Rendell was in New York for BEA to promote her latest novel, The St. Zita Society (Scribner) on one of her increasingly rare trips to the U.S. “I come over once a year,” she says. “I’ve done the big 12-city tours, and I’m never going to do that again—never. I was younger then. It wears you out, you know.” Rendell now limits her U.S. excursions to New York and then Denver to see her son, Simon, a psychiatric social worker, and his family. Rendell, 82, is quick to laugh and share her thoughts on writing, politics—and her beloved cat, Archie.
The St. Zita Society is Rendell at her best. The story delves into the lives and secrets of the wealthy residents of posh Hexam Place in London and their servants, who live together in varying degrees of resentments. In order to stand up to the quirks and thoughtless behavior of their employers, many of whom are having affairs with the help, the servants form the St. Zita Society, named after the patron saint of domestic workers. They meet regularly at the Dugong pub and enjoy cocktails while complaining about their employers and making “to-do” lists about achieving workplace equity. Always lurking quietly in the background is Dex, the delusionary, nearly homeless young man who tends the gardens of the mansions on Hexam Place. Through his cellphone, Dex hears the godlike voice of “Peach,” who he believes is a helpful source of guidance, but who actually plants violent, paranoid ideas in his mind.
Rendell, who has now written 70 books, is known for her psychologically charged fiction and the ability to capture the inner landscape of mental illness and psychotic impulses. Previous interviews with her have hinted at a troubled early life in London as the only child of parents in a difficult marriage, but she is loathe to offer details. Her books, which fall loosely into three categories—the Inspector Wexford series, the stand alone mysteries, and those she writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine that feature a much darker psychological content—speak for themselves.
Asked how often she was rejected by publishers at the start of her career, Rendell replies, “Not very, because I didn’t try to get a book published. I mean, I wrote two or three books, but I think I thought of myself as learning how to do it, and eventually I did try.” From Doon with Death, Rendell’s first book, was published in 1964. Random House UK would only publish her initial submission if she rewrote it, which Rendell wouldn’t do. Instead she offered them the first Wexford. “I did it just for fun, just to see if I could, and it was published.” Her advance on the book was £75, which to some might have seemed like a lot back then. “But it didn’t seem enormous to me at the time!” says Rendell, laughing. “£75 never seemed enormous. But the following year an American publisher came over to see what was going on, I suppose, and read the book and published it. They offered me 15 times as much, which was all right. You could live on that then. And after that it was again a very different thing.” In addition to larger advances, every Rendell book from 1964 on has been published simultaneously in the United States, an atypical publishing arrangement.
“I didn’t have an agent for years, but this was a long time ago,” Rendell says. “It was not so difficult then, almost a more amateurish setup, not at all like it is now.” Today her books appear in 33 languages, which presents a storage challenge for Rendell. “I used to get these books, six of them sent to me in Lithuanian or Estonian. I have two quite large houses, and every cupboard and drawer is stuffed with books. I just have to get rid of them,” Rendell says, laughing. “I don’t mean I destroy them. I give them away or give them for auctions or sales or something, but just as I’ve got rid of a lot and I think, ‘Good!’ a huge box will arrive.”
A typical workday for Rendell begins at 5:45 a.m. “I go downstairs and open the cat flap, and put down Archie’s breakfast, Archie who peed on my suitcase right before I left to stop me from going,” she says. “I was not pleased, but anyway I forgave him. Then I go upstairs and work out on the elliptical cross-trainer or my new Pilates machine, or both, for half an hour.” Rendell, who is a vegetarian, then has a light breakfast, reads the paper, and goes upstairs to her office to work, which includes perusing e-mails. “There’s always so much to do,” she says. “I have a secretary three afternoons a week, she who is currently staying at the house looking after ‘himself.’”
Rendell works for about three and a half hours, then has an early lunch, and sometimes takes a short nap. “Then I go into the House of Lords,” she says, clearly proud of her seat in Parliament, which she has held since 1997 for the Labour Party as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. “It’s a good thing, being in the House of Lords,” says Rendell. “I was very surprised, but I’m glad of it. It’s extremely useful, too, not just being in opposition [to the Conservatives], but to serve my charities.” She supports seven of them, including Shelter the Homeless, of which she is vice-president, and Little Hearts Matter, which supports children born with heart defects. Being in the House of Lords will also allow Rendell to have a lengthy debate on July 12 about the “wretched” housing problems of the working-class poor in the U.K. She is a forerunner in bringing attention to the inhumane act of female genital mutilation. “I wrote about it in a Wexford novel (Not in the Flesh, 2008). I’ve been campaigning against it for 12 years, and took the bill which made performing it, or taking a girl out of the United Kingdom to have it performed, punishable by a maximum of 14 years imprisonment. So that’s good,” she says.
As serious as she can be, Rendell, in The St. Zita Society, is outright funny, generously sprinkling the story with the satirical, ironic humor that’s very important to her and which she usually reserves just for the Wexford mysteries. The character of Princess Susan Hapsburg, for instance, is 82 and has a lady’s maid, June, 78. They get tippled together in the evenings while watching their favorite soap opera. “My grandmother drank more heavily the older she got,” the Princess tells June one night. “She was paralytic in her seventies and unconscious in her eighties.”
St. Zita also reveals Rendell’s savvy ways with technology; it has many references to the Internet and mobile phones. She has, in fact, been writing on a computer for 27 years. “I won’t say I’m that good at it,” Rendell says, “but I don’t want to be left behind. Most of my contemporaries either don’t know anything about technology or purposely avoid it. They’re almost proud of it! I have a Kindle, but I don’t like it very much. I like a book.”
So many female mystery writers have followed in Rendell’s wake, it’s natural to ask if she sees herself as a role model for women such as Sophie Hannah, Morag Joss, or Tana French. “No, I didn’t know I was,” she says. When pressed about being a trailblazer, however, Rendell partially relents. “I think I did do that, but Patricia Highsmith began it.” She realizes the difficulties new writers face in getting published. “It seems that a lot of them who are writing, at any rate, in the mystery or thriller genre, do tend to fall back on violence and bloodshed and horror to get a book published. I don’t much like that. It doesn’t matter what kind of book you write, you ought to write it well and with some kind of style and elegance. This applies not just to the United States, but to us as well.”
Rendell has completed a new Barbara Vine novel, The Child’s Child, which Scribner will release in December. And contrary to rumors that she is finished with Wexford, fans will delight in knowing that she is working on a new Wexford mystery. “I go on writing the Wexfords because I rather like Wexford, and people like him,” she says. Rendell once received a fan letter that urged her to kill off Wexford’s wife, Dora, so the fan could marry him. “Now, how is that going to work?” Rendell says, incredulous. “Well, we know now from the kind of stuff that comes up, I hear, on Facebook and Twitter [she herself does not participate in social networking] how crazy people are. They are! They cannot make the distinction between reality and fantasy.”
The book in progress is about Wexford in retirement. “[He] can’t go on being a working police detective—he’s too old. But he goes with Burden into the house of someone who’s been murdered, and he sees a book the victim had been reading on the bedside table. He sees a letter in it, being used as a bookmark, and without thinking much when he takes it out he puts it into his pocket. When he gets home he... realizes what he’s done. He has taken away a piece of valuable evidence without telling anybody, and it haunts him with horror. A couple of days later he goes to tell Burden, feeling extremely awkward about it. And he hasn’t got very far when Burden says, ‘Oh yes, I know. I saw you.’ Wexford feels an enormous relief, and then Burden says, ‘Shall we go and have lunch?’ And that sort of thing will work out quite well.”
Indeed, we trust that it will.