Editor’s Note: Diane Setterfield is a magical storyteller. The way she weaves her stories makes readers demand more, more, more! We are delighted to be able to present an in-depth review of the inspiration behind her latest novel, Once Upon a River.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I wrote a novel called The Thirteenth Tale. People took this book to their hearts in an extraordinary way and I spent over a year travelling to meet readers all over the world. It was a very special time, and when the last trip was done I came home buzzing: so many readers and bookshops, so many cities, countries, continents. What I needed now was to get my feet back on the ground, recalibrate myself for normal life lived at a normal pace. I needed to slow down. I needed a holiday.
What kind of holiday works best for someone who has spent a year shuttling between airports? I filled a backpack and took a train. In deepest Gloucestershire, I alighted at Kemble station and ten minutes later was standing in a field, staring at a furrow in the ground that began between the roots of an old ash tree. I was at Trewsbury Mead – the source of the Thames.
I followed that furrow on foot, until it became first damp, then a trickle, then a steady stream. By the time I arrived in London, a fortnight later, I had walked over 180 miles and the river was as deep as ten of me standing on each other’s shoulders and as wide as 170 of me, laid head to toe over the water.
Walking encourages creativity, and walking along a river magnifies that a hundredfold. The river is beautiful and dangerous and mysterious, and as I walked with the current, following its meanders, I found myself thinking of a story I had encountered for the first time when I was a child. It was the supposedly true account of a little American boy who drowned in a lake and then came back to life. Now, I need to explain to you that at this time I was growing up alongside a sister with a serious heart condition, and that is probably why this story had such a profound impact on me. You know the way young minds work. I concluded from the story that if Mandy were to die, she might be able to find a way back to us. That’s what the story seemed to say, and it was in a newspaper, after all. The adults in my life discouraged me from believing the story, but privately I clung to it. It’s hard to imagine losing someone forever when you’re so young.
I never forgot that story. Then, a dozen years later, when my sister was out of danger and I was a young woman, I came across a second story that was uncannily similar. A little girl drowned in Scotland, and an hour later came back to life!
By now I was old enough to know the difference between quality newspapers and sensational ones, and it was a reliable source I was reading now. This time, the newspaper explained the science behind such an apparently impossible event and it was quite astonishing. As miraculous, in fact, as the miracle it explained.
I was a student when I read that second story. I was not a writer. I had no plans to be a writer. Yet there was a place in my mind where I was making a collection of odds and ends that resonated with me, and that I liked to think about in idle moments. Things that maybe somebody ought to write a novel about, some day. In that place I stored the story of the child who drowned and lived again.
Two weeks, fourteen days, following a river that begins as a dry indentation in the ground, and over time becomes a torrent. I won’t pretend that by the end of my river journey I had the entire project worked out. Far from it! First there was another book to write: Bellman & Black. Then years of work to develop my characters: Rita, the midwife and scientific investigator; Armstrong, the farmer whose kindness disarms all but who can do nothing to mend the breach with his eldest son; the Vaughans whose grief for their kidnapped daughter is destroying their marriage; Lily, who mourns for her sister and sees ghosts in her riverside cottage; Margot, whose female ancestors have run the Swan Inn for generations; Joe, her husband, a born story-teller. And more than anything else, the Swan Inn, a place where stories are told, mistold, retold. A place where on one winter solstice night, a stranger bursts in with a drowned child in his arms – a child who returns to life.
Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England. You can find her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River, is available in HPB stores and online, beginning Dec 4, 2018.