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The Interview: Diane Setterfield on Once Upon a River

Posted on 28th January 2019 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, Diane Setterfield discusses tale-telling, the lure of The Thames and the origins of her beguiling new novel, Once Upon a River.

You begin Once Upon a River in The Swan, an inn on the edge of The Thames. It struck me that there’s an age-old tradition - it’s there at the origin of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales - of pubs and inns as places where both lives and stories converge. How important was that central setting to you in creating such a weaving, multi-narrative tale? 

I did most of my growing up in a village called Theale and around the time I grew up there were about 400 inhabitants and 7 pubs. In my childhood, pub-going was really gendered. Women rarely did it, mums didn’t do it but dads went to pubs and although mine didn’t, all of my mum’s brothers and my mum’s father were all great pub-goers. So to me they were very exciting and mysterious places because children weren’t allowed in; as a real treat you might be allowed to sit upon the step and your uncle would bring you a lemonade, but that was about it because things were quite strict in those days. So I did have a fascination with pubs because on one level they were very familiar and ordinary and on another they were out of bounds. My uncles were also great joke-tellers, so I got the idea of pubs as places that were full of stories and fun and laughter and that they must be rather nice. 

When I did finally get the chance to go to a pub - which was probably when I was about 13, because we used to drink a bit underage in those days - I was a bit disappointed by how smelly they were but nevertheless that fascination continued. It’s very English, isn’t it, that idea of your local? And in an era when people’s houses were very crowded, and full of children and noise, it straddled the divide between public and private space and I think that’s quite important.  

It seems sometimes that we’ve lost some of those spaces I think, perhaps particularly the spaces where stories can be told aloud.

I think we’re losing the spaces quite rapidly but we’re also losing the willingness to actually engage with each other. We’d rather engage with strangers on Twitter than we would talk to the person who is sitting next to us. There’s a lot less conversation on trains than there used to be as well. Things have changed a lot and I really value - I think you can tell this in the book - the way that human beings explain themselves to other people by organising those experiences into gossip and anecdotes and stories, I think that’s very precious.

I also think something that comes across very strongly in the novel is the sense of how lonely it is if you don’t tell your own story. I was really struck by the way that - just like a river - stories can move and flow but they can also get stuck. 

Yes, and the ways in which a current might come along which might help you become un-stuck. The river sometimes flows very fast and dislodges debris that’s got stuck and at other times it will loll around in the doldrums for what seems like forever. When I began writing the novel there were times when I thought I would look for some nice watery metaphors for when I was talking about people and then I found them coming all by themselves and I didn’t notice I was putting them in. Then I reached another point where I felt I should be on guard against it but in the end I said to myself, “I’ll let it come as it wants to come and at the very end I’ll make a judgement about whether there are times when there are too many”, and I ended up keeping nearly all of them because I just felt that it seemed right. The river is so important for every aspect of their life and it seemed natural that people would define themselves in terms of the river and that their own sense of themselves would be connected to the water.

You communicate beautifully the way our personalities and language can be tied-up with the landscape where we live and grow up. I loved the scene were Helena agrees to get married but insists on taking her boat, for example. 

I revisited that scene several times because Helena is probably about sixteen and Vaughan is in his mid-thirties, so he’s twice her age at least; he’s old enough to be her father and historically that was a very normal relationship for that time. I wanted to show their relationship in a way that suggested that normality and didn’t make it perverted. In the modern era we hear so much about child abuse and I wanted her to really be a character with childhood still in her - a very spontaneous, natural childhood - but I didn’t want there to be unpleasant things in it. I wanted to show it as a marriage that was a positive thing for both of them and that they could both have flourished within this relationship had this tragedy not happened to them when they were both - Helena in particular - so young. So I had to revisit it several times to make sure that the reader wasn’t wrinkling their nose.

There’s a very clever layering of relationships in this novel, different kinds of marriages and partnerships and love affairs, seen at different stages of a life. It creates a real sense of a relationship as a developing story, not something fixed in one place.

People frequently talk about my work in terms of fairy tale or folklore or magic and I completely get what they’re saying - and they’re right, I am interested in those things - but as much as all of that, maybe even more, I’m trying to write about real people and real relationships and real life and trying to be honest about what life really is. I never enjoy books so much that seem to evade the reality of what life is. That’s why those folk and fairy tale stories endure, after all, and why we keep telling them.

It seemed to me that this is a novel that feels made to be read aloud, the idea of storytelling as an active process is alive throughout the book. How important was it to you to engage with that sense of storytelling as a moving, changing, living process?

Absolutely crucial. I knew that some of the material I was going to be writing about was hard and dark - there’s bereavement in it, a child is lost, that’s a very dark story - but I didn’t want the book to be purely harrowing for the reader. There are books that purport to show life as it really is and can leave you, as a reader, feeling in despair and that’s not what I want to do to readers. I actually think it’s kinder and more honest to acknowledge that life can be really, really tough but life brings opportunities even at the hardest moments. People can suffer the most appalling losses and yet, from a place of despair, it is possible to be moved by the strength of your character and by the randomness of what life offers to a different place where there can be fulfilment again. It doesn’t undo the loss, there are things that can’t be undone, but the future has always yet to be written. I think the books that say that life is terrible and there’s nothing you can do about it, they might purport to be brave books but I think there’s something a little bit dishonest about that. It’s really important in hard times to just allow your mind to remain open to the fact that things can get better.

And, at the heart of the novel, there are these three stories of missing and lost children brought back to life. It made me think of the number of folk and fairy tales that interweave around children gone astray - everything from Hansel and Gretel to Goblin Market. Why do you think these stories are so persistent and resonant in our storytelling tradition?

I know why they’re so resonant with me and that’s because I grew up alongside a sister who was very ill and for a lengthy period of my childhood from when I was four to when I was about ten we didn’t have any certainty about what the outcome would be. Although she did fine and is very well and everything worked out better even than we thought it might, I just think that experience of having to start thinking quite early in my life about the possibility of loss and what that might mean certainly gave this story about a lost or missing child an extra resonance. 

I used to have terrible nightmares about losing her. I used to have terrible nightmares about losing her. I remember this recurring nightmare where we were out together, just her and me, and she fell down a hole and I could just see at the bottom there were these men with triangular hats - who I called the Chinamen because they reminded me of the pattern on my grandmother’s plates - but I couldn’t find a ladder long enough to get her out. I just remember the awfulness of that feeling of there being no ladder long enough to reach her; that dreadful sense of responsibility and impossibility. So that was my first experience of loss and yet I never lost her, she’s my best friend and my first reader, but we lived for so long with the possibility.

There’s a strong theme in the novel exploring the relationships between parents and children. It made me think of the way in which parents invest their own stories in the lives of their children, that they can become embodiments of a kind of story, a way of continuing your own narrative beyond yourself. Did writing the book give you any new perspectives on that relationship and how it shapes people’s lives and - perhaps - stories?

I’m not a parent, so I think I occasionally feel a bit nervous when I start talking about parent-child relationships because I think I only know one side of it, from the child’s side. I think that when you’re writing you’re not thinking about things in a universal sense, you get so drawn into the individual characters’ lives. I think it is often readers responses afterwards that alert you to what might be a more general and global message that might be present in a book. 

I do think that I’ve been incredibly lucky in terms of the men in my life - my father and my two grandfathers - and I think I very consciously wanted to write about good, loving fathers. I think that Vaughan and Armstrong are both very good fathers, in different ways, and do their best, although they’re not perfect. I broke my own rule, in a way. I never borrow things directly from my own lived experience and put them into a book, I always feel that my influences are other books. But my grandfather always used to say, “I’d rather starve than see my own children go without”, and he would insist at the table that the little ones were served first. I loved him so much and it was really only at the end of his life and after he was gone that I fully understood how hard his life had been and how hungry he had been as a child. I think his own father was a brutal man and they were so poor that he used to have to run out of school at lunchtime and dig up a raw potato from a farmer’s field to have for his lunch because that was all that there was. Raw potato gives you terrible stomach ache but that was all that there was. 

Some children could have come out of that background and become tyrants themselves but for my grandfather it gave him a lifelong compassion for other people, particularly those smaller and weaker than himself and I wanted to use that in the character of Armstrong. It’s the first time I’ve done it but now I’m really glad I did.

I loved so many of the characters in this book but I think I found myself particularly drawn to the figure of Rita. She’s such a wonderfully multi-faceted character and seems to conjure up the spirit of the age with her interests in medicine and science and the mysteries behind the human body. 

When you’re writing about a period of history that is not your own and where, overall, women’s lives were very different from your own you have to think really hard about how to write the kind of character who will be really engaging for modern readers. Most of my female characters do work and have jobs, which is historically accurate and is a way in. It’s easier for a modern reader to identify with and understand a nurse or an inn keeper than it is a woman who sits on sofas doing embroidery. But it still takes ingenuity because you have to admit that most women’s lives were not like Rita’s, so you have to find a way of freeing her to be this way. I do this by making her an orphan, having her in the guardianship of a convent - which means she’s free to leave until she takes holy orders - by making her very clever, by giving her educational opportunities that she might not otherwise have had, giving her the means of earning a living and then by giving her the personal qualities and chance encounters than enable her to inherit a library. So I did have to go some lengths to make her plausible because she would have been a very rare and unusual figure but fiction allows you that latitude. This is not a social history, this is fiction and I’m not writing nineteenth-century novels, I’m writing twenty-first century novels set in the Victorian era - in this case anyway. 

I looked at a lot of nineteenth-century portraits of women when I was researching the photographic aspects of the book and one of the things that I found so fascinating was that we have this notion of women in the Victorian period as passive and very submissive but in fact those portraits, if you compare them with pictures of women today - are of very powerful individual faces and you see such character and personality without make up and shown in black and white. They can seem stark but you see this amazing individuality because these faces haven’t been remodelled. The naked, individual face is so powerfully striking, I found myself charmed by them. I found myself thinking that these women are not necessarily beautiful in their everyday lives and yet, as they are in their portraits, you can’t take your eyes away from them; they’re just so powerful. So with Rita, I said to myself, “I’m not going to make her a great beauty but I’m going to give her a powerful, angular face that the camera adores”.

It made me think of the way stories are not just told through words but also through our bodies and the signs they show. Was part of exploring the idea of storytelling in the book also about delving into those different - sometimes unnoticed ways - we communicate? I was fascinated by the figure of Quietly, the mysterious ferryman, and his presence seems to hang over so much of what happens in the novel. There are echoes in the book of Greek myth and the figure of Kharon, but in your novel he seems so rooted to the life on a British riverside. Were you influenced by any other folktales or folklore in creating your own supernatural ferryman? 

I was very drawn to the classical mythology and all the stories of husbands going to fetch their dead wives from Hades and parents going to fetch their dead children; they were the stories I was fascinated by. 

On one level, what kept me going through the whole book was seeing how many different kinds of storytelling I could get into the book; everything from science, telling its own story of how a child can come back from the dead, to the therapeutic re-telling of stories. I really wanted to get in some classical mythology and most of my characters are poorly educated workers on the land or the river and they haven’t had the kind of education to know about these stories. Mr Vaughan might, but he had enough story of his own to be dealing with, the parson might have, but he was a subtle reminder of the presence of religion and I didn’t want to muddy the waters there, and in the end I thought that the way around it was to modify those tales. 

There is, historically, a constant cultural to-and-fro in tale-telling. Stories are told and retold and modified and told in a different mode so I thought I would take the stories I love and the elements that are essential and re-write them into an English folk-tale. So Quietly is entirely my own invention, on one level, but also very much drawing on elements that come from Classical mythology.

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