Monday 7 March 2016

My Life In Books ~ talking to author Ruth Dugdall

My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox.
I've invited authors to share with us a list of the books that are special to them and have made a lasting impression on their life.

Today I'm thrilled to welcome Ruth Dugdall to Random Things. 

Ruth's books are published by Legend Press, and I've reviewed three of them here on Random Things;  The Woman Before Me (November 2013), Humber Boy B (March 2015), and Nowhere Girl (October 2015).

Now, over to Ruth with her My Life in Books choices;

Childhood Books

Does every forty-something year old's life in books begin the same way, with Enid Blyton? Sorry for being predictable, but I was completely mesmerised by The Magic Faraway Tree. Blind as I was to the gender and class problems, I was swept up that tre and into a magic world. Sliding down the tree, being drenched by Mrs Wisher-Washy, meeting Moonface; it was all as real to me as Saturday Morning Swap Shop and spending my 15p pocket money on penny tray each Friday after school.

As I grew, so did my choice of books, but it was still Enid for me. Even more dubiously, I was now transported into a private boarding school for girls where the heroine was the sporty Darrell and the victim of the girl's scorn was Gwendoline, who brushed her hair one hundred times each night before bed. How I longed to be sent to boarding school!

As an adult I re-read these books to my own kids and was stunned that I had failed to see how I was nothing like Darrell, far more like Gwendoline, and how poorly I would have fared at Malory Towers.

Teenage Books

The next book that made an impact was our first class read after I started secondary school: I Am David by Anne Holm. As I type it is in a pile next to me, ready for my next creative writing lesson at a local school. Unlike the Blytons, this is a book that did not disappoint me when I re-visited it as an adult. David, helped by his abusive captor, escapes from a labour camp. The novel tells of his struggle for survival in war-torn Europe and is a wonderful companion to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief, all of which look at the impact of war through a child's eyes.

And then, along with boys and budding breasts, I discovered Judy Blume. Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? was an especially powerful initiation into teenage angst. I have always like to find my own experience reflected in books, and this is what I discovered with Judy Blume, an author who 'got it'. Which, at that age, no other adult seemed to. 


By the time I was 16 it was clear that English Literature was my subject, so for the next five years (A Levels and degree) my reading was prescribed by the syllabus. So, I read Thomas Hardy, LP Hartley, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Homer .... anything strike you about this list?

No women.

That's right, not a SINGLE female author in five years prescribed reading! Luckily, I took a (short, optional) course in feminist literature when I was at Warwick and this introduced me to Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale is a book that still resonates - only yesterday I was with some refugees from Iraq and the women had to ask their husbands if they could take a walk in the nearby park. What Atwood does is take religion and history as it actually 'is', then she fictionalises it in such a way that it still makes strong comment on the world we live in now. A very clever book by one of my favourite authors, and I must have read it every year since I was 18. I still get as much pleasure as the first time and I would say that there is no better time to read it than right now.

In one of my summer breaks from university, when I took the rare chance to read something off-timetable, I picked up a book called Perfect Victim. This is a true crime book about Colleen Stan, a nineteen year old who was kidnapped whilst hitchhiking, and kept prisoner for nine years, most of that time she was kept in a box under her kidnapper's bed.

It is a story that (sadly) we have become familiar with, through recent cases as well as the fictional novel Room, but back then I had never heard of such a crime. I'm placing it as an influential book, not because of its great prose, but because it showed me how a book can challenge the reader, and how real crime can be presented in as gripping a way as fiction. I remember puzzling over the fact that the victim had many chances to escape (including a trip home to her family) but simply didn't take them, she was so conditioned to be afraid. Reading that book, I was learning about Stockholm syndrome, about the relationship between abuser and victim. In a few years I would train as a probation officer and a few years after that I would begin to write crime novels. So maybe it started with Perfect Victim.

As a writer .....

I said that I like to have my own experiences reflected in what I read, so I am very fond of a book called Mortifications which has writers describe their most embarrassing moments. 

There are some absolute classics; Margaret Atwood describes a book signing in a fur shop where no-one came, Emma Donoghue was interviewed by a radio presenter who had no clue whom she was and moaned about it whilst she was listening .. the book makes me laugh and also reminds me of the absurdity of this job I do, which has given me a few mortifying moments of my own.

Finally, as a crime novelist ...

What I search for now, is that perfect example. The book that is going to leave me feeling, I wish I'd written that. The book that is going to show me just how far a writer can go. And the best examples, for me, are American. (I don't think this is a co-incidence; the British publishing industry is so very conservative).

I've said before, but I still haven't found a crime novel to beat Sharp Objects. Although it was Gone Girl that really shot Gillian Flynn to fame, her first novel is far darker, with a grim series of event sin a bleak landscape. Our protagonist, Camille, is so likeable and so fucked-up, she is a cutter who stabs wounds into her flesh, and we want to save her as much as we want to discover who is killing young girls in Wind Gap. I recommend it highly!

Thanks for joining me on this trip down memory lane!

Ruth Dugdall worked as a probation officer for almost a decade in high security prisons in the Suffolk area. Now living in Luxembourg, she is currently working at a local prison.
Ruth has years of experience working with children who have been convicted of murder, having been based at one of the UK's three prisons that specialises in this area.
Ruth's writing is heavily influenced by her professional background, providing authenticity and credibility to the crime genre.

Ruth has published five novels: The James Version (2010), The Woman Before Me (2010), The Sacrificial Man (2011), Humber Boy B (2015) and Nowhere Girl (2015).

Visit Ruth at
Follow her on Twitter @RuthDugdall


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