This week we are delighted to have an interview with
When Rose’s son is admitted to intensive care immediately after birth, she befriends another woman on the maternity ward. But Rose’s son sadly dies, her friend’s son thrives and shortly there is a tragedy – and Rose is the only suspect.
Told through both the eyes of Rose, five years on from her prison cell, and those of the Parole Officer who has the power to release her from jail, ‘The Woman Before Me’ is an astonishingly observant, poignant and powerful tale of loss, motherhood and jealousy.
It says much for a novel when it can grip you so much that you keep reading all the way through 24 hours of a sick bug. Ruth Dugdall is the lady who has managed this both incredible and somewhat disgusting feat – I have just finished reading her wonderful novel The Woman Before Me, from my sick bed. I highly recommend it. (The book that is, not the bug.)
Ruth, you were a probation officer for ten years. Certain characters depicted as in roles of authority within the prison in The Woman Before Me are unpleasant to say the least. Have you really come across such behaviour within the prison system?
Hi Charlotte, even before I worked in a prison I knew it wasn’t like Butlins – I’d visited many prisoners across the country and most of the time the officers were friendly, the prison a bit smelly but not brutal. But when I took a secondment and was actually based on a unit, I had a bit of a wake-up call. I was locked up too, and my desk (I didn’t have my own office) was in the heart of the noise, shouting, key-clanging. Prison culture is very macho, and the officers feel that in order to keep control they need to act in a certain way. This was often at odds with what I was trying to achieve, so it wasn’t an easy experience, and I found myself getting my keys each morning and mentally putting on a mask, a suit of armour, rather like Cate does in the novel.
The Woman before Me strikes me as a story of loss. Have you ever suffered bereavement and did it play any part in the great poignancy of this novel?
This is a bit hard to talk about, but it’s something many readers have picked up on. I fell pregnant when I’d been working in the prison a year. At the same time I was under a great deal of stress; I don’t think that was why I lost the baby, but in my mind the prison environment is forever entwined with my loss. I had two miscarriages while I was there, and didn’t fully recover until my daughter was born.
It makes you vulnerable, having a child, and if they trip over you feel the knock yourself. The worst possible tragedy – the loss of a child – is at the heart of The Woman Before Me. The idea came to me the night I gave birth and I wrote it during my maternity leave, so there’s a piece of my soul in that book. I think that’s what connects with readers, especially women & mothers. The novel says something about our deepest fears and I wrote it as a way of managing mine.
Rose’s story is told with great compassion, despite the fact that she behaves in a manner which is completely out of normal social bounds. When watching awful stories unfold on the news, do you tend to feel more compassion for the perpetrators than the rest of the braying public, and how do you think that your work as a probation officer affects your ability to empathise with criminals?
I think it’s possible to be revolted by what someone has done, but still want to understand and I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who didn’t have some sort of story to explain why they ended up committing crime. I remember once working with a young woman who appeared to have everything going for her – she was pretty, had done well at school, had a supportive family – but from the age of fifteen she’d been violent, got into drugs, started burgling. I worked with her for weeks when, at a bit of a loss, I said to her, “I just don’t get it? What went wrong?” She was silent a bit and then said, “I was raped when I was fifteen. And no-one believed me.”
I don’t like crime novels that portray things as black and white, guilty or innocent. Most of those books end with the criminal being `banged to rights`, but for me that’s where the story begins.
At times this novel is heartbreakingly sad. What advice would you have for new writers attempting to convey sad scenes without becoming mawkish?
Write from your heart. Be willing to feel sad, to cry, have nightmares. It’s sort of `method writing`. Keats would say, “Glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.” If you don’t go to those dark places then you won’t be able to move your reader.
I could easily see this book as a film. In a perfect world, who would play the damaged and damaging Rose, and who would play the parole officer, Cate, who is trying to make sense of the story?
Gosh, I’d be delighted to see it as a film!
Ruth Wilson is a great actress – she’s best known for playing the lead in Jane Eyre, but was equally brilliant in the Turn of the Screw. There’s a mystery & sadness to her that would work well for Rose. Gemma Arterton would be spot-on as Cate.
I was rather struck by the names of the two female protagonists in this book. Do you take much time over choosing names for novels or do they appear in a flash of inspiration?
Names are very important to me. I choose names that are short and snappy, as I know I’ll be using them a lot over the course of the novel. Of course, Rose is a play on the idea of `by any other name, smelling sweet`. Is she as she appears? Cate is trying to be something she’s not – she’s abbreviated her name, trying to be cool, when really she’s uptight.
Some writers plan their books in great detail, others allow the story to develop of its own accord. Which is it for you and which is your preferred part of writing, the planning, writing or editing?
I write in an emotional, instinctive way so I tend to dive in. I’m being mentored by Laura Wilson at the moment, and she keeps telling me that I must plan and slow down. I know she’s right: if I wrote to a plan it would save a lot of heartache and cuts further down the line, but I’m addicted to that early stage when the story just carries you along.
Which if any, contemporary authors do you admire, and why?
I love Gillian Flynn. Sharp Objects is, for me anyway, an almost perfect crime novel. I’ve also just discovered Lesley Glacier who has a great ear for language. I also like Donna Tartt and Anita Shrieve: women writers who deal with dark subjects in a sensitive way. There’s a lot of fantastic teenage fiction out there too; I think that is where a lot of risks are being taken. Emily Barr and Laura Kasischke are good examples.
You spent time on the site ‘Authonomy’ which many Authors on Show visitors will also know! How important was your experience on there and what do you feel sites such as ours offer aspiring writers?
Feedback is great, but has to be taken with a pinch of salt on sites like Authonomy where everyone is hoping to rise in the charts. However, some people are very generous with their time and comments, and if someone is willing to be honest with you about your writing then that is a gift. I have a small group of writers whom I trust, and I encourage them to be brutally frank, as that’s the best way to develop as a writer.
Finally, if you could go for a romantic meal with any male character from any book ever written… Who would it be?
Hmmm. Tough, that one. Most of the books I read have men you wouldn’t even want to share a Subway with, let alone a full-blown meal. In fact, I’ve just been to my bookshelves for inspiration and all of the male characters are unsuitable dates – Hannibal, Jude, Maxim, that awful man in Chesil Beach… the most romantic book I own (two copies, actually as I bought one for my husband when we first met) is Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. It’s not clear if the protagonist is male or female but s/he is sensitive and lovely and good in bed. That’ll do for me.
Many thanks for your time, Ruth, and for letting me read your truly fabulous book. The Woman Before Me is available from bookshops or online from Amazon