Felixstowe author prepares for Halloween launch of new thriller Nowhere Girl
- Credit: Archant
It’s a busy year for Felixstowe’s Ruth Dugdall, with one novel out last spring and a new psychological thriller due at Halloween.
She tells Steven Russell about life’s dark side… and dreams of kitchen units.
Ruth Dugdall is currently an ex-pat, living abroad because of husband Andrew’s job in human resources. Being a writer, she’s found inspiration in her temporary home. Nowhere Girl is set in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
It’s about teenager Ellie, who goes missing on the first day of a big annual fair. The police – in Ruth’s story – are dismissive, keen to avoid negative publicity for one of Luxembourg’s most important events.
Probation officer Cate Austin, who has moved to this country of 563,000 or so people for a fresh start and lives with her detective boyfriend, sees how casually he is taking the 17-year-old’s disappearance and opts to investigate for herself.
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This nation of just 999 square miles, she discovers, has a dark heart. Is it at the centre of a child trafficking ring?
So, how did Ruth get the idea?
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“I had only been in Luxembourg a few weeks, and the kids had just started at a nearby school. One morning, when I dropped them off, I noticed a lot more security staff hanging around, and they were stopping each car to check that children were being collected and not walking home alone.
“I was meant to drive straight back to our flat, but instead I parked up and tried to find out what was going on. It seemed there had been three attempted kidnappings in the area, though no further details were available.
“The idea of a child being kidnapped in Luxembourg is truly terrifying; we are 15 minutes from three other countries (Belgium, France and Germany) and then just a few hours from Holland, Switzerland. Where would a search even begin?
“Another thing that was really important was that the annual Shueberfouer was taking place, which is a huge annual fair that lasts several weeks. The kids loved it, and I hated it. I’m afraid of fast rides, and my son begs to go on them...if I give in, I have to watch with sweaty palms! Crowds and queues don’t really work for me... It was the perfect place for a child to go missing.”
As the mother of a daughter and son, is it hard thinking about child abduction? Surely it’s the kind of horror parents want to blank from their minds? “Yes, but that is exactly what makes me tick. And looking at how popular Greek plays have always been, I know I’m not alone. Human stories of jealousy and rage and guilt.
“It’s exploring those situations that most terrify me that I find compelling. I simply can’t stop worrying away at it; it’s like a scab I can’t help picking.
“I think that for readers it’s the same motivation. A chance to think about how we might cope with something, but from the safety of our armchair. Not all readers want this, of course, but then they wouldn’t read my books.”
As a writer, does she ever feel a moral responsibility to consider the sensitivities of potential readers, or people who hear about the subject matter of her books – people, for instance, who have lost a child in awful circumstances?
“That is a really good question, and it does bother me when I read about a victim’s family complaining about the media exploiting their pain. But I also strongly believe that no subject should be off-limits for writers, be they novelists or playwrights, or artists.
“Yes, people will be offended by different things, but if the only things that got written pleased everyone, they would be very bland indeed. And unimportant. We need to tackle difficult subjects; we need to talk about things. Even if they are uncomfortable.
“Living in Luxembourg, you can’t get away from the legacy of World War Two, and last week I took the family to Dachau [the former concentration camp near Munich]. To avoid subjects that are difficult is a mistake and I think understanding the past helps put context on the present, since humans repeat the same patterns of behaviour. An ISIS fighter isn’t so different from a member of the IRA; terrorism is cultish. To give it context is the first step, and it makes the situation less hopeless.”
Ruth used to be a probation officer, fascinated by the inner workings of criminals. She even sought a role at a Suffolk prison that held young people who had committed the most serious offences, such as murder. What’s it like having to deal with a child like that?
“There is really only one rule, and that is to be prepared to ask the unaskable. Once the child knows that they can’t shock you – and this is something they will be afraid of – then the barriers come down quickly because the child will be as bewildered as everyone else.
“Most of the kids I worked with were frightened by their own behaviour, and wanted a context in which to explain or understand it. Most of them also felt some relief in prison, as it gave them a routine and boundaries, when usually their lives outside were chaotic.”
On a happier note, does she feel the tug of Felixstowe?
“I do get homesick. Lovely though Luxembourg is, it’s not home. What I long for is the everyday encounters, chatting to people in shops, popping to Boots, that kind of thing. I sometimes have to gear myself up to speak French, and it isn’t something I find easy.
“It’s been a great experience but I won’t be sorry to return to Suffolk, and to start living in the house we bought just before we moved. Andrew and I often chat about what we’ll do to it when we return, and fantasise about floorings and kitchen units. It’s our favourite diversion.”
What do her children think about her writing, and choice of subjects? “They have a fairly balanced view of it, probably because Andrew is not like me in this respect, and he will often rein in my musings, as will the kids.
“And I keep things balanced. There is a lot of laughter in our house and we all enjoy a good comedy. Last night we watched Vacation and were all laughing out loud in the cinema.
“There has to be light with the dark. And I count my lucky stars that there is plenty of lightness in my home. When I give a talk, people are always surprised that there are jokes. I have to tell a few before they cotton on, because they are anticipating a heavy event. And I do write lighter stories for Woman’s Weekly!”
• Nowhere Girl is published on October 31 by Legend Press: £7.99 print, £3.99 ebook.