Mandy Robotham on The Scandalous Life of Ruby Devereaux

The Scandalous Life of Ruby Devereaux gives readers a look into fictional author Ruby Devereaux's life


We all have our favourite authors but how much do we actually know about them? The Scandalous Life of Ruby Devereaux gives readers a look into fictional author Ruby Devereaux’s life — from being a teenager in wartime England to a veteran of modern-day London. Even though we have never read any books written by Ruby Devereaux, we can’t help but be intrigued by her story.

We have the honour of chatting with M. J. Robotham about The Scandalous Life of Ruby Devereaux: 

Did you write Ruby Devereaux with an author in mind?

In creating Ruby, I was influenced by a whole range of women, though not all scribes; people like model and photographer Lee Miller, but I suppose the icon that colours her the most is a writer, the American Martha Gellhorn. Her real life reads like fiction, including plenty of men (just one husband happened to be Ernest Hemingway) and extensive globe-trotting. Gellhorn was, by her own admission, quite a flawed character, and right into her eighties she like to enchant young novelists in her London flat with tales of her exploits.

Many readers will obviously compare this with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. What makes a celebrated author’s story as interesting, or even more so, than an actress?

In all honesty, I hadn’t read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s book by the time I finished Ruby. When someone suggested the similarity, I limited myself to reading the first few chapters, not wanting to be overly influenced while editing. But writers versus actresses? They both have fascinating lives, and secrets, and they both interpret in a creative way. For me, a writer is waging a constant battle in their heads – to be readable, and to take a moral standpoint, because those words can sit for decades on a shelf (if you’re lucky), which means they are capable of both lifting or damaging. Ruby possesses that eternal push-pull in her life, and her struggles are complex because of it.

How did you decide on 12 men? That’s a lot more than the average number of relationships one would get into.

Is it? I don’t speak from experience, but Ruby’s recollections stretch from age seventeen to ninety, through the sexual revolution of the sixties and beyond. Not all of her featured men are lovers, and we learn quite early on that she’s definitely not housewife material, or even good at settling in one place for too long. An outward personality also means she launches into relationships quickly (sometimes unwisely), and so I don’t think it’s any surprise that she lends her heart quite a few times. For me, her choice of twelve seemed like a good number in documenting her growth through the decades, because I was keen to include her finding solace and love in those later years.

The majority of the book is written like a memoir. Did you decide to tell the story in this form from the beginning?

From the outset, I planned to write a memoir, heavily influenced by William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, which documents the life of a young woman, Amory Clay. I was so beguiled that I thought Amory was real! I set myself a task to create a character that could slot into history, and it was so much fun, I simply couldn’t stop. Initially, it was written as a straight memoir, and the narrative added later to frame the ‘man’ chapters.

Your previous books have all been historical fiction. What made you decide to write something so different?

Creating historical fiction involves a lot of research and sticking to time lines, even if the story is made up. With my daily routine (and limited concentration span), there’s only so much you can write on one topic per day, and so I found myself with time to spare. Ruby had been rumbling around my head for a while, and I began dabbling in what my good writer friend, Lorna (Elle) Cook, calls a ‘swerve project’. There was some research to do, but I found that Ruby largely blossomed out of my head every afternoon. And then she wouldn’t leave me alone!

And how has your previous experience helped you in writing The Scandalous Life of Ruby Devereaux?

Every book written takes you further along that steep learning curve, and while no book is ever easy, you do polish the craft of where to take the reader, up and down a rollercoaster of emotions, sensing at which point to reveal secrets or plant small details. It also helped that I lived through some of those periods in Ruby’s journey, the long, hot summer of 1976 being the most memorable for me, and I also placed her in some of my favourite travelling haunts, those cities like Venice and Budapest, where I’ve visited often and walked the streets endlessly.

Finally, Ruby hires an assistant to type up her story – who would you want to be an assistant for, so you can learn their story first hand?

Unsurprisingly, Paul McCartney would be high in my list, but only if he’d be willing to reveal some of those golden nuggets, the real behind-the-scenes life of The Beatles. In terms of women, it would be the late Mary Quant, or an actress like Maggie Smith – anyone who had lived through those heady, carefree days of fashion and music, and the London scene, who very much lived in the moment. If we’re talking real fantasy, it would definitely be Queen Elizabeth 1 or Jane Austen.

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