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Be inspired every day with Living North
Ilkley-Based Author L. D. Smithson on Her Latest Novel
May 2024
Reading time 4 Minutes

Bringing you all the thrills of reality TV without the risk of going square-eyed

An occupational psychologist and crime writer, Living North readers might recognise L. D. Smithson by her real name Leona Deakin, and may have read her popular crime thrillers Gone, Lost, Hunt and The Imposter, all part of her acclaimed Dr Augusta Bloom series. The Escape Room is Leona's first stand-alone novel.

 ‘It’s more of a psychological thriller – ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges, and this is under a pseudonym [L. D. Smithson]. That’s my husband’s surname. I haven’t taken it in real life, so I thought I’d put it on a book for him,’ she laughs.

With the return of Big Brother (and now Celebrity Big Brother), the growing global popularity of The Traitors, and the seemingly endless Love Island spin-offs, it’s clear reality TV is still keeping viewers hooked. Streaming means it’s never been easier to binge-watch many of these shows, but if you fancy a break from the screen we recommend a good book – and this one could be just the tonic.

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The Escape Room introduces readers to a new reality TV show where eight contestants have been challenged to see if they’re smart enough to unlock the secrets of a fortress. ‘It’s set on one of the Solent sea forts,’ Leona says. ‘These are real but I didn’t realise they existed until I was looking for a remote location where a reality TV show could be filmed, and where no one could really see what was going on. They are big concrete cylinders that are in the Solent sea off the coast of Portsmouth. They were built as forts and were used in the World Wars and now they’ve been converted into luxury hotels. They’re really strange places that were built for quite dark reasons (to defend and attack) and were turned into luxury places that have been allowed to get a bit tired. So these eight people arrive there and it’s an escape room, so they’ve got to solve a certain number of puzzles to get out – but very soon it becomes clear that all is not what it seems. This is a much darker situation and they are trapped in the sea, and although they can’t get messages out, there’s a social media feed coming in so they can see what the public is saying about them. It becomes a fight for survival.’

Bonnie is competing against seven strangers for prize money, but the consequences of failure are deadly. The contestants quickly turn on one another and when the first contestant is found dead, she realises she needs to win if she wants to escape. ‘It was inspired by the likes of The Traitors and Squid Game,’ Leona explains. ‘I got thinking about how far these TV shows would go to push us to see what we would do, and what would you do if you were in one of those shows that gets quite dark quite quickly? Would you play along? Would you try to fight back? That was the scenario I wanted to explore.

‘I wanted to portray some of the traditional stereotypical reality show contestants that we either love to love or love to hate, but I also set it up as a mental challenge and I wanted it to have a bit more diversity so there are some more mature characters both in age and personality. I wanted to see those different kinds of characters in an environment where they didn’t necessarily know the rules and how it gets edited and shown [to viewers]. It was really interesting to have these eight characters that are very different and to use my insights into different kinds of personalities to try and bring those to life, so they feel really real (hopefully) to the reader, and might feel like people you’ve met.’

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Whilst writing her novel, Leona did some research into why we’re so addicted to this type of show. ‘What was quite interesting is when [reality TV] first started with the likes of Big Brother here in the UK, it was pitched as you can watch real people doing real things in real time and we were getting to be a bit of a fly on the wall,’ she says. ‘Everyone was fascinated by that and it was certainly very popular, but as time’s gone on, they’ve become more scripted and more tailored so now there are directors and producers creating heightened situations or showing us edits that reveal particular emotional outbursts – it’s part drama, part reality. What’s fascinating is that most of us like to watch these things now because we’re enjoying trying to work out what’s real and what isn’t. I can totally relate to that. You watch these shows and get invested in certain characters and want them to have their comeuppance or win, for example. We’re all vicariously watching these people do things and thinking, would I do that? Does it make me feel good that I think I would’ve done better than them? There’s lots of psychology mixed up in us watching other people. It’s human curiosity.’

Leona is looking forward to seeing how readers respond to her take on the dark side of reality TV. ‘I always think the best feedback I can get is that someone couldn’t put it down,’ she says. ‘It’s lovely when people say “your character was really vivid” or “your plot was really well thought through” but nothing delights me more than someone saying “it was 2am and I couldn’t stop reading”. I want to take you on a journey, on a ride, and I want you to be completely in it with me so you don’t want to leave that world, and want to find out what happens next. That gives me a real sense of achievement, like I’ve done my job.’


What are you watching right now?
I haven’t finished The Traitors [season two] yet because I’m watching it with my daughter, so I’m watching that! I had to switch the news off this morning because they were interviewing the winner.

Your all-time favourite reality show moment?
That final episode of The Traitors [season one] where Wilfred had already betrayed one of his fellow traitors and then turned on the new guy he’d recruited. He was someone you really loved to hate and I really didn’t want him to win! I was on the edge of my seat and it was only in the days that followed that I thought, actually he was just playing the game really well.

Your favourite place to walk in Ilkley?
Up on the moors by The Cow And Calf and looking down over the town. Whether the sun is out and it’s really clear and you can see for miles or there’s that mist hanging, it’s just beautiful up there and quite inspiring.

Your favourite place to eat and drink in Ilkley?
I love Friends of Ham. We love the people in there; they’re always really friendly and warm. It’s chilled and relaxed.

An item you couldn’t live without?
Something to write with, whether that be a pencil and paper or my laptop. If I go a couple of days without being able to write something I do feel kind of jittery, like I need to do something with this stuff in my head.

Hopes and plans this year?
I’m currently writing another stand-alone thriller so I’ve got lots of interviews planned with people that have the professions of the various characters in my book. That’s so fascinating, to delve into someone’s world and find out more about it and it inspires the writing. I imagine in spring I’ll be publicising The Escape Room and hopefully enjoying that process but also then really getting stuck into bringing my new characters to life. That’s always exciting!

The Escape Room is in all good bookshops now.

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