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Interview: December 4, 2018

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE THIRTEENTH TALE and BELLMAN & BLACK. Her third novel, ONCE UPON A RIVER, is about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town. In this interview, conducted by The Book Report Network’s Rebecca Munro, Setterfield explains her inspiration for this richly imagined storyline; the role that the river Thames plays as a plot driver, the effects of which are felt by each and every character; and the research she conducted that allowed her to immerse herself in the time period in which the book is set (towards the end of the 19th century) and what she learned during the process that surprised her.

The Book Report Network: At the heart of ONCE UPON A RIVER lies a mysterious girl who is found dead, but is soon “miraculously” returned to life. The initial conflict comes when three families come to see her, each claiming that she is their missing daughter/granddaughter/sister. The theme of missing girls is not new to literature, but you present a fresh spin here in that this girl seems to have no true origin, but three very real possible futures. Can you explain your inspiration behind the girl and the families who seek to claim her?

Diane Setterfield: The story of the girl herself was inspired by a news story I came across as a child: a boy who drowned in a cold lake returned to life an hour later. It fascinated me (probably because I was growing up alongside a little sister with a serious heart condition and struggling to get to grips with the idea of death and what would happen afterwards).  Years later, when I was an adult and my sister was out of danger, I found another story, about a little girl who drowned and lived again --- this time the journalist explained the science behind it. I never forgot those stories.

Sometimes --- as for the story of the girl herself --- there is a moment of inspiration that you recognize as such at the time, and you pay attention and remember it. I can’t pinpoint such a moment for the decision to have three families who lay claim to the girl. It must have evolved slowly. I knew the Vaughans had a daughter who’d been kidnapped from the moment they first came to the page, but I’d been writing Lily for a long time before I realised she had a sister. As for the arrival of Robert Armstrong and his son Robin --- well, that’s a mystery to me. I can remember nothing about how I found them. They were just there.

TBRN: In addition to the families hoping to claim the resurrected girl, all of the men and women who come into contact with her seem to wish to keep her for themselves. As the reader learns about each character’s wish for the girl, your characters’ own battles with loneliness and melancholy are also revealed. Did you always plan to reveal this much about your characters, or did this arise naturally?

DS: Why would I not reveal the depths in a character? There are always surfaces and then there is what lies beneath, and it’s often for the latter that we turn to fiction, for it peels away the surface and lets us see what is frequently concealed in real life.

It took time to learn what the book was about, though, and I needed to live with my characters for about two years before I understood that fundamentally I was writing about loss and restoration. Every character has suffered loss (a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister; but also a marriage is in tatters, a son has not turned out the way his parents hoped, a sweet child lost her mother’s love). And these characters are restored, as the events of the novel play out. But restoration does not return to them the very thing they lost --- life isn’t that simple. It was the characters that led me to this realization, and once I knew it, I was able to press on and write my way to the end feeling much more confident that I knew where I was going and why.

TBRN: The title of your novel hearkens to fairy tales and folklore, and storytelling is a major component of the book. Can you tell us what storytelling means to you, as an author? Is there a difference between what you do as a writer and what your characters do as they pass stories to one another at the inns and pubs?

DS: There’s not a very great difference. The drinkers at the Swan are craftsmen; they take great care to shape their material and exploit its potential for the delectation of their listeners. They have practiced these skills for years. The novel’s roots lie in an oral tradition and is powerfully influenced by it.

TBRN: The characters treat storytelling as currency, and spend hours and hours perfecting their craft, especially when they are given such a wonderfully mysterious subject in the resurrected girl. As the characters tell, embellish and perfect the story of the girl, they make it clear that there is a distinction between what happened and how one tells it, but that lying is strictly forbidden. Do their feelings about storytelling reflect your own? What, in your mind, is the difference between storytelling and lying?

DS: Storytelling is a way of telling truths. Lying is an attempt to conceal the truth. Storytelling done well benefits the community. Lying benefits the liar. Storytelling is a gift, where lying is an act of thievery. Storytelling invites the listener/reader to apply his or her own intelligence. Lying is an effort to keep him or her in ignorance. Storytelling is a mutual engagement with negotiated rules. Lying is one-sided exploitation.

TBRN: The Thames drives the plot of ONCE UPON A RIVER, and its effects are felt by each and every character --- some in positive ways, others in criminal ways, and still others in ways that seem guided by something greater than themselves. In a way, the Thames acts as a character in and of itself. Would you say that the Thames is a force of good or evil --- or does it depend on the character interacting with it?

DS: The Thames is neither good nor evil. It predates humanity, will outlive us and is essentially indifferent to us. It certainly is not altered by the character interacting with it. I made sure to make the mood of the Thames rather random, instead of adopting the pathetic fallacy that I was taught about at school, where in a work of art the weather or nature mirrors events in the human sphere.

I couldn’t help but be struck during the writing by the many ways a river is a mirror to novel writing, though! My ideas began as a faint trickle that grew into a fine stream, often concealed in undergrowth so that I lost my way, but at last became a river. You get my drift!

I’m entirely rational in my real life, but my writing brain is very susceptible to magical thinking, and when I walked the Thames from the source to London, I began by making a sacrifice to the god of the river and asking its help for my endeavour. I am the first to admit that there is a conflict between my belief that the river is entirely indifferent to mankind and my wish for it to help me write my novel!

TBRN: In your book there is a clear juxtaposition between science and faith, one that is perhaps best reflected in Rita Sunday, the virginal nurse who conducts experiments in medicine while longing for her forgotten faith. Rita was a favorite of mine, as I loved her no-nonsense demeanor and quiet search for answers. Was she inspired by anyone you know? Did you have to research the scientific advances of the time to write her?

DS: I wasn’t inspired by any real person for the character of Rita. It’s really rare for me to borrow from real life in that way. I did borrow her name from my aunt, though. (In THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I borrowed the names Margaret and Vida from a different aunt and a great aunt. For some reason I can’t fathom, I find it helpful to work with names that have a familiar resonance.) If she shares a kinship with anyone, it’s a fictional person --- she seems to come from the same kind of stock as Hester in THE THIRTEENTH TALE. She has the same intelligence and independence of mind, but she is much less brisk, and I think she has a more complex interior life.

I didn’t do research into the scientific advances of the time in order to write Rita; it was more the other way around. I’d studied the physiological impact of submersion in cold water on a human body, and then needed a character through whom I could introduce this into the body of the novel. What sort of person would have the medical and scientific understanding to do this? I wondered. Obviously a doctor, but that was a bit too obvious, so… Thus did Rita emerge, the answer to my question.

TBRN: At the same time that Rita is exploring medicine, another character, Henry Daunt, is launching a highly successful photography career, and other characters are beginning to discuss Darwin’s works on evolution --- always with a scoff and an eye roll. What can you tell us about the world of science in ONCE UPON A RIVER and how it affected your characters?

DS: Once I knew that I wanted to write the story of a child who drowned and lived again, it was obvious to me that it had to be set towards the end of the 19th century, because people then had so many ways, new and old, of trying to explain the miraculous. It’s not just that Darwin had come up with evolution --- in the US, William James was carrying out work that places him as a precursor to Freud, so you can also trace the beginning of psychology to this era. Yet traditional beliefs were going strong --- Christianity was still a powerful influence on the way people perceived themselves and the world, and folk beliefs were still prevalent in rural areas and uneducated circles. What I wanted to investigate was the way people use storytelling to create order when something happens that upsets the previous way of seeing things --- and this period, with its new and traditional ways of seeing the world, seemed to offer a very rich vein. I was pleased to be able to write a story that brought together educated people like Daunt and Rita, and the uneducated, and place them alongside each other in a world of contrasts.

TBRN: Did you have to do much research to immerse yourself in the time period?

DS: I did loads of research! Photography and the technology of the magic lantern and optical illusion, pigs (fortune-telling ones and the ordinary kind), distilling, nursing and midwifery, rowing, riverine occupations, how to run an inn, legal cases relating to the ownership of the Thames. People are wonderfully generous with their expertise, and I am grateful to the many people who helped me.

Despite all that, I don’t consider myself a historical novelist. What matters to me most is character, theme and plot, and I select a time period based on whatever I think would suit the story best. The research and the history are always balanced against other requirements; where I most often compromise with history is in social history, for I want to write characters in which 21st-century readers will see themselves. I see nothing wrong (in my kind of story) with showing female characters who, had they existed, would have been seen in their own time as highly unusual in their independence and their freedom. After all, I’m not writing in a highly realistic tradition. Of course there is a place (a very enjoyable one) for the intensively researched and forensically accurate historical novel, but that’s not what I do. I’m creating not only fictional characters but also a fictional world.

TBRN: Can you share something in your research that may have surprised you?

DS: There was one thing I found out during my research that surprised me, but there was no place for it in the book, so it’s nice to be able to share it here: Buscot Park (the model for the Vaughans’ house) was connected with a real-life thriller of a mystery! Florence Bravo, whose parents owned Buscot Park, was suspected of murdering her husband, and there are rumours that her parents had to pay off the powers that be to save her from prison. When Florence herself died a few years later, she was buried at midnight --- presumably to avoid unseemly scenes at the graveside.

TBRN: The book is populated by many, many characters, each incredibly well fleshed out and possessing his or her own motives and aspirations. I have already said that Rita Sunday was a favorite of mine, along with Mr. Armstrong. Did you have a favorite character to write? And did any prove to be more challenging than the others?

DS: I’m so glad you love Mr. Armstrong. So do I! He was one of my favourites to write. I remember producing his marriage proposal to Bess early in the writing and feeling really happy with it --- after that I always looked forward to discovering what they were going to do next, and how it would all turn out for them. (I borrowed a little piece of my family history for Robert Armstrong: my grandfather always used to say, “I’d rather starve than see my children go without,” and so does Armstrong, who insists that everybody else at the table is served first --- even the cat!)

The most challenging character to write was Victor. I’d written the whole novel and several drafts, and still there were great gaps in it --- every scene where Victor appeared. It was because I was afraid of him.

TBRN: There is an air of the supernatural in ONCE UPON A RIVER, from mentions of ferry ghosts and changelings, to some seemingly omniscient pets and animals. Your writing about animals reminded me of folk tale lore, and I loved Mr. Armstrong’s particular connection to his pigs. Do you share a similar connection with animals, or is this something you wish you had?

DS: I love cats, but don’t live with any at the moment. I was lucky in having the help of my knowledgeable farming nephew, Nathan Franklin, to help me with all the information about Maud and the other pigs. He passed on all kinds of useful pieces of information that I fed into the book, and saved me from a number of dreadful errors.

The idea of a fortune-telling pig came from a reproduction I once spotted of an 18th-century poster advertising the services of such a creature. It lodged in my mind and stirred once I was into the writing.

TBRN: You seem to pull inspiration from many fairy tales and folk tales in ONCE UPON A RIVER, all while creating something completely original. Do you have a favorite fairy tale or folk tale, or did you encounter any memorable ones as you prepared to write?

DS: I love the way writers such as Angela Carter reinvigorate the fairy tale tradition. Philip Pullman too. (BLUEBEARD is a longtime favourite of mine. The ghastly villain is totally relevant in this Me Too age.)

When I was writing ONCE UPON A RIVER, I had classical mythology on my mind: Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice, and the goddess Demeter sends Hermes there to retrieve her daughter Persephone. I was fascinated with these ancient tales of returns from the land of the dead, but knew that my characters --- ordinary working people with only a few years of education --- would be unlikely to have a familiarity with the classics. So I transposed the themes to a brand new folk tale and invented the story of Quietly. Writing it was one of the greatest pleasures of my career to date.

TBRN: I have read that you live near the Thames, making its inclusion in this book a very personal choice. Have you encountered anything supernatural or seemingly not of this world in your interactions with the Thames?

DS: I’m a Rita --- whilst I am capable of telling a magical story (as she does to Daunt), in my experience of the world I am entirely rational. I have never encountered anything remotely supernatural on the river. If there is anything about the Thames that you might loosely call magical, it is the way the river frees up my thoughts. If I get stuck in my work, a walk along the bank will usually provide a solution, or a new way of thinking about it. And if I don’t come home with the answer, at least I get some fresh air in my lungs and the pleasure of observing nature, which means I can live better with my plot knots and character conundrums until the answer comes to me.

TBRN: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

DS: I’m halfway through the first draft of a new book, but it’s too soon to know when it might be finished. I love it, but ONCE UPON A RIVER takes up a lot of my time too. I wish there were two of me, so that one could do the promotional side of things and the other could write all the time --- though actually a third me might be nice because she could sit all day on the sofa reading!