Ruth Rendell: a life in writing
Ruth Rendell's most famous creation, Chief Inspector Wexford, has retired, and at the age of 83, with more than 70 books under her belt and a Labour life peerage, she'd be forgiven if her thoughts were beginning to drift towards a gentle exit from the world of letters. After all, the 79-year-old Philip Roth, after a similarly half-century-spanning career, told the world he was "done" with writing last year, and hasn't looked back.
When I ask if this is the case, Rendell, resplendent and formidable in a red velvet cardigan, leans forward on the sofa in her bright Maida Vale house and looks horrified. "I couldn't do that. It's what I do and I love doing it," she says. "It's absolutely essential to my life. I don't know what I would do if I didn't write."
That's a no, then. Even Wexford, who has been solving murders and easing injustices since he made his debut in Rendell's own debut, From Doon with Death, back in 1964, isn't taking it easy. Despite having left the police force, he solved a decades-old crime in 2011's The Vault, and Rendell reveals she's just finished a new Wexford novel in which the retired inspector becomes involved in another investigation.
Perhaps it's her books, and the terrifying hold they exert on her readers, or the bucketloads of awards she's been given, but Rendell has a reputation for being intimidating. In person, she is cool, detached, fiercely intelligent – rather like some of her female heroines. She considers everything she is asked, looking faintly disgusted if she disagrees or is unimpressed, a small but infectious smile spreading across her face if she's interested.
Unlike Conan Doyle with Holmes, "I don't get sick of him because he's me. He's very much me," she says of Wexford. "He doesn't look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that's me. So I think you don't get tired of yourself."
Wexford's endless war against clichés is hers, she admits. "He likes to read what I like to read" – on her coffee table today is Tennyson and Anne Tyler and John Banville – "and he likes the music I like, all that sort of thing. It's not absolute. But it's pretty close, so of course I don't have to think too deeply about what he'll say next because I know him so well."
Returning to Wexford is not easy, though. "I don't find writing easy," she admits surprisingly, given her prolific output. "That is because I do take great care, I rewrite a lot," she says. "If anything is sort of clumsy and not possible to read aloud to oneself, which I think one should do … it doesn't work."
Would-be authors send her their manuscripts, she tells me, then breaks off for a short, barking laugh. "Mind you, on the whole I don't read them too much. The things they write, it's as if writing dialogue is just a matter of he said, she said, thank you, yes, how are you and so on, all this superfluous stuff nobody needs. It's as if they don't look at it and say, 'Do people talk like that?'"