Writers are often expected to be consistent, producing the same sort of book year in, year out. But life – and art – doesn’t work out that way. Just look at the career of Susan Hill.
I’d read anything with her name on the cover. That might mean reading a police procedural, or a literary prize-winner, or a cycle of ghost stories, or an account of living in the countryside, or a deeply personal memoir, or a novel for eleven year olds.
These days, Susan seems to intersperse her full-length crime fiction with tense, brooding novellas – like Black Sheep and her latest book, From the Heart; bestselling short stories available as singles online; ghost stories; and non-fiction books about reading. But that’ll probably change now that she’s come to the end of her Simon Serrailler crime series. (See below. Shame, right?)
Susan is very upfront about describing her writing career in stages – she made her name in the period from the late 60s until the mid 70s when, as she describes in her beautiful memoir, Family, a ‘floodgate’ opened. Novels, short stories and radio plays (I treasure a collection called The Cold Country) tumbled forth from her typewriter, alongside reviews. In an interview with Robert McCrum she once said, ‘Something surges out of you at a certain age and you’re full of it all. There’s no stopping you. That was when I won the prizes.’
That period of her life ended in the tragic of the death of her fiancé – the final book was In the Springtime of the Year – but in years to come she married and began a family and for a time lost the appetite for writing novels. She wrote a lot of non-fiction and began short books for children when her daughters were small.
The novels crept back in – The Woman in Black, then a sequel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (titled Mrs de Winter). Short stories came back, too. When I started reading her, she’d published a sad but stunning full-length novel called The Service of Clouds. And then seemed to stop. She became a publisher …
And then … And then … And then …
Susan has been a published writer for more than 50 years. It’s astonishing to think there will be yet more changes of direction. But that’s the kind of writer is she. Read her!
What was the first book you wrote?
My first book was The Enclosure, published by Hutchinson in 1961. I wrote it while doing A levels and it came out in my second year at university. The energy!
For which book would you like to be remembered?
Strange Meeting, my novel about the First World War.
Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
No, though I have made false starts but not got far on only one or two. Lots of ideas have been abandoned, of course.
Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
If there is, I don’t know it yet.
Which book do you believe should have fared better?
Air and Angels. It did OK on publication but not since. Yet some people love it most and I wish others would read it. It did hugely well in France, though. I am very fond of it.
Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
Yes, to The Woman in Black. It’s been overrated for what was only a fast-written entertainment – in the Graham Greene sense of that word.
What book do you wish you’d written?
So many … but probably Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for its technical brilliance. And any P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.
What are you writing now?
The very last Simon Serrailler crime novel … I never meant to be a crime writer, it sort of crept up on me.
Find out more about Susan and her work – including her latest release, The Travelling Bag and Other Ghost Stories on her website. Here’s a Link to the full article by Robert McCrum. And here’s a new piece by Susan from the Guardian, describing her writing day.