Diane Setterfield’s outstanding novel Once Upon a River won the HWA’s Gold Crown Award for best historical fiction in 2019. Based on and around the River Thames, it is a story rich in folklore, mystery and romance and has deservedly been a Sunday Times bestseller.
Three journalism students from Bath Spa University caught up with Diane at the awards ceremony shortly after her win and found out what inspired her novel and why Diane thinks there is a resurgence in interest in historical fiction. With entries for the 2020 HWA Crown Awards closing shortly we’re delighted to publish this interview in Historia.
Diane, congratulations on your win! Tell us, how you’re feeling?
Oh, my heart is still going like the clappers. I don’t know, maybe there are prizes where people know in advance but certainly no one knows in advance for this one. So, I wasn’t expecting it. I walked up there through the crowd with a slight feeling of unreality.
What inspired you to write Once Upon a River?
The first inspiration comes from something that happened so long ago, when I was a child. I read a story in my grandmother’s newspaper about a [young boy] who fell into a freezing cold river and was underwater for nearly an hour. When the lifeless body was pulled out, an hour later, the child opened his eyes and breathed again, and came back to life. I thought that was amazing.
Then, years and years later, I read another account, with more science, about what really happens. There is a medical phenomenon whereby, in extreme temperatures under water, the human body will click into a special survival mode. The circulation and the breathing will stop, and the person will appear dead but actually – technically – they’re not. I started thinking that now we have medics who know that this can be the case, but [when it happened in the past] people really would have thought that a dead person would come back to life. What would happen if people really believed that? That a dead person was coming back to life? I think that’s what triggered the thinking process [for my novel].
What’s your favourite historical novel?
Well, I do love Dickens and he wrote the occasional historical novel. Some of his are contemporary for the time that he was writing, but others are set in previous times. So, maybe it would be one of those.
Was there anyone who influenced you when writing your book?
Individual people don’t usually find their way into my work. I would say I’m one of the least autobiographical novelists you could find because I don’t tend to borrow much. My characters are more likely to be hybrids, to have a sort of traceable family history in characters of other books that I’ve read. But in this particular book I did make one exception…
There is something that my grandfather always used to say when I was a child and that, to my mind, just summed up what a loving, caring and kind person he was. When my grandmother brought the food in [for a meal] he would always say: “Don’t serve me first. Give to the little ones first. I’d rather starve than see these children go without.” I gave that line to Mr Armstrong in the book. He’s got such a big heart, and so I gave the line to him as a kind of a homage to my own grandfather.
Do you think there’s a resurgence of interest in historical fiction?
I definitely do, and I think that’s because people – readers and booksellers and everybody in the business – are starting to look in a new way at books that have one foot in the historical novel and one foot elsewhere. It shows that genre boundaries are really helpful in certain circumstances. They’re really helpful for academics and booksellers; it’s a helpful shorthand if you’re trying to explain what kind of a book something is; but the real world of storytelling transcends boundaries.
And so the fact that someone who is very interested in the crime novel, someone who is very interested in romance, someone who is really interested, as I am, in folk tale, someone who is interested in mystery and murder… all of these people are allowed to have a foot in the camp of the historical novel.
It makes the genre more accessible for new readers who, when they [first read a historical novel], discover “ooh, I quite like this stuff actually. I didn’t know that I would, but now I do.” And then, from within historical fiction, they’ll continue to explore and read more.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to start writing a historical novel?
I would say one of the key things is: don’t over-do the research in the early stages. It’s so tempting to feel that you need to know everything about the era before you start. But, in fact, stories are about human beings and their desires and the obstacles they face and whether or not they’re going to get what they want.
If you can get the relationships and the beginnings of a plot in motion, that will point you in a much tighter direction of where you need to go for the research. Then you can just research the things you need to know, as opposed to imagining that you needed to know absolutely everything about a certain field before you start.
What can we expect from you in the future? Will you have a new book coming out?
Yes, and it will be another historical novel, actually. But I can’t tell you much more than that…
We look forward to it, Diane!
Diane was interviewed by Gwen Jones and Ffion Hughes. Photograph by Millicent Whitehead. Gwen, Ffion and Millicent are BA Journalism and Publishing students at Bath Spa University.
Watch the interview: