Ruth Rendell has been called “the best mystery writer in the English-speaking world” (Time), and her nearly 70 works of fiction include the popular Inspector Wexford series. Known for contemporary crime stories set in her native England, she has won nearly every award for mystery writers, including three Edgars. She also writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.
As a life peer she attends the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Babergh for the Labour Party—after putting in several hours of solid writing, she tells Show Daily. Her latest book is The St. Zita Society (Scribner, Aug.).
Rendell is making one of her rare visits to BEA and will be signing copies of The St. Zita Society in the Simon & Schuster booth (3657, 3658) today, 3:30–4:30 p.m.
The St. Zita Society presents a cast of characters described as “upstairs/ downstairs relationships set to combust.” What is the genesis for this story line?
As with most of my work, an idea came to me out of the blue for St. Zita. There is a poor, disturbed, superstitious man who believes a god lives in his cellphone. It is his personal god, a supernatural being who advises him and commands him. Once I’d got that idea, I had to have a setting for him, and the next step was to make him a servant—in his case, a gardener—among the sort of people who are servants today. These are the modern kind of servants—nannies, au pairs, drivers—and quite different types from what were customary in the past. That was the genesis and from this the characters grew. I designed, I hope, a recognizably contemporary setting and a multinational cosmopolitan group of people, but not one of them the kind of true aristocrat who might have lived 30 or 40 years before.
You have won numerous industry awards. Does that make the writing process harder or easier?
I have had quite a lot of prizes, but I don’t think it makes any difference to the ease or difficulty to the writing process. I never find writing easy. I suppose I think that if I did, it wouldn’t be any good. I’ve long got into the habit of reading every sentence I’ve written and considering whether it needs redoing or starting again. I don’t like slapdash careless prose, and if I saw myself doing it, I would give up writing altogether. This doesn’t mean I think I’ve succeeded in doing it well. It’s just that I do the best I can.
As a Labour peer, you visit the House of Lords daily. When do you find time to write?
I am a very early riser, 5:30–6 a.m. But I don’t start writing before about 8:30 a.m. I do at least half an hour’s workout before shower, dressing, and the little bit of breakfast I eat. I’m not much of an eater. I write for about three hours, read it over, then save it on a memory stick, which I carry with me wherever I next go. That will probably be to the House of Lords, which starts at 2:30 p.m. If I want to go in for oral questions—we have four each day—or if I have an oral question tabled for the minister to answer, I get into the chamber by about 2:20 p.m. If we are whipped, I am expected to stay in the House probably until 7:30 p.m., but it may not go on so long. I may attend a committee meeting or read in the library or have tea with a friend or go to my tiny office to do my e-mails or look up something on the Internet.
What’s the secret to writing a good mystery story?
One of the secrets for me personally is “withholding.” By that I mean keep a secret or several secrets for a long while. Don’t reveal everything in the first chapter. In judging other people’s work, particularly short stories, I have noticed how novice writers tell the readers everything about their characters in the first paragraphs, disclose their motives, reveal their recent activities and their future intentions. Best to keep a lot of this stuff dark, make the reader wonder and speculate, and leave disclosure until near the end. Creating suspense is very important, but in a quiet, discreet way. There shouldn’t be too many bursts of drama because each one will be less effective than the previous one.
Any thoughts on the continued importance of reading and literacy in modern society?
I do a lot of work promoting literacy. We have seven million people in [England] who, as adults, can’t read. I have written one little novella, The Thief, for the Quick Reads series that is designed for grownups who have just learned to read. They have words of one or two syllables, short sentences, and short paragraphs. I have just written a short book, Archie and Archie, about the cats and dogs who live in my street for grown-up new readers to read to their children. I hope they help people.