Susan Hill, author of The Woman In Black, on her life in Norfolk and her appearance at the University of East Anglia literary fesitval
She's best known for her ghost story The Woman In Black and now Susan Hill has moved to Norfolk. She spoke to Keiron Pim.
There's something magnetic about the east coast that exerts a pull on people. Susan Hill was born in Scarborough and now, after spending much of her adult life around Oxford and the Cotswolds, she finds herself 150 miles down the coast in north Norfolk, a ten minute drive from the North Sea whose rhythms she absorbed during childhood. A change in her personal circumstances prompted the need for a fresh start a couple of years ago: she knew Norfolk a little from visiting friends in Norwich and Morston, but was hesitant about turning somewhere she enjoyed as an occasional retreat into her home.
'I never thought that I'd live here except that the east coast calls you back,' she said when we met at the Maid's Head Hotel in Norwich. She knew she didn't want to stay in the Cotswolds – 'I'd had enough, I mean they're beautiful but the downside to them is the tourists,' – and could have moved anywhere. On reflection she felt that 'the sea was just calling. I'd been up for several weekends and got to know it again and thought I actually would like to live here.
'Then I thought maybe I wouldn't because if you live somewhere after going there on holiday it's never the same… but it is. I love it, it's magical.'
Living in a small village near Holt, in a house with back doors opening on to a pond that attracts swans and egrets, and beyond the garden miles of fields all around, she has found that the county gives her the peace and space in which to write.
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With a 53-year career as an author spanning from her debut novel The Enclosure, published in 1961 during her first year at university, to her recent title Black Sheep, there will be much to discuss when she appears at the UEA Spring Literary festival on March 5 in conversation with festival director Henry Sutton. Her best known work is the ghost story The Woman in Black, which became a West End play in 1989 and has run ever since, and her awards include the Whitbread, John Llewellyn Rhys and Somerset Maugham prizes, as well as a shortlisting for the Booker.
Her output has been prolific, not least because many of her recent stories have been novellas. At around 30,000 words in length Black Sheep is no exception. It is a haunting little tale set in a claustrophobic northern pit town called Mount of Zeal, a closed community where sons are expected to follow their fathers down the mine and daughters to help their mothers run the home, and any who seek a different path in life face harsh consequences.
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Mount of Zeal is surrounded by farmland and lies within a great bowl – the pit at the bottom, houses arrayed on three tiers of terraces up the hillside, their position reflecting their inhabitants' social standing. The top street is known as Paradise and the subterranean coalworks prove a kind of hell. The central characters are a brother and sister named Ted and Rose Howker, who live with their parents, John and Evie, on Lower Street. Both children seek something different from their prescribed futures: Ted's transgression is to break away and work for a sheep farmer out in the fields, Rose's are only to trade housework for shop-work and find the strength to seek a way out of an abusive marriage.
Their broader family endure a Hardy-esque series of blows that emphasise the unremitting hardness of life in a pit village during what feels like the early-20th century; we cannot be sure because the date and the village's location are never revealed.
'There was no backstop at all,' she said. 'The workhouse, I suppose. It's gone too far the other way now' – Hill is an avowed Conservative and has strong views on Britain's 'benefits culture' – 'but there was nothing but your neighbours looking after one another, and families, because families tended to stay.'
Back in the early 1960s when she was a student, and 'very left-wing', she often went on demonstration marches for nuclear disarmament or against capital punishment. On the first matter, as with her politics in general, her views have changed half a century on – 'the fact is that the nuclear deterrent and the balance of power worked and we were wrong,' she said – but on the latter she remains adamant. One of her daughters, the aptly named Clemency, works for the organisation Reprieve advocating on behalf of prisoners facing execution. It is an issue touched upon in the book, though her source of inspiration lay elsewhere, in a single black and white photograph that Hill stumbled across by accident.
'It's strange how things begin,' she said. 'Obviously everything's there in your subconscious or unconscious, but nothing's prompted it to come together. I hadn't got this in my mind at all and I was looking for something quite different, and I came upon old photographs of mining communities. I came across lots of photographs and suddenly there was this one, and I just stared at it for ages, because it just was that prompt that brought everything together. And it was really pretty much as I recreated it: there were the terraces going up, the pit was at the bottom, the path with the gate going down where the men went down, and beyond this bowl were fields. Obviously I've made it simpler but that was what it was, and I kept on going back to it.
'A closed community is always appealing [to an author], partly because it's manageable. Either it's a community within a community – a district – or a village. You can grasp it. Middlemarch is really a little town. You need to grasp the reader, otherwise books tend to be a bit amorphous and I like pinning them down without actually saying 'This is set in so and so'.'
While she could never live in a city and thrives on her rural solitude as a writer, Hill is also an author notable for her accessibility to her readers. She has taken to Twitter with relish, debating politics with all-comers, occasionally seeking expert guidance to ensure her fiction is accurate, and advertising various goods that she sells via her website, such as bone china mugs bearing an illustration of The Woman in Black, which in 2012 became a film starring Daniel Radcliffe. 'Someone told me it was a brand the other day,' she said. 'A brand! But it sort of is, I know what they mean. That's just had a life of its own really.
'I just like to have something else; you can't write books 24-seven. My mother ran a small dressmaking and then children's clothing business and had a small factory, and just after the war in the early 1950s that was a really unusual thing for a woman on her own to do, because my father did something else… I used to watch her with the ledgers, and I think that whole running a business thing must have got to me.'
She also sells mugs, notebooks and tote bags adorned with one of her favourite quotations, one that amuses her after a lifetime as a voracious reader and prodigious author of novels, ghost stories, essays and reviews.
'It's a quote from Louisa Alcott: 'She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain.'' And she laughs heartily before taking her leave and heading home to dream up more stories and, whenever she feels the need to, drive to the east coast to reconnect with the North Sea.
Tickets for Susan's appearance at the UEA Spring Literary Festival at 7pm on Wednesday are sold out, but tickets at £2.50 are available for a live video link in an adjoining room. Her book Black Sheep is published in hardback by Chatto and Windus priced £10.99.