Book set along the River Thames, Diane Setterfield
A very special book set along the River Thames by Diane Setterfield which weaves magic through each and every one of its pages.
Visit the Inns where the storytellers drink. Legends flow like the stories, lies equally fast as the truth.
Very honoured to have Diane on TheBookTrail today talking about the magic of rivers, stories and legends….
What was the inspiration behind this story?
When I was a child I came across a story of a boy in the US who had drowned and then come back to life. This story made a particularly strong impression on me because at the time my family was reeling from my little sister’s recent diagnosis of a serious heart condition. I knew more about death than most children do, I suppose, and I clung to the story because I thought it meant that children who died could find their way back. Years later (when my own sister was out of danger, thank goodness) I read another story about a drowned child who lived again, but this time it explained the science. Although at the time I had no conscious intention of becoming a novelist, a part of my brain was already preparing itself for just that, and filed it away for future use.
The book is about the importance of stories. Was it interesting to research how stories develop and how oral storytelling was so strong in these inns?
I did no actual research on that aspect. In fact, I can’t even remember when or how I first became aware that storytelling was in times gone by a key part of social and cultural life. In the village where I grew up there were a lot of pubs, and it was entirely typical for the men to go there. They smoked and drank and placed bets on the horse races, but they also recounted anecdotes and told jokes – which are forms of storytelling. So maybe it’s not such ancient history anyway!
What’s the best story you have heard recently?
That’s a hard one… Contemporary storytelling is so often gossip-based or personal, that it would be bad manners to reveal it. I’d rather make up a story than upset my friends by telling you their secrets!
How did you research setting?
I took a fortnight’s holiday and walked from the source of the Thames to London. It’s a little over 180 miles. At that point I thought it would be fun to write a story that would start at the source and move downstream as far as the estuary and the sea, but that turned out to be too ambitious. As the story and the characters started to take shape, it was the area around Radcot, Buscot and Kelmscott that called to me most strongly. What I liked about that section is that it is the furthermost spot from the cities of the Thames (Oxford and London) that is still navigable. So it is on the border between the isolated and the active.
Did you visit the places in the novel?
There was the first long walk, then once the setting was established I returned several times. But until the book was finished I never entered the Swan. I had my own idea of it, formed from studying the exterior, and I didn’t want to disrupt that. Once the book was complete and well on the way to publication I went there for lunch, arriving for the first time not on foot but by car, and was astonished – when you approach from the road it looks completely different! I’d only ever seen it from the river!
What did you find out that is not in the novel?
Buscot Park (the model for the Vaughan’s house) was connected with a real-life thriller of a mystery! Florence Bravo, whose parents owned Buscot Park, was suspected of murdering her husband and there are rumours that her parents had to pay off the powers that be to save her from prison. When Florence herself died a few years later she was buried at midnight – presumably to avoid unseemly scenes at the graveside.
Do you have a personal link to the setting/themes in the book?
As a teenager, one of my earliest experiences of independence was being allowed to cycle to Pangbourne and have a picnic by the Thames with a couple of school friends, but that is further downstream. I didn’t know the upper reaches of the Thames at all in those days.
Any tips for travelling to the sites in the book?
Most of Buscot is owned today by the National Trust who maintain it and open it to the public. Buscot Park (the model for the Vaughan’s house) is well worth a visit. Down the road, in Kelmscott, you can visit Kelmscott House where the designer and social activist William Morris lived – it is wonderfully characterful with fabulous textiles and has a mulberry tree in the garden. If you are lucky enough to be there at the right time of year, they make mulberry crumble and serve it in the café. And in Radcot you can have lunch at the Swan Inn. The fish and chips is not at all bad, and they do a very nice ginger beer. In the summer it’s nice to sit outside and watch the river go by. In winter the roaring log fires keep you cosy.
One last thing, there is a website that anyone visiting the Thames (any part of it) would enjoy. It’s called Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide and is here: /thames.me.uk
Your book has a magical atmospheric feel. How did you create this?
If only I could tell you! The odd thing about writing is how difficult it is to recreate the writing process after the event. Most days when I write, I am bitterly disappointed with what I’ve done. The magic seems entirely lacking. Then I start to spot little bits here and there that are not too bad. Then more of them. Over the years the fairies that live in my computer sprinkle their fairy dust over my dismal efforts and eventually it sort of sticks. More prosaically, I suspect it’s time that creates the magic.
Where did you write this book? Anywhere ‘inn’ like?
I’ve rarely been able to get on with creative writing in public spaces, but for a time I did go to a café every Friday morning to hold a breakfast meeting with myself. I would check progress for the week just gone and set goals for the week ahead. Around me would be businessmen in suits, tapping away at their iPads and laptops (it was London). Meanwhile I scribbled minutes and action points with pencil on paper, using a clipboard. The weekly café habit gave me some structure, a routine – and also a croissant and coffee!
Thank you Diane for one of the most magical and ethereal Booktrails I’ve ever been lucky enough to go on!