from my years working in London. Sofija, is completely made up. She’s Latvian because we’ve got some Latvian friends in the village and it gives Isabella the chance to show that she’s not that sensitive by mixing up Lithuania and Latvia, two completely different countries.

I liked the way in which you subtly weaved in Issy’s friendship with the vicar’s wife, Claire and her husband, Tom. Were you trying to tease your readers with a good image of Christians and the church, especially in the character of Claire and her background? Indeed, I was. I’ve spent years having chats in the playground, in clubs, bars, restaurants, at parties about my faith, but only when people bring it up. I specialise in being real about it all, not trying to present myself as holy and perfect (coz I ain’t!) and it was important to me that Claire and Tom were normal people, albeit from wildly differing backgrounds who were brought together and lived out their faith in a small rural village. For years, I’ve said that all churches should have a poster outside which reads, “May Contain Nuts.” Church is a cross-section of society with all kinds of backgrounds.

Were you aiming at a book that you could happily give to anyone regardless of their view of the church and Christians? I suppose I was. It’s classed as Christian fiction, but what I didn’t want to do was write a book where everyone miraculously becomes a Christian on the last page and they all live happily ever after. That’s not how life works. It’s messy and disappointing with lots of loose ends and unanswered questions.

Although there are similarities with the book and the Diary of Bridget Jones, there is very little bad language in your book, and a lot of depth of character and emotional content. Was this intentional? No. It wasn’t! When I sent over the original MS to Instant Apostle, the reader’s report came back saying it was full of bad language! I was a bit taken aback, but out came all the “crap” and “effing” and “badass”. Characters like Liane Bloomfield swore like troopers, because they would, but with IA’s policy on language, I had to be much more creative and I think the book is better for it. I hope so. I wanted to show who these people were, and it was easy to do that using Issy’s voice, especially as she gets so much wrong.

The backstory of Issy’s parents and her relationship with her sister, Suze, is an evidence of this depth. Was this your intention in weaving in these characters? Yes, it was. When I was writing chapter one, I kept asking myself, “How did she get this way?” I was going back in time to find little Bella Neville and her sister. They had to be extremely close, almost the two of them against the rest of the world, and why was that? Hence, I wrote their parents’ difficult marriage which affected them both so much. Isabella often gets through life by covering her pain.

Like Bridget Jones diary, there are so many ‘laugh out loud’ moments in the book. Does humorous writing come naturally to you? It does seem to! I’ve spent the last twelve and a half years writing fairly serious freelance articles, sometimes Christian-based, sometimes not, and it’s virtually impossible to get jokes in there. I was amazed by how easy it was to “write funny” with the novel and how many half-remembered stories and funny incidents were floating around at the back of my brain, just waiting for their place in the sun. I love it and I want to do lots more of it.

Anything else you’d like to add? I’d like to encourage other writers. A year ago, if you’d told me I would be the author of a novel, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a freelancer, all my time taken up with work and family. Suddenly, lock down happened, I lost three quarters of my work (bad) but had loads of time to write (good). Through writing a funny blog by chance for ACW which caught a few people’s imagination, Isabella was born. If it’s the right time (and lock down doesn’t seem that it should be), you can seize opportunities. I did, and I benefited hugely from the support and experience of a supportive community of other writers. Keep at it! You never know what’s going to happen next.

You left the story on a cliff hanger. Was that intentional to get your readers desperate for the next book to find out what happens? Completely intentional. I wanted people to really care about the characters and I wanted to end on Isabella considering what she really thinks about faith. She still isn’t sure, but I needed her to be in a crisis situation, hence the book ending that way.

About journojohnson

I qualified as a journalist in 2002 and after a period working as a freelance for Gloucester Media writing advertorials, interviews, articles and press releases I have gone on to write for lots of magazines and newspapers, both local and national. I write regularly for the Writers and Readers magazine but have also written for CPO's Inspire, the New Writer, Classic Ford, and Take a Break's My Favourite Recipes among many others. I published my first full-length historical novel. Waireka in 2018 and my romantic novella, Alpha Male in 2016. Both can be found on Amazon. Please follow the links on my book page.
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5 Responses to The diary of Isabella M Smugge – Ruth Leigh

  1. SC Skillman says:

    Very good interview and so many fascinating answers from Ruth! I loved Ruth’s encouragement at the end. Am reading Isabella right now and loving it.

  2. ruthleigh says:

    Thanks Sheila, that’s good to hear! Sheila J’s questions were so well-put and thought-provoking for me

  3. Great interview, Sheila – makes me want to read it! Hope you, Angus & family are all doing well. Xx

    Sent from my Samsung device

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