Oxford Literary Festival – Ruth Rendell

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 22nd March 2013

Barbara VineInterviewing is an awful lot harder than it looks. But when someone does it well it’s a joy. Peter Kemp, chief fiction reviewer at the Sunday Times, did a splendid job with Sue Townsend at the Oxford Literary Festival this week and he was just as good when he interviewed crime doyenne Ruth Rendell two days later. He was authoritative, entertaining and knew Rendell’s books like the back of his hand.

By the time the allotted hour had whizzed by, he’d quizzed Rendell about Inspector Wexford, her enjoyment of research, her writing day, where she gets her ideas, her own reading tastes and her latest Barbara Vine novel, The Child’s Child.

Rendell, a petite figure in a chic grey trouser suit, also spoke about her work as an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust and her concern that millions of adults are unable to read, while many more can read little more than newspaper headlines. She has recently written a novel called Archie and Archie, which she hopes that adults learning to read will be able to enjoy with their children. It will be published later this year.

A published author for 50 years, Rendell has written 23 Wexford novels (the latest, No Man’s Nightingale, is out in July), 14 Barbara Vine novels and 26 non-Wexford Ruth Rendell novels. She has won numerous crime fiction awards, including the Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger and was made a life peer in 1997. Ian Rankin once remarked that Rendell produces “consistently better work than most Booker winners put together,” but when a member of the Oxford audience asked her whether she was disappointed never to have won the award she replied: “I never shall now. I do not think it will ever go to a crime writer.”

Asked about her own reading, she revealed that these days she tends to read non-fiction and biographies rather than detective novels. “PD James is the same,” she said. “I would read one of hers though.”

When it comes to ideas, she starts with characters rather than settings and doesn’t use newspaper stories for her plots. She likes to come up with her own titles (often from quotations) before starting to write and she enjoys researching her books. Peter Kemp recalled her once telling him after a Booker judges’ meeting: “I have to go now. I need to count the spikes on the railings round Regent’s Park.”

And cheeringly for other writers, even though 83-year-old Rendell is a highly disciplined novelist who writes from 8.30am to just before noon each day, she too gets distracted by emails.

“I find the coming of email is not a good idea,” she said. “It does distract me and I have to fight against it. I try to make myself do emails in the afternoons but I haven’t managed to achieve that yet.”

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