Dead Romantic – Ruth Saberton

I’m absolutely thrilled today to welcome writer Ruth Saberton to the blog. You can read my Q&A with her below my review of her latest novel Dead Romantic.

Cleo Carpenter, Egyptologist at the Stuart Belby Museum, London, finds Christmas a difficult time of year. She avoids going to home to the house she grew up in as the absence of her mother, dead from cancer, is too difficult for her to deal with. It’s not helping that she keeps hearing the same song played in shops and coffee places:

When once I had an angel’s kiss
Never knew love could hurt like this
On my own, out in the cold
No one to love, no one to hold

I put my hands over my ears. The words remind me of a chance meeting, one long Christmas Eve that had been the worst of my life.

After racing home from Cairo to try and see her mum, a stranger approached Cleo while she was sitting on a bench at the local train station: ‘a tall figure with a guitar slung across his back and violet eyes set above sharp, jutting cheekbones’. They share a kiss, she gives him her number, she never hears from him again.

In the meantime, Cleo’s used work as a safety blanket, hiding behind it when anyone wants her, particularly her dad and her best friend and flatmate Susie. Knowing she owes Susie for letting her down again, she agrees – under duress – to go with her to see Lilac Delaney, a clairvoyant.

“If we go and it’s total bollocks I promise I’ll agree with you forever. I’ll never ever mention paranormal stuff again!”

Because this sounds good good to resist, I find myself agreeing to accompany her to see the famous psychic. All in the name of research, obviously. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I’ll be proven right.

In twenty-nine years, the only thing that hasn’t let me down is my research.

But before the event can happen, Cleo narrowly avoids being attacked by a stranger in the underground. The man tells the police that he left her alone because she was with a young man in a leather jacket. As Cleo leaves the station, feeling unwell, she steps into the road and is hit by a car. Banging her head, the last thing she hears is: “You can see me!…My God, you can really see me!”

Cleo’s head injury means she can see the man, or the ghost of the man, that was with her in the tube station. Alex Thorne was one of the members of the band Thorne and he wants help with his brother, Rafe, who blames himself for Alex’s death.

As Cleo’s coming to terms with her new vision, big things are happening at work too: there’s the application for Assistant Director of the museum to submit and Simon Welsh, the hot new Egyptologist is causing issues with Cleo’s focus.

Dead Romantic is about dealing with grief, with lost love – romantic or familial – with challenges at work. It’s also incredibly funny. Saberton writes as though it’s easy and her plotting is impeccable – the twists and turns made me desperate to keep reading as she moved between ghosts, love and work.

A few weeks ago, Susan at A Life in Books discussed reliably good authors, ones whose books you pick up knowing that they’ll be good and enjoyable regardless of the subject matter. With two excellent novels this year, Escape for the Summer and now Dead Romantic, I’m adding Ruth Saberton to my list.

You’ve said that you’ve wanted to write Dead Romantic for a long time; why was now the right time?

That’s a really good question. In the past I’ve been under contract with big publishing houses, which is brilliant but also means that as a writer you often have to play it quite safe and stay within generic confines. ‘Dead Romantic’ doesn’t fit neatly into any specific genre as it blends romance, paranormal, comedy and emotional literature – which could have made it tricky to pitch.   I had the strongest feeling though that my readers would love this story and that Dead Romantic was going to be my best book yet. I was desperate to write it. I just needed to be given a chance to set the story free. Of course publishing anything new is always risky but without taking a gamble where would all the boy wizards, vampires and kinky billionaires be? Luckily Notting Hill Press was excited about this book too and so I was able to write and publish it.

One of the main characters in Dead Romantic is a ghost; do you believe in ghosts?

I certainly do. I’ve had so many peculiar experiences of my own and there is a strong psychic ability in my family, stemming from my great-grandparents who apparently were mediums. My deceased granny is often in my parents’ house and has freaked out several visitors who’ve stayed the night. I’ve never seen her myself but when I visit she takes great delight in hiding things or moving them about – just as she did when she was alive. It’s infuriating. Whilst living in Cornwall I often experienced strange events and once awoke to find an old lady sitting on my bed. I knew there was somebody in the room and I’d thought it must be my fisherman ex returned from sea but no! Oddly, I wasn’t scared at all and I drifted back to sleep. My granny claimed she had an Egyptian spirit guide too, something I didn’t know about until I was writing this book. That did make me shiver…

Although the novel is largely about grief there’s still a lot of humour in it, both one-liners and whole scenes. How easy is it to get the balance between the two?

Life is a tragi-comedy, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s only laughing that carries us through the darker times. I recently lost a good friend to cancer and although his funeral was heart breaking the eulogy had us all creased up with laughter as we were reminded of the tall tales and hilarious scrapes he’d continually found himself in. This friend had always claimed to have ridden a horse from Mexico to Alaska yet when we took him riding for his final birthday treat it was clear he didn’t know one end of the horse from another! As this story was told the chapel rang with sobs of both laughter and loss. I reflected on some of bereavements in my own life as I wrote the book and in many ways Cleo, Alex and Rafe’s story helped me come to terms with them. Life is made up of sunshine and shadows and there is a balance to be reached. I hope that in “Dead Romantic” I manage to find this balance.

You’re often called a ‘chick-lit’ writer although your books tackle themes heavier and darker than that label suggests. How do you feel about the way your writing is labelled?

Chick–lit is a Marmite term! I know writers who find it offensive and others who don’t mind it at all. It’s a marketing term and the publishing industry is a business and as such needs to find easy ways of categorising and selling novels. Traditionally women’s popular fiction has been looked down upon as less worthy than books written by men, the Brontës knew this of course, and it can be rather disheartening to realise that not very much has changed. Only last week there was outrage in the writing world when an article was published which actually described ‘chick-lit’ books as ‘crap’. The issues in so called “chick-lit” are myriad; psychiatric illness, love, family, relationships, domestic violence, debt, grief, death, infertility, assisted suicide to name but a few, yet it seems that because these issues are tackled by women writers and found books marketed at women they are considered somehow less worthy. It’s the old high culture versus popular culture debate with a literary twist. I also think that publishers tending to market the genre with bright pink covers and images of shoes hasn’t helped to change opinions. But do I mind the label? No, I don’t think I do. I’m proud of what I write and I’m honoured to be included in a generation of “chick lit” writers that includes talents such as Sophie Kinsella, Jo-Jo Moyes, Lisa Jewell and Miranda Dickinson.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Fab female writers for me have to be:

Jane Austen – the original chick-lit author

Jilly Cooper – the writer who inspired a generation of wannbe bonk buster authors

Fay Weldon – I defy anyone not to root for Ruth in “The Life and Loves of a She Devil”?

Sophie Kinsella – I laughed until I cried when I read her first Shopaholic book. Who hasn’t bought lottery tickets to ‘save’ their finances and been amazed not to win?

A huge thanks to Ruth for such fantastic answers and for the review copy of her book.

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