Quick success a surprise for Setterfield

01:49, Aug 18 2014
Diane Setterfield
SURPRISING RESULT: Diane Setterfield says the quick success of The Thirteenth Tale was 'really extraordinary'.

Diane Setterfield knew her mum would want to read her first try at a book, The Thirteenth Tale, so she chivvied herself along. It turned out more than 3 million other people wanted to read it, too. She talks to Diana Dekker.

Diane Setterfield's second book, Bellman and Black, was published last year without quite the breathtaking and immediate success, in 2006, of The Thirteenth Tale. Her first novel, it caused a brisk publishers' bidding war in Britain and the United States which ended up making her a fortune. It was published in 38 countries, sold more than 3 million, stayed on the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and was made into a 90-minute television film starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman.

Setterfield, 49, is coming to New Zealand for WORD, the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. More immediately she's shifting from a four-bedroom house with a study in Oxford to a one-bedroom flat in London largely on the strength of a two-month summer holiday in a Norwegian cabin when she and her husband lived out of a suitcase and liked it - "the simplicity of life without stuff".

"Today I'm in the new place in London," she says. "There's only a bed in it. It's very empty and very perfect. The old house in Oxford, you have to see it to believe it - everything half packed. It was going to be for the weekends but then we fell in love with London life. It's really central. That's why it's so small." It's an appropriate size for a person who once said her idea of domestic bliss would be living in a library kitchen.

"A library kitchen would be quite perfect," she says. "Just books and cooking, with a little bed in the corner. That's all you need. But it would be a very unhealthy way of living. You would start to miss the world."


Setterfield still sounds slightly bemused at the huge, quick success of The Thirteenth Tale, a Gothic mystery.

"That things happened the way they did was really extraordinary. I was surprised. I hate being disappointed, human psychology being what it is. I knew that I adored this book and that it was wonderful but that didn't necessarily mean other people would. Most people don't finish a book or find an agent, or find a publisher and, when they do, still most people don't buy the book. You love the book, you write it.

"Sometimes I'd chivvy myself along: Finish it, your mother wants to read it. Beyond that I didn't dare to let myself hope. It was something of a very English, old-fashioned book, and I was putting things into it that related to research as an academic, certain things very deeply embedded in it and I found myself thinking, 'will anyone appreciate it, or think it was a quick throw-away story'."

The research came from years as a university lecturer specialising in the works of Andre Gide and other 19th and 20th century French writers. She left that career to be a writer, partly because she found the academic life "very, very, so demanding" and not conducive to "doing things properly".

"I found the job was taking up so much of my time I wasn't really reading outside the syllabus I was teaching. My leisure time was seriously eroded. It might be different in New Zealand but I found myself being quite unhappy, like my life had shrunk to the job. I've been a big reader my whole life and that was kind of necessary for my contentment."

She'd always wanted to write "but not the confidence to do it. I thought you had to be quite an extraordinary person to be a writer."

The death of several people close to her had a profound effect.

"I thought, no good thinking I can get to 65 and then write a novel. I might not make it that far. If it's something you really want to do you have to do it - and the job was doing my head in."

So she did a one-week writing course. " There is a lot of discussion of lengthy courses. The two things that taught me to write were reading and, after that, part of my linguistic study, translating the most amazing English and French literature.

"Nothing teaches you better how sentences are made than having to translate them. You're in the machinery of a story, getting your hands dirty and oil in your fingernails and knowing what makes a good sentence work."

Bellman and Black is published by Orion, $37. Diane Setterfield will speak at WORD, the 2104 Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. See wordchristchurch.co.nz.

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