It's one thing to write a novel. But writing a sequel brings a whole new set of challenges. You have to contend with reader expectations, publisher deadlines, and figuring out how to incorporate all the new things you've learned since you were a fresh-faced debut novelist. Many authors will tell you that writing a sequel, or second book of any kind, is really hard.
So when I was offered the opportunity to interview second-time author Ruth Leigh ahead of the publication of The Trials of Isabella M Smugge, I seized the chance to find out how her career as a freelance writer prepared her for this challenge. Make sure you read to the end to find out whether she's been put off writing sequels for life, or if there's going to be another Issy book one day.
(You might remember I reviewed Ruth's first book, The Diary of Isabella M Smugge, previously. While this interview gives away no spoilers about the new book in the series, it does cover some spoilers from the first novel. So if you want to keep the element of surprise, go and read that first!)
So without further ado, let's welcome Ruth to the blog!
1. When did you know you wanted to write a sequel?
The second I finished Diary, I started writing Trials (note how I’ve begun to refer to my books by one-word titles #secondtimeauthor #bitlikeissy). I had left it on such a massive cliff-hanger that I wanted to carry on in Issy’s voice before it dropped out of my head. I suppose I wrote about three pages of the first chapter then left it. While I was writing the first one, I was so absorbed that a sequel never occurred to me. However, I got near the end and realised that Claire would be hovering between life and death and knew that I had to keep going. Also I’d enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want it to end.
2. For clarity, I feel like I should point out that the Claire in question is one of your characters, and not me. Wouldn't want readers to think you were in the habit of leaving fellow authors at death's door! Moving on... a lot of authors talk of 'the dreaded second novel': meaning that they find a second book can come with higher expectations than the first. What was your experience like?
Very much that! When it came time to start writing book two, it took me about a fortnight to find Isabella’s voice again. It was harder second time around as she had to have changed, subtly, yet still be very much herself. Also I had all the readers clamouring to find out what happened to Claire and if Issy took Johnnie back. Most days, I’d be accosted in the village by people telling me I’d better not kill Claire and asking when the second one coming out. Accosted in a nice way! I lay awake at night a lot worrying that I wouldn’t be able to pull off a second Issy book and that people would be disappointed.
3. Did you approach writing the sequel differently?
No. I did it in exactly the same way as number one. I’d certainly learned a huge amount since I wrote Diary but my method of noting up and writing down ideas, plots, snippets of dialogue and narrative ideas seemed to work for me so I stuck with that. What was different was that I’d learned a lot more about structure and how to drive the narrative along, so I applied those lessons to the second one which helped a lot.
4. How have you managed spoiler-free conversations with readers, while you were writing? (For example, I contacted you on Twitter to say how much I didn't want Issy to take Johnnie back!)
That has been quite difficult! There were so many spoilers and I had to keep an eye on what I said. Apart from wanting Claire to survive, the main issue did seem to be around Johnnie. I knew what was going to happen and had to stay strong in the face of determined attacks from readers who would ring up or message me to ask if I could give them clues.
5. Your main character, Isabella, is a writer like you (though, I suspect, quite a different one to you in some ways!) At one point, she says 'People talk about the tyranny of the blank screen and I can tell you, it’s a thing.' How does that compare to your own experience of a career in writing?
She is completely different to me! Her writing studio must be enormous to contain all her many works (a pile of cardboard boxes in the dining room suffices for me) and her readers snap up every word she writes. However, we both sit at our desks gazing at a blank screen and scrabbling around for inspiration. I’ve certainly had that experience many times as a freelancer. You get the job; you do the interview and then you sit there cudgelling your brains for just the right opening hook. Or you’re nearly done and you just can’t come up with the right ending. Been there a thousand times, and even the accomplished Ms Smugge struggles sometimes.
6. One thing that's very impressive is the speed with which you've published a sequel, hot on the heels of your first novel. What's your writing schedule like? Are you someone who's very disciplined in making time to write, or do you have to squeeze writing time in between other commitments?
I don’t think I’m particularly disciplined, but I’ve been a freelancer for nearly fourteen years now and you have to juggle, prioritise and sometimes turn a piece around in a very short space of time (5 hours is my all-time personal best). These days, with more work in the diary and a book to write, and with the children all in their teens, I have much more uninterrupted time and I write every day. Some days I have to squeeze it in between school runs, sorting out elderly parents and other work and that’s stressful, but I’m heading towards being a full-time writer and that’s really encouraging.
7. Your main character is multi-talented: she's a photographer, interior designer and expert in social media. What was it like researching those things? (Or maybe these are all subjects you already have an interest in!)
There’s no stopping her, is there? I had the best time researching. She’s very good at lots of the things I’m not. I don’t know how she does it, to be honest! My research behaviour during writing goes like this. Walk/drive to village on Saturday morning. Purchase bacon roll and coffee from Darren and Sally at local café. Go to newsagents and buy Guardian and Times. Amble round market talking to my friends Olga the Jam Lady, Marie the Cheese Lady and Viv and Claire the Quiche Ladies. Pick up snippets of conversation and excellent anecdotes from them. Go home, read through papers and supplements, circle anything pretentious, spot trends, note up, think about how to weave them into the narrative. Google things like “autumn fashion trends” and “posh girls’ names from the Eighties” and so on. Repeat as often as necessary.
8. And finally, can you tell us what's next for Isabella?
I’ve started work on book three, The Life and Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge which will come out next year. After that, I hope to publish an actual Issy Smugge Says book, written by our very own Instamum in her very own voice. Isabella still has a lot to say and a long way to go, and I love helping her on her journey.
A huge thank you to Ruth for taking the time to talk about your writing experiences! All that remains to be said is that this is a fun and enjoyable second installment, which I read in under 24 hours. It's every bit as funny as the first Issy book, and takes the opportunity to deepen some of the friendships that we've seen the protagonist begin to form. The Trials of Isabella M Smugge is published by Instant Apostle and officially launches on 22nd October 2021. Find out more about Ruth's writing on Twitter and her website.