When I met author Ruth Dudley Edwards at the PrimeCrime Conference in 2022 in Indianapolis, I immediately knew I wanted to interview her. What I didn’t know was that she would be the featured author in September of 2023, the same month I would be traveling to the British Isles for the first time! Nor did I know that I would be in London and have the opportunity to meet her at her favorite café in Covent Garden. Wow! The universe sends gifts when one least expects them.
So, dear readers, it is my great honor to share with you my interview with the multitalented, richly awarded writer, whose perceptive wit, insight, and uncompromising principles call to task many of our institutions in government and academia. Let me share a few facts about Ms. Edwards. On her website, she lists herself as a “sometime academic, teacher, marketing executive and civil servant.” Since 1979, she has worked as a freelance writer. Born and raised in Dublin, Edwards studied at University College Dublin, was a post-graduate student at Cambridge University, and currently lives in London. An historian and prize-winning biographer (the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Victor Gollancz: a biography), her recent non-fiction books include True Brits: inside the Foreign Office, The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993, The Faithful Tribe: an intimate portrait of the loyal institutions (shortlisted for the Channel 4 political book prize); Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the glory days of Fleet Street; Aftermath: the Omagh bombings and the families pursuit of justice (longlisted for the Orwell Prize, shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize and winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction); and The Seven: the founding fathers of the Irish Republic.
Here we go…
Janet E. Irvin: Welcome, Ruth. Thank you for joining us this month. I suppose my initial question is about your choice to become an author. What first propelled you toward a writing career?
Ruth Dudley Edwards: Being hard up was the driver. That I became a writer would have surprised the young me, who just wanted to be left in peace to read all the time (preferably crime fiction), with occasional breaks for socialising. I assumed I would follow the family trade of teaching, but when I began a doctorate in Cambridge, I began doing book reviews for an Irish newspaper which provided free books and modest fees.
That led to a commission to do a history textbook and then to produce a biography of the leader of the 1916 Irish Revolution who was looked up to as a saint and a hero but struck me as a tortured soul who did a lot of harm. Published in 1977, Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure, was a critical success and made some money. I had already realised I didn’t like teaching, so academia was out. I was a public servant for most of the 1970s, took on another biography, and realised I had to choose one career or the other. So in 1979, I chose the freedom and financial insecurity of freelance writing. On the grounds that I was steeped in crime fiction, I was offered a small advance to have a go at a crime novel and produced one set in the British civil service which I had just left and was a critical — if not commercial — success.
JEI: You work in both fiction and non-fiction. Does one genre appeal to you more than the other? Why or why not?
RDE: I’ve written 12 in each genre. I find them complementary. When I’m writing fiction and struggling with the plot, I yearn for the simplicity of non-fiction, where you already know what happened. And when I’m writing non-fiction, I yearn for the freedom of making up the plot as you go along. Writing stories and columns vastly improved my style and my non-fiction gives me ideas for my fiction.
Although the majority of my non-fiction has nothing to do with Ireland, in 2016, in The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic, I returned to the territory of the Pearse biography. And I was delighted by a review that said, “At times, it reads like the work of fiction that it is not, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, with a novelist’s unerring narrative skill, interweaves the lives of the seven signatories of the Proclamation from their disparate beginnings to their common end.”
JEI: In your fiction work, there is a decided tongue-in-cheek feel to the dialogue and the thematic material, as though you’re putting us on, or expecting a reader to be as discerning as you are. How does the tone of the work affect its perception by readers?
RDE: I didn’t set out to write comic crime but many of my favourite writers, like P.G. Wodehouse, and, in crime fiction, Edmund Crispin, have a tremendous sense of the ridiculous. With Corridors of Death, my first novel, jokes kept arriving unasked.
My contention is that mostly I am patient and good-tempered even with difficult people because I can make fun of them in the future in a crime novel. On the whole, my readers know what to expect and enjoy the satirical and iconoclastic aspects of what I produce. Unlike the enthusiasts for terrifying, gory books, my readers are uniformly delightful.
JEI: How would you like your work to be remembered?
RDE: I’d like the non-fiction to be recognised as honest and the fiction as fun.
JEI: Readers and aspiring writers are always interested in how a writer works. Over the years, how has your writing process evolved?
RDE: Technology is responsible for all the major changes in how and what I write. I began dictating crime stories when I got a small portable tape recorder that enabled me to pace up and down in a convenient cemetery. They’re usually pretty empty and headstones are a great source of entertaining names.
I hated writing by hand and learned to type when I was 16 so started out with a manual typewriter. These days I’m a resentful slave to Apple devices, am reliant on the internet, and use Facebook and Twitter (sorry, X). In non-fiction, I’ve been saved by technology from much tiresome commuting and appreciate being spared endless drudgery. But sometimes with non-fiction, I’m nostalgic for the thrill of opening a file and seeing and smelling a document written by one of my subjects.
JEI: Of all the books you have produced, which was the most challenging to write? Why?
RDE: Non-fiction is much more challenging than fiction. The Pursuit of Reason: the Economist, 1843-1993, involved reading every single weekly issue over 150 years as well as doing hundreds of interviews. Aftermath: the Omagh bombing and the families’ pursuit of justice, was very harrowing. After I had read several inquest reports, for the first time in my life I had to find a therapist to unload onto.
In fiction, where I’ve satirised institutions like the House of Lords, the Church of England, publishing, and the art market, it is academia in England and the USA that has been the most challenging target because it turned out to have become far madder than I had realised. I went for it first in 1994 in Matricide at Saint Martha’s, set in Cambridge, and in 2007, Murdering Americans, set on an Indiana campus. But over the last few years, I’ve had to abandon Death of a Snowflake, set in a Cambridge-based auxiliary of an American university, because the excesses of Wokery and the totalitarian bullying of reality far outstripped my worst imaginings.
JEI: Your work has received numerous awards. Do accolades improve an author’s productivity, enhance one’s standing in the literary world, or simply serve as an ego boost with no practical value? If they have value of any kind, what might that be?
RDE: They’re very good for morale, which is a kinder way of putting it than ego boost. It’s a lonely job at times, and one gets assailed by doubts. I can’t be the only writer who needs reassurance that what they’re doing is worthwhile. It made me very happy that I pulled off the double of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction for the book on the Omagh bombing and the Crimefest Last Laugh Award for Murdering Americans.
JEI: You describe yourself as “culturally both Irish and English.” What advantages does this give you as a writer?
RDE: I was born and educated in the Republic of Ireland, but ever since I was 21 I’ve lived in England. It helped make me a bit of an outsider, in both cultures, which I regard as a great advantage for a writer. And I appreciate both black Irish humour and the English joy in making fun of themselves.
JEI: Of all the issues we currently face as global citizens, which one would you deem of most critical importance?
RDE: The loss of confidence in its values that is weakening the West in dealing with domestic and international threats to democracy and, particularly, free speech.
JEI: You currently write columns for two newspapers. Are you working on any other fiction or nonfiction projects at this time?
RDE: Just one weekly column these days. I’m finishing a book on English royal consorts from Boudicca to Camilla. And I’m trying to find a way of satirising Wokery in a mad world.
JEI: That is a novel I look forward to reading! Now, for a bit of the whimsical and personal…what’s your favorite restaurant in London?
RDE: Café Koha, in Covent Garden, has been my favourite place for fifteen years. It’s owned and staffed by Kosovo Albanian refugees who provide excellent fusion food and run it according to the Italian motto “Mi casa, su casa” (my house is your house).
JEI: My thanks to Ruth for joining us and sharing her thoughts this month. For more about the author and her work, visit www.ruthdudleyedwards.co.uk
Here is a small selection of Ruth’s books: