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Meet the WritersImage of Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield became a literary cause célèbre when the manuscript of her first novel, a haunting gothic mystery called The Thirteenth Tale, inspired a vigorous bidding war among publishers on both sides of the pond. A British academic with a specialty in French literature, Setterfield had taught in various colleges in England and France before quitting her job to pursue a writing career -- although, at the time, she didn't even know what she wanted to write about!

To ease her transition into the world of fiction, Setterfield steeped herself in the English classics she had enjoyed as a youth and enrolled in a writer's course on the finer points of getting published. There she caught the attention of novelist Jim Crace, who recognized her potential and took her under his wing. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Crace explained, "[Diane] had three things going for her. First, she was talented. Second, she was determined. Third, she had the right level of ego -- enough to make her ambitious but not so much as to stop her listening. When I heard her novel was getting very well received, I was not a bit surprised."

Five years in the making, The Thirteenth Tale tells the story of an elderly, reclusive novelist who reveals the secrets of her extraordinary life to a young, bookish biographer with secrets of her own. Written in the style of suspenseful romantic epics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca, the novel is shot through with classic gothic elements -- ghosts, a governess, stolen babies, and windswept moors, just to mention a few.

Upon its publication in 2006, the novel soared to the top of the bestseller lists, boosted by the enthusiastic recommendations of book lovers everywhere. The Washington Post summed up the novel's appeal succinctly in the first sentence of its review: "If you are a Reader with a capital R, as is the narrator of Diane Setterfield's debut novel, the pages of The Thirteenth Tale will remind you of what you know and love: the world of books."

In 2006, The Thirteenth Tale became the inaugural selection of the Barnes & Noble Recommends program.

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Good to Know
"Jobs I had before I began writing, in chronological order: Chambermaid, Shop Assistant (lightbulbs and batteries), Shop Assistant (newspapers and greetings cards), Bakery Assistant (I put the jam into doughnuts. I hate doughnuts.), Assistant in an old people's home, Library Assistant, English Language Tutor, Translator, French Language Tutor, University Lecturer, French Language Tutor again. Writing suits me better than any other job I have had."

"I have kept a reading diary since I was 18. I am jealous of my friend who has kept hers since she was ten."

"I love to read, obviously. Cooking and eating are joys (as I write this the sun is shining, and I am wondering whether the time is right to buy an ice-cream maker). I am always happy up a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand. And I wish I had more time to spend in the garden -- not least because I get good ideas for writing when I'm out there. I like spending time with my friends. (I did warn you. Writers are not special people. When they're not writing they do exactly the same as everyone else.)

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In the fall of 2006, Diane Setterfield took some time out to answer a few of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
There is no single book that stands out in my mind as having influenced me in this way. Rather, it is the experience of reading itself that has been central in my life. The addictive pleasure of abandoning yourself to a book, of losing consciousness of your worries, your body, and your surroundings, to become a ghost haunting other worlds has influenced me in many ways.

It will be obvious I am sure that my choice of career (I was a professor of French literature) was dictated by my desire to spend my life reading. Paradoxically, my decision to leave the profession came about in part because the demands of the job grew so excessive that my reading time was seriously eroded and I became unhappy. Many of my friendships have been founded on book-talk (I have one very dear friend with whom I meet once a year to update our list of "Top 50 Reads".) We can only include books we have both read, so it is an opportunity to share the year's literary discoveries and we usually finish by setting each other a short reading list.)

My mother says that after I first visited the home of the man I later married, she knew it was serious when I told her, "Mum, he has more books than me!" So, books are at the very heart of my life.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
My favorite book: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It is the most perfect book I can remember reading.

More recent favorites:

  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is one of the most honest books about human nature I have read, and like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter portrays heroic endurance. Neither of these are books that would be on a list of Margaret's favourites, I suspect, but her father would love them as I do.
  • Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters. An astonishingly moving -- and very funny -- attempt to understand a man so damaged he seems to defy understanding. I couldn't stop thinking about this book for days after reading it. It's a reminder of the fragility of human beings, and at the same time an examination of the nature of biography. No one could fail to benefit from reading this book.

    Writers I want to read everything by: Andreï Makine, W. G. Sebald, and Jim Crace

    Early childhood reads that still have a special place in my heart: Emil and the Detectives by Eric Kastner and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.

    Best nonfiction read: Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading. This is one to reread every ten years or so. Manguel's erudition is wide and deep, but his writing is also immediately engaging.

    And I can't omit Rose Tremain's Music and Silence. I don't know how anyone can write something so dazzlingly good as this. Books this good might almost stop you writing altogether. Not only do you catch yourself thinking, I can never write anything so good, but also because a little voice in your head says, why spend time at the computer when you could be snug on the sofa with this? Oh, the temptation!

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    I adore Bob Fosse's Cabaret. It makes my fingers go numb, which I take as a sure sign of a masterpiece. Also, I like French films where nothing much happens but people do a lot of talking. I once taught Chacun cherche son chat, and loved it. Old films appeal to me. Jean Gabin is more attractive than any George Clooney could ever be. And would you think me frivolous if I admitted that I like the dresses the old-style stars used to wear? So show me anything with Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn...

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I no longer listen to music when writing. It's incongruous, I know, but I wrote the first draft of The Thirteenth Tale to the sound of Dolly Parton's Greatest Hits. I wasn't satisfied with this draft (not Dolly's fault) and when, a year later, I returned to the manuscript and rewrote it, I felt the need to read my lines aloud as I wrote them. Now I belong to that group of writers who can write only in silence. I need to hear the rhythms of the sentences.

    Once writing has finished for the day, I love listening to music. In particular, I listen to music when I am cooking and doing the housework.

    Jacques Brel, always and forever. Everything about him moves me: the lyrics, the voice, the passion of the performance. I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that I never saw him perform live. My favorite track changes with the years -- at the moment it's "La chanson des vieux amants," a devastatingly honest and passionate song about grown up love. (There's also a good cover version on Alison Moyet's "The Voice").

    Tango: The CD I have is Tango Pasion by The Sexteto Mayor Orchestra. I can't explain why I love it so, because it leaves me lost for words. Unless it is because it leaves me lost for words that I love it.

    As Time Goes By by Bryan Ferry. This is his album of cover versions. I've had it for years, and I listen to it all the time. The songs are so clever, and his delivery is so smooth and sophisticated that it's hard to choose a single track, but maybe "You Do Something To Me" (I've always loved the line that goes: "Do do that voodoo that you do so well," and he does it exquisitely.)

    "La Dernière Minute." This is a clever and droll little song at the end of Carla Bruni's CD Quelqu'un m'a dit. It lasts exactly one minute, and is a contemplation of mortality -- just up my street. Plus she has the sweetest voice.

    "Delilah," by Tom Jones. An old, old, old favorite.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I gave my father Gavin Pretor-Pinney's The Cloudspotter's Guide, on the basis that since he is a keen spotter of planes and birds it would be no inconvenience for him to look at the clouds too while he was staring skywards. He loves it and has become quite the expert. The trouble is, it's one of those books that you give and then immediately want to borrow!

    The other book I have been buying for bookish friends lately is Reading Women by Stefan Bollman. It's a beautiful book of reproductions of images of women reading, and captures perfectly the intimacy of the reading experience. I was given a copy myself by a book group friend. I think Margaret would have loved it!

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    One of my devices to get motivated is to take my novel for a walk, sit on a bench or in a café somewhere, and scribble longhand. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For The Thirteenth Tale, I used to write in the mornings, do the housework, the groceries, and the garden in the afternoons (it was while I was getting on with these chores that ideas used to come to me for the next day's writing), and in the evenings I taught French. But then, like a precocious first-born, The Thirteenth Tale went out into the world and caused a stir, and now, like a harried mother, I spend a lot of time chasing after her, when really I would prefer to be at home, writing her little brother.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I sent sample chapters to four agents at once. Weeks and weeks later, three of them sent me rejection letters, but it hardly mattered -- because by then Vivien Green at Sheil Land had asked for the whole manuscript, read it, accepted it, and was busy selling it all over the world.

    The toughest challenge was the uncertainty. In order to write, I gave up a career that had brought me financial security, social contact, and the sense that my life was useful to others. There were no guarantees that my writing would be any good, that I would be able to finish the novel satisfactorily, or that anyone would want to read it when it was completed. It might have been a waste of five years of my life. Writing against this background of doubt was the most difficult thing. When I set out to write, it was with a sense of "let's try it and see how it goes. If it doesn't work, I'll do something else instead." But very quickly I was drawn in, grew obsessed, and my happiness came to be dependent on the progress of the novel. There were long periods when I had the sense of sinking in quicksand, yet by then the possibility of abandoning the novel to do something easier had become impossible.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Long before I ever thought of becoming a writer, I yearned to be a girl in a book. The melancholy I felt at knowing this could never be was very deep, very real. I wrote a passage about this melancholy for The Thirteenth Tale, where I gave the feeling to Margaret, but it was one of the pieces that fell out in the second draft. It seemed to me that being a writer was the only compensation possible for not being a girl in a book, but this ambition barely had time to be born before I suppressed it.

    To be a writer, I thought, you had to be extraordinary, and I knew I was ordinary. But desire is like an underground stream: if it can't surface where it wants, it will divert and surface somewhere else. My wish to write novels surfaced as a wish to teach and research literature. By the time I was in my thirties, I understood things better, and this is what my advice to anyone waiting to be "discovered" would be: it is books that are extraordinary, writers themselves are no more or less extraordinary than anyone else. In some ways I wish I had figured this out earlier, but overall I'm not disappointed at the way things have turned out. I consider the years of studying and teaching literature as a very valuable part of my apprenticeship.

    However, if you're looking for more practical advice, this is what I recommend:

    1) Before you write a single word, spend several decades reading.
    2) Forget advances, best-seller lists, publishing trends. Just write the book you most want to read.
    3) Find a handful of honest people who know what they are talking about and who are not afraid of hurting your feelings. Show them your work and listen to what they say.
    4) When you have written the best book you possibly can, edit, edit, edit to make it even better.

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  • About the Writer
    *Diane Setterfield Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *The Thirteenth Tale, 2006
    Photo by Javan Liam