A Waterstones Exclusive Q & A with Susan Hill
At just over 200 pages From the Heart is almost a novella. Are you consciously drawn to writing shorter fiction? Is it the result of rigorous editing, or an instinctive response to storytelling?
I have never, ever written poetry and couldn't but I am very drawn to the novella. It is so good to make every word count and pare it all back. The editing is even more rigorous than for long books, though I hope writing at greater length doesn't mean I get sloppy. It certainly shouldn't. Not everything works in short form.
From the Heart is set in the 1950’s, it’s relatively recent history but the events you portray are a stark and moving reminder of how much the world has changed. Do you think there will be readers who will be surprised, shocked even, by the situation they find in this book?
It has already happened. Especially young women under, say, 40 have no idea that you couldn't get contraception from clinics unless you were either married or could prove you were going to be. Doctors only could prescribe the pill, of course, but even they were strict. The mother and baby homes have become better known about and they were not by any means always cruel, as is thought, but they had rules and stuck to them. And until the last, what, 20 years or so, being a single parent was very, very unusual and frowned upon.
There’s a tenderness to this novel, a subtle understanding of the need for everyday, understated kindness. You’ve said previously that ‘kindness is a sort of love without being love’. To what extent do you think kindness is the unglamorous, less showy (and perhaps less fictionally represented) side of love?
To turn the question on its head – a novel of mine, I'm the King of the Castle, is about two young boys, one of whom persecutes the other to the end. It has been an GCSE set book, and is described sometimes as being about bullying. But I prefer to use the word 'unkindness' because that is what bullying is - bullying in person, behind someone's back, in cyber-space or wherever. It is simple and I think the word unkindness makes the point more strongly. People can behave with extreme unkindness to others in school, in the workplace, on social media, anywhere. But Kindness is a great virtue and next to love because it makes bonds, whereas unkindness does the opposite. Kindness is probably the one thing we can all show to others, no matter what our position in life, our age, gender etc.. When you have been the recipient of a kind word or deed, you feel loved and valued and you are minded to pass the kindness on in your turn. Love means all manner of things, but kindness is probably the most important social virtue of all.
There seems to be an implied question in this novel about self-determination. Your central character Olive often seems swept along by events in her own life, rather than an agent of her own destiny. Would you agree with that assessment? Do you think there’s always a balance to be struck in fiction between choice and the inevitable?
Never mind in fiction, it's true in life. We can all choose in most circumstances.That is what the story of the Fall is all about. Choice. We can be passive and refuse to choose, just let ourselves be swept hither and thither by the current, but where is the value and the virtue in that ? Olive becomes aware that she cannot always choose, but she can for most of the time. And of course, her choice may be wrong.
From the Heart has a beautiful, haunted feel to it, full of the lingering presence of people not present but kept in mind. Many of your books contain invisible characters, people who aren’t there but whose presence is deeply felt. To what extent is your fiction an exploration of how we’re haunted by the ghosts we all carry with us?
I am coming to see that it is most of the time. Ghost stories are so much more than spooky tales, and we are all, all haunted by our pasts and more specifically, by people in the past. So yes, it is very true - as true of this novel as others, and I am only just coming to understand that. You see ? You never ever stop learning.
The manner in which Olive lives and reacts - her distant, restrained approach, cut-off from others, acting as though dislocated from her own actions - is reminiscent of a trauma victim. Would you say From The Heart is, among many other things, an examination of trauma?
I hadn't thought of that, but of course becoming pregnant when you do not expect it when unmarried - and in her time - is a trauma. Having her baby and having him taken away is a trauma and a bereavement. She needs to defend herself against more but she can't. She doesn't know how.
In From the Heart there is a sense of distilling life down to fundamental moments of crux; it reminded me of Air and Angels, which also revolves around a life shattering, defining moment. Do you think in the end a life story flows from these fixed and fleeting moments?
I think it can. It may. We all have those fixed and defining moments, or periods of our life, or days. Very occasionally, we know it at the time. Public events sometimes have that effect. I knew that the death of Kennedy was a defining moment, and that 9/11 was. In private life, one is usually aware of the importance of the moment later, maybe years later. There is a lot of 'filling' in life - the everyday, the routine, the unmemorable - in the middle of which can come this one defining moment. We have to be on the lookout. But even then, it generally takes one by surprise.
Howard’s End Is on the Landing is a reminder that for readers, much of life is marked by the books we bring with us through our lives. In From the Heart, reading punctuates the story as a constant presence and, perhaps, the one consistent consolation. Was finding Olive’s own reading life important to how you mapped her character? Is there any one book you would never be without?
Yes and in this sense, Olive is me, though not in most others. I think my life has been defined by my reading... Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built sums it up. If you are a Reader from an early age, and you re-read and immerse yourself in a book, then you are defined and formed by what you read - not by everything, of course. Some books don't touch the sides. But Olive is sustained and healed by her reading, as I was.
In the Springtime of the Year is still the book that, as a bookseller, I most frequently recommend to anyone looking for solace in grief and it’s a theme you often return to in your books. To what extent do you think grief is the most life-defining of our emotions, the one that marks us most?
It has to be. Losing a loved man, at the age of 30, was a trauma from which I never have recovered, and never will. It was shock, a kind of betrayal of love, a reversal of everything, the death of hope, as I thought. The only thing I had left to cling to was the certainty that I would, had to, write about it. It was a kind of sacred duty. Grief and loss... the loss of my baby daughter was another, but very different and less sudden and shocking. But that too never leaves me. Some people leave gaps that can never be filled. Should never.
I have read that you can recite the whole of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (having learned it myself as a somewhat keen eleven year-old, I know it’s no mean feat!). There is a poetry to the way you write and in particular the way that you narrate your characters internal thoughts. Do you think there is something in the rhythm of poetry that matches internal monologue? Do you have particular poems or snatches of verse that return to you when you’re writing?
I was a naughty school child and often in detention, and during those periods, we were to improve the shining hour by learning poems by heart. I owe a lot to my naughtiness... I also took it for granted that I could easily memorise whole long poems and even long prose passages. One of the few things I really mind about ageing is that one no longer can. But the upside is that what has been learned never goes. I am formed by knowing much of the Bible and by the poetry I know by heart, they are my constant references. John Donne, W.H. Auden, Coleridge… those are the poets whose work I can recite from the heart.
In From the Heart the landscape of the coast is a recurrent presence, as it is in many of your novels. It is a location which seems particularly resonant with ideas of escape, solitariness and space. What is it about this setting that inspires you?
Being born within the sound of the North Sea, being brought up by it until I was 17… your soul echoes with the sound of the sea. I am always drawn back. I live in North Norfolk by the North Sea now. I am an East Coast person too. You are either that or a West Coast person, and they, like Lancastrians, are a race apart. It is an echo sounding through almost everything I write. How could it not be?
Photo: Susan Hill (c) Ben Granville