Ruth Dudley-Edwards is a historian, a journalist and a fiction writer.
She won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the National National University of Ireland Prize for Historical Research, and was shortlisted for the channel 4 political book prize.
For her fiction, she has been shortlisted by the Crime Writers' Association for the John Creasey Award for the best first novel and won the CrimeFest Last Laugh award for the funniest crime novel of the year.
Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and The Families’ Pursuit of Justice won the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction in 2010. While you were writing it did you suspect it would become such a huge success?
All of us hope our books will succeed, but I avoid disappointment by having very low expectations. That self-defence mechanism means I’m delighted when a book is well-received rather than upset because it hasn’t done better.
I was thrilled to be long-listed for the Orwell Prize and absolutely overjoyed to win the CWA Gold Dagger. I love the world of crime-writing, and the good opinion of my peers matters greatly to me. I take great pride in being the only person to have won the Non-Fiction Gold Dagger and the Last Laugh Award.
What motivated you to write about the victims of the Omagh bombing?
As a journalist covering
I was all too aware of the suffering caused by violence. I knew Omagh well, and in August 1998, the
day the bomb went off, a close friend rang to tell me his wife and two small
children had been shopping there and had escaped by seconds being wiped
out. Although they were lucky, I know
something of how painful were the after-effects and it made me take this
particular outrage more personally than usual. Northern Ireland
While some of the perpetrators of the bombing were known to the authorities, there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges. In 2000, through a mutual friend, the crime-writer Simon Shaw, I was asked by the father of a murdered twelve-year-old to help with launching a civil case against the alleged bombers. I came to know the victims who were taking the case and to learn about the sheer horror of the bombing and the terrible effects of grief. And I thought it vital that ordinary people should be helped to fight back against their persecutors.
We were told it was mission impossible, but we went ahead. I spent years involved in lobbying and fund-raising, along with a bizarre collection of people who agreed to help because they were inspired by the courage and determination of these people who were battling for justice for their loved ones. They included Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, Bob Geldof, Peter Mandelson, the Marquess of Salisbury and two ex-terrorists. The case was taken on by Jason McCue, who during the course of it married Mariella Frostrup and became George Clooney’s new best friend.
When it was clear that the case would go ahead, I realised I should write this astonishing story. It is, I hope both tragic and inspiring, but we were such an odd group and made so many mistakes that there are quite a few laughs along the way.
On your website you describe yourself as ‘Author and Journalist’. You wrote somewhere that ‘Journalists must always seek and tell the truth’. Writing fiction is a very different discipline. Most authors struggle to succeed in just one of these, yet you succeed in both. Can you tell us how your approach differs when writing non-fiction and fiction?
I’m an historian by training and my first books were historical biographies. I’ve always thought it was first and foremost the job of an historian to tell the truth even if it’s unpalatable. I take the same view of journalism, which I took up in the early 1990s because I thought that - in an effort to seduce paramilitaries towards peace negotiations - most of the media were going easy on the brutality, criminality and corruption of the IRA, its Sinn Fein mouthpiece and their loyalist counterparts. There’s enough censorship about without journalists gagging themselves because they think they’re political players.
In consequence, I and the other few like-minded journalists had to get used to being abused routinely for being anti-peace. As one of us – fed up with the Orwellian lunacy of being abused as warmongers by mass killers – wrote: “Just because I’ve never murdered anyone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”
While I try to tell the essential truths about the worlds I describe in my fiction, I hugely enjoy exaggerating, embroidering and just making things up. Often, when I’m writing non-fiction and trying to get everything right, I think longingly of how much I’ll enjoy letting my imagination rip in the next novel.
Given that you claim to be ‘squeamish and prone to nightmares’ can you tell us what attracted you to write about crime?
Although I don’t read scary crime unless I have to, I’ve been a fan of crime fiction since I was a child, when I began solidly reading my way through the authors of the Golden Age. I loved Christie and Sayers and Allingham and Chesterton and all the rest of them, but because I was brought up in an academic household, I took special pleasure in Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes, who wore their learning lightly and made fun of academics, who are the butt of many of my jokes.
I couldn’t write graphic sex or violence in my novels, yet – based on inquest reports - I described in detail in Aftermath exactly what happens to people when they are blown up. I had to tell the truth because this was about reality. I needed to go to a shrink afterwards to unload some of the mental images, but I’ve no regrets. There is too much romanticism about terrorism and we should do anything we can to dispel it.
What did you mean when you said you write with the ‘eye of an outsider’? Do you think authors of fiction are always in some sense ‘outsiders’, observing other people?
Yes, I think writers of fiction need the eye of the outsider, but my history makes me a rather extreme case of outsiderness. I was born and educated in
is my chosen and adored home and my whole working life has been based here –
some of the time in the pubic service. Yet
I keep a keen interest in London . I describe myself as British and Irish, which
because of old enmities, few people did until very recently. Ireland
My background is mixed: my paternal Irish Catholic militantly republican grandmother (who had a photograph of Hitler at the bottom of her bed and claimed the Holocaust was British propaganda) was married to an English Methodist-turned-Quaker, and my Irish Catholic apolitical maternal grandmother was married to an Irish Catholic Home Ruler and British Army quartermaster. My father was urban and an academic historian: my mother rural, and passionate about literature, language and poetry.
For two decades my major intellectual passion was
and the need to understand, expose and defeat terrorism from any quarter. I was brought up as a (sceptical) Catholic
nationalist, but as many of my own tribe decided I was a turncoat, almost all
my closest friends in Northern Ireland are Protestant and unionist. I made
friends with the devoutly religious Orange Order for a time, even thought they
knew I was an atheist. Northern
For two decades my major intellectual passion was
I’m best known in Irish nationalist circles for a biography of Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion, in unionist circles for The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions and in English circles for my books on the press and for the novels making fun of the British Establishment. I am, I think, probably the only person who was, one summer day, faced with a choice between a merry shindig in
a Buckingham Palace Garden Party or observing a violent stand-off over a
disputed Orange parade at Drumcree. Cursing, I
These, days, Islamic terrorism is a preoccupation and I find myself in punch-ups with anti-semites and Islamist apologists.
Your wonderfully eccentric characters are great fun to read. Are they ever based on people you know?
I borrow useful characteristics from anyone and everyone. My friends are resigned to it: my enemies don’t know.
While your crime fiction is hugely entertaining, it satirises the establishment. Is your intention purely to entertain, or do you have a more serious purpose in writing?
Thanks, Leigh. I love it when people find my books entertaining.
I suppose I like to write about what I know. Because of working in the civil service, writing books about e.g. the Foreign Office, The Economist, Fleet Street, and Victor Gollancz and the intellectual left, as well as being involved in Anglo-Irish carry-on that involved diplomats, politicians and journalists, I’m pretty well-up on the establishment and it offers great scope for satire. I didn’t set out to be a satirist, but – it’s part of being an outsider, I guess – as soon as I began my first novel, Corridors of Death, although I just wanted to tell a murder story, I found myself trying to explain the ethos of the civil service to the reader and make fun of it where I could. All institutions end up taking themselves much too seriously and seeing survival as their chief goal. The BBC might be a future subject.
As well as the civil service, my targets include gentlemen’s clubs, the House of Lords, literary prizes, the Church of England, academics (British, Irish and American) and journalism. The latest, Killing the Emperors, is an assault on the corrupt art establishment that has wrecked art education, dissed past geniuses, discouraged young talent and told us that the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst have clothes on.
I tend to see the funny side of most of life, especially of grave, pompous people who are up themselves. I love the line from the grandmother of a great friend: “You must learn to laugh at everything, because usually there’s nothing to laugh at.”
Do you plan your plots in detail?
Absolutely not. I know where I’m setting a novel, I think about it and research it, but when it comes to the plot, I’m doing well if I know who’s going to be the first corpse.
Do you have a writing routine?
No. I write a lot of journalism (at the moment I have an article for the Irish
Sunday Independent and three Daily Telegraph blogs
to do every week) and I do a fair bit of speaking and a lot of socialising as
well as participating in social media, so there’s no chance of routine. But when I begin a book I try to cut down on
other commitments. Before the days of
non-stop communication, I could write a book in a few weeks. Nowadays I’m fighting to find time and they take
Can you tell us what you are currently writing?
As soon as Killing the Emperors has been published, I’ll begin to concentrate on the next novel, which is about human rights lawyers. I have lots of views about them, but I need more long conversations with friendly lawyers and to do more reading before I plunge in. My publishers want a book a year, so I don’t think non-fiction will be getting much of a look-in for the foreseeable future. But who knows?
This interview was first published in Mystery People