Monday, December 09, 2013

@ The Poisoned Pen with Diane Setterfield!

The evening of November 14 found Denis at work and me driving to The Poisoned Pen to see Diane Setterfield, author of The Thirteenth Tale. As I drove, I thought of the sensation that first book of Setterfield's had made... and the fact that that had been seven years ago. Before I even had this blog. And that thought distracted me for a mile or two as I pondered how, in my mind, books are often categorized as Pre- or Post- Blog. Have I shared my opinions of the book with all of you... or not? I would imagine I'm not alone in doing this.

I remembered being spellbound by Setterfield's storytelling, so I was looking forward to the evening, and to buying a copy of her latest book, Bellman & Black. I hadn't even read a synopsis of the book, yet I knew I was going to buy it. I suppose that has something important to say about my memories of her first book.

I knew host and bookstore owner Barbara Peters was excited about this particular signing because she'd been talking it up for weeks. Sure enough, she arrived early and made sure a big table was groaning with a selection of cheeses, crackers, wine, wasabi peas, cookies, and other goodies. The author came in early as well, and spent several minutes speaking with fans before the official start of the event.

Diane Setterfield (standing, left) talking with her fans.

"It seemed like twenty!"

The Thirteenth Tale is one of The Poisoned Pen's all-time bestselling debut novels. Barbara Peters will never forget the phone call she received one night in which an editor told her, "I've just spent more money on a book than I ever have before. I think you should read it!"

Diane Setterfield
"How long has it been between books?" Barbara asked the small, quiet woman sitting to her left. "Seven years," Diane Setterfield replied. "It seemed like twenty!" Peters exclaimed.  

Setterfield had been a teacher of English literature in France. (She now lives in Oxford, England.) There is no Gothic tradition in France, so she didn't absorb anything like it from all the French novels she read. Wilkie Collins and fairy tales were on her mind as she wrote for five years. Only after The Thirteenth Tale was published, was she told that she'd written a Gothic novel. The only readers to pick up on the elements of fairy tales were the Russians.

All this talk about thematic elements in books led to Peters and Setterfield talking about the beginnings of the mystery genre. Edgar Allan Poe is credited with writing the first detective novel, but most of the nineteenth century was dominated by Wilkie Collins and his novels of sensation like The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle then assumed the throne, and when Agatha Christie came along, her writing embodied both Collins and Conan Doyle.

The author made us all laugh when she told us about the first time she read Jane Eyre at the age of ten or eleven: "Here was this fabulous story of a mistreated girl that was spoiled at the end with this section about some bloke!"

Jane Eyre reminded Barbara of the crazy woman in the attic which then reminded her of fairy tales. "The Thirteenth Tale itself out-Grimms the Brothers Grimm!" Diane smiled and then let us know that Heyday Productions has just completed their filming of The Thirteenth Tale. When she read the script, she was struck by the malevolence of the twins. "Sometimes when you're writing, you're writing in the dark only half aware of what you're saying," she said.

"I grew up with a fear of..."

Diane Setterfield
Barbara Peters asked her, "Did setting fire to the house have anything to do with the house on fire in Jane Eyre?"

"That's also been compared to Rebecca," Setterfield replied, "but I'll tell you the real significance of that fire. All through my childhood, my father was a firefighter. I grew up with a fear of fire, with a fear for my father's safety." As she wrote that section of the book, her heart was in her throat as the books began to burn. "I had to stop and go sit down with a cup of hot, sweet tea," Setterfield admitted.

"I adore books, and reading has always been a central part of my life. I grew up through my reading. My reference is always to books. I always connect things back to books," Setterfield said.

After The Thirteenth Tale, Diane began writing a story with two narrators, and a present-day storyline that also included a backstory. "I was tying myself up in knots. What untied years of knots was going back to the bits I'd written about reading. Those bits were my touchstones."

In talking about readers' reactions to her writing, Setterfield said, "Sometimes readers have insights into what I've written, and they're right. Sometimes I have a feeling that the person has turned two pages at once!"

So far during this event, it was obvious to me that Diane Setterfield is a shy and reserved person when it comes to being in the spotlight. She made no real eye contact with anyone except Barbara Peters throughout the talk, but it was never off-putting. She reminded me more than a little of Jane Eyre: quiet, observant, content to remain in the background-- but passionate, and more than capable of speaking her mind when the need arises. What Diane Setterfield was about to show us was the fine art of mesmerism.

Bellman & Black

Setterfield mesmerizing us.
"I met a rook in Regent's Park. We were walking parallel to each other. Our eyes met. I didn't realize a bird could look so intelligent. I stopped walking. He stopped walking. I took a few steps back. He took a few steps back. This turned into a sort of quadrille in Regent's Park. 

"I was astounded. I started looking up information. A rook spends two hours each day eating, and it sleeps for six hours. This means it has sixteen hours each day to play. Rooks are our peers!

"For as long as humans have told stories, they've told stories about rooks and crows. These birds are a bookend of life, for they are associated with death, but they also figure in many creation stories."

For several more minutes, Diane Setterfield held us in the palm of her hand as she spun a fact-filled tale of rooks, their intelligence, the iridescence of their feathers and all the colors they reflect when light strikes them a certain way. Many times, her passion for her story gave her the appearance of a little girl.

Rooks figure strongly in her latest book, Bellman & Black. The main character, William Bellman, is unable to confront his fear of death. Then he sees a bird associated with death turn into a blaze of color. "The things that are the darkest, the blackest, can show us things we normally cannot see."

After The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield began writing a Victorian novel. William Bellman was one of the characters. He would not behave. Late in the day, the author realized she was writing two novels. She stopped writing the first and concentrated on Bellman. If she hadn't done this, "readers really would complain about the length of time between books!"

Available Now!
A lecture Diane attended when she was eighteen had a profound effect on her. The professor explained that we all have personal archaeologies of reading, and-- that on one level-- there is only one era in fiction: Storybook Time. "Children don't ask if Cinderella is Medieval or Victorian," Setterfield said. "Cinderella is Cinderella."

A young woman in the audience spoke up at this time and said that she'd just finished reading The Thirteenth Tale before coming to The Poisoned Pen that evening. At first, she found the reading difficult going because she simply could not pinpoint the time period in which the book takes place. (Setterfield nodded-- she was deliberately vague about this when she wrote it.) But, the young woman concluded, after a while it did not matter because she'd become completely immersed in the story.

During this exchange we'd all been slowly coming out of the spell Diane had put us under, and this was a good thing because we learned that she is a very different writer from the other authors who've visited my favorite bookstore. When asked what kind of research she does when she writes, Setterfield shocked us all by saying, "I research only after I've written the heart of the story and know all the characters." I think a few jaws dropped at that revelation because we are so used to hearing that all the research is done first, but this is a system that works for this modern-day spinner of fairy tales. Once she knows the story and knows the characters, it's easy for her to see what areas need to be researched. In the case of Bellman & Black, Setterfield needed to learn about textile manufacture and retail, and it didn't take her long to find the perfect sources.

It was such a special evening, and it wasn't due to the food or the wine-- it was all because of a small, quiet Englishwoman who is a bit of a Scheherazade. I was looking forward to losing myself in her latest tale.


  1. I've still not got to Bellman and Black! but this too will go on the TBR list.

    1. I've read it-- and tomorrow I'll be giving it away here on the blog! :-)

  2. Cathy - Oh, I do love your PP stories. And this one sounds like a great one. And I do like her attitude towards learning new things for her writing.


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