‘Will I still be writing in 10 years when I’m 93? I might be...’
At 83, Ruth Rendell is still producing a novel a year and is as reluctant to retire as her long-time hero, former Chief Inspector Wexford, she tells Hannah Stephenson
The hectic schedule of Baroness Rendell of the English district of Babergh – better known as bestselling crime writer Ruth Rendell – would leave novelists half her age struggling to keep up.
The 83-year-old rises at 6am and, after breakfast and a workout, writes for three hours before attending the House of Lords four afternoons a week (she’s a life peer for the UK’s Labour Party), pursuing charity work and campaigning against ill treatment of women.
She also manages a busy social life, which includes going to the theatre, cinema and opera.
That’s on top of a strict fitness regime – she has Pilates classes once or twice a week and a Pilates machine at home, uses her crosstrainer frequently and walks a lot. She’s given up high- and low-impact aerobics, she confides, and eats fish but not meat. “I’m careful about keeping myself fit and thin, or as thin as I can manage,” she says.
The sprightly octogenarian, who brings out one book a year either under her own name or the pseudonym Barbara Vine, says she has no plans to retire or slow down, as her hero, former Chief Inspector ReginaldWexford (played by the late George Baker of I, Claudius fame in the TV series), has done.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of her firstWexford novel, From Doon With Death. Her past threeWexford books have seen him retired but still in the loop of investigations, as he tries not to interfere but offers help if asked.
Wexford isn’t tech-savvy in the latest book, preferring to trust his gut instinct. “He’s not hi-tech, but then nor am I,” Rendell admits, although she is much more au fait with technology than her fictional detective – she has three iPods, an iPhone and three computers, plus another one in the House of Lords.
In her 24thWexford novel, No Man’s Nightingale, the retiredWexford is asked to help investigate the murder of a female vicar found strangled in the vicarage in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham.
The suspects, twists and red herrings are classic Rendell, but it’s also the genial detective’s relationship with his wife Dora that is such a joy to read, how they exist in practical harmony without any hint of slushiness, yet clearly in love.
“I didn’t want to have one of these detectives who leave their wives and go and live in one room somewhere and sometimes they get back together and sometimes they don’t. I didn’t want to do that withWexford. I wanted him to have a long and happy marriage. I wanted it to grow.”
The fictional relationship is a far cry from that of Rendell’s parents. “They were just extremely incompatible, very different kinds of people. They didn’t get on. I don’t think either of them knew what they were doing,” she says. “I think both of them thought that marriage was the be-all and end-all of existence and that it was going to be so romantic and dramatic and wonderful and of course it wasn’t, it isn’t. They were bitterly disappointed.”
An only child, Rendell grew up in Essex but had an unhappy childhood
because of the fighting between her parents, who were both teachers.
“To say the arguments made my life a misery would be very strong, but it wasn’t very happy at home.”
Rendell’s marriage to Don Rendell, who died in 1999, also evidently had its ups and downs. The couple divorced in 1975 then reunited and remarried two years later. It’s an issue she won’t discuss.
They met when she was a reporter at the Chigwell Times and he was her boss for a short time. Their son, Simon, is a psychiatric social worker living in Colorado in the US, and she has two grown-up grandchildren.
For now, writing is Rendell’s priority. In her latest book, the murdered vicar is a single woman of mixed race, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for prejudices and racism – ideal material to create a string of suspects.
Rendell hasn’t known many female vicars but just wanted the victim to be unusual, she reflects.
“I’m interested in exploring different aspects of life and I’m always open to change.”
This is clear from her work at the House of Lords, where she uses her influence to champion issues and the causes of people from all walks of life – from EU integration to climate change – and it’s clear that she feels passionately about her political position.
However, she says she’s a bit fed up that the Lords is becoming increasingly overcrowded as more and more people are granted peerages – another political issue. “At the moment it’s extremely crowded and when I go back in October it will be worse. It’s getting to the point where you can’t sit down in the chamber if there’s anything people want to attend.”
Keeping it simple
Nowadays Rendell doesn’t write as many Barbara Vine books, which tend to be darker psychological thrillers with more complex subject matter.
She doesn’t read much crime fiction and has only one friend in the genre, PD James. “We are very good friends. We do a fundraising event together, where we go on stage and talk to each other for about 40 minutes and then open it up to questions. We never rehearse it and it’s sometimes quite funny.”
As for TV crime dramas, she prefers Morse and Lewis to The Killing and other Scandinavian dramas. “I’ve tried them but I don’t like them. They don’t do anything for me,” she says simply.
She’s confident Wexford will return to the screen, but not before the memories of George Baker have faded. “You have to get to that time when the majority of television viewers only vaguely remember seeing George but would be quite prepared to see a new Wexford.
“I don’t think I’ll ever kill him off because I have managed to find a way of making him there, offering his services and advice if it’s needed.”
Looking back, she never imagined he’d still be going strong almost half a century on.
“I don’t think much about the future, which is quite a useful gift,” she says. “Will I still be here writing in 10 years’ time? I wouldn’t think so, but I might be – just about, clinging on by the skin of my teeth.”
And still using that cross-trainer, no doubt.
Ruth Rendell’s Wexford takes on an advisory role in No Man’s Nightingale