An Interview with Diane Setterfield. Part I

I met Diane Setterfield at the Literature House in Oslo in 2013. I hadn’t been planning to meet her at all. I’d planned to meet her husband — Guy Julier — who is a professor of design. He and I knew each other from shared interests and events concerning the use of design in public policy. This was to be a chance for us catch up in person.

He asked if I wanted to have lunch and said it would be a nice opportunity to introduce me to his girlfriend/partner (there is still no good word for this and “the-one-with-whom-I’m-living-in-sin is charming but way too long to say). She is “also a writer” I was told.

“Sure, that sounds nice,” I said. And I meant it. I find it’s often nice to meet people who suffer from a shared affliction.

So we sat for some tea and chat. Diane, it turns out (though I suspect she was aware of this the whole time) is a New York Times number one bestselling author whose debut novel — The Thirteenth Tale — was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was also turned into a BBC miniseries.

Guy might have mentioned this.

Before becoming a novelist myself, or even allowing myself to use the term “writer,” I had this image of all great novelists regularly gathered together in a cosmic version of the Algonquin Round Table.

In my mind the living and dead mingled freely; neither genre, nor style nor geography was a deterrent to their community; and there was no rivalry or pettiness or vindictiveness. They’d share ideas and jokes and exchange witticisms and laments. They would bask in each other’s glow and drink cocktails that were invented in America back when alcohol was so illegal and bad that we needed to add stuff to it to make it palatable. Maybe even digestible.

Being a novelist, after all, was a membership to one of the most romantic clubs in the history of human civilization, wasn’t it? (the answer is yes). And didn’t it stand to reason that members would know one another? These people were surely connected as creatures who lived lives of the mind and created art and channeled wisdom and shared beauty and understood pain and perhaps, collectively, knew the secret of how to live if not the answer to life itself.

Oh what a place. Oh what a club.

If there is such a club, though, no one has invited me. If I am a member I can’t yet say I’ve noticed. I also haven’t received a card. Part of me feels that a card should be forthcoming because I’m old enough to remember both Communism and Blockbusters and they both issued cards (I had one from Blockbusters). If I’m now a member of this club at all it’s because I found an open window, slipped in during the dead of night, hid in a broom closet, and no one has come yet to usher me out — card or no card.

Though perhaps that isn’t exactly right. Once a novelist always a novelist, after all. Harper Lee only wrote one novel. So did J.D. Salinger. So did Emily Bronte. No one’s threatening to throw them out of the club. In fact, they’re in the main hall of the club house by the fire in the crunchy chairs. I can see them, though, from my seat in the closet. I’m almost close enough to hear them. But not quite.

This is not actually how it all works, though. There is (alas) no club and most of us haven’t heard of each other let alone read one another. There is no reason Diane and I should have known one another or read each others’ books — though, Diane being Diane, it turned out she did know I was a writer and had read my book and then she said something nice about it creating one of those awkward moments that the British create so well.

Meeting Diane, I learned, was like meeting a member to this imaginary club who had already walked down aisles and into rooms I hadn’t seen before. She loved reading books, discussing books, and also discussing the process of writing itself. Our first conversation, though rather brief, was interesting enough that I wanted it to continue. That is my criterion for an invitation to The Interview Spot. I later offered and she accepted and here we are, with a multi-part, expansive and fascinating interview that is not about the twists and turns of the story or anything else you can read elsewhere.

There’s no round table here, and no one hogging the good seats by the fire. So join me, again, for a relaxed and rich conversation here at The Interview Spot where the conversation goes on (and on, and on, and on …).

Derek B. Miller

Oslo, January 9, 2015

Hemsedal-diane S

Question 1: The cover of my version of Bellman & Black reads, Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. I’d like to know how the phrase “a ghost story” appeared on the cover, and what conversations you might have had before it did — with others or yourself. 

In the early discussions with my UK publisher the story was spoken of as a ghost story, and although there were lengthy conversations about the jacket art I realise looking back that the use of the tag line A Ghost Story on the UK edition passed without much comment. A couple of years before, my publisher brought out Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, a superbly spooky Hallowe’en read, and I think they were keen to explore the idea of the ‘seasonal read’. Ghost stories are very well loved in the UK. England has a great history of ghost stories and the contemporary authors who inject new blood into this traditional genre are very popular – as well as Michelle Paver, I would mention Susan Hill and Jeremy Dyson – so I assume the labelling came about for commercial reasons as much as anything.

In the past I have argued against the use of tag lines. This is largely on the basis that I like a clean cover and tag lines, slogans and those ghastly retailer stickers just make a book cover look busy. In an ideal world, a title, author’s name and image ought to be enough to give the potential reader an idea of what to expect. Perhaps it’s because Bellman & Black was to be published at Hallowe’en that I didn’t feel inclined to argue? It’s hard to remember in retrospect. What I do know is that the US proofs (or ARCs as they are known there) carried the tag A Ghost Story, but after early reader responses this was dropped from the retail edition because readers felt it led them to expect a more narrowly defined kind of ghost story than it is.

The difficulty with labels – any label, not only the ghost story label – is that defining a work too tightly can interfere with the reader’s individual discovery of the book. Some readers, big fans of the ghost story in a more narrowly defined form, were taken aback by the way that Bellman & Black diverges from tradition. Others found the ‘But is it a ghost story?’ journey an especially enjoyable part of the reading experience. These responses are very personal and hard to predict.

My own reading preference is always for those books that position themselves on the borders of genres. A book that is hard to define, that doesn’t fit easily into one category or another, is a book that will attract my attention. Writing Bellman & Black, I had in my mind the ghost story in many different guises, but also – and equally – folk tale, Nordic mythology, and the recurring theme of the devil’s bargain that existed in other genres before it became a standard of modern horror. So if Bellman & Black is a ghost story, it is not only a ghost story, but a tale that demonstrates the extent to which genres are not neatly bounded but overlap and trespass on each others territory.

It might be worth mentioning Germany in this context. When I was writing Bellman & Black I was warned that German readers taken as a whole dislike stories of the supernatural (I was told this by someone who has decades of professional experience of international publishing, so I accept it as true, even though those German readers I actually know deny having any such reservations!) Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, it was thought for a while that Bellman & Black might not find a German publisher. Once the book was complete and my German editor read it there was no difficulty whatsoever: my publisher felt that the book read perfectly well as a psychological drama. They were happy to publish it and it is being read in Germany with no tag line of any kind.

Question 2: Your U.S. publisher, Simon and Schuster, presents a fourteen minute audio interview with you on their website ( In listening to it I was interested to hear your challenges and struggles to craft the structure to your first novel, The Thirteenth Tale. You said (I’m paraphrasing) that the structure you were grappling with was so complicated it should have been your fourth or fifth novel, not your first, because you ‘really weren’t good enough yet.’ I’d like to linger on this notion because it’s interesting already and — unlike the rest of us — you have a Ph.D. in literature, and are therefore very well educated on the matter of structure. Why was the theory of literature you’d studied not a helpful guide in grappling with the practice of writing? Or was it?

Yes, I remember that interview. The challenges of the structure of The Thirteenth Tale were the double time frame and the fact of having two narrators. It was complicated further by the dense intricacy of the plot. My efforts to present the convolutions without confusion and to extract the maximum of tension and pleasure from the various mysteries and reveals gave me quite a headache and more than once I came close to giving up. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that my second book has a very linear narrative and rests so substantially on the shoulders of a single character. I did want to give myself a fresh writing experience.)

Your question about the relation between academic study of literature and the practice of writing is an interesting one. It is not unreasonable to assume that studying novels full time for ten years or so – and then teaching literature for a further half-decade – should be a good preparation for becoming a novelist. One studies medicine in order to practice it after all and engineering students tend to become engineers. Why should literature be any different? Yet it is. Perhaps the study of literature is more akin to botany than engineering: a PhD is all very well, but it hardly qualifies you to make a dahlia. Or maybe it’s like driving lessons: being able to reverse round corners is one thing, the ability to make an engine that goes is entirely another.

The difficulty is that a good many questions that bother the writer are of the nuts and bolts kind that readers needn’t ordinarily concern themselves with. I am constantly preoccupied with ‘how’ questions: how to squeeze this back story into the novel without slowing the pace, how to set up a psychological motivation for an act so that what transpires seems entirely natural at the time of reading, how to bury an innocuous-looking word in chapter three so that in the merest touch in chapter 28 will cause it retrospectively to explode in the reader’s mind, how to avoid a sense of repetition when the plot calls for two consecutive 2-person dialogues… So much of the work of writing is this unseen, backstage stuff. It takes 90% of the time and without it the stuff we study literature for (style, themes, that mysterious stuff called meaning) cannot exist. To be honest, I spend relatively little time thinking about the ‘content’ of the book. To use an analogy from the world of drama, a novelist must be as much set designer and lighting engineer as playwright. One must construct the stage so that the light will fall on it the right way, so the lines of vision will be clear (and impeded) in the way that best enhances the actions and events that take place on it. I write on a laptop, but if I think of manual tools, it is hammers and chisels that come to mind, not pens. Yet as a student this crafting of a story – its quality as a ‘made’ thing – is something I had no sense of. And I really enjoy it. Being able to join two scenes that seem on the surface of it not to relate, finding a way of smoothing over a bumpy sequence, these things give me enormous pleasure in the same way that my woodworking father enjoys a smooth running drawer, a finely dovetailed joint, a piece of furniture made with mahogany where it shows and unvarnished plain timber – but solid and neat – underneath. I write in a flat, but in my imagination I am in a shed, and it feels a very long way from the university seminar room.

And yet… the part of my university study that has become part of my every day writing tool kit is translation. For years alongside my French literature essays my week’s study included a passage of literature to be translated from French into English, and another from English into French. This close up study is what I now consider to be my apprenticeship as a writer. It made me pay close attention to how sentences are made. Also, my choice of structure for that first book was influenced by some of my reading at university (there is a ‘miss en abyme’ buried in it, a device I knew well since I wrote my PhD on it).  So in my desire to explain the craftedness of my work, I am – it is true – underplaying the role my university education played in helping me towards it. It’s just that all the clever stuff is nothing without the work of the maker.

Question 3: Let’s zoom-in close for a moment and actually look at those “how” questions. To do that, let’s do something a bit unusual and pause on a single paragraph and discuss the craftsmanship of it, if you’ll excuse the term. There is a lovely paragraph on page 14 of my hard cover version of Bellman & Black. I feel like the pacing, the tempo, the rhythm, the word choice, the selection of lyrics from hymns … it all came together. Here it is in its entirety. Talk us through it. Share some of that enormous pleasure you mentioned — the pleasure of creating something that leads to the pleasure of reading it (I hope it’s a paragraph you like too!):

Thankfully there was the choir, and thankfully the choir contained William Bellman. His tenor, effortless and clear, gave a compass bearing, according to which the individual voices found north and knew where they were going. It rallied, disciplined and provided a target to aim at. Its vibrations even managed to stimulate the eardrums of the hard of hearing, for the dull drone of the deaf was lifted by it into something almost musical. Although at ‘sorrow, fear and sin’ the congregation was bleating haphazardly, by ‘Hasten the joyful day’ it had agreed on a speed; it found its tune ‘when old things shall be done away’, and by the time it reached ‘eternal bliss’ in the last verse it was, thanks to William, as agreeable to the ear as any congregation can expect.

Yes, I like this passage too. What fun to take it to pieces and see how it was made! Strange that it takes so many more words to explain how it is constructed than the paragraph contains itself.

It opens with a ‘there was’ construction. Some people avoid ‘there was’ and ‘there is’ because they are a bit plodding and heavy. I like them for the same reasons. Sometimes something robust and a bit clunky is what you want – it gives a solid anchor. Later the paragraph gets complex so this solidity at the beginning is very welcome. It’s leavened, paradoxically, by the repetition of the word ‘thankfully’. Psychologists have proven that textual repetition, far from reinforcing understanding can actually switch the reader’s attention off, so you have to use it carefully. Here it strengthens the simplicity of the opening, plus I like it because it is echoed in a minor key at the end (‘thanks to William’) which gives the paragraph a pleasing circularity.

The second sentence might be somewhat bodged. I believe that in church singing the congregation follows the choir’s soprano, because it is usually the sopranos that sing the melody. Plainly, William can’t be a soprano. But I don’t think anyone would seriously take me to task on this: the tenor is loud, so I think I get away with it. Sentences 2 and 3 in effect say much the same thing, but it works because there is enough linguistic diversity to distract from the repetition. Sentence 2 is long, sentence 3 short. Sentence 2 contains adjectives (‘effortless and clear’) and an image (the compass) and the familiar register of ‘knew where they were going’. I like dead flat language like this. Like the ‘there was’ at the beginning, it is a kind of stepping stone, a place where the reader has a really firm foothold. You know where you are going with an expression like ‘You know where you are going.’ Sentence 3 is a nice percussive list of verbs: the d’s and p’s distinguish it nicely from the previous line, so you feel it is giving you something new, even though really it is only adding detail to what you already know.

Sentence 4 is nice, isn’t it? When I reread it with your question in mind I remembered very fondly the English teacher who first taught me to recognise consonance. The h’s of ‘hard of hearing’, the d’s of ‘dull drone of the deaf’ (together with the lazy vowels of that group of words: a typical British English speaker can say that bit almost without altering the position of his lips. The words produce the very drone they describe.) That is followed by the sibilant s’s of ‘something almost musical’ combining with more diverse and active vowel sounds that force the mouth to dance a bit, making a kind of music. This is what Anna Withers meant at Theale Green School all those years ago when she told us that form and content cannot be separated but are two aspects of the same thing.

Sentence 5 is perhaps the most obviously ‘crafted’ of the paragraph. I enjoyed chiselling and moulding my prose to accommodate the words of the Wesley hymn. There was pleasure in taking someone else’s words – with beauty and qualities all their own – and setting them in mine, like a goldsmith with diamonds, or a master craftsman inlaying one precious wood into another. You want the stone and the setting to be just right, and to ensure a pleasing and seamless finish. My congregation is bleating haphazardly, which is a reference to the previous paragraph where they were said to be ‘tuneless and disorganised as a herd of sheep on market day’. It’s a mill town, and these woolly references all do their bit to help build the world of the story. For the most part it was just a matter of carving my own linguistic material to hold the Wesley lyrics securely, but I was particularly satisfied with the way ‘eternal bliss’ placed itself: Wesley’s ‘eternal bliss’ is obviously actual eternal bliss; in my sentence it coincides with the choir hitting its peak, creating a blissful sound, and I was pleased with the neatness of that dovetailing: my choir singing Wesley’s hymn, embodying the eternal bliss of the lyrics in the momentary bliss of their voices.

The choice of hymn was not random. Looking through Wesley’s hymn lyrics, I was especially struck by this one. It is called O Come and Dwell in Me, and gives voice to a sentiment that is all but lost to our generation: that death might be a thing to be happily anticipated. William is a youngster here; later we are to see him grow into a man with a horror of dying and death, and I was pleased to be able to half-bury this irony in the passage. In his cheerful tenor he belts out the words, ‘Hasten the joyful day’ – the ‘joyful day’ being the day of one’s own death – but plainly he isn’t actually listening to the words. He’s just relishing the singing.

Paragraphs are not self-contained things. This one has strings that attach it to other parts of the book. What we see here is William’s striking talent in singing and his ability to lead. We learn on the next page that some people are critical of William for singing with similar gusto in public houses, but when we actually see this it is evidence of a very human and touching (also drunken) solidarity that his male friends extend to him when he is bereaved. Much later William sings all alone in his emporium at night. His loneliness then is apparent to the reader, but one suspects he only has a half-sense of it. Later still he is to sing a very intimate, halting duet with Lizzie the seamstress, when it appears he might be able to reconnect with humanity… So there is a thread of human voice, the different ways it implies social connection and disconnection, that lies mostly behind the fabric of the novel and appears on the surface here and on a few other occasion. I said strings, but I ought to have said threads or yarn: this kind of craft is called fairisle in knitting, and I think of it often when writing.

Next: An Interview with Diane Setterfield: Part II