Ruth Dugdall about ... The Sacrificial Man
interviewed Nov 2011 by Sarah Rudd
Tell us a bit about yourself… the absurd, the dull and the background to you becoming a writer…
The absurd bit is that I have a pet lobster named Louis. He sometimes escapes…
Dull is that I spend most of my time in front of a computer. There is nothing glamorous about this, but a novel does not write itself.
I’ve always written (diaries as a child / poems as an angst ridden teenager) but it was only when I took a night class in creative writing that it was suggested I should write a novel. I was flattered, but was working full time as a probation officer and didn’t have a story I wanted to write. Luckily for me I found one, when I got lost one Sunday in the village of Polstead. This is the place where in 1827 Maria Marten was murdered. Her body was buried under the Red Barn, discovered a year later when her stepmother had prophetic dreams about where to dig. It was this aspect of the story that hooked me and I began to research the court records and birth & deaths register etc. The more I discovered, the stronger my conviction that the real story of Maria Marten had yet to be told. It took a long time but writing The James Version was a labour of devotion. I was lucky that the story found me, and since that first novel I have never struggled to find a story. Finding a publisher, of course, was a much tougher task… Having had your writing deemed ‘not commercial’, how would you pitch your novel to a publisher?
Writing a `commercial` novel is not my goal. My novels are all triggered by a real situation that confounds or terrifies or shocks me, and I write to explore themes that I believe (hope!) have a resonance with others. My writing is dark but authentic, and I hope my readers are stimulated my what they read, moved or provoked. If `commercial ` fiction is shorthand for entertaining topics with likeable characters, then my writing does not fit that definition. But my three novels have found an audience so I sometimes wonder if publishers misjudge the reading public. I never underestimate my reader or patronise them with a neat ending. Clearly, using your personal experience as a probation officer has heavily influenced your writing; which, if any, aspects of Cate’s personality reflect your own?
As a writer I do invest myself in my characters, but this would be true of Cate no more than it would be true of Rose or Emma. All of them are, to my mind at least, believable and each behaves in a way that rings true. Inevitably, then, I have drawn on my own personality to a degree. For example, Rose berates Emma as a bad mother because she buys jars of baby food rather than purifying vegetables – I was the mother who bought the jars but felt guilty about it, so Rose’s comments are my own inner monologue as I reached for the Heinz!The Sacrificial Man fluctuates between past and present, between Alice’s childhood traumas and Cate Austin’s current-day investigation into Alice’s motivations for helping her ‘lover’ commit suicide...
This is because I am interested in the question of whether or not we can escape our past. Are we defined by our early experiences, or can we create our adult selves by forming new patterns of behaviour? For a probation officer the question of change is central to working with any client, be they alcoholic, addict, abuser; can someone change their behaviour? I do believe it is possible, but I think an understanding of the past is vital in this. Because I write about deviant people, I show their background as a way to explain how they became the person they are. No one was born bad. Cannibalism, for obvious reasons, is a taboo in Western society (it’s just a bit gross, really). So what made you include it in The Sacrificial Man?
Smith would say you are thinking with your Imperialist head! I hope I have gone some way to looking at how the practice has been viewed by other cultures, in other times, and challenging the assertion that it is always an abomination. Most other cannibals in fiction are deranged or mad (the brilliantly evil Hannibal Lector springs to mind) but I was interested in a more subtle portrayal. Armin Meiwes, and his victim Brundes, were not psychopaths. It was this case that first interested me, and then I came across other examples during my research, which I touch on in The Sacrificial Man. Alice is acting out of love. She may be misguided but she certainly is not reaching for the Chianti! You explore some difficult themes in this novel; euthanasia, assisting suicide, incest and substance abuse. Is it important for you to challenge preconceptions about some of these topics? Why?
I don’t set out to explore these themes, they largely evolve as the characters grow. For example, a key moment came when I thought about what kind of person would want to be a `willing victim`? This took me to real cases, and the backgrounds of the people involved, and then my own characters took over. It is not `normal` to place an advert seeking a beautiful woman to help you to die, but it is not unheard of either. It would have been wrong to portray Smith or Alice as monsters, so their back-stories give their behaviours a context.
As a probation officer I worked with many people who had done terrible things. In trying to understand the offender’s own story I had to make some sense of how they had ended up committing crime, and I use this same forensic awareness as a writer. Such exploration does not excuse the behaviour, but if we don’t make an attempt to understand where it comes from, how can we hope to change it? When you’re not pushing yourself to writing 1000 words a day, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to spend my time drinking wine, walking by the sea and watching X factor with the kids. Weekends are family time, and I’m also a fan of museums (much to the children’s dismay). Our house is busy most week nights as my husband is in two bands (both of which practice here) and I run a book group and a writing group (ditto) so there’s always something happening… What’s the hardest part of being a writer? And the best…?
The best part is, without doubt, the actual process of losing oneself in the story. It is a sheer joy to be swept along by a character, who takes my hand and leads me forward…
The worst part. Hmmm… Well, it feels churlish to say it but sometimes book signings can be tough, because at my stage of the game I’m approaching browsers and asking them to look at my book. How I long for a queue of people, even a tiny one, so I don’t have to approach strangers!If there was one thing you could change in the Probationary process, what would it be and why?
The Probation service is the Cinderella of the Criminal Justice System; under resourced, misunderstood, and generally the first to feel the cuts. I have immense respect for my ex-colleagues, who are motivated by a desire to reduce offending for very little reward. If I could change just one thing it would be the way the public view the probation service as simply being there to befriend criminals. Without probation officers the crime rate in this country would be much higher. Is there another book in the pipeline? If so, are you planning on it featuring Cate Austin’s character again?
I wasn’t – my next two novels are stand-alones and don’t feature Cate. But I realise from what readers have told me that there is an appetite for Cate, and a desire to know what makes her tick. So another Cate novel entitled Humber Boy B is in the very early stages, but I intend for her to step out of the shadows. Thanks RuthRead our full review of The Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall