There can’t be many writers whose first novel, a gothic suspense story, is made into a film with acclaimed actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, but such is the success enjoyed by former Theale Green School pupil Diane Setterfield. Geraldine Gardner talks to the author about The Thirteenth Tale, which is being premiere on BBC2 tonight (Monday), and her recently published second novel, a Victorian ghost story.
“Do you know why my books are so successful? Because they have a beginning a middle and an end. In the right order.”
These are not the words of Diane Setterfield but of Vida (rhymes with rider) Winter, the protagonist in Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale. After five years of painstakingly putting together a beginning, middle and an end, Setterfield’s novel, published in 2006, has enjoyed huge global success (one week after publication, the novel became number one on the New York Times bestseller list) and this Christmas will reach an even wider audience, when a lavish BBC adaptation, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, is scheduled.
“I find writing a laborious process. I get very engrossed in the words. If you were to watch me at work, you’d see this crazed woman typing away and then suddenly stopping while I try to find the right word or phrase – I start twisting my hands together [she does the action as if she’s working with a piece of clay] trying to mould thesentence until I’m happy.”
It’s this attention to detail and love of words that have created a distinctive Setterfield style. “Yes there probably is a Diane Setterfield style but The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black [her just-published second novel], are structured very differently.
“The Thirteenth Tale is a maze with constant dead ends and going round in circles. Bellman & Black has a straightforward trajectory. I will venture that most readers will guess what is going to happen pretty quickly. The mystery lies in how it’s going to get there. The end is not shocking, it is how it comes about that should be absorbing.”
A former pupil of Theale Green School, Diane studied French literature at Bristol University before going on to teach. At what stage did she decide to take up writing? “I had a lot of ideas buzzing around in my head. I was always writing random paragraphs down.
“To be honest my younger self didn’t think I was interesting enough to be a writer – they all seemed to lead wild eccentric lives, or were alcoholics or orphans. I now know, of course, that is not true. It’s not the writers that are extraordinary, it is the words.
“I often experience pleasant surprises when I am writing. The author Jim Crace, whom I greatly admire, talks of how ‘narrative is very generous; stories give themselves to you in a delightful way’. It feels like a free gift.”
Presumably it is not always easy. “No, not at all. A good writing day makes me feel very happy. Bad ones are awful. I do work hard, but I’m not rigid about my day. In the early days, a book is elusive and there’s not much chance of writing well. You have to have the courage to believe it will happen and not panic while it doesn’t.
“When I decided I wanted to give it a go, I found one of my scribblings and I knew this was a character I wanted to develop. It was definitely a male character at this point; it was so authoritative and forthright in its views. I don’t exactly know when he became she, but that’s how Vida Winter was born.”
Books and reading and the power of the written word are strong themes throughout the novel. The Thirteenth Tale revolves around Margaret Lea, a bookish, lonesome soul who is summoned by author Vida Winter, described in the novel as the ‘Dickens of this century’, to hear her final story and reveal the secret of the thirteenth tale of the title.
“It was important that Miss Winter was an author. I knew the story had to be about someone telling lies and someone listening to them. And the only way I could make her lies credible to the reader was to make her an author. The curious thing is, she never lies to Margaret. If Margaret interprets what Vida tells her incorrectly, she just doesn’t put her straight.”
Setterfield clearly has a lot of respect for Vida, she constantly refers to her as Miss Winter, and when I ask why she didn’t write one of Vida’s own short stories into the novel, she explains: “I did write one of her stories, but it didn’t fit because it was ‘Vida’s story as written by Diane Setterfield’. I would love to be able to write like Vida, a novel a year, very prolific, but I can only write my way; so including one of her stories but written by me wouldn’t make sense.
“The book element mattered greatly to me. The descriptions of Margaret reading and losing herself in the book were the easiest bits to write because they were from personal experience. Whenever I felt like giving up or was having a particularly bad writing day, I would reread those passages and they would give me the strength to carry on.”
The novel also explores family relationships, most especially the special bond between twins.
“I am not a twin and have no direct experience. But when I was studying linguistics we touched on the made-up languages that twins sometimes use, so that knowledge was buried somewhere and when I was teaching, one of my French students was a bereaved twin, only his parents didn’t tell him until he was 18 that his twin had died at birth. I remember him saying he had always known there was something he knew about himself without actually knowing what it was. That stayed with me.”
The way the story developed took its author somewhat by surprise.
“I can remember vividly coming out of the supermarket in Harrogate [where Diane was living at the time], dropping my bags and saying out loud, ‘No, that can’t be right’. The solution had just popped into my head and I didn’t believe it. When I read over the manuscript I realised it was there all the time – the stage was set and all I had to do was shift the spotlight a little. I only know what my characters know. Like any reader I go with it until the narrative tells me different.”
So how did she turn her attention from writing such a mesmerising and forthright figure as Vida Winter to getting inside the head of a Victorian gentleman for Bellman & Black?
“If I have got it wrong, I’m sure people will tell me”, she says with a wry smile. “I loved creating William Bellman and finding secret parts of myself. I don’t think gender is relevant. Authors have to imagine characters all the time. André Gide said that when a writer creates characters they are drawing on dormant buds – like a plant, when you prune it, the buds further down the stem will develop.
“The most difficult part was getting inside the head of a man who was frightened. The human brain cannot always differentiate between imagination and reality. In order to live in the mind-space of a man who is scared, I had to plant fear in myself.
“I would sit on the sofa and think very hard about scary things – your heart rate goes up, your palms start sweating. The only problem is, after a few days you start suffering from insomnia. I would have to take breaks from going to the fear. But having experienced such a strong emotion, I could then put it into words.”
Bellman & Black is the story of William Bellman, whose life is overshadowed by a thoughtless prank when he was 11, and killed a black rook. He grows up, marries and prospers, but when his fortunes change for the worse, he goes into partnership with the mysterious Mr Black and throws himself into running a mourning emporium in London.
“This novel involved a lot of research. I rather enjoyed going back to my academic roots and studying the cloth industry in the Cotswolds, as well as the peculiarly Victorian morbid love of mourning emporiums.”
If Bellman & Black is very definitely Victorian, the time frame of The Thirteenth Tale is more ambiguous.
“That was deliberate. I wanted to mess with timelines. I remember, as a student, we had a lecture about the literary canon, but reading in chronological order is entirely unnatural. Once you have learnt to read you can go all over the shop, reading is by its very nature random. All stories co-exist no matter what time period they are set in.”
Does it bother her, therefore, that the BBC will inevitably have to place the novel in a specific time period?
“That will leave an imprint certainly but if a reader comes to the book after seeing the production, I hope the book will take over. The book belongs to the reader. Readers are pirates; they’ll do what they want with it.”
With two novels under her belt, does she have a third on the go? “Well, I had my ‘twin book’, my ‘rook book’ and, yes, I am now working on my ‘Thames book’.”
More than that, she is not saying.
Diane Setterfield, who is 49, was born in Reading, grew up in Theale and now lives in Oxford. She attended the University of Bristol where she studied French literature and wrote a thesis on autobiographical structures in the early fiction of André Gide for her PhD.
She went on to teach in various universities in England and France. While lecturing at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston she enrolled on a creative writing course held by the Arvon Foundation and being taught by novelist Jim Crace at a Devon farmhouse, formerly owned by Ted Hughes. Crace was reported as having been struck by her ability and determination.
She gave up academia in the late 1990s to concentrate on writing novels (her previous books were academic works about 19th and 2th French literature).
She sent the manuscript of her first novel The Thirteenth Tale to agents at the end of November 2005 and, following a 10-day auction, she was paid £800,000 by her UK publisher Orion, and a further $1m by Simon & Shuster in the US. Rights were sold in more than 31 countries. The book shot straight to the top of the
bestseller lists in the US a week after publication.
The film rights were acquired by David Heyman at Harry Potter filmmaker Heyday Films and the novel has been adapted for a television film by Christopher Hampton, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman. It is being shown on BBC2 at Christmas.
Her latest novel, Bellman & Black, a haunting Victorian tale of love and loss, was published in October.