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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


unhappy tartlets, but all children have anxious childhoods at some


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


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


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


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


Things like those spinning things that go round with pretend flames


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


terribly precocious and Das precocious? My parents were fine


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


loss and distress. Whatever the circumstances, those circumstances


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


interested in children in particular, and children being


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


understand and cannot explain, especially when it is completely


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


suppose without knowing it, these wonderful scenes, like huge


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


never stopped. You're also a passionate campaigner


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


completely incomprehensible games, but they both read huge numbers of


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


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