Setterfield says river frees ‘up my thoughts’
When she’s not writing, author of Once Upon a River likes to think along the Thames
When Diane Setterfield moved to Oxford, just a stroll away from the River Thames, she joined a legacy of British authors enraptured by the storied waterway. Being close to the river reminded her how humans are drawn to water for many reasons, from pleasure to survival. “Thirsty people did not invent poetry,” says Setterfield.
The River Thames holds a coveted spot in classic British literature. Despite its nose-plugging reputation in the mid-1800s as London’s “Great Stink,” the 346-kilometre river famously sparked the imagination of literary giants like Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Kenneth Grahame, whose kidlit classic, The Wind in the Willows, revisited his childhood explorations of the Thames through the eyes of a motley quartet of animals.
Whenever she got stuck writing her third novel, the Dickensian-influenced
Once Upon a River, Setterfield would walk along the Thames and observe the constantly changing landscape. “It seems to free up my thoughts, provide a solution to whatever knotty plot problem is troubling me, or at least suggest a new way of thinking about it,” she says. “If I don’t come home with the answer to my difficulty, at least I get some fresh air in my lungs and the pleasure of observing of nature, which means I can live better with the trouble spot till the answer comes to me on another day.”
Once Upon a River is an engrossing multi-character story, a reconstructed fairy tale set in the late 19th century, when an injured man walks into a village inn on a dark winter’s night carrying the dead body of a young girl. A local nurse realizes the child is alive, miraculously resurrected, though she cannot, or will not, speak. Speculation arises over the girl’s origins: is she the daughter of a couple who was kidnapped two years ago, or the missing granddaughter of a wealthy farmer? The parson’s housekeeper is adamant the child is her sister, though the age gap makes no logical sense. Or perhaps the girl is an apparition, the daughter of the ghostly man who guards the Thames.
Setterfield was fascinated with the era, which saw Darwin’s theory of evolution receive popular attention and the emergence of psychology as a field of study. How did these new ways of thinking juxtapose against the Christian and folkloric beliefs of rural and uneducated people? “I wanted to explore the way people try to restore order to their world view when they are faced with something that seems inexplicable,” Setterfield says.
She also believes her personal family history helped nourish the novel’s storyline. When she was 4, Setterfield’s 2year-old sister, Mandy, was diagnosed with a serious heart defect. Given her wee size, doctors could not operate yet, and so it became the family’s job to keep Mandy alive until she turned 7 and was ready for surgery.
“Our family life changed dramatically and we became super-vigilant. One of the side effects of this worrying time was that I became aware of death much earlier than most children do,” says Setterfield, who recalls nightmares during which Mandy would disappear or fall down a big hole into darkness. “I’m glad to be able to tell you that today she is in good health, a great reader, and my best friend. But I believe those early fearful experiences marked me.”
Setterfield grew up in the village of Theale, and later studied French Literature at the University of Bristol. She lectured at various schools in France and the U.K., but left in the 1990s to pursue writing full-time. Her first novel, 2006’s The Thirteenth Tale — about a family house and its secretive past — quickly topped the New York Times’ bestseller list. The Thirteenth Tale went on to be published in 38 countries worldwide, establishing Setterfield as a formidable new voice.
Her writing process hasn’t changed much over three books, though Once Upon a River is her most ambitious in scale and story. She always starts with a hazy sense of characters and a distinct atmosphere, grounded by a few concrete ideas. Early on, Setterfield doesn’t spend much time at her desk, preferring to let the concepts percolate while spending time riverside or in the garden. Setterfield wrote Once Upon a River in a small London flat, where she dreamed of having enough room to spread all her papers around. Beyond keeping track of her characters, her research branched out in a myriad of directions, touching on pigs, photography, rowing and drowning. But research is always secondary: “The beating heart of a novel is always the story.”
Once Upon a River, Diane Setterfield, Doubleday Canada, 432 pages, $34.