An Interview with Diane Setterfield: Part II

Copyright Guy Julier, 2014
Diane Setterfield: Portrait  Copyright Guy Julier, 2014

(This is the second and final part of my interview with Diane Setterfield. An introduction may be found in Part I).

Question 4: You said that, “Paragraphs are not self-contained things. This one has strings that attach it to other parts of the book.” Recognizing this, let’s balance some of that enormous joy, then, with some of that sinking feel we get as writers when we realize that all that care, all that love, all that attention to a given paragraph — such as that you just shared with us — now has to go. The story evolved and that fabulous bit of writing is now a weed. Can you share some of those experiences with us and maybe, just maybe, do you have a paragraph that you once wished you could share but no longer has a place to go? I feel like there should be a term of such material — something akin to orphans.

Orphans – that’s what I call the shoes that linger in my wardrobe when the outfits that went with them have given up the ghost.

I cut masses out of my writing and in general it’s not a painful experience. Loyalty to the story first and foremost is what matters. What aids the story is my friend, what doesn’t aid it my enemy. In the early and even middle stages of a book, it’s the big blunt tools you use: the hammer, the axe, the blowtorch. There’s even something to be relished, a secret exhilaration in making something, only to three-quarters destroy it once it’s made. There’s just no value in getting attached to sentences and paragraphs in the early stages. Often I tell myself that I’m not even writing the book, it’s just a mock up, to see what the book itself might look like. An early draft is one big experiment and everything is provisional.

There is real value in bad paragraphs and sentences. At best, writing the bad bits helps you see what the right bits will look like. The great pleasure of the first draft, is in being the opposite of precious. You can write sentences that are ungainly, plot developments that lack finesse, paragraphs that say the same thing three different ways… You can afford to write badly, because the only function of a first draft is to help figure out what the second draft is going to be. The advice I often remind myself of when I get too fussy about early drafts is this: to write a good novel, first write a bad one. It is wonderfully liberating.

But that’s not exactly what you are asking. You want to know about having to excise a good paragraph – I take that as meaning a paragraph from a later draft. In my experience it’s rare for a whole paragraph to be wrong. In drafts 2 and 3 writing gets layered, starts doing several things at once. For instance, this hypothetical good paragraph of yours might contain some action advancing the plot, something to indicate the passage of time, an element to denote the mood of a character, a detail that is the beginning of a thread whose significance will only become apparent later, a location that the novel will return to at some later point… In reality the chance that all these elements will prove to be unnecessary is so slight as to be negligible. And although one might be absolutely wrong, the section is likely to fall to pieces entirely if I delete the other elements along with the wrong bit. Then it’s a question of taking the paragraph to pieces, removing the unwanted bit and reconstructing it so that it works better.

Where I make large scale changes between early drafts, the things that get cut out often come back somewhere else. And if they don’t come back in that book, they might be the germ of a later one. There was a secondary character I cut after the first draft of The Thirteenth Tale, a solitary type with an obsession with punctuation. I have a feeling I might write about him in another book, some other time. He’s not one of your orphans – or if he is, he is sure to be adopted sooner or later.

Question 5: That is a very mature way of looking at your writing. Which makes me wonder why there are enough errant shoes in your wardrobe to warrant naming them.

Ah. Well, maturity in writing develops on a different timescale to wardrobe maturity. I’m still waiting for that.

Question 6: Looked at from the perspective of craft  — that is, the composition, the word choice, the joy of finding connections of one kind or another — your point is well taken about not becoming attached too early. But sometimes what appears in those paragraphs is more than an artistic flourish; It’s an idea. Maybe an interesting idea. Perhaps it is a potential thread for weaving the story together or else a way to make the story as a whole more connected and relevant to the lives of the readers. In what way, then, do you manage the emergence of new ideas as you’re writing, especially in the early phases when “what the book is about” is not entirely — or not at all — defined?

I don’t try to manage them at all in the first draft. In the early stages – and even the middle stages – I give them free rein. It makes things messy, of course, which I hate. But I let any and all ideas in on the first draft, and then once I have a first draft it’s usually clearer what the story wants and what it doesn’t. A lot of the best bits in my writing are the result of happy accident, so I take the line that being open to as many accidents as possible is a good thing. It’s also (I learned the hard way) a lot quicker than trying to work it all out in your head before you put pen to paper. Or finger to keyboard, more likely.

In short, I can only find out what I want and need to write by writing, so that’s what I do. After I’ve written, then the task of selection starts – and the book does that al by itself. It’s usually obvious what has to go. Through the tangle of wild and overgrown writing you can see form, structure, thematic directions, and they tell you what and where to prune.

Question 7: Bellman & Black is built using very short chapters. While a few are as long as ten pages or so, many others are two pages long. When I read books with short chapters, I am usually reading books that are either quite formulaic and assume the reader has ADD— and I tend to avoid these as they bore me — or else they are written by people who come from a screenwriting background and are trying to figure out why any chapter needs to be more than two or three paragraphs as a movie scene is never that “long.” In your case, you are neither writing something formulaic nor do you come from screen writing; you come from studying French literature. Tell me about the journey that lead to this distinct quality and form for the book.

It’s notoriously difficult to recreate the process of writing a novel retrospectively, and I honestly can’t remember very specifically how or why I arrived at the decision to do it that way. If it had been a difficult decision I would probably remember it more clearly, which suggests it was fairly obvious to me that this was the way to go. I imagine the form emerged naturally from the mass of early writing that I call draft one. With the benefit of hindsight it seems likely that some of the following factors were relevant to the decision:

  1. Pragmatism

In many instances the scenes are in length more or less what I might manage as a day’s work (though obviously they have been worked over again, more than once, so any finished scene represents more than a day’s work and some of them take many days’ work). So when I had a first draft, consisting of scenes written to no plan, my individual sections I played with to find the bones of my story will have been pieces of about this length.

  1. Time frame

I was covering a period of about forty years in 90 000 words and the unfolding of Bellman’s drama did not want to collapse neatly into a small number of lengthy sections. I think I felt that it mattered to give an impression of the whole of his life, and therefore to show scenes from many different periods.

  1. Pace

Bellman is an active man, always looking to the next big thing: his life is therefore constantly changing. The rapid succession of scenes mirrors – I believe – the rapid pace of his life.

  1. Psychology

Bellman’s attention is total, and when it moves on to something else, it is totally gone. He is the classic compartmentalised thinker. The structure of the book (which is so much the story of the inside of his mind) is equally compartmentalised. He doesn’t join up his thinking – and the narrative doesn’t join up his thinking for the benefit of the reader either. The reader has to join the dots and see where Bellman is failing to make the connections.

  1. Narrative uncertainty and the ghost story

Lengthy sequences can give an impression of stability and safe ground. Within a long sequence, the different elements inevitably relate to each other, and the longer the sequence, the more the opportunity the narrative has to suggest what that relationship is. Order, hierarchy, causality… narrative abounds in these. It’s as if, the longer you go on storytelling, the more explaining gets done.

Now explanation is something you have to manage very carefully in a ghost story (even if it’s a skewed ghost story like this one). Explain too much and you remove at a stroke all the mystery you are trying to create – a mystery by numbers is no mystery at all. Explain too little and you produce something which is so undermined by uncertainty that it fails the test of the satisfying read by failing to offer a sense of resolution, that quality of ‘finishedness’. This is a balance you have to get right, because you want a proper sense of an ending, but you also want the uncanny quality to linger in the reader’s mind afterwards. Successful ghost stories leave behind a beautifully unsettled feeling, and long sections tend – at least they would have, here – to stabilise.

Perhaps I’m saying the same thing in a different way by pointing out that looking into shards of a broken mirror is more unsettling than looking into an unbroken mirror. I wanted to exploit the broken edges. All these shards of life show aspects of William, but partially. There are gaps between. The scenes – many little fragments – fill each other out, complete each other, but also contradict each other. Like a mirror that falls and breaks on an uneven surface, you get different perspectives, odd angles, bits missing. It means the reader has to decide how to read the book: he can, if he wants, create a kind of mastic to hold them together in a way that makes them stable (‘Mr Black is the rook in human form’ or ‘Mr Black is the dark side of Bellman himself” or ‘the rook is the agent of death’). Some people only like mysteries that have answers. But it’s also possible to move between these notions, to borrow each interpretative stance provisionally, allowing the narrative to remain unstable, shifting, in flux. The broken mirror is in many ways more fascinating than the mended one. It seems that in the gaps between the scenes, the reader can have fun working out the equations and parallels and enjoy working out a theory, then relish the thrill of the next shard of mirror that undermines it all again.

For myself I prefer the broken mirror approach. That’s probably obvious, given that I broke the mirror myself. Why do I prefer it? Firstly because it gives the reader a more vigorous work out, and in my own reading that’s what I like. But mostly because at heart the mystery I am writing about here is death, and I think books should be honest. I don’t have the answers to the mystery of death, and it would seem presumptuous – as well as dishonestly reassuring – to make something up. The mirror is broken because it is.

  1. Influence of screen writing

I’m not a screen writer, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean I am not influenced by screen writing. For a long time I had a TV and now that I don’t, I still go to the cinema. Bellman & Black is very influenced by film I think. I was very conscious of the use of colour in it for instance, and I expect the short scene form comes partly from there as well.

Some of the above thoughts were conscious ones at the time of writing, others only occurred to me afterwards. Quite often you only know what it is you are doing after you have done it.

Question 8: You began and ended that last answer in a similar way. You explained that your answer is a product of a retrospective analysis rather than an account from memory. There does seem to be a rhetorical style among a group of successful writers who seem to dismiss this with a wave of the hand and adopt the identity of the insightful, deliberate, and self-aware writer. Have you noticed this? Does it rub you the wrong way too or am I being overly sensitive? After all, we’re story tellers and people want to hear stories. People aren’t necessarily interested in truth from us. Or are they?

I know what you mean, yes. Sometimes when I hear other authors describe how they came to write a book I feel quite dumbfounded. Other writers’ processes can seem so alien to me that I find it hard to believe the practices they describe actually result in a novel and not a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake or a maintenance manual for a rocket launcher. It’s an astonishment I enjoy though, rather than feeling sensitive about it. We’re all different, the novels we write are different, the processes are different. It stands to reason.

But I think what you are talking about is less the different practices that authors adopt, and more the stories we tell ourselves about our practice. ‘The story of the story’ perhaps, or even ‘The story of myself as a writer.’ It may well be that our practices are in fact more similar than we think, and it is just the way we choose to describe it that differs. After all, what I said in my last answer about knowing what I’ve done in a book only after I’ve done it is only half the truth. My work also comprises a hefty dose of labour that is insightful, deliberate and self aware. This is the aspect of the work that I need to do in order for the other stuff (the unconscious, the hard-to-remember-afterwards, the it-came-to me-but-I don’t-know-where-from) to slip in, between the gaps. My private shorthand for all that stuff is ‘the magic’*.

Some authors relish the sense of writing as a connection with something that is magically ‘other’. I really enjoy it when I discover aspects to my work that do not feel like something I have made an authorial decision about (even though in reality I may have – and forgotten). Writing is so very hard that if I believed I had to consciously plan and execute every element of a novel, I would end up so overwhelmed by the responsibility that I would get blocked. So my ability to sit down to writing day after day, even when it’s hard-going, is boosted by the harmless little story I tell myself that I’m collaborating with something mysterious and magical that casts fairy dust over the rather ordinary words that I string together.

It might be that my relish for the mystery of writing is the result of my having been an academic for so long. In the universities one reads and analyses according to well-tested theories, every statement is footnoted, every word you write might be picked up and scrutinised at a conference and you would be expected to defend it. All is consciously executed in that world (well, people pretend so, anyway). So to jump ship and come to creative writing was delightful. To relinquish that kind of executive control and enter into a different relationship with story was so exciting and pleasurable. Chance and accident and getting things wrong in a way that turns out to be right… All the unpredictability and the unknowability… Scary and wonderful, at once.

Don’t you think it’s interesting though when you hear an author talk about their writing in the way you describe – the insightful etc etc? It might be partial as an account of how writing happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I’ve learned a lot that way. Some writers, by temperament, are going to be more interested in the self-aware stuff. And some writers are uneasy talking in public about ‘the magic’. After all, we get paid for what we do, and people might be less willing to fork out their £8.99 if we gave the impression that all we’d done to earn our (small) percentage of that was sit at a computer and take dictation from fairies, or the creative spirit, or the universal cultural imagination or whatever you like to call it.

Your last question (‘After all, we’re story tellers and people want to hear stories. People aren’t necessarily interested in truth from us. Or are they?’) leads in a new direction. To tell you the truth (whether you’re interested in it or not!) I am still puzzled at why readers want anything from us other than more books. But many do seem to enjoy being entertained by writers’ tales from the front line. Personally I think it’s time for doctors and hairdressers to step up to the line and start doing festivals and interviews too. They have some stories to tell, I bet. But readers – and this is fair enough – are fascinated by the same questions that make me a writer. Where do stories come from? People who love reading, that totally mysterious communication in solitude with a disembodied voice that speaks directly to their thoughts, want to know. And they think we know the answer. I don’t know the answer (not the real, deep answer), but I do enjoy wondering about it in public. Like all the best questions it doesn’t have an answer. You can only tell stories to suggest possible answers. And if it’s a good story then it’s bound to be true.

When I say ‘magic’, I don’t mean actual magic. I just mean all the rather ungraspable stuff that happens in writing, that remains just beyond the limit of your conscious mind. I don’t actually believe fairies or wizards are involved, or anything supernatural at all. I have to make this disclaimer because a few readers have taken me literally, and I don’t want to mislead anyone.

Question 9: One question about you, if you don’t mind. You changed your life, rather profoundly, in leaving the academy and committing yourself to being a novelist. Yes, the financial success of your first novel helped and all that, but this is also an identity change; A chance to transform yourself at an age when most people have to do exactly the opposite, which is accept (or at least come to terms with) what they have become. Can you please share with me a little of what it feels like to enter into this new world and new identity at this age, which is surely a different experience from those who “make it” in their 20s and never undergo this transformation.

Why does the word ‘transformation’ make me so uncomfortable? Is it because I feel so remarkably UNtransformed? I am profoundly – and some days disappointingly – the same person I was before. Maybe transformations just aren’t things that can be appreciated from the inside. After all, ‘ transform’ means to change the form or shape, not to change the substance of a thing, and shapes and forms are perceived more clearly from the outside.

Or is it the fairytale connotations that unnerve me? Because for every Cinderella (sweet natured girl in ragged dress gets magicked into a silk ball gown and dance slippers made of glass – unless it was squirrel fur; it’s a vexed question) there are two ugly sisters (proud, ambitious types in fashionable dresses, who get magicked into ugly statues, or are boiled in oil, or their eyes are pecked out). There should be a warning with transformations as there is with financial products: the value of your transformation may go up or down.

Staying with the fairytales, there’s the Happy Ever After difficulty too. The stories cop out when it comes to endings, in a way. They seem to tell us that once something’s happened and you’re transformed, that’s it, forever. I’m not convinced. Transformed, great – and then what? I want to know. Because transformation has its own momentum, sure, but it’s hardly enough to be permanent. Sooner or later it runs out, and then you’re back to you, your own abilities, your own energy, your own day after day decisions and actions. Logically, doesn’t Sleeping Beauty have to become the Wicked Mother (or Stepmother) one day? Other tales don’t go down the happy ever after route, but stick with the lucky character for long enough to see them get greedy with the golden goose, abuse the never-ending stockpot etc at which point they get transformed back. (I often remind myself about that fortune can change. My agent has a variant on it: You’re only as good as your last book….)

So let’s think instead about your more workaday word: change. I like that better.

Changing from being an academic to a writer and part time freelance teacher was brilliant in that it gave me back control of my timetable and thus restored my reading time. That was one of the best things I ever did for myself.  The downsides were 1) I was financially insecure* – that’s never comfortable but at least I had relevant experience: I’d done a self-funded PhD so I knew how to fortify myself with little money), and 2) at first I missed having the kind of status a proper job gives you – I didn’t realise in advance that I would care about that. I talked myself out of minding so much after a few months.

Later when I made the change to being a published author I was stunned. I like a quiet life and anonymity and for a while I didn’t get enough solitude. I found a balance though, where hanging out in bookshops with people who love reading as much as I do made up for being away from home so much. There is the danger – when you’ve been doing loads of publicity – of falling into the trap of believing in your own importance. The first time I came home from touring the US (and I don’t recall opening a single door for myself the entire month I was there), I remember sitting on the sofa in my own living room and thinking, What do I have to do to get a cup of tea, round here? The answer was Go into the kitchen and put the kettle on, you lazy author! But my fears that success might change my nature – that I might get turned into an ugly statue as a punishment for vanity, ambition and pride – have not yet materialised. (You better check with the people who know me though.)

What difference does age make? Perhaps the older you are, the more time you have had to look beyond the immediate attraction of the Cinderella story (normal girl in bad clothes gets riches and status and squirrel fur shoes, all thanks to a magic wand!) and absorb the warnings fairy stories also contain about transformation. Yet people never learn and others are born wise.

Mostly I’m glad I made the changes I did when I did. It couldn’t in any case have been otherwise. As long as I get to write all the books I want to write before my energy runs out. That’s the only reason I can think of for looking back and wishing I had dared earlier.

And I had no children. That makes all the difference when you are taking financial risks. I’ve met people who can’t take financial risks in order to make time to write their novel, and the other way is to sacrifice sleep to do it. Both ways are hard.

Question 10: Enough with the soft-ball questions. Let’s hit them hard and fast:

A. On a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being the highest — how under-rated is the Oboe?

Damn you. I have no idea how to answer this.

B. What’s your favorite Rolling Stones song?

The Rolling Stones… it’s coming back to me now. They’re that obscure little band from about the same time as The Kinks, right? Now, The Kinks: You really got me, that’s a fab song.

C. What was your first reaction on learning that the former Vice President of the United States of America (Dick Cheney) shot someone in the face and what do you think that says about you?

But he didn’t. Did he? DID HE? Oh. I missed that.

D. Are you comfortable with the word blog yet or is that not going to happen?

 Ha! I can answer this: No, I’m not, and you’re right, it isn’t. But I will write one. Soon.

E. When the supermarket has a line for “10 items or less” and it’s obviously supposed to say “fewer” are you prepared to let that slide or does it drive you nuts?

There’s Tolstoy and there’s supermarkets and they do different things.

F. What perfect rebuttal to a bad review do you wish you could make but know you never will (except here and now)? 

Hey, I’m just finishing draft 1 of my new book here! What makes you think you can go putting thoughts about bad reviews in my head?

My sincere thanks to Diane for this conversation. If you’ve enjoyed your time with The Interview Spot, for God’s sake, tell someone.

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