I adored Ruth Rendell’s books and as today would have been her 86th birthday I‘m rerunning part of a blog I wrote about her back in 2013. It has just been announced, by the way, that a new award is being launched in her memory by the National Literacy Trust and the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. The annual Ruth Rendell Award will be presented to the author or writer who has done the most to raise literacy levels in the UK – either through their writing or by championing of the cause of literacy.
My original post was inspired by an Oxford Literary Festival event she did with Peter Kemp, the distinguished chief fiction reviewer at the Sunday Times, and it was a joy from start to finish. By the time the allotted hour had whizzed by, Kemp had quizzed Rendell about Inspector Wexford, her enjoyment of research, her writing day, where she got her ideas and her own reading tastes.
Rendell, a petite figure in a chic grey trouser suit, also spoke about her work as an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust and her concern that millions of adults are unable to read, while many more can read little more than newspaper headlines. She had recently written a novel called Archie and Archie, which she hoped adults learning to read would be able to enjoy with their children.
A published author for more than 50 years, Rendell won numerous crime fiction awards, including the Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger, and was made a life peer in 1997. Ian Rankin once remarked that Rendell produces “consistently better work than most Booker winners put together,” but when a member of the audience asked her whether she was disappointed never to have won the award she replied: “I never shall now. I do not think it will ever go to a crime writer.”
Asked about her own reading, she revealed that she tended to read non-fiction and biographies rather than detective novels. “PD James is the same,” she said. “I would read one of hers though.”
When it came to ideas, she said she started with characters rather than settings and didn’t use newspaper stories for her plots. She liked coming up with her own titles (often from quotations) before starting to write and particularly enjoyed researching her books. Peter Kemp recalled her once telling him after a Booker judges’ meeting: “I have to go now. I need to count the spikes on the railings round Regent’s Park.”
And cheeringly for other writers, even though 83-year-old Rendell was a highly disciplined novelist who wrote from 8.30am to just before noon each day, she admitted that she too got distracted by emails.
“I find the coming of email is not a good idea,” she said. “It does distract me and I have to fight against it. I try to make myself do emails in the afternoons but I haven’t managed to achieve that yet.”
Ruth Rendell. February 17th 1930 – May 2nd 2015.