Sunday sit-down with… LJ Ross
International best-selling author, local philanthropist, the newest entry in The Bookseller’s 150 most influential figures, Bamburgh’s biggest fan… Guns N' Roses rocker?!
By Becky Hardy
Thanks so much for being our Sunday sit-down this week, Louise! What does a typical Sunday look like for you?
A typical Sunday for me is probably waking up a little bit later, my little boy coming in, the cat – everyone just collecting on our bed! – and then we’ll go downstairs and get some tea and toast. Then we usually go for a nice walk somewhere, if it’s a nice day. We live in the Tyne Valley, so we like to wander where we are, along Hadrian’s Wall or down by the beach. A lovely walk along Bamburgh would be perfect. Probably a bit bracing at the moment, but it clears the cobwebs away! And then home in time for a nice Sunday roast.
When or how did you first know you had a talent for writing?
This sounds like a really fudgey answer, but I don’t know if any writer ever really feels like they‘ve got a talent for writing! It’s a constant work-in-progress. My Mum would say I’ve been writing since I was little, and would produce these old books that I’d stapled together when I was seven or eight. But I would probably say it was when I was working in the city as a lawyer and needed a bit of escapism. I’ve always been a really, really big reader, I absolutely devour fiction, and I just naturally got curious and started to tinker with it. I started to write these satirical, comedic newsletters for my friends and things just progressed from there.
All of your books are set in the North East and many of your characters are local. What is it about the region that inspires you?
It’s home. The North East has just got a bit of everything – it’s got the coast and castles, the countryside, the bigger cities, and so much heart. I think there’s a lot of storytelling in the region as well. For hundreds of years, local people have been telling folk stories through songs and poetry, stuff like The Lambton Worm, I feel like it’s in our blood. So I think it’s that we’ve got a really rich history here and that we’ve got a really beautiful landscape. Put those two together and you can’t help but be inspired, can you?!
Are you allowed to tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
Sure! I’m working on two different series at the moment. I’ve got my next Dr Alex Gregory book coming out soon, that’s called Mania, so I’m just finishing that up. Then I’ve got a whole new series of historical drama coming out in the new year, which is all based up here too. So that’s going to be something completely different. Imagine Poldark but in the North East!
We’ve recently spoken with The Corbridge Larder and Blacks Corner, who both mentioned that you approached them to help reach out to the vulnerable in our community during the pandemic. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I run my own publishing imprint called Dark Skies Publishing and our family motto, something we always try to live by, is be kind and work hard. That informs everything that we do. You have to give back where you can, share what you have and try to be a good member of the community.
We’ve worked with the Greggs Foundation for about three years now – they do breakfasts for kids through schools and we fund a number of those for different schools in the region. I’ve got to know the headmistress of one of those schools, a primary school in Stanley, really well and there were a number of families she identified who weren’t qualifying for free school meals but were actually in a worse position because they just missed out, so they were falling into that food poverty gap. I often get in touch with her just to see if there’s anything else she needs because she’s one of those people who goes above and beyond for her students. Honestly, if I was ever going to nominate anyone for a prize, it would be her – she’s wonderful! But when we went into the first lockdown, she identified around 40 families who really needed some additional help until any government assistance kicked in.
So that was in my mind right from the beginning of lockdown. And I also knew that in my local area we have this wonderful Larder, and how difficult it would be for people to support it through the pandemic if they needed to stay home. I really see the Corbridge Larder as a community hub; every time we’ve been in there, there have been loads of people coming in and out, just having a lovely time. Then I thought about how they’re served by a number of local greengrocers, butchers and bakers who would be affected too. So I thought, if I donate cash to the Larder, they can then distribute bags of shopping to those families in Stanley. It was just a way to work it so that the Larder, its producers and those families had some assistance.
It was a similar situation with Blacks Corner. I have a friend who lives nearby so have really got to know the place. It seems to be well-positioned within the community so, again, we just reached out and asked if we could donate something and they could pass it on to anyone in the community who may need it. I think that kick-started a bigger idea for them to start crowdfunding and expand the idea to other people who wanted to donate, and then they used those funds to help in a bigger way. So it all worked out really well.
That’s what’s been one of the lovely things about this year – those little (and large) acts of kindness we’ve been inspired to do, isn’t it?
That’s it. And for anyone who might be reading this and knows of a small business in need of support, in 2021 we’re opening up our Dark Skies Publishing Grant. It’s a community fund that we’ve set up to the value of £50,000, and it’s for small businesses who’ve been directly impacted by COVID. That will be open for applications in the new year.
Obviously your pen name is LJ Ross, rather than Louise Ross. Was this a deliberate decision to maintain a level of ambiguity with your readers and/or publishers?
The first reason I chose ‘LJ’ was, yes, to think of a memorable name that works quite well for the genre. But the second reason is that the ‘L’ stands for Louise and the ‘J’ stands for James, which is my husband’s name. So it’s actually a permanent thank you – pretty cheesy, right?! But I wanted him on there because although it’s me who actually does the writing, I think nothing you ever achieve in life is in isolation – you’re never on your own, you’ve always got someone cheering you on – and right from the beginning, James was the one saying: you can do it! So I’m very proud to have him on there. We’re a team.
What are your top three favourite books of all time?
One of my favourite books is The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. It’s a really long book but it always feels quick to read, and I don’t know how that’s possible except for the fact that it’s really well-written! It was published in the ‘60s but it’s set in the last days of the Raj in India. I’ve never actually been to India, but she describes it so richly and so beautifully that I’m almost frightened to go in case it doesn’t live up to what I’ve imagined!
Another of my all-time favourites (in the total opposite style!) is The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. It’s just hard-boiled American crime fiction. It’s got one of the best killer monologues ever and is a real masterclass in creepy, psychopathic, behind-the-psyche writing.
And I think for the third one, I’m going to go for Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is actually non-fiction but I think it’s a huge leveller. It’s written by a guy who was a psychiatrist and an Austrian Holocaust survivor, so he’s one of these people who just has so much perspective on life. And I think, in today’s world where everything is just molehills and mountains, you read that and it’s instantly uplifting. So if you’re ever having a bit of an off-day or you’re feeling a bit down, read a couple of chapters of that and you come away feeling re-invigorated.
We ran a Lazy Sunday Sounds article in last week’s Sunday Supplement. What music are you most likely to play on a Sunday?
I’m not sure if this fits into ‘lazy Sunday sounds’ because I’m really an ‘80s girl, so I love blasting a bit of Guns N’ Roses – especially Appetite for Destruction, that’s one of my favourite albums. For something a little more chilled out, I’d go for a mash-up playlist with The Lighthouse Family on, The Eagles, and something like America’s Ventura Highway.
If you were dedicating a whole weekend to exploring the North East, where would be some of your hotspots?
I would probably go for a little wander in Durham city centre and down by the river, and then hop across to High Force waterfall. I’d wind my way up to Blanchland and go for lunch at the Lord Crewe Arms, they do an amazing Sunday lunch. Then I might pop over to The Sill and have a look at Sycamore Gap. And then going up through Northumberland National Park, I would probably go to Rothbury and Cragside, (this is a pretty full weekend by the way!), maybe stop off for some Doddington Ice Cream in Wooler, and then pop over to the coast from there. Oh wait, I’d have to go into Barter Books in Alnwick too! Then over to the coast. If you had all the time in the world, I think I’d start all the way up in Berwick and just wind my way down that coastline. I was going to say that Bamburgh is unbeatable, and in lots of ways it is – you could go to Bamburgh beach, grab dinner at The Potted Lobster and then just go home and that would be lovely! But there’s also just so many hidden nooks along that coastline. But if I had to choose I would say Bamburgh, it’s close to my heart.