Interview with Diane Setterfield

5 min read

Born in Englefield, Berkshire in 1964, Diane spent most of her childhood in the nearby village of Theale. After schooldays at Theale Green, Diane studied French Literature at the University of Bristol. Her PhD was on autobiographical structures in André Gide’s early fiction. She taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France, and later lectured in French at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing. Diane lives in Oxford, in the UK. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading. She is, she says, ‘a reader first, a writer second.’

Visit her at

We’ve been enjoying the mystical journey of Diane Setterfield‘s novel Once Upon a River  this month. As GBC Founder, Erin Woodward, notes: “I have a dream that this book will be to magical surrealism what Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was to science fiction; the breakthrough book for many of you to go on and explore the genre and its further delights.”

We caught up with Diane recently to learn more about she began writing, her favorite bookshop, and what she reading.

Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?

Diane Setterfield: I’d always been a keen reader (obsessive even!) but I believed for a long time that to be an author you had to be an extraordinary person. It took me a long time to realise that it’s the stories themselves that are extraordinary – the writers can be perfectly ordinary!  My first book, The Thirteenth Tale, grew out of my fascination with people who lead double lives. I’d been reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and was cross that I’d come to the end.  I wanted to know about her psychopathic assassin in old age. What does a man with a double life do when he reaches the end, I wondered? Would he really be prepared to die leaving behind not a single person who knew what he really was? Those thoughts led me to the character of Miss Winter, who has deceived the world for decades, but is then, in old age, compelled to share the truth, no matter what it might cost.

GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?

DS: When I was young I was sometimes disappointed in my reading. I might find a brilliant story – tense, dramatic, impossible to put down – but the writing felt somehow underdone.  Other times an author’s writing style would be beautiful, but I missed that compulsion for just one more page, and then just one more.  I loved plot and beautiful writing equally and, not understanding at that point how difficult writing was, I couldn’t understand why all books didn’t just do both.  Compelling plots and beautiful sentences.  I wanted it all.  So I suppose that these are the things that make a book great to me.  I want a book which makes me desperate to rush ahead to see what happens next and at the same time I want it to make me slow down to relish every beautiful word on the page.

GBC: What are you doing if you’re not writing?

DS: Walking by the river, reading, and spending time with my friends.  There’s also a fair amount of gazing distantly out of windows in a dreamy state.  I like to think that something profoundly creative is going on at these times, but afterwards I can’t remember a single interesting thought having crossed my mind.

GBC: Name your favourite bookshop in the world.

DS: I adore a tiny bookshop that is run by Rachel in the small Oxfordshire town of Woodstock.  It is called The Woodstock Bookshop, because why would it be called anything else?  Rachel is a fast and acutely sensitive reader and every time I go into her shop with my list of requests I get her to add her own choice to my book pile.  Often it’s the best of the bunch and I trust her totally.  That’s what a good bookshop offers!

GBC: Physical book, e-book, or audiobook? – and why.

DS: I listen to audiobooks when I’m decorating – you need something to help you pass the time when you’re up a ladder painting a ceiling – and on long trips I read e-books to save weight in my suitcase, but for sheer preference?  It’s a physical book every time for me!  Their smell and the feel of them in my hand.  The cover, the ink, the paper….  And afterwards, I love the physical presence of the book on my bookshelves, its spine a reminder that here is a door to a world I have visited and can return to whenever I choose.

GBC: What was your favourite book as a child?

DS: I loved a book by Joan G Robinson called When Marnie Was There.  It’s about a solitary child who finds a mysterious playmate one summer by the sea.  It contained references to things I’d never heard of (samphire and sea lavender) and explored emotional terrain in a way I couldn’t get enough of.  I borrowed it from the library time and time again.  Years later, as an adult, I was given my own copy and when I reread it I was astonished to find echoes of my own book, The Thirteenth Tale.  Childhood reading goes very deep and even the details we don’t consciously remember remain buried inside us somewhere.

GBC: We’re always on the hunt for our next great read. Recommend us a book to add to our TBR pile!

DS: I just finished The Body Lies by Jo Baker. It’s a thriller with a difference – the main characters are a lecturer on a creative writing course and one of her students. It’s brilliant on male entitlement and the responsibility of those who write about violence against women.

GBC: What is one movie, TV series, or podcast that you’re loving right now?

DS: I haven’t watched anything for ages. I’m in the middle of a renovation and the TV isn’t set up yet. To be honest, I don’t miss it – I just read, and that suits me!  I will try to catch up the TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy though.  How I adore those books!

GBC: What’s the last thing you bought online?

DS: Pillowcases.

Latest posts by Valerie (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.