How author Russ shines a spotlight on Sheffield with his moody thrillers
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Nighthawking features Adam Tyler, a detective whose past is a problem he wrestles with as he is called to the gardens after a metal detectorist digs up a body.
Grim? Yes, but Russ is a fan of the Broomhall gardens and wanted to set a novel there as part of his quest to shine a spotlight on Sheffield.
The inspiration came from a chance comment. “I was given a tour of the gardens and at one spot was told ‘That would be a good place to bury a body, we wouldn't find it for ages.’”
He smiles because the gardens have given him so much in both good and bad times.
“It’s so beautiful and there’s so much you can do here. I’ve been to concerts, had picnics, watched Shakespeare, it’s my number one meeting spot in Summer.
“I was here in lockdown, it was somewhere to come and walk. I found lockdown difficult because I like to write in cafes and I couldn’t do that, I had to sit at my desk and there were too many distractions. The Botanical Gardens was an escape.”
So how did he escape here? Born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, Russ moved aged one to Berkshire where he was brought up in Ascot.
He worked as a pot washer and receptionist before first coming to Sheffield in 1995 as a student to do media studies at what was the Psalter Lane campus of Hallam University.
“As part of that I did a minor award in Professional Writing - journalism and PR - and wanted to get into fiction writing,” says Russ. “I did a collection of short stories which was when I started taking it seriously.”
While in Sheffield, Russ worked at the Warner Brothers store in Meadowhall and when he moved back to London he became manager of the Kingston branch.
He inherited some money which he wanted to use for a deposit on a house, but it wasn’t enough for London so he looked again at Sheffield.
Russ then spent some time travelling from 2001-4 before settling on Sheffield and getting a job at Waterstones in Orchard Square. He worked there for 15 years as an Expert Book Seller, a great job title for the aspiring writer.
Russ managed author signings and it meant he could meet his hero Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books and a Sheffield University graduate.
“Jack Reacher is a genius character,” he says. “The books are simply written but are so clever and Lee Child is brilliant at action scenes.”
Russ wanted to write, but needed a push. “I’d been thinking about the Writing MA at Hallam but kept putting it off because I didn’t think I had much to write about. My partner said ‘Do it’ so I applied and got on the course in 2008.”
It was almost 10 years after starting his undergraduate course at Hallam.
“I first came to Sheffield because I really liked the course at Hallam but also when I visited with my dad it just felt nice.
“I was keen to come to a city because I’d grown up in the country. Sheffield felt like a friendly city, a manageable city - I fell in love with it straight away.
“I remember coming up the Parkway, seeing the city ahead and thinking that looks great.”
He set his first book Firewatching in Sheffield and it introduces Adam Tyler, a gay detective who Russ had been thinking about for years.
“I wanted to write a crime story where the main character was gay. I’d not seen it done before but I didn’t want it to become the point of the story. He’s a guy doing a job, being gay is an aspect of his personality. It is more about him being a copper although people want to know about his personality.”
As a gay man, the temptation is to draw parallels between Russ and his character.
“There’s a bit of me in all my characters,” he says.
“When I first wrote Adam he was more like me, it took me a while to get a handle on his character but I wouldn’t join the police so I had to imagine someone else.
“That’s the great fun of writing, to explore bits of personality that you wouldn’t necessarily do in the real world. You put a different head on.
“The best bits of the book are when a character tells me the story, they suddenly do something which wasn’t in my plan and you have to decide whether to run with it or wrestle it back on course.”
Firewatching and Nighthawking have common themes. “I didn’t intend it to be the case but family - fathers and sons - are themes. My dad died when I was writing Firewatching.”
Derek was 74 when he died and Russ stopped writing. “I put it away for about two years and only when I went back did I realise what I was writing about.
“My dad had been ill, I knew it was coming and I was processing the idea of losing a father.
“Adam is still coming to terms with it a decade later, this develops in the second book and there are answers in the third.”
As for family, Russ’s mum Pam lives in Broomhill and he is part of an extended brood in which he is one of six children - two sisters, one brother, a step brother and step sister.
They are scattered around the globe, but Russ feels rooted in Sheffield. It shows by the locations he picks for his novels.
“Park Hill flats, Sheffield train station, the Botanical Gardens and Ladybower Reservoir all feature. Crime novels are good when they are set in specific locations.
“I felt Sheffield was an under-explored place, it is in lots of ways. We get left off lists, it is a bit of a hidden city and never seems to be on the weather map!
“So this was about giving something back to Sheffield for what it has given me.
“I thought let’s shine a spotlight on things perhaps people don’t know much about. Sheffield is a character in the books and I’m always looking for new places.
“It has given me a home. While I was at university my parents split up, my friends had moved away. I grew up in the South and it was a bit dull sometimes so this was my first sense of a city but still with village qualities where you can bump into people you know.”
One of whom is fellow author Susan Elliot Wright. She and Russ run a writing course and Susan featured in The Sheffield Weekend this month.
“I met her while I was doing the MA, we didn’t study together, just got on really well,” he says. “She was looking for someone to read her manuscript for The Things We Never Said and I offered.
“I gave my feedback, she appreciated it and we became friends. I knew she was teaching and asked to sit in - we clicked working together.”
His advice to budding writers is simple. “Read, read, read! Then sit down and write, write anything, even if you think it’s rubbish, it is something to work from and will get better.”
Russ lives in the city centre near the Peace Gardens and is 46. His first two novels got rave reviews, including one from Lee Child which is on the cover of Firewatching.
“Reviews are really important,” he says.
“Other authors are generous, welcoming, friendly and support each other. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to people like Lee Child who took time out to comment.”
His deal with publisher Simon Schuster was extended from two novels to four, which gives Russ an element of security - and trepidation.
“It’s frightening but brilliant! If it all fell apart I would teach because I enjoy it even though it is time intensive. It isn’t a living but there are more important things and teaching can be inspiring. “When I’m telling people what to do, it reminds me of how to do this so I go back and do it!”
Russ didn’t expect the success he’s had, but is grateful. “It wasn’t something I was ready for or knew how much readers would reach out and give their opinions.
“It is a lovely part of the job. I was in the Frog and Parrot recently and the landlord came over with my book and asked me to sign it. That was brilliant.”
As he says, he bumps into people who give him ideas too, like Professor Duncan Cameron, a pub buddy who gave him a tour of the Alfred Denny Museum at Sheffield University - it went straight into Nighthawking.
His third novel is due to be published next year and a fourth is in the pipeline. A pipeline made in Sheffield.