Diane Setterfield has captivated readers around the world with her intricately woven tales, but the bestselling British novelist admits that creating them has affected her in unexpected ways.
Most recently, with the publication of her third book, Once Upon a River, she’s been seeing rivers everywhere, even when looking at things like leaf patterns or cracks on a wall. “When you’ve been focusing on something so intently for a time,” she says, laughing, “the whole world seems made of rivers. You get slightly bonkers after novel writing.”
The river in question is the Thames, and Setterfield’s focus became so complete that a few years ago she moved to a home near its banks in Oxford. “I can leave my front door and be down there in a couple of minutes,” she says by phone from her home. “I think it’s one of those mysterious ways in which a life where you spend several years intensively imagining something seems to create change in the real world for you.”
Once Upon a River begins on the dark night of the winter solstice in 1887, when a photographer pulls a 4-year-old girl out of the Thames’ icy waters and delivers her apparently dead body to an inn, the Swan at Radcot.
When the child miraculously revives, the mystery deepens as various families begin to argue about her identity. One couple rejoices that their daughter, kidnapped two years ago, has finally been found, while a local farmer believes the girl to be the offspring of his estranged son. And defying any sort of logic, a hardscrabble woman named Lily announces that the girl is her sister, who drowned decades ago. In the meantime, others whisper that she is the child of a phantom ferryman named Quietly. The girl herself remains mute, offering no clues to her identity. As Setterfield writes: “A body always tells a story—but this child’s corpse was a blank page.”
And oh, what a story it turns out to be, as Setterfield enlivens her pages with a broad cast of colorful characters, all with their own stories to tell. “What I longed for,” she says, “was a room with great big walls where I could just put everything on the wall, and I could physically re-create the themes and the character lines and the chapters of the novel all around me.”
The story’s vast roots stretched back to Setterfield’s own childhood in the 1960s, when her 2-year-old sister, Mandy, was diagnosed with a heart defect. Doctors told their parents that Mandy couldn’t be operated on until she was older and bigger. From that point on, Setterfield recalls, “Family life became very, very different. I can remember having terrible nightmares as a child, and when I look back, the nightmares I had were always about my sister: losing my sister, my sister falling down into a hole in the ground and I couldn’t get her out. I was much more aware than most children are of what sickness is and what dying means.”
About that time, young Setterfield heard about an American boy who “drowned” in a lake but subsequently came back to life. Thrilled, she told her grandmother, “We must tell Mandy that if she died, she just might come back. And then it will be all right.” That’s not how it works, her grandmother informed her.
“While I was writing the book, I found myself thinking a lot about the pleasure of being a child when your mum or your dad reads a story to you.”
Years later, when Setterfield was in her 20s, she read about a similar incident in Scotland, in an article that explained the science behind the mammalian dive reflex—the body’s response to submersion in chilled water that accounts for such survival.
Happily, Mandy outgrew her heart problem without needing surgery and is “absolutely fine now.” (Setterfield dedicates Once Upon a River to Mandy and their other sister, Paula.) Yet despite the real-life storybook ending, the remnants of Setterfield’s childhood nightmares linger, which made writing the sections about Lily and her guilt about her sister’s death paralyzingly difficult. “There came a time,” she admits, “that I had to look myself straight in the face and say, ‘Diane, what are you avoiding?’”
One of the novel’s central premises is “the different ways human beings create stories to explain something miraculous or impossible or unlikely.” As a result, setting the book in the latter part of the 19th century made immediate sense, Setterfield says, because “science had just gotten started explaining human beings to themselves,” and she could contrast these scientific theories with prevailing notions of superstition, folklore and gossip.
Not surprisingly, as its title suggests, Once Upon a River is a book about storytelling, in which the narrator occasionally addresses readers directly. “While I was writing the book, I found myself thinking a lot about the pleasure of being a child when your mum or your dad reads a story to you. This is a story for adults, and it’s not specifically to be read aloud, but I thought if I can just have a few little moments that will be reminiscent of what it’s like to be in a comfortable, safe place and someone you trust is telling you a story, then that would just be a lovely thing to do,” Setterfield says.
Setterfield hasn’t always been a storyteller, having first been an academic in England and France. She left teaching and burst onto the publishing world in 2006 with her hit debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, a modern gothic novel about a dying writer. That’s about the time when she began to have what she calls “a distant sense of a book” about a drowned girl who comes back to life.
Exhausted and exhilarated by the publicity tours for The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield spent a two-week holiday along the banks of the Thames, taking what she calls “a discovery walk” of about 180 or so miles, from the river’s underground source all the way to London.
Without having any plot or location specifics in mind, she says, “I just wanted to drink in the general feeling of being by the river.” As she fondly describes the journey, reminiscing about how at first she found it quite easy to wander off from the initial narrow, bramble- and mud-covered path, she has a sudden realization: “Here’s a metaphor very much like the early stages of writing a novel!” Continuing with that thread, she adds, “And then, the longer you follow it, the stronger the current is and the more certainty you have. Wow!”
Setterfield took notes while making her river journey, but she tucked them away in her office for a long while and wrote another novel, Bellman & Black. After that, she finally tackled the river story.
At times, she despaired of ever being able to wrestle it into shape. Now that she’s done, she’s monumentally relieved, and still in the “honeymoon phase” of writing her next book. “You should really talk to writers when they’re right in the thick of it,” she suggests with a cheerful chuckle, “and then it would probably be a very different interview.”
One reward for her perseverance has already materialized: A TV series of Once Upon a River is forthcoming from the team that created “Broadchurch” and “Grantchester.”
Meanwhile, Setterfield continues to contemplate the river. Although she can’t see the Thames from her house, she says, “I’m pretty sure that if I could put a window in the roof space of the attic, I’d be high enough to see over the streets to the river. I think about it so many times, you’d be amazed. Every time I go up there, I stand there, almost as if I’m trying to see through the roof, but I’m just imagining that window so hard. I may just have to ring up a few architects.”
Author photo by Susie Barker.