Ruth Rendell at the Hay Festival 2007

Img_0221 Ruth Rendell, soon to see her 23rd Wexford novel in print – coming in August 2007 – was interviewed at the Hay Festival by Stephanie Merritt of The Observer.  (Selected highlights follow.)

The event started with a reading from Rendell from her latest novel, “The Water’s Lovely”, (a stand alone novel from the Rendell oeuvre).

But Rendell’s fans may want to know about Wexford and his potential longevity, so Merritt was obliged to ask if Rendell planned to retire him at any point?  In a flush of drama, Rendell announced that she had thought of killing him off in an heroic fashion, in a book to be published after her own death.  But she, like many other writers, would prefer to see her work published in her own lifetime, so Wexford will go on…

Merritt then probed Rendell on Wexford’s enduring appeal.  What’s her secret?  Rendell said that the character grew, starting out as an ordinary amalgam of various detectives from before.  As the author came to realise Wexford was to be a series character, she changed him, making him more literal, more liberal and more.  She had feedback in letters from readers.  Men wanted to be like him.  Women simply fell in love with him.

Of the next Wexford, due in August, Rendell said she had “a bit of fun with him growing older” and having politically correct newbies around him.

Merritt than asked if Rendell saw/experienced extreme political correctness in her political life also, (Rendell, as a Baroness, is a member of the House of Lords).  For Rendell, excessive political correctness does come across, lots of it being good and necessary; but some of it, to her, is ridiculous and she wanted to exploit this.  She likes to address serious contemporary issues in her novels and the forthcoming Wexford contains a sub-plot concerning the issue of female circumcision.

It’s not the first time Rendell has used her fiction to explore contemporary issues.  She noted that “Simisola”, which led to lots of approval, honed in on domestic slavery; an issue that was only just starting to be talked about when the novel was published.  Then came a novel concentrating on domestic violence and another on the extent to which people will go to get a baby, exploring surrogacy and IVF.  For Rendell, she had been involved in campaigning against female circumcision, therefore it seemed almost obvious to include the issue as a sub-plot.

Merritt then chose to explore the “amoral” element of the following quote.  From The Guardian: “Novelist Patrick Gale once wrote: ‘Ruth Rendell writes about people as coolly as a behaviourist observing the effects of fear or pain on laboratory rats. Because she does not care, the reader does not have to, and the effect is oddly liberating. Rendell’s works pitch the reader into an amoral universe where there is no salvation, spiritual or aesthetic. Rather than rout evil, she merely has it eat itself… and the tidiness of her endings unsettles even as it satisfies, because it carries no consolation in its wake’.”  Rendell replied that if we were to read the Sunday papers today, we  would think we lived in an amoral universe; but that within that, there are still some very moral people.  (She gives us hope, thank God.)

When questioned on the perceived (and real) literary fiction vs crime fiction snobbery débacle, Rendell was firm in her thoughts.  “Yes, of course”, but it’s not bothered her much.  In book shops, she is always to be found in the “crime fiction” section.   She thinks that if she was in the general section people may not seek her out.  Making a stand for the values and qualities we aspire to in the UK, she added that she believes that in this country, if you write a good book, “…it will be recognised, well reviewed and will sell well”.

As for who she admires or authors who have inspired Rendell, when pressed by Merritt, Rendell admitted that she had been inspired, “…but more for the idea…” and she didn’t want to say who they were and where they came from.  When it comes to writers per se, she admires “good writing, good prose”.  On this point she elaborated to say that the last time she mentioned a certain novel in front of an audience, sales had escalated.  Rendell admitted that “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford was her favourite novel of all time, even if she didn’t like his other work.

As for “The Water’s Lovely”, her editor had not been impressed at the title, but came back with the rejoinder “But if we can sell ‘“Pirahna”… we can sell “The Water’s Lovely”.

More from the Rendell oeuvre in August 2007.

2 thoughts on “Ruth Rendell at the Hay Festival 2007

  1. Clare

    I loved that excerpt from Patrick Gale – such a fascinating criticism.
    I don’t agree with much that RR says but this was a fascinating interview. Thanks CFR.

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