The scandalous secrets of the Angelfield
family are a worthy addition to the most lauded of gothic
novels. Where did you get the idea for this dark, sordid family
Quite honestly, I don't know. This book took
three years to write and its real genesis was longer still:
there was no single moment when I thought: Aha! What a great
idea! Rather there was a slow and gradual accumulation of
numerous small ideas.
Miss Winter's voice was the first element of the
book to come to me, and that came from thinking about Patricia
Highsmith's Ripley character. I had been considering what it
must be like to know oneself to be one kind of person, whilst
consistently giving in public the impression of being an
entirely different kind of person. I was moved by the loneliness
such a person might feel, and in one of those exhilarating
rushes of inspiration (I wish there were more of them) dashed
down a piece that later became Miss Winter's letter to Margaret.
At that stage I didn't even know if it was the voice of a man or
Later I had a dream in which I was approaching
the window of a large, dark house. The window was illuminated by
a curious, living light. Realizing it was fire, I hurried
forwards and saw two figures struggling in the flames . . . An
ordinary enough dream, but one that haunted me with unusual
persistence. It became the fire in The Thirteenth Tale.
Once I had a voice and an event, I started to
write scenes in a rather tentative, experimental fashion. Little
by little I worked out what the story was by following my
The fact that the story should be about twins
was in my mind very firmly from the early days, but I have no
idea why. Just for the record, I am not a twin.
Themes of isolation, identity, and abandonment
The main secret of the mystery (I won't spell it
out here, in case anyone is reading who hasn't finished the book
yet) came to me when I was walking home from the supermarket. I
have to admit, it took me by surprise and I was inclined
initially to disregard it -- Surely not? I remember
thinking -- but it imposed itself in a determined fashion.
You were an academic before becoming an author. What
prompted the change in careers?
British universities are not very happy places
for their staff currently, and I gave up academic life for the
same reasons as many others do and would like to do. In
particular the erosion of my private reading time made me
unhappy -- if I cannot escape for an hour or two every day by
reading for pleasure, then small problems seem to grow large,
and I begin to feel enormously burdened. After five years in the
profession I was plagued by the feeling that by some absurd
mistake I was leading someone else's life, and was desperate to
find a path back to my own. I had always wanted to be a writer,
but was impeded by the belief that to be a writer one had to be
extraordinary, and I knew I wasn't. By the time I was ready to
give up my academic career I had realized that whilst books
are extraordinary, writers themselves are no more or less
special than anyone else.
You specialize in 19th century French literature,
particularly the works of Andre Gide. How does this background
affect your writing? Are there any similarities between Gide and
I am sure my writing has been influenced by my
study of French in a great many ways, and not only by the
literature. There can be nothing to match the practice of
translation for deepening one's understanding of one's own
language. And I suspect an expert might be able to see, beneath
my English prose style, the occasional shadow of a French
structure. (Quite often if I am not sure how to phrase
something, I try it in my mind in French, then come back to
English; juggling like this often throws up the expression I am
As for the literature, how could it not touch my
writing? For reading is without doubt the single most important
factor affecting my work. When I was writing my Ph.D. (which I
did very slowly over a period of seven years or so) I read and
reread half a dozen works by Gide over and over again. This kind
of reading -- intense, obsessive, constant -- lays down rhythms
in your mind that cannot easily be eradicated, and frequently
when writing I am struck by phrases that to me have a distinctly
Gidean cadence. For instance there is a section towards the end
of The Thirteenth Tale that sounds to my ear just like a
translation of Gide. It is the part that goes:
"As I stood up, I heard a sound. It was
Aurelius, arriving at the lych gate. Snow had settled on his
shoulders and he was carrying flowers.
'Aurelius!' How could he have grown so thin?
So pale? 'You've changed,' I said.
'I have worn myself out on a wild goose
At the time I wrote it and every time I have
read it since, it seems to have echoes of a curious little book
by Gide called Le Prométhée mal enchainé (Prometheus
Misbound). And yet when for the purposes of answering this
question I skimmed through it, I couldn't find a distinct
textual twin. (I did find lots of references I'd forgotten to
people in search of their stories). So why does my mind persist
in hearing the echo? The explanation that most appeals to me is
that there are hidden underground networks by which books pass
secret messages to each other, networks that we readers and
writers can only be half conscious of.
Any similarities between Gide and myself? I hope
not. I don't think I'd have liked him much in real life. He was
cruel to his wife, and in a fit of rage she set fire to the
letters he had written to her. I don't blame her. And yet we
have numerous preoccupations in common. This is entirely
natural: I chose Gide for my Ph.D. because his books were about
things I was already interested in. Questions of identity. The
family -- though he expressed his fascination differently:
"Familles, je vous haïs!" he wrote, famously (Families, I hate
you!). The importance of storytelling. I've also borrowed one of
his favorite devices: the use of a writer as a main character.
My use of Miss Winter's thirteenth tale as my title and a
recurring motif in the book also owes a lot to Gide. Finally,
Gide often spoke about a phenomenon he called "dédoublement." By
this he meant the splitting of the self into two: a self who
acts, speaks, goes about in the world and has experiences, and a
self who observes all this going on. When I first read about
this I remember feeling that tingle you get when you recognize
something of yourself in a piece of writing. But I imagine it's
fairly common to sense oneself divided in this fashion.
Several 19th century novels are mentioned throughout
the story, Jane Eyre in particular. What inspiration did
you draw from these novels, and do they play any significant
role in your life?
I was a child when I first read Jane Eyre.
The book enthralled me, up to the death of Jane's friend Helen
Burns. How I cried. But then, like Aurelius, I couldn't quite
see the point of the rest of the book. I was too young,
evidently. All my adult re-readings of the novel (which are not
so numerous as Margaret's) have never quite erased the
impression of that first reading. "My" Jane is still that
unwanted child who finds friendship only to lose it again.
(WARNING: this next paragraph should be
read only by people who have finished reading The Thirteenth
I had no grand plan in introducing Jane Eyre
and other titles into The Thirteenth Tale. It seems
curious to me now how they crept in. For creep they did, in
silence and behind my back. It is impossible to reconstitute the
processes of writing after the event, but to the best of my
recollection it went something like this: Jane Eyre was
the first actual book title to be mentioned. It came at a very
early stage when I was writing odd scenes as they occurred to
me, in a rather experimental fashion, as a way of figuring out
what I could do with my characters. At this point the mystery of
the girl in the mist was still a long way in the future. I wrote
a piece about a girl climbing the bookshelves in the library at
Angelfield House: she ends up slipping, bringing the curtains
down with her and dislodging a book as she falls. The book was
Jane Eyre. This passage never made it into The
Thirteenth Tale, but Jane Eyre, having once got in,
never left. Only much later, when the girl in the mist element
came to be, did I realize the connection between Miss Winter's
story and Jane's: the outsider in the family. So it's one of
those instances where the writing was ahead of the writer in
knowing what it was doing, and it illustrates the extent to
which writing is more about discovery than invention.
The other titles -- well, as you might expect,
they are favorites of mine. My sister discovered Wilkie Collins
first, later we read him together. Lady Audley's Secret
was my find, which I then shared with her. Like Doctor Clifton I
love Sherlock Holmes. I gave Hester a blind spot about Henry
James's The Turn of the Screw. The Castle of Otranto is
one I haven't yet read -- I'm saving it.
I said there was no grand plan, and there
wasn't, but once the titles started coming, I made no effort to
keep them out. They are there because they are part of the inner
furniture of Margaret's and Miss Winter's minds, and because I
There are several sets of siblings in this novel,
all examples of different kinds of relationships: Isabelle and
Charlie; Margaret and her sister; Adeline and Emmeline; Tom and
Emma. Do you have any siblings? If so, did your relationship
with them inspire any of your characters' actions?
I'm the eldest of three girls. My mother is from
a large family, so I have dozens of cousins, too. But I would
hate anyone to assume that the dysfunctional relationships
between (most of) the siblings in the book were in any way based
on my own experience of sisterhood! (On the other hand, having
read the book, my sister did feel compelled to apologies for
hitting me over the head with a recorder when she was six and I
Margaret says on page 4 that reading can be
dangerous. In what ways do you think this is true, besides
falling off of stonewalls while wrapped in a story?
Madame Bovary is the classic literary
case study of the dangers of reading. Where Madame B tries to
live life as though it were a certain kind of book, Margaret, as
we see her at the beginning, is in the process of retreating
from life altogether into a world where her only friends are the
dead writers of the books she reads. The solace she derives from
books is absolutely real. But is it dangerous?
I crave an existence where I live in a
library/kitchen with an endless supply of food and books, and
nothing to do but read and eat. I never seem to have enough time
to read, and to be honest, I don't know how much reading I would
need to feel properly satisfied. Twice as much as I have now?
Three times as much? And how much before it gets dangerous? One
of my reading group friends in Yorkshire is a doctor who works
with homeless people; she spends a lot of her work time dealing
with drug and alcohol addiction problems. When we were reading
James Frey's A Million Little Pieces we found ourselves
taking a detour into a conversation about whether reading could
be considered an addiction. It is, after all, mind-altering.
(I'd be interested to know just what happens inside the brain,
chemically and structurally, when someone reads. It might shed
light on the reading addiction question.) I know there are
people who don't read fiction at all, and I find it hard to
understand how they can bear to be inside the same head all the
time (Aurelius isn't a big reader, is he? Apart from the recipe
books). I find it so soothing to have another mind I can just
hop into by opening a book. In fact if I have to get a train and
I don't have enough reading with me, I can feel quite panicky.
So am I addicted? And is it dangerous?
When I was doing my Ph.D. I used to work in a
library part time to pay my fees. It was in a run down part of
town. There was one woman I have never forgotten. She used to
come in every day and select three or four of those short
formulaic romances. The next day she would return them, having
read them, and take three or four more. She was frequently
bruised; her children looked wan and dirty and unhappy. I used
to worry about them. I used to wonder what she made of the
idealized relationships in the books she was reading, and the
contrast with what I imagined her own home life to be. Was the
reading an escape for her? Wouldn't it have been better for her
to stop reading and escape in reality? Was the reading in itself
a danger? Not so dangerous as the man who beat her, surely.
Margaret's retreat from the world would leave
her feeling unbearably isolated if she did not have the indirect
human contact that comes through reading. But if it is reading
that makes it possible for her to withdraw into herself as she
does, it is also reading that brings her back out: Thirteen
Tales of Change and Desperation takes her first to Miss
Winter, then to Aurelius, gradually she comes to feel able to
have a more open relationship with her father and as we leave
her she is contemplating changes of an even greater kind.
Is reading dangerous? I don't know. But I know
one thing that is always dangerous, and that is not living. So I
resist the lure of the kitchen/library. For now, at least.
One of the first things Miss Winter tells Margaret
is that all children mythologize their births. Do you have any
interesting stories to share about your own early years?
It took a long time for me to be born. It was
summer, it was in the country, and the doctor and the midwife
spent a lot of time in the garden: they were enchanted by the
deer that came up to the fence for scraps. Meanwhile my Mum and
I got on with things as best we could.
Your love of literature, and books in general, is
palpable in the pages of your novel. Tell us a little about your
relationship with books. Did you have a library growing up? Did
you ever work in a bookstore like the one Margaret and her
I could write a whole book about my relationship
with books! I suppose in a way I already have. You know my home
town is called Reading? (It's pronounced Redding). My husband
says if I ever wrote an autobiography I should call it A
Reading Girl, for the play on words.
Looking over my answers to the other questions
here (I am writing this answer last) it seems that my
relationship to books is already indicated, explicitly or
implicitly in many of them. So I hope it will be OK if I just
add a few more fragments here.
- I came to reading early. It disappoints me that I can't
remember learning to read. I wish I knew what it was like
not to be able to do it.
- I was a timid child and very nervous. Like many children
I found the world confusing and complicated, and from a very
early age books appeared to me as a way of making sense of
life. This is still what reading is, at heart, for me. There
is a novel by Georges Perec called La Vie, Mode d'Emploi
(Life, A User's Manual). Not only is it a marvelous
novel, but it seems to me that its title is the invisible
subtitle of every novel there has ever been.
- I have never worked in an antiquarian or second-hand
bookshop, though I did once work in a library for a year,
and in an ordinary bookshop for two weeks. However bookshops
-- of all kinds -- are among my favorite places.
- I was a first-born, so I came into a home where there
was no children's library ready and waiting. All the books I
read came one by one into the house, at birthdays,
Christmases, as treats after visits to the dentist. And
there were never enough! I was always thirsting for more.
Later there was the community library and the school
library. Oddly even this didn't feel like enough. Later when
I was working I could have bought all the books I wanted,
but I didn't have the time to read . . . So always this
feeling of needing MORE. (See question 6 and the addiction
On page 295 you describe Margaret as having a dream
in which "everyone had someone else's face." You also write
repeatedly about people having "stories." Do you believe that we
all have stories? And, on some level, do you think the stories
are all the same, but with different faces?
Does everyone have a story? Yes, yes, a thousand
times yes. But it's not always the one we think we have.
Are the stories all the same? No.
There are all sorts of theories about how many
basic stories there are, ranging from two (quest and siege)
upwards. Someone said seven, I think. And someone else thought
19 (or was it 14?) Of course you can categorize stories like
this if you choose; sometimes it's very useful to be able to do
so. But in the real world of fiction the number of stories is
infinite. I can't step outside my door, or turn on the radio, or
pick up a newspaper without coming across new stories. This is
because of human uniqueness. No matter how many people exist,
there will never be two the same (even twins aren't the same),
and this is so astonishing it stops me in my tracks every time I
think about it. This is what makes the probably finite number of
story types proliferate infinitely. In one sense, there is
nothing new in The Thirteenth Tale. I take for granted
that there is no plot or thematic element in it that couldn't be
traced to another book already written. Yet at the same time it
is an entirely new story, because it is Margaret's, and
Aurelius's and Miss Winter's. This is more than just the same
story with a different face. A different face implies a
different vision, a different set of responses, different fears,
different dreams, different desires. If you were to take a
single set of events, and present them using two different sets
of characters you wouldn't end up with the same story with two
different faces. You would have two stories. I'm stating it in
an unnecessarily complicated fashion perhaps. The short version
is this: story is character. Characters are infinite. Therefore
stories are infinite.
Aurelius wants to know the truth about his past,
but Margaret tells him sometimes it's better not to know. Do you
think it's best to always know the truth?
A tricky one, this. I remember at school
studying Chekhov's Three Sisters. The girls feel intense
nostalgia for their days in Moscow and dream endlessly about the
day they will return. Through the course of the play it becomes
clear they will never return. Yet they persist in the illusion.
I remember long and passionate debates with our Russian teacher
about the truth and whether or not it was better to know it. My
classmates and I were all in favor of the truth, but what else
would you expect? We were sixteen. Our teacher was older and
wiser and very good at making us think. I am closer to his age
now and less certain about the value of knowing the truth than I
was. It all depends which truth we're talking about . . . And
who is going to do the knowing (or not).
Certainly for myself I believe I would wish
always to know the truth, but then I also wish never to have to
face a truth I cannot bear. Being able to look the truth in the
face might be brave, or it might just mean you have been lucky
with the truth you were dealt.
Of course in the case of Margaret's parents and
Miss Winter, the truths they hide do not belong only to them.
There is one set of ethical considerations attached to the
question of whether or not one might choose to know the truth;
when it comes to telling the truth, it is an entirely
Miss Winter tells Margaret that readers are fools
for believing that writing is autobiographical. Well, it is --
but not in the way they think. Even in this strange and
mysterious tale, there must be something of you. What, if
anything, is autobiographical about this novel?
Most obviously my passion for books and reading.
The passages about reading are generally fairly direct
representations of my own experience. I am with Margaret's
father in being a lover of contemporary literature as well as
the nineteenth-century novels that she so adores. I found that
the passages about reading came very easily, and in comparison
with the rest of the text they needed little revising. When I
was struggling with writing the book, it was to these passages
that I would turn for reassurance. "Yes," I would think, "I'm on
the right track." So in terms of actually producing the book,
this autobiographical aspect was central.
In every other respect I think autobiographical
factors have had only the slightest and most indirect part in
the making of the book. Margaret was the last character to fall
into place, and I remember at one point thinking that if I made
her a self-portrait it might be easier to write her. But I felt
this was the cheat's way out, and that the book would be the
weaker because of it. So I persisted, and little by little she
revealed herself. I'm glad I waited.
My husband did point out that the name Adeline
contains all the letters of Diane. Is this a coincidence? And if
not, what does it mean? I don't know.