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Author Diane Setterfield: ‘We’re ourselves, for good or ill’

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Few are the authors whose debut hits the New York Times bestseller list; Diane Setterfield is one. That book, The Thirteenth Tale is now being adapted for the BBC, and her second novel, Bellman & Black, is a ghost story. Here, she reflects on the influences that have shaped her as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

For several decades, I believed it was necessary to be extraordinary if you wanted to write, and since I wasn't, I gave up my ambition and settled down to a life of reading. Years later, Val McDermid was at a party I went to and, spying on her, I realized she was entirely normal (I do hope she doesn't mind my saying this). That was one of the things that cured me of my reverence and put me back on track.

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Did you imitate any of them?

I don't consciously imitate but I am always aware of storytelling as a dialogue with other stories from other voices and other times. One book is a response, direct or slantwise, to another (or, more likely, others). If you read widely and deeply enough, you get the literary equivalent of an orchestra playing in your mind and what you write just adds a note here and there.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I never conceived of influence as a thing to avoid. It is the lifeblood of literature. The only way to escape influence would be never to read, and what kind of literature would that produce? We are made of the stories we have heard and read all through our lives.

Distinctiveness is inevitable, too, I think. We're ourselves, for good or ill. We can't help but be original.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

Excessively narrow reading is unhelpful, certainly. Reading only Serious Literature is no better than reading only trash in this respect. Roaming far and wide in your reading habits is good, which means (and this list is far from complete) reading non-fiction, poetry, fiction in translation, books that never made much impact, books that were famous once but everyone has forgotten now and – this is an eye-opener, this one – reading books you know you won't like.

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Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

I hope Mark Cocker won't mind my laying claim to his magnificent Crow Country as the blood brother of Bellman & Black. He knows more about rooks than any man alive and writes fact with all the craftsmanship of a poet.

Faust's pact with the devil was frequently on my mind while writing, and the version I am most familiar with is Marlowe's Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which I studied aged 17 and have never forgotten.

Who do you wish were more influential?

My liking for Scandinavian crime fiction led me into exploring literary writers from the same countries. The Norwegian Erik Fosnes Hansen is a storyteller with few equals. Tales of Protection and Psalm at Journey's End contain worlds and characters that draw you in and have you longing for your book every minute you are not reading. His great intelligence has warmth as well as depth and his observation of the human spirit is acute.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

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Jim Crace is one: he's a linguistic alchemist. His rhythms feel ancient and familiar. I read him aloud to myself frequently.

Andrew Miller is the other. Reading Pure, the sentences were so delicious I wanted to lick the page – and given the subject matter (the excavation of a Parisian graveyard), that is really saying something!

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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