Once Upon a River Brings Science to a Time of Myth

December, 2018
Diane Setterfield
British author Diane Setterfield is best known for her 2006 New York Times-bestselling debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, her mysterious and engrossing "love letter to reading." Setterfield followed this with Bellman & Black (2013), another haunting gothic tale.

Her new novel, Once Upon a River, takes readers into an inn on the Thames in the late 19th century, where a mysterious man arrives on the night of the Winter Solstice. His face is badly beaten, and he holds a lifeless, drowned girl in his arms. Hours later, the girl awakens as if resurrected. The villagers—all expert storytellers—struggle to interpret what this means while also trying to identify the girl, who will not talk. In her novel, Setterfield captures the essence of an oral tradition as well as the burgeoning enthusiasm for scientific ideas during the 19th century.

Setterfield spoke with Goodreads contributor Heather Scott Partington about combining science with ancient lore and how she came to write about the powerful, awe-inspiring river.


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Goodreads: In Once Upon a River, the river is a setting, a character, and a border between life and the afterlife. Can you talk about how this story came to you?

Diane Setterfield: When I was quite young, there was a story in the newspaper about an American boy who fell into a very cold lake and drowned. They pulled him out and he was dead, and then an hour later he was alive again. This story absolutely fascinated me. I thought this story was amazing because it proved—you know, because it was in the newspaper—that if you died, you could come back.

It took years for me to find another story in another newspaper—the same kind of story. Another little child in Scotland fell into a freezing cold river, drowned, [and] came to life again. But by that time I was 20, and I think the newspaper explained the science [of the Mammalian Dive Reflex], so I actually discovered the reality of it. That's the element of the story that has been in my mind, just sort of floating around the longest.

And then, obviously, if you're going to write about a child who drowns, then—quite evidently—you need a body of water. About ten years ago, I was staying with my parents, and we did something that we've often done all through my childhood: get in the car, drive a few miles, find somewhere nice, [and] go for a walk.

So we decided we'd go for a walk by the river—by the Thames. And you know, I've always thought of the river as a beautiful, comfortable place of leisure and pleasure, and I've always just associated it with being relaxed and having a wonderful time. But on this day, it was raining and the wind was blowing and the river was so high.… And it was the first time that I've ever seen the river and felt afraid. And that just set me thinking about the river in a different way, and I paid much more attention to its moods after that. I just became more aware of the river and how dangerous it can be, and of its power. And, of course, once I was writing it, it's such a natural metaphor. The river can be a metaphor for life—its ever-changing quality—and for writing, the flow of a story.

GR: You write a lot about science. What did your historical research look like?

DS: I was so keen to include Darwin and his science, that really was sort of the very heart of the concept of the story for me, that I wanted to set the novel at the time when there were still all of the very traditional ways of understanding human beings and events.

Religion is there explaining things, and human beings have still got a certain folk knowledge and belief in old wives' tales, and the supernatural are still present in some parts of the country, and certainly in this somewhat isolated rural and perhaps undereducated spot. All of these different ways in which storytelling might help human beings understand themselves and explain themselves to each other and understand the world around them—as well as the sometimes extraordinary things that happen.

It seems to me that if what you wanted was to write about how human beings use stories to understand themselves in the world, then this was an incredibly rich moment to try and do it. Because you have so many different ways that stories already exist, and then you have these new ways that are coming in as well. That was a really important part of the project. That was the core of it.

GR: The people at the inn act as a Greek chorus, and they continue to almost write and rewrite the story as it's happening around them. Was that element of storytelling about storytelling important to you as you were writing?

DS: Oh, absolutely…I loved writing those scenes. They're not academics; they're not intellectuals. They're just ordinary people who have grown up in an area where people have a long tradition of oral storytelling. They've all practiced it and become experts in it.

If ever I would have a bad day, I would go back to one of those scenes and write a little bit for one of those, because I knew that it would cheer me up and make me feel better, and then I could end the day on a good note. [Laughs.] That would make me happier about coming back to work the next day! Even if it was just ten minutes…it makes starting again the next day so much easier. They were my scenes, my magic scenes that always cheered me up—in the same way that in The Thirteenth Tale, writing the scenes about Margaret and her reading habits, whenever I wrote about Margaret and reading, they were the scenes that always boosted my mood and they made me feel, "Oh, maybe I can write a book."

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GR: You write that Quietly, the ferryman, "sees to it that those who get into trouble on the river make it safely home again. Unless it is their time. In which case he sees them to the other side…" I wondered if Quietly was influenced by any other legends or figures in stories that you've known.

DS: I was thinking of all of the legends and myths where someone will go into the underworld in order to find their loved one and bring them back. And I really wanted to bring that into the book. I decided that rather than using any of those myths as they were, I would transpose the story to a folktale style. So I began by just writing a version of one of those ancient classic stories. But writing it as if it were an old British folktale.

I came up with this man, Quietly, who goes down into the river in order to go into the other world to bring his daughter back, and [who] has to do some kind of deal with the powers that be in order to restore her to life. And I think that story grew and grew and grew and came to be one of the loveliest discoveries en route to completing the book, the discovery that this little folktale that I had written really took on a life of its own and came to be so very powerful in the novel and such a significant part of it.

That's a lovely thing about writing. It's a bit like reading, but really, really, really slowly. [Laughs.] Because you are making so many discoveries as you go.

GR: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

DS: A book demands very different things from you at different times in its development. At the moment, I'm writing my next book, and I'm doing draft one, and I'm writing very fast with very little concern for quality. It's mostly about word count at the moment, and I can do my words in a couple of hours.

The lovely thing about this early stage is that it doesn't really matter if it's [any] good. So you can be very free. You can be very open to any idea that comes along because you're not really writing a book yet. You're just writing a draft. If you're making a pot, your first job is "dig your clay." And that's what I'm doing, really; that's what draft one is: I'm digging my clay. So it looks very dirty and very messy, and it really doesn't matter because I'm not making a pot yet. So that's kind of my metaphor for what I'm doing at the moment.

GR: What books or authors have been your greatest influences?

DS: They're probably very different types of books. Certainly, there are the books that made me love reading.

I remember my sister coming home from school one day when we were in our very early teens. And she had a copy of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I watched her reading it, and I was so jealous because she was like a zombie. She was there but not there. She was so lost in this world, and I was desperate to get the book off her—and she wouldn't let me. And I thought, when Mum calls us to go downstairs for dinner, she'll put the book down to go downstairs and I can get the book then. But she took the book downstairs and sat on it all through dinner, because she knew I was going to try and get it from her. [Laughs.]

Because of all the anticipation—it caused my desire for this book to go up and up and up. And then I got my hands on it, and I just loved it, because it was such a kind of spooky and engrossing story, and the villains were really villainous. You really wanted the ending to come out right, but you couldn't see how it was going to come out right until, in the end, it came out the way it came out. It just really gripped me.

But much later in life, when I was in my twenties, I did a Ph.D. I read the same five or six books by André Gide over and over and over again. When you do that, you get to know them in a different way. You go way beyond story and character because you know all that stuff. You're really just looking at how sentences join together and why this word in this sentence has got this powerful effect and realizing it's connected with the way you were directed or misdirected ten pages before. And it kind of teaches you a lot about the nuts and bolts of how a book is constructed as well as gives you a really ineradicable sense of rhythms in prose. I'm pretty sure it gave me a sense of the musicality of writing.

GR: What are you reading now?

DS: I'm reading a very nice historical mystery by the British writer Andrew Taylor. It's called The Silent Boy. It's set in England, but it's connected with the French Revolution. His books are very readable. They're very accessible, [and] they draw you in very quickly. But he has this lovely, clean style, and what I think I like most is that he has an ability to make you believe that this is genuinely and really the historical past—you believe in it; it's so plausible. And yet it moves along as swiftly as a contemporary novel, and the characters jump out at you on the page. They don't seem like dusty historic figures. They're very, very real. The language has just a lovely bright, clean freshness to it.



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message 1: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Diane Setterfield is on my list of favorite authors. There are not many who make it and when they do they remain forever there. In her book The Thirteenth Tale I fell head over heals into her book and came back to my world after a week of living in the home of Vida Winter, suffering a great jet lag after that visit and looked forward to her next book Bellman and Black. I was disappointed with this book, and did not find myself leaving my world for Bellman and Black’s world. I am not saying it was a bad read but rather a feeling on my part of not having as comfortable a feeling with the characters or their place of residence as I did with The Thirdteenth Tale. Actually if I must be honest unlike the thriteen Tale emotional passion was not present and it felt to me kind of cold and uninviting. All that to say that in the end she is a brillent writer and no matter how many books she will write everyone who reads should experience her stories as I will continue to do so with, Once Upon A River. Forever your fan.


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