One Saturday in the mid-1980s, I was in the Parkview library in Johannesburg, aged probably twelve or thirteen, a precocious bookworm who had exhausted the children’s section. My mother, who was a voracious reader herself, and who was tired of my nagging for something new to read, handed me a book by Ruth Rendell. “You might like this,” she said. It was The Tree of Hands. Memories from when you are young are always so vivid, so my recollection of that day is suffused with the smell of the books, the sunlight through the narrow windows, shining on the parquet floor, and the squeaky, squashy, sweat-inducing blue plastic of the chair I sat in to begin reading.
Ruth Rendell took me by the hand, plucked me out of 1980s Johannesburg, and drew me into London, her London. She did it with her spare, beautiful writing, her ability to create characters who are mentally ill, and wrong-headed, yet whose thought processes we can follow, and with whom we still empathise. Her plotting is impeccable and careful, and she places every clue and hint we need to fully appreciate her brilliant climax and denouement. She opened my eyes to what books could do. “One day,” I remember thinking, “I want to be able to write like that.”
That first encounter with her writing was more than thirty years ago, and I have read her work ever since. I enjoy the Inspector Wexford mysteries, but especially love her more psychological stand-alone books, especially those written as Barbara Vine. Her vivid evocation of the feel and geography of North London played a part in my choosing it as my home in 2000, and even though I have never written crime novels, her skills with plotting and character development have probably influenced my writing more than anyone else I have read.
I give you all this background so you can understand how I felt when I was given the opportunity through the Royal Society of Literature to attend a crime writing masterclass with Ruth Rendell herself. It’s not possible to overestimate her influence on me, and the thought of being in a room with her was overwhelming. When I learned that our assignment for the class was to write a 30-word opening sentence for a crime novel which we would be expected to read aloud, I almost needed resuscitating. Then I went online and read interviews with her. In many of them she sounded a little forbidding and cold, unwilling to discuss her personal life, giving ill-prepared or prying journalists short shrift. Now I was just plain terrified.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we filed into the conference room in Somerset House where the class was to be held, she smiled warmly. She is in her early eighties, slim, beautifully dressed, clearly fit and in good health. She spoke clearly and quietly, reading from typed notes, and pausing to go round the room and ask us all questions. Most of those in the class were comparatively inexperienced, aspirant rather than practiced writers, but she listened to everyone’s thoughts, questions and contributions with equal seriousness and answered them carefully.
She spoke about her process, and how it differs from that of her close friend PD James. She says she does research, preferring books to the Internet, but using all sources. However she is not overly concerned with police procedure, or accurate details about guns, and in all her years of writing has only ever consulted the police once. Rather cheekily, she said, “If you want to know about police procedure, television dramas are excellent. As are the books of PD James.” She begins writing at the beginning, and writes chronologically, going back to change or edit as she goes on, allowing the plot to develop organically.
Ruth Rendell noted that people always ask what she uses to write, and that people often seemed to think writing on computer was somehow to be frowned upon, and that ‘real’ writers work in longhand. She said she felt that was irrelevant. “It is what happens between the brain and the hand that matters.”
In terms of the mechanics, she has indeed moved with the times and has three laptops in different rooms in her house, moving from room to room with her work backed up on a memory stick. She has a table beside her work stations with copies of Roget’s Thesaurus and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, as well as Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
As a contrast, PD James plans her novels to the last detail, then writes them in longhand and has them typed by a secretary. She will frequently work out of sequence, writing a key or climactic scene first.
What to write? Not surprisingly she said that the Agatha Christie-esque notion of a stately home and a “whodunnit” crime solved by a detective is old-hat. She talked about how she grew up reading Christie and Dorothy Sayers, unable to recognise her own family or people she knew in their worlds of aristocrats, bishops and professors. “Every tiny village in every book I read had a professor in it,” she said drily. “A type of person I had never met.” She urged us to write about real, everyday people, about how we live now, and to write about the why, rather than the who or how of crime.
She talked about creating suspense, about beginning from the very first line, with something that makes the reader desperate to read on. You want them to say, “I could not put it down,” she said. This was the point where we all read our first lines. She listened seriously and responded to each one, then read us her favourite opening line from one of her own novels, the now-famous one from A Judgement in Stone.
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
She then answered questions from the floor. The first question, unremarkably, was “How many books have you written?”
“I don’t know,” she said, brushing it aside impatiently. (I know the answer; it’s more than seventy, with the most recent due out in July 2013).
“Which is your favourite of your own books?” she was asked.
She said that she has always loved the books she has written as Barbara Vine (I concur, King Solomon’s Carpet is my personal favourite), and she named A Judgement in Stone and Talking to Strange Men as two particular favourites.
She answered questions about which aspects of writing she found hard. “I find it difficult to write action,” she said, “To move characters quickly from place to place.” One writer spoke about his difficulties with a feature of his work. “If you find something difficult, like me with my action,” she said kindly, “I would say just avoid it.” That got a big laugh.
And finally she urged us all to walk. To enjoy the exercise and to take the time to think and, “listen to the rhythm and the resonance of the words in your head.”
“The world is not very friendly to aspiring writers,” she said sympathetically. However she does scorn anyone who suggests that she has ‘made it’ and should stop writing and retire. She has no intention of doing so while she still enjoys it. And she spoke of the joyous discovery of being a writer.
“There you are, alone with your novel, longing to know something you do not know.”
I have wandered in the imagination of this wonderful writer for decades. In three hours, I could not hope to learn a fraction of what she knows, nor approach her skill. But when I hesitatingly read my written and rewritten first line, and she nodded kindly and said, “Hmm, yes, that makes you want to read on,” she closed a circle, and made the dreams of a thirteen-year-old South African girl come true.