Marni Graff: I’m excited to bring this exclusive interview with Elly Griffiths to Miss Demeanors’ readers. Elly’s body of work won her the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library in 2016 and she hasn’t let that stop her. Her books featuring Dr. Ruth Galloway and DCI Nelson have been shortlisted five times for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and long and short-listed for the CWA Gold Dagger. Her new series featuring Detective Harbinder Kaur began with The Stranger Diaries, which was a Richard and Judy book club pick, and won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in the USA. The Postscript Murders followed and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.
MG: Thank you for visiting Miss Demeanors, Elly. Let’s start with the present: your new podcast, The Plot Thickens (podcasts.apple.com) What prompted you to go down this road? Can you talk about your choice of first guest, and give a mention of a few more we can look forward to seeing as this advances?
Elly Griffiths: Thank you for having me! 2023’s The Last Remains marks 15 years of Ruth and, to celebrate, I thought I’d talk with some of the people who have helped me along the way. There could only be one guest for the first episode – my editor, Jane Wood, who first decided to take a chance on a book by an unknown author called EG Griffiths. Jane and I chat about the day we met, the work we did on that first book, The Crossing Places, and how EG became Elly. In later episodes I talk to Linzi Harvey, the archaeologist who has advised on the books, and to some of the many writers who have supported me, including Ann Cleeves, Mick Herron and Val McDermid.
MG: Circling back to your early writings, I know you’ve written four standalone novels and a NF book, 2001’s The Little Book of Shakespeare and Food. What made you pivot to crime and Dr. Ruth Galloway, who’s been delighting readers since she first appeared in 2009 and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award and was shortlisted for Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year, with its cast of highly creative recurring characters. Where did the idea for Ruth, a strong, independent woman, spring from?
EG: You are the only person who remembers The Little Book of Shakespeare and Food! Yes, I was first published under my real name, Domenica de Rosa (I know it sounds like a pseudonym). I wrote four books that could loosely be classified as romance before turning to crime. It was the place that came first. I was walking across marshland in North Norfolk with my husband Andy, who is an archaeologist. Andy mentioned that prehistoric people saw marshland as sacred: because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in between, they saw it as a link to the afterlife. Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. In that instant, I saw Dr Ruth Galloway walking towards me. She was all I had but she led me to the other characters.
MG: The first time we met at Bouchercon Albany was early in the series, and you said then you weren’t certain where you were taking Ruth. The series has proven its strength and popularity, with The Night Hawks winning Best Novel and you Best Author at the Crime Fiction Lover Awards in 2021. Now you’re going to be publishing your next book in this addicting series, The Last Remains, coming up in early 2023. How much of Ruth’s story have you worked out or do you decide as you write each book? Why do you think Ruth and Nelson and the recurring characters have become such favorites with readers?
EG: I remember that so well! We went for a coffee with my friend and fellow British crime-writer, Elizabeth Haynes. I think I had written three Ruth books then but I had no idea how many I would get to write because the books weren’t exactly bestsellers at first.
I always knew that Ruth and Nelson would have a long and complicated story but I wasn’t sure that I would get the opportunity to tell it. I’m so grateful to my British publishers, Quercus, and US publishers (then HMH now Mariner Book) for having faith in me. I still didn’t know what would happen to Ruth and Nelson when I wrote Book 14, The Locked Room, which was set during the lockdown of 2020. Something about that book, maybe the space provided by lockdown, made me realize how their story would end. That’s why The Last Remains will be the last Ruth book – for now!
I don’t know why Ruth and Nelson have proved such favourites but I’m so grateful to readers who have taken them to their hearts.
MG: That’s a stunner! You seem to have found a natural end for Ruth, but I have difficulty thinking your readers will allow you to get away from her for too long . . .
If I’m not mistaken, your first book starring detective Harbinder Kaur, The Stranger Diaries, was originally called a stand-alone. She was such a popular character that its sequel, The Postcript Murders, was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger from The Crime Writers Association. In the most recent, Bleeding Heart Yard, you’ve upgraded her job and her living situation and grown her as a person. She’s such a different character from Ruth. How did you design her and make those choices?
EG: Yes! The Stranger Diaries, a modern gothic thriller, was meant to be a standalone. A woman is killed, in a way that recalls a Victorian ghost story, and in walks the detective – Harbinder Kaur. I’m not sure where she came from. I have a friend from a similar Punjabi Sikh background but, otherwise, Harbinder is just herself. She’s quite acerbic, which makes her fun to write, but, for that reason, I was surprised – and delighted! – by how much people liked her. Harbinger appears again in The Postscript Murders and, in Bleeding Heart Yard, she has a new job in London. I wanted to give her a bigger stage and move her away from home. I also wanted her romantic life to develop. Harbinder is gay and, although now out to her parents, hasn’t had much of a love life in the books so far. London proves exciting in more ways than one.
MG: All of your series have so many well-drawn, original characters—Cathbad springs to mind; you had many readers flipping pages in The Locked Room when he was in jeopardy—but thinking of Ruth and Nelson, Judy and Cathbad, Harbinder Kaur, plus so many others, the one thing they have in common is that they feel so real to readers. Do you hear them in your head in what Eudora Welty called your “reader voice?” Could you share with us how you develop those realistic, and often, wry voices?
EG: Thank you. That’s a terrific compliment – especially from someone who is no slouch at creating compelling characters! For me, character is key to everything. If readers don’t care about your characters, then your books will have no tension or suspense. A lot of it is the voice – I can tell immediately if a character is going to sustain a story. It’s not always the most vibrant personalities, just something about the way they express themselves. For example, I find it hard to write in Cathbad’s point-of-view but Edgar (The Brighton Mysteries) is one of my favourites.
MG: Speaking of detective Edgar Stephens, what was the genesis of writing your historical series he appears in, he Brighton Mysteries, with six in print now including the most recent The Midnight Hour? That series has evolved, too, and your attention to detail of the era is spot on. Does it take you longer to write these due to time period research?
EG: This series was inspired by my grandfather, who was a vaudeville performer. He left me his playbills and the names inspired the books. The historical research for these books takes longer but, on the other hand, I don’t have to get all the technology right! It’s great fun to write crime fiction set in the days before mobile phones and the internet.
MG: You also have a YA series that’s proven to be popular, the Justice Jones books (A Girl Called Justice). Will you do more of those?
EG: I had only ever planned four books, starting in 1936 and going up to the start of World War 2 in 1939. Justice was inspired by my mother, Sheila, who was at boarding school during the war. I love her as a character and so, as with Ruth, would not rule out another book one day.
MG: Finally, how do you juggle your writing time with several series and now a podcast? I am in awe of your output with each book so entertaining and a heady mix of a darn good mystery plus moments of heartfelt emotion. You travel with your family and are a sought-after panelist at crime conferences and book events, and recently contributed a Miss Marple story to the new anthology Marple: Twelve New Mysteries. Do you keep to a writing schedule? Write more than one at the same time? What’s your secret weapon now that Gus the cat has left the room?
EG: I’m quite disciplined when it comes to writing. I’m not someone who writes while travelling. I like to be at home in my writing shed, no noise, no distractions. When I’m at my desk I write at least 1,000 words a day and concentrate on one book at a time. My constant companion was my cat, Gus, who sadly died in April, aged 18. We have a new kitten, Pip, but he’s too still too young to be allowed out. I have a feeling that the shed will be more chaotic when he makes his appearance…
MG: I’d best leave you to get back to it then, as your fans are waiting. Readers will be on the edge of our seats to read perhaps the last Dr. Ruth/Nelson book The Last Remains, when it premieres (January 31st in the UK and in the US, not until April 23rd but available for pre-order November 23rd). We’ll be flipping pages to see how Ruth and Nelson’s story turns out.
Thank you sincerely for visiting us today and sharing your writing story, Elly~