Sue Russell’s fascinating new book, A Vision of Locusts, has just been published. I asked her some questions about it – and about writing in general.
Could you briefly describe how you first started writing?
At some level I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very early age – maybe even 5! I was always reading and making up stories, and as time went on I branched out into children’s stories, poetry and other things. With work and family life writing got crowded out but it was always there, the quiet insistent voice, the unappeased itch. My complaints made a group of friends issue the challenge to pin down the first draft of the adult novel I had always wanted to write – before my 50th birthday. Leviathan with a Fish-hook was the result, but it took another 8 years of hiding it away, revising and editing, writing a sequel, submitting and being rejected, for it to appear in public.
You have written various books, which you would describe as all fitting into the genre of ‘realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’. What do you mean by this, and would you say this latest book fits into this category too?
‘Realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’: it’s a bit of a mouthful but yes, I am aiming it at an adult audience (although arguably A Vision of Locusts, with its adolescent protagonist, could be read by young adults also). It is written openly from a Christian viewpoint with some Christian characters, but without, I hope, any in-your-face heavy sell or preaching. The backgrounds are British, a stumbling block for some, an attraction for others, or so I gather; the time-settings are recent – 1990s to 2011 so far. I tend to write stories that happened about 5 years before the time of writing!
As for realistic, my characters, whether Christian or not, are, I hope, real believable people, with doubts and fears and failures as well as delights and triumphs. I feel there’s a place for portraying Christians as normal people with recognisable life issues, and I like to think my clergy characters go some way to redressing the poor image of ministers in the media. The ones I know are self-sacrificing, genuine, hard-working, sometimes even saintly. They certainly aren’t weak-chinned buffoons.
The premise of the book is fascinating – could you give a brief description and explain where the inspiration came from?
To be honest with you, I don’t remember. Where do ideas come from? Where does inspiration spring? I suspect it all comes from several sources, among which may be one’s own particular leanings. I had the idea of a small Christian community threatened by a malevolent outside force. I’ve long been interested in the thin wall between what is deemed normal and what isn’t, in our own age. (In some of my other books mental illnesses are present.) I leave it to the reader to decide just what is the issue with Paul/Will. The idea of an unlikely heroine isn’t new, nor the idea that salvation may come out of left field. But as with most novels, I suspect, as the story unrolled and the characters took on life, a fair bit of my original concept altered.
Your characters are strong, and it is great to get an insight into their thoughts throughout the book – was that an intentional device to help the reader feel more connected to them?
I’m not sure whether the insights into the characters’ thoughts in Locusts was intentional or not – it seemed to be the best vehicle for understanding their private motivations. I have used internal monologue quite a lot in my books, and with the Christian characters in particular it’s a way of showing sincere faith struggles as well as how the characters cope with the general problems of life.
Could you give us an insight into your writing process? For instance, do you map out each story first or does it evolve over time? How immersed do you get into the characters and scenes – do you work for an extended period of time solely on the book or do you fit the writing around other things?
My writing process seems to have altered with each book. I am in some ways less confident now than I was all that time ago when I plunged blithely in and just wrote: perhaps because I know more now, and also because I dislike the prospect of major rewriting arising from gaping plot-holes! So I do a lot of research, note-taking, cogitating, making diagrams, reading how-to books (some more helpful than others) and conferring, before chapter one gets under way. Things can and do change en route – new ideas pop up – it’s just that with a plan these changes are less likely to derail the story! Once I hit my stride I can write very fast and for concentrated periods, but I will stop and do something else in between; otherwise (quite apart from the demands of normal life) I might just get a bit unhinged – it’s very easy for characters to take on more reality than perhaps is healthy!
Do you have another project you are thinking ahead to now?
My next project is in fact already well under way, although I haven’t yet written a single word of the story itself. After a lengthy period of thinking I’m beginning to understand how this story will pan out and what its intended payoff will be. Any more than that will be a spoiler!