About The Author
Susan Hill has been writing professionally for more than fifty years. The Enclosure, her first novel, was published while she was still at university. Her books have won numerous awards and prizes, including the Whitbread, the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham; and have been shortlisted for the Booker. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Honours. She has also published autobiographical works, books for children and collections of short stories as well as the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels. The play of her ghost story The Woman in Black has been running in London's West End since 1988. She also has her own publishing company, Long Barn Books.
We talked to Susan about her new novella, Black Sheep, why stoicism is a quality she admires and what makes Twitter so appealing.
Follow Susan Hill on Twitter
Author photo (c) Ben Graville
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for this novella?
One of the starting points was a photograph. I was looking for something - I don't remember what - on an image search and came upon a black and white photograph of what is essentially Zeal - a pit village in the 19th century, set in a bowl with terraces of houses rising up around. I kept on looking and looking at it and I knew there was going to be a story set there.
Did you know at the outset that it would be relatively short - and quite so sad?
I knew I wanted it to be a novella, yes. I had written two previously - The Beacon and A Kind Man and knew I would do another. It's the perfect length. Other than the crime novels, I don't think I will ever write longer novels again.
The landscape you describe is very particular and very different from Scarborough where you grew up, and which has inspired many of the settings in your books, and London where you studied. Where did the idea for Zeal come from?
As above. Landscape is very important to me - it comes from loving novelists whose places are so much more than background - they mould and affect the lives of the characters - they are almost characters. I`m thinking of Thomas Hardy and the Brontes, in particular.
You write across an unusual number of genres: crime, ghost stories, children's books... How do you decide on your next project, and do you ever work on books in different genres simultaneously?
I don't think I'll write another children's book - though never say never. Otherwise, the project decides me, not the other way round. I like to change and change about, never to be pinned down, to challenge myself and surprise everyone just as they think they've got me pigeon-holed. I switch from one to the other - I might write non-fiction alongside fiction, but not otherwise.
Your writing is very exact, very spare. Do you go through several revisions to pare it down?
No. I do one draft only, then edit myself but I make very few changes. I have learned to trust myself and I write instinctively- I don't plan much. Exact, spare - those are the words I like to hear! Less is more, though I have never written, and could never write, poetry. An early classical training helped - Latin is very concise.
This book is dedicated to Penelope Hoare, 'Best of Editors for half a lifetime'. How does your particular relationship work?
Penny is a hands-off editor - she stays quietly in the background until the finished book is in her hands, then she reads, suggests, comments, gives notes - never ever forgets to say 'but this is your book' (unless I have made a factual error, of course, which she would point out and change in pencil.) She is always encouraging, tactful and respectful of the text and that makes for a very happy working relationship though I respect a good editor, and a good copy editor, myself and would never get hoity-toity about suggested changes. Penny has a meticulous eye and a wonderful 'sense of the book' .
You once said that you wrote your best work in the late sixties and early seventies. Do you still think that is the case, and how does that make you feel each time you sit down to write something new?
I still think that but I feel in the last few years I have written one or two books which almost come up to the standard of those earlier ones - I`m thinking of Strange Meeting, I`m the King of the Castle and In the Springtime of the Year - and The Albatross. I'll never write like that again. But I am always excited to start something new, I love what I do, and it gives me nothing but pleasure to be a writer. And I challenge myself every time.
In the harsh world of Zeal, stoicism of the type Evie displays proves to be an important quality, as it was in A Kind Man. Is it a quality you admire?
Yes, and it was much in evidence among the generation of adults around me when I was growing up - people who had gone through two World Wars, gone through poverty, hardship, sickness, pain, the deaths of children - and more. They were stoical. They had to be. We don't face so many hard things about which nothing at all can be done, but there is still pain, deprivation, hardship, illness... and tedium. We're not so good at being stoical about tedium. Yes, I do admire stoicism. But I also admire a fighting spirit. Lying down in the road and giving up is not the same as stoicism.
The Beacon also has one member of a family left behind to care for her elderly mother after some shocking events split the family. What is it about this motif that compels you?
It may be because I saw, in my childhood, a lot of spinster daughters and one or two bachelor sons, tied to ageing parents, dominated and cramped by them. It was always a terrible fate - sad, demeaning - those Victorian and Edwardian parents had a lot to answer for and could be desperately selfish and unkind.
As well as writing prolifically across several genres and running a publishing company, you also have your own blog, tweet and use Facebook avidly. Do you find the new technologies enhance your life as a writer, or is keeping up with them a necessity?
I don't blog any more. It became a chore. Facebook I really use to keep in touch with friends. But Twitter I love - it is not the waste of time and the obsession with trivia that many - who usually neither use nor fully understand it - claim. It has all sorts of uses, personal, social, in business - and it's fun. And it is also exact and concise - 180 characters per Tweet. Good discipline.
Can you tell us anything about what you're writing at the moment?
Finishing another Serrailler crime novel - The Soul of Discretion. And some short stories. And thinking about another novella.