Set­ter­field says river frees ‘up my thoughts’

When she’s not writ­ing, au­thor of Once Upon a River likes to think along the Thames

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - Sue Carter is the ed­i­tor of Quill and Quire. SUE CARTER

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.

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