WITH a dry wit, sharp intelligence and a remarkable memory, Ruth Rendell – now on her 77th book – is still a woman at the height of her powers, finds David Robinson
THE week before I meet her, Ruth Rendell had been to the West End to watch a show called Gatz. It is an eight-hour production, and for it the leading actor had to memorise all 49,000 words of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel – in the right order. She is impressed by that. And because she is impressed, I am too. Because when it comes to retentive grey cells, Baroness Rendell of Babergh CBE is in a league of her own.
You could be forgiven for not noticing that straight away. Your first impression would be of a spry, dry-witted woman in her late sixties (she is actually 82) who is far more open and friendly in person than the rather forbidding grande dame of crime fiction her media image would lead you to expect.
Since her husband’s death in 1999, she has lived alone in her elegant four-storey house overlooking the houseboats moored along the Regent’s Canal, a street where Lily Langtry and Michael Flatley used to live and where a generally less ostentatious affluence is de rigueur. It is the sort of house that used to come equipped with servants and would now come with a £6 million price tag in an upper-crust estate agent’s window. The sort whose inhabitants, above and below stairs, she writes about in her latest novel – astonishingly, her 77th – The Saint Zita Society.
Saint Zita was the patron saint of servants. These days, as Rendell’s keen eye for social observation has spotted, that is a job that dare not speak its name: instead, there are au pair friends of the family who drift into the role, chauffeurs forever waiting for a summons on their mobile phones from their banker bosses, impoverished companions of the super-wealthy, and Asian nannies, along with fixed-hourly rate gardeners and handymen who live out and – only occasionally – butlers and cooks who live in.
The whole point of a Ruth Rendell novel isn’t the murder itself, but what drove the murderer to the crime and how he or she copes with its repercussions. In The Saint Zita Society, she takes as her canvas an entire street of white-painted stucco Georgian houses of the super-rich in that part of London where Belgravia shades into Pimlico. There will be a murder, and when it happens, the lives of those above and below the stairs, in houses on both sides of the street, will find themselves horrendously interconnected. And no-one – not a single crime writer I can think of – could handle such a large cast as competently, zooming into so many disparate lives to reveal their inner fears, then out again to show their usually superficial, but sometimes desperate, intertwining, as the woman next to me.
But let’s get back to that memory masterclass. The publisher’s copy of the novel, I tell her, didn’t have a map of the houses in the street (the finished copy does, with lists of their inhabitants), so I my made my own. Did she start off with anything like that?
“No, I never do. I started with the idea of taking a little street – as I did with my  novel Portobello – and then thought about writing about the servants who live on it. They had to have a place to form their informal society, so I thought of the Dugong [her fictional pub at the corner of the street] and I gathered them all there and just took the story on.”
What about a notebook in which to write all those precise details of the way we live now, like the way whole streets in prosperous parts of London will have Scandinavian-style candles in their windows at Christmas or how a strict Muslim woman might shrink from shaking a man’s hand? “I never carry a notebook while walking around London. I just pick those things up. I’m very good at quizzes.” She taps the side of her head. “There’s all kinds of useless knowledge in there. Great chunks of Antony and Cleopatra, long bits of poetry, quite a few quotations – and Wexford [her only series character, and protagonist of 23 of her novels] has used nearly all of them.” She grins – a sudden widening of her mouth and lightening of her expression before continuing. “But no, I never make notes; just a few small details when I’m writing, but nothing much. The plot is never written down. I will tell the story to myself, but I won’t plan it. I’ll speak the narrative in my head for a while.”
While you’re washing up, for example?
A faux-frosty frown. “I don’t wash up. Maybe if I’m on a long walk, or lying down before sleep.”
What kind of narrative – the details of how people act, or the main turning-points of plot?
“Oh no. Never that.”
She had told me earlier that it could be three months before she would get round to writing those lines she had tried out in her head. Surely she would have forgotten them by then?
“No, I can still remember what I thought. Right now, for example, I have an idea for a Barbara Vine for the future. It won’t be even for next year but for the year after. But the idea came and I’m pleased with it – it’s a very good idea. Well, if you imagine a page of a printed book. I will have said that page to myself. And when I write it, well, it won’t be exactly like that, but that is enough for me, and I know that it will be all right.”
I have interviewed a lot of crime writers, but I have never heard anything like that. Right now, inside the Rendell cranium, not written down anywhere, there are ready-formed nuggets for novels that could either be standalones, Inspector Wexfords, or those more psychologically dark novels (sometimes barely crime at all) she writes as Barbara Vine. How early does she know which they’ll be?
“The Saint Zita Society I knew from the start couldn’t be a Wexford or a Vine. There is a sort of dream quality about the Vines, a thoughtfulness, a brooding on things. I have a new Vine out – not the one I recently had the idea for – early next year, and again there was never any question of it being anything other than a Vine right from the start. And I’m writing a Wexford now.”
Wow. After more than a decade of interviewing authors, I think I have probably grown hard to impress, but at this stage, I am almost lost in wonderment. I think this is precisely because she is almost deliberately trying not to impress me, the way you can do when you’re 82, a Labour life peer and and have 77 critically acclaimed books and best-sellers to your name, some filmed by the likes of Chabrol and Almodovar, stretching all the way back to the then ground-breaking (because it dealt with a lesbian love affair) From Doon With Death in 1964.
Let’s wheel back that statistic again. Let’s face it: you’ve skipped over it too easily. Seventy-seven books. Good ones too, with a quality that hasn’t fallen off. Bestsellers nearly all of them. Books that pick up on the misfits on the margins of society and take a long and close look at that society itself. Most writers have relatively short careers – even a decade is a long time in publishing – before the public tires of their way of looking at the world, or gets used to their tricks or starts to find their characters formulaic. With Ruth Rendell, that has never happened. But she has not finished making my eyes widen in astonishment.
“Another thing is that I can always remember exactly where a line or a name was on a page, and I can go back to it without any trouble. I don’t make any notes, but I do know where to find things. Suppose I need to know where Wexford first talked about his love of the countryside or where he quotes Larkin, or what was the beginning of his hatred of racism or where he first encountered domestic violence, I would be able to find it straight away.” Double-wow.
Somehow – don’t ask me how – she manages to lead a fuller life than most even with all the writing. She gets up early each day, works out on the cross-trainer in her basement, spends the morning writing in her office at the top of the house (58 steps she will go up and down four or five times a day). Then in the afternoon, three days a week, it’s off to the House of Lords, walking to Bond Street and catching a Jubilee line Tube to Westminster.
In the evening, she might go out to that theatre (which is where we came in, remember?) or stay in and read a book. She gets through about four a week – good, interesting choices too: the week I meet her, she is working her way through AM Homes’s forth coming novel May We Be Forgiven and AN Wilson’s The Elizabethans, plus re-reading Stella Gibbons’s Starlight and wondering whether to start Vassily Grossman’s mammoth Life and Fate. She’s some dame. Me, I’m tired just typing this paragraph.
She signs my copy of her latest novel. Filling the entire page opposite, in unshowy grey capitals, are the titles of books – non-fiction, short stories, omnibuses, novellas – she has written. I mumble something about it being an impressive list.
“Well,” she says, eyes twinkling, “I do like writing, you know.”
• The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell is published by Hutchinson, price £16.99. Ruth Rendell will be appearing at the Book Festival on Thursday, 16 August at 8pm.