Beyond the Filter: Ruth Leigh and The Diary of Isabella Smugge

One thing all my lovely online connections brings me is books. In some ways I like it even more when I come across something that surprises me. In the opening few pages of Ruth Leigh’s book The Diary of Isabella Smugge, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in for a shallow tirade from an Instagram influencer, all privilege and no sense. However, I soon realised that there was a lot more going on.

In a world obsessed with image and with ‘influencers’ being one of the most talked-about phenomenons of recent years, this book manages to engage in debate about the power of social media, the class differences that divide the UK and the difficulties of being a mother. And it’s all done in a lovely, light-hearted way. I talked to Ruth Leigh to find out how she created such an intriguing character and why she looked to social media and faith to create her page-turner of a book.

The cover is revealing – there is more to this influencer’s life than the filters and the hashtags would have you believe.

Your main character is both annoying and charming. How did you manage to tread the line between the two to create such a readable book?

It was quite difficult at first, but I soon realised that Isabella just wants to be loved. Her loyalty and kindness to her sister during their difficult childhood told me that here was a person who, deep down, was an unsure little girl. Letting her reveal tiny glimpses of her insecurities and sadness balanced out the constant bragging and hash tagging. 

One underlying theme in the book is having faith in something bigger. Especially as Isabella personifies a lot of the frivolous and commercial things that people spend so much time worrying about in the modern world. Why did you want to add this element to a book about a blogger?

I have a faith myself and feel very strongly about being respectful to others. I’ve had so many conversations over the years (started by other people) and often they’ve said things like “I feel like I’ve got everything I ever dreamed of but something’s missing.” When religion is brought up, people often have very defined ideas about what it looks like. Hypocrites, lots of rules, wagging fingers, that kind of thing. Something which makes your life duller and much more circumscribed than it was before. That hasn’t been my experience and I liked the idea of a person who is very rooted in consumer culture trying to puzzle out faith through the lens of business and modern culture.

It’s nice to have a book separated into thought chunks like this – it really evoked the whirling mind of the main character.

Your book is most definitely poking fun at our obsession with image and social media. Why did you want to use this theme to explore the more difficult experiences that might lie behind wealth and fame?

That’s a great question. Since I had children, I’ve spent far too much time gazing at other people’s social media posts and thinking “Why can’t I be like them?” Endless pictures of angelic children, gleaming houses, perfect days out will get under your skin eventually. I thought it would be a great way to write a story and develop characters, pulling back the curtain on all that “perfection” and exploring what drives someone to present a particular image of themselves. Surely, I thought, someone who spends their life telling everyone their life is perfect must have issues. And so it proves with Isabella.

It seems as though we may be hearing more from Isabella…when you were plotting the book, did you always know it was going to take more than one to tell all of her story?

Not at first. I found myself writing the book after my blog was picked up by a literary agent who suggested there might be a novel in Ms Smugge (up to then, simply a two-dimensional joke character). As the story unfolded, I realised that I was rapidly running out of words. I love a cliffhanger and I knew what was going to happen next. That’s why I chose to leave the readers on the edge at the end of the first book. Another reason is that I don’t like neat and tidy endings where everyone sorts themselves out. That’s not how life is.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Don’t give up. You never know when your time is going to come. Be absolutely charming to everyone you meet. Make connections and network wherever you can. Be generous to and learn from other writers. Join a supportive writing group if you can. Never assume you know everything. You don’t. 

Ruth Leigh is a novelist, blogger and freelance writer based in beautiful East Suffolk. This is her first novel.

Book blurb: 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 Country 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…

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