On 7th April 2020 fellow-author Ruth Leigh published a Post under the title “The Utter Joy of One’s Craft” on morethanwriters.blogspot.com.
That was the first appearance of Isabella M Smugge, under that name, out in the world.
I was one of those who left a comment on the post, and many of us were intrigued by the idea of Isabella; I mentioned that I felt I knew her: “Isabella M Smugge turns up at conferences and also moonlights as what I call ‘an internet siren’ – someone who is addicted to telling everyone else online how successful they are and how they did it and how if you exactly follow their own prescription of how they achieved it you too can be enormously successful and make millions.“
On 19th February 2021 a novel is published, with Isabella as its main character, which hadn’t been consciously planned at the time its author Ruth Leigh wrote that blog post. And today I’m part of the blog tour telling you about that novel.
In May Ruth published another post about her despair at the false picture people give about their lives online. The truth, she said, is always in brackets. Then Isabella re-appeared.
Among those who read the post was a literary agent who got in touch with Ruth and invited her to work up two opening chapters of a proposed book about Isabella, and he would see if he could find a publisher for her. The outcome is now clear; the book will be published by Instant Apostle on 19th February 2021.
Now I’ve read the book I realise Isabella reminds me of so many people: Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous; Margot Leadbetter in The Good Life; the “awful aristos” in Ghosts; Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.
Here’s my own review of the book:
This book is very much a surprise. We can begin to read it thinking it will be a waspish comic satire on the internet phenomenon of aspirational lifestyle influencers, who pretend their lives are perfect, and make everyone else feel they have to live up to it.
In fact the book is a very poignant and touching story about contemporary family life and relationships, the control of social media over our lives, our emotional wounds from the past, our lack of self-knowledge, and our deep need for non-judgemental friendship. To me, the style and atmosphere of the story brings it into the same realm as novels such as ‘The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment’ by Isobel Losada, and The Handbag and Wellies Yoga Club’ by Lucy Edge, although this book has more of a Christian flavour.
Isabella has moved with her husband and three children from London to a Georgian rectory in Suffolk. She is judgemental, disdainful, and her diary entries often include bitchy remarks at the end of paragraphs. She looks down on others and considers herself “a cut above”. She reminds me of Margot Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’, and Patsy in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. In fact I can even hear her superior, cut-glass tones. She also reminds me of Meryl Streep’s character in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. In waspish, top journalist style, she fills her account with brand names and scatters her prose with knowing references.
As the story progresses, the author inserts little tell-tale holes in Isabella’s flawless, polished and assured account of her perfect life – the fact that she’s moved to a place where no-one has even heard of her; her painful memories of warring parents and a broken home; her controlling, social-climbing husband; her memories of hateful boarding school; her awareness that the children clearly prefer Sofiya, the Latvian au pair, to their own mother; and her grumpiness as she works so hard to get them to pose for her social media posts.
As we read on, through Isabella’s diary, we hear a clear warning to take care who we get inspired by. Ruth Leigh has perfectly caught the phraseology of internet sirens like Isabella; all the snooty superior buzzwords and phrases. Isabella is in fact a flawed narrator, with nil self-knowledge and is often delusional.
We learn that because of her own wounded upbringing Isabella is setting herself impossible standards in a futile attempt to “prove” herself. And in the process she is eroding her own spirit, and has lost touch with her humanity.
In the end a moving and very thought-provoking book which looks set to be the first of a series.
A short while before reading and commenting on Ruth’s blog post, I had met her for the first time in real life – at a writers’ conference in St Luke’s Church, Great Colmore Street in Birmingham in March 2020. I now look back on that event fondly, as it was one of the very last real life events we were all able to attend before the Covid pandemic took a grip and the government enforced lockdown. A few months later, Ruth shared with us her exciting news. Following the publication of that blog post she had won the interest of a publisher for her proposed novel based upon Isabella, and she had begun to write the book.
I’m now delighted to be part of Ruth’s blog tour for her new book and I invited her to answer a few questions.
Ruth, first, I’d love to know a little about your background and family and about other things you do besides writing.
I’m originally from Epping Forest; I met my husband in the Sixth Form at school, which was a glorified dating agency. When we finally got round to going out, I was living in Exeter while he resided at the family home in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. We managed that for eight years until we got married and I returned to the county of my birth, which I had always sworn I’d never do. After my marriage, we moved to Suffolk, where we live with three children aged 17, 14 and 12, plus chicken, quail and a kitten, in the middle of nowhere in a draughty Victorian semi. My favourite thing in the world is reading (anything except sci-fi) and I like walking, playing board games (to win) and chilling out with friends.
When did the germ of the idea for this book come to you? Was it in your mind long before you wrote that blog post? When in your life, and in what situations, did you first start to come across the ‘role models’ who, we might say, inspired the character of Isabella?
I hadn’t thought of writing a novel until the afternoon of 7th May 2020. I invented my frightful snobbish influencer for an April blog post, and thought no more of her until literary agent Tony Collins messaged me to say he thought there was a book in her. It was only then that I switched from freelance writer to first-time novelist. I’d assumed I’d made every aspect of Isabella up until one day I was chatting to an old friend from ante natal classes, and she said, “Ruth, this woman is a mix of all those people we used to see at toddlers who turned up on time, perfectly made up, beautifully dressed and confident while we slumped in the corner wearing stained clothing and paper pants.” I realised that that was exactly who she was, along with a good dash of all the people who post on social media about their perfect lives and make normal folks feel massively inadequate.
What made you want to write about this sphere of life? What in your own background and experience led you to this?
I can honestly say that I’d never planned to write fiction and certainly not fiction about a posh, rich woman who makes a living by being an Instagram influencer. I made Isabella up for a funny blog and then, weirdly, when Tony asked for two sample chapters, I discovered that I knew all about her private life. A husband, children, a Latvian au pair, a hideous mother, a terrifying agent and a mysterious past all came pouring out. Isabella is brilliant at what she does, and considerably younger than me so I found myself researching what it is that lifestyle bloggers actually do. I followed a few on Instagram and found some great hashtags and ideas. As far as my own background and experience go, Isabella is the opposite of me in many ways. She’s come from money, went to private school, is incredibly confident (at least on the surface) and has no shame about showing off constantly on all her platforms. The sad, deeply-buried memories have elements of me in them, and her move from metropolitan life (London in her case, Essex in mine) to a small rural village is my experience too. However, she marches into the playground expecting everyone to be terribly impressed that she’s there, while I slowly made friends and built up a life in a much less glamorous way. From my wide reading, a vast repository of facts and half-remembered stories have played into this novel. Possibly that’s why I enjoyed inventing this woman and her life so much.
Who have you written this book for? What do you see as your target audience?
That’s an excellent question and quite a difficult one too. I suppose the answer would be just about everyone. I love writing that makes me laugh and creates a world I can inhabit, and I hope that Isabella will prove to be someone that people can pick up and enjoy. The cover is pink, many of the main characters are female, but I’d hope that male readers would enjoy it too. There’s nothing wet about Isabella. She’s handy with her fists, doesn’t take anything lying down and tells her husband where to go when he annoys her.
Tell me about your daily routine – if you have one!! What part does creative writing play in your day? Are you highly disciplined?
The alarm goes off at 8.15 and I ignore it. I roll out of bed at 8.30, make breakfast and a hot drink for the two younger children and deliver it to their bedsides, along with gentle encouragement to sit up and log into school. Then I make a pot of tea and breakfast (unless I’ve got an early Zoom call) and take it upstairs to the bedroom where my husband and I consume it, chat and sometimes do the crossword. At this point, the cat joins us and sticks her head into my husband’s pint of water on the bedside table. Back in the summer, bed was where I did all my writing. Now I head downstairs to the dining room and sit down at my desk (a Christmas present), fire up the laptop, go through my emails and work out what I need to start writing first. I’ve got lots of freelance clients, so I will generally have some interviews to conduct, transcribe and then write up. I’ve got my own blog, Big Words and Made Up Stories plus two others I contribute to and for me, that’s creative writing. I love trawling in the header tank of ideas in my brain and seeing what I can fish out. About twice a week I walk the mile and a half into the village to the market and that’s my thinking and planning time for the next Isabella book. I tend to finish working around 6.00, then we have dinner (my husband cooks it) and watch television or play a board game together. Add in plenty of dishwasher loading and unloading, washing, drying and putting away clothes, seeing my elderly parents and picking up random items scattered around various rooms and you have my life. Highly disciplined? Exactly the opposite.
What other things do you love besides writing?
Reading has to be the thing I love most. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. I really like playing games but I am so highly competitive that the children have banned me from playing Monopoly with them. I love wandering around and gazing at the architecture and spotting little quirky things that fire off ideas in my brain. I enjoy going round museums and wandering along a pebbly beach on a cold windy day. I love chatting, to anyone, but particularly close friends.
Thank you Ruth for those fascinating and detailed answers which I hope will whet the appetite of my blog-readers to lay their hands on your book!
Here is the blurb for Ruth’s book:
Meet Isabella Smugge – as in ‘Br-uge-s’, naturally! Instagram influencer, consummate show-off and endearingly self-unaware. With a palatial home, charming husband and three well-mannered children, she is living the County Life dream.
Newly arrived in the country, Isabella is ready to bring a dash of London glamour to the school gate and gain a whole new set of followers – though getting past the instant coffee, terrible hair and own-brand sausage rolls may be a challenge!
But as her Latvian au pair’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and a national gossip columnist nurses a grudge, Isabella finds herself in need of true friends and begins to wonder if her life really is as picture-perfect as she thought…
The Diary of Isabella M Smugge is published by Instant Apostle on 19th February 2021.