Susan Hill Talking Books


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Susan Hill

Razia Iqbals's guest is the novelist Susan Hill. Her first novel was published at the age of eighteen and since then her short stories and novels have won numerous awards.


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condolences to the bereaved. That is the latest. Now it is time

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Susan Hill has written more than 40 books, at least three of them are

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set texts for schoolchildren. She has known for her versatility. She

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has written children stories, crime fiction, family dramas and ghost

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stories. It is hard to categorise her, there she is the master of the

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unsettling disturbing tale. Her most famous ghost story, the woman

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In Black, has continued to be a bestseller. It has been adapted for

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radio, television and the big screen. The stage version has been

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playing at this West End theatre in Susan Hill, let's start with ghosts,

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who have been quite good to you. We are in the Fortune Theatre in

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London where the stage play of your ghost story, the woman In Black,

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has been playing for more than 20 years. It is a fantastic study in

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malevolence. I wanted to ask you about the role of the fictional

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ghost. Do they have to have a purpose for you? Yes, they do. Most

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real life ghost stories don't have a purpose. You read about someone

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who saw a lady drifting down a staircase, or someone with a head

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under their arm floating through a wall and then they do it again, and

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then they do it for someone else, but why? If it is real, why are

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they here? For fiction, there is absolutely no point in this. This

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is why reading a long series of the real-life ghost stories is rather

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dull. A novel has to do something different and it had to have a

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point, she has got to have a reason for haunting. In this case, the

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region -- the reason his revenge? Yes, not a good reason for doing

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anything. You can understand, of course, grief, and by tiny can

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understand someone whose style has died at somebody else's hands. The

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feeling of rage and the desire to avenge the child, but this would

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fade. Her revenge has just borrowed its way into her heart and it is a

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little black worm and it will never, never be satisfied. One is always

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hoping she will go, leave, but she never can. It was your first ghost

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story. Are you surprised by how successful this has been? It is

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been on the stage for more than two decades, a new film, adapted for

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radio, time and again. Why the think it resonates with people?

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I knew that, I would Bartlett! I don't know. -- bottle it. It plays

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around the world in places like Japan and India, you think, how can

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they possibly relate to this story of Edwardian England with Fox and

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London and steam trains? The Ghost is a universal in all folk and

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fairy-tales. The ghost crosses all language culture barriers,

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everything. People relate to a ghost story and they take it

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seriously. When it is not just that the rules and spills, it is not

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just to frighten people, there is a point to this story. He said that

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it works no matter where you while, whatever culture it you're in, and

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the setting is the trappings, but the you in your story when you

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wrote it, and for many of your stories, the setting is everything

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in order to be able to create the atmosphere. Yes. I'm looking back

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tried to find an explanation for this universal popularity. I often

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start with the place, but I did particularly in this book. I wanted

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to see if I could write a long that ghost story than we had had for a

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while. Lots of short those stories, but since Dickens or the Turn Of

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The Screw, there were not many fall meant ones. I could see the genre

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fading out. I feel sad about that. And I loved reading and so I

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decided to sit down, make a list of what the ghost story should have,

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and one of it was a sense of place, atmosphere. A specific place which

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is haunted, either the House, a little town, or wherever. She stays

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in that one place some of the time. Even if we are not talking about

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ghosts, a lot of your work has this quality of being unsettling, as a

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menace under the surface, where does that come from? I don't know.

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I ought to know. Perhaps it does not do to delve too deeply. A lot

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of it must go back to childhood. Somebody said not all children have

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unhappy tartlets, but all children have anxious childhoods at some

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time. Children of five -- Brighton there are things like shadows on

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the wall at night. Where I was born and brought up in Scarborough,

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there are things that no adult would think of as being frighten

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the, but children would find are frightening, like amusement arcades.

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Things like those spinning things that go round with pretend flames

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coming out of them. This is terrifying to children. I thought

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about this a lot. I was born in the last three years of the war and

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things were still not back to normal for the last few years, but

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I remember the black art and walking home with my mother or my

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father, at the root pitch black and until you've done that you don't

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know what pitch-black is. They had white rims painted around the

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trunks of trees to guide you. That was all that was a loud, you could

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not have a torch. Although you knew your way, there was a feeling that

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you might be somewhere different. Children's imaginations are huge,

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and I suppose mine was huge. Let me take you back to your beginnings

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when you have first discussing things with yourself. You have been

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writing for a very, very long time. Tell me about your child had and we

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started writing? I don't remember not writing. I was an only child in

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a place where a lot of people around work rather older. 48 was 60,

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it really is true. I had friends, I went to school early, but once I

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came home, I was on my own. I suppose children invent imaginary

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playmates, and I certainly did. I invented imaginary people to talk

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to, but I happened to write them down in stories, that's all. It is

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a child's game in a way. I discovered I could do this so I

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wrote and wrote. I can't remember not writing. I started around aged

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four or five and I never stop. It was the only thing I could do well!

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Be were published very young, at the age of 18. Yes, looking back

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other people have been published very young, but at the time, it was

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slightly uncommon. I suppose it was an example. Why not? If you want to

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write a book, write a book. I was a huge reader so I was imitating what

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people read, but I did not write children's books. You do it, I

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suppose, a friend as a -- has a son who is nine and he composes all the

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time. He says he wants to write a symphony, one can laugh about it,

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but he is going to. He is nine, but to him that is irrelevant and I

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think I felt that way about writing books. Was it ever seen as

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audacious in the context of your family? Did people think, she is

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terribly precocious and Das precocious? My parents were fine

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about it. My school friends were very proud and supportive. My

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school teachers were not. My head teacher said I'd brought shame and

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disgrace upon the school. That was mainly because the Daily Mail a bit

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stale was the Daily Express. -- of its day. There was an article about

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a teenage girl writing a sex novel and you can imagine the

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headmistress's reaction. They were appalled that this would bring

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shame and disgrace on the school. Oh goodness, the shock and horror,

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I was bemused by this. I could not understand why they were not at

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least neutral about it. I could not see where the shame and disgrace

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came in, but it obviously did. It was a relief to go to university

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where everyone was extremely proud. I want to ask you to say a little

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bit about the two occasions when you have written out of personal

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grief and loss, if you would be willing to, the first time when

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your fiance died before he married, the Shakespearean scholar, and the

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second time when you lost your daughter. What was it about those

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two things that you thought, I can actually learn from this myself?

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I'm going to write about it. think with the first time, grief is

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the most enormous emotion. You have to do something with it. You'd go

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mad otherwise. I was fortunate, I suppose, in being able to express

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in the way that I did by transmuting it into fiction a year

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later. Everybody's story is different, but the emotions are the

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same. There aren't very many emotions, just a huge grief and

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loss and distress. Whatever the circumstances, those circumstances

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are shared. But at that time, it was good dark then -- catharsis, I

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had to put down everything I felt, but in a different context. I had

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to invent a story, which I did. Also, a great friend of mine at the

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time said, you must write about this. He was right. That was a

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novel. When our middle daughter, Imogen, died as a premature baby, I

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had not intended to write about it because this was not something...

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We lived do it in a different way. But I wrote an article for Good

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Housekeeping about it because I was working for them at the time and

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the editor said, could she bear to do an article? It is a really

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relevant subject for the readers. I wrote an article and the post back,

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I cannot describe, was so enormous I thought, I have to tell the whole

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story. It is not that people wanted to know from and a Korean cents,

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people had had similar experiences and they wanted to know how they

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could somehow link their experience with what I was writing. I've read

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that as a completely true story. Rot very quickly. It was cathartic,

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but in a different way. -- I wrote it very quickly. It was important

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to feel what they were feeling. When you are in grief, you do

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actually go mad. You do strange things, say it strange things. I

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broke down as far as I could all have those things. People wrote and

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said, I am so glad you did that because I thought it was only me. I

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thought I was completely off the wall and I could never have told

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anybody and then I realised I wasn't alone. I could deal with it

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and leave it behind after that. It was quite important. Let me bring

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you back to your departure from the other work that you did in your

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crime fiction. The series seem to be a good genre to explore the same

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issues you have been talking about, the morality of society. The

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question I want Askey it is to do with the popularity of that le

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genre, but how it has impacted on you as a writer, these books are

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doing very well in the United States in a way that your other

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work has not sold. Why do you think that is? I don't like to keep

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saying I don't know, but I don't know! The Americans are huge crime

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readers, they read probably more than we do. But it is true, they

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are very English, they are set in an English cathedral town and I

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think they like that. But they have engaged with the darker aspects of

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crime fiction as well as with the softer aspects. They invented dark

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pathological crimes. They go for that hardcore crime, if you like,

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too late point, but they are incredibly popular. They do some

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well -- they do well in other countries like Germany, France and

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Spain. It is just that people need to address these issues. I want to

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know about my own times and my something is happening. I don't go

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around looking for the next been in the obvious sense of what is

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happening today, but we all wonder why this is happening. But you are

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interested in children in particular, and children being

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murdered or abducted, bat hold loss of innocence. That seems to be a

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very, very compelling theme at a year. I don't think I would do it

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again for a bit! I think it is because crime against the child is

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probably the worst you can think of it. To witness stories are

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prisoners who have done all for things to themselves can't cope

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with child killers and paedophiles, they the them up and kill them in

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prison, there is something deep down which we are poor and cannot

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understand and cannot explain, especially when it is completely

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pathological and unprovoked. If there is such a thing as pure evil,

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that is it. But you do seem to try to explain it, don't you, by saying

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there is an absence of love. sure some way in the background, if

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you are not being loved, you do not know what lovers. If you have not

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been nurtured and cherished, it no one has cared about you, then you

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will be a psychopath because you do not know what this emotion is. But

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somewhere, you are longing for it, even though you don't know you are

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longing for bat. What happened -- what has happened to you, you will

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repeat in some dreadful way. That is not always true, there are

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probably a lot of paedophiles, not necessarily murderers, who what

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terrible films who have been laughed. It is just some dreadful

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aberration. I think I have done without for a while. Oddly enough,

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it is very hard to do that because it is easy to be cleared and get

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cheap thrills. The murder of a child is so awful that you have to

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be so careful to rein it in all the time, not to press too many of the

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easy buttons. I think I will leave it there. Take a rest. There are

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more interesting things at the moment to write about. Like what?

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Too many secrets to give away? new one, which is out, the betrayal

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of trust, it looks in part at assisted suicide. I think this is

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something that is very much the zeitgeist: People on one side of

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the -- all the other for various reasons. I have talked to lots of

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palliative care doctors and lawyers and it is a very interesting and

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potent and explosive subject. I wanted to grapple with that. There

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will be something else coming up, injustice, wrong accusation. I want

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to ask you about your style of writing. The Irish writer William

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Trevor said in your stories, we don't get your voice, we get the

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voice of the story, which I thought was an interesting way of talking

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about your very pared-down style in many of your books way you write

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very simple sentence -- sentences, but what really about is almost

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what creates the tone of the book. I wanted to ask you how hard that

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is to do? It strikes me that stripping things down is a very

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difficult thing. It is much harder, and that is where the difference

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comes in. The short books, which I want to pack a huge punch. You do

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make the reader work really hard. Migrate exemplar there, apart from

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William Trevor in short stories, if we are looking at short novels, are

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-- is Penelope Fitzgerald. She has taught me how that is done, by

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leaving out and leaving out. Crime novels, pick one up and it is

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fatter and longer, although you have to look after your style, you

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can put more in and you're more relaxed in writing. But something

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like a kind man, you'd think been pared down sentences all the time.

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It is more difficult because every word has got to way. There ought

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not to be any spare words, no spare fat on them. It is a lovely thing

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for Trevor to say, the voice of the story, because that is really

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important. The story should have its own voice. You should not be

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able to pick it up and think, it is like the last one. I'm very

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You're a voracious reader. Do you talk about that book as your

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literary DNA. I want to talk to you about the importance of having a

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passion for reading. All it is the only way we learn our

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trade. That is how you learn. You do not sit down with it like a

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textbook. You do not sit down and take it apart like he did at A-

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level. Reading slowly and attentively, but I learned, I

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suppose without knowing it, these wonderful scenes, like huge

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canvases on the wall. We learn that way. New think, goodness me! How

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one earth does he do that? Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene. They both

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have a sense of being inside of people and their hearts and minds.

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How is it done? I am shocked when I hear writers saying that they do

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not read very much. How could he do this? How could he be a composer

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and not listen to music? I do not understand it. But it is also just

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sheer delight. Thank goodness I learned to read when I was four and

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never stopped. You're also a passionate campaigner

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for the physical object that is the book. I want you to tell me a

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little bit about why that matters. Maybe it comes from... The beauty

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of the book was impressed upon me in 1961, the British Museum had a

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exhibition. I queued for a couple of hours and there it was, just in

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front of us. You could not touch it but a page was turned by a man with

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her white cloth. I looked at this book and something happened and I

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realised that the book, as an object, containing what it might

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contain and was something so amazing. I then began to love the

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book. It is a perfect thing. It can be a throwaway paper back, I can be

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a miniature book, it can be a Victorian book, I am not against

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the he book. It has its place. A friend of mine's father read 20

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books in hospital on one, rather than taking in piles of books. It

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will never have the perfection of the book. It is yet another piece

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of plastic with a screen, isn't it? It is useful but never, never,

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never, never, let the book Di. It is a perfect object.

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You still feel that, given the demands on our attention in the

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21st century, that the book still has a central place? Yes, because I

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look around me. I cannot take lessons from my children because

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they are adults now. But a friend of mine has to grandson's who are

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11 and 13. They have all the usual gadgetry and the play endless,

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completely incomprehensible games, but they both read huge numbers of

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books from the library. They are not interested in how they arrive

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at it. They will pick up a really good story and they will pick up

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