The ALCS News Interview: Susan Hill

Literary novelist, crime novelist, short story writer, non-fiction writer, e-book author, children’s writer, publisher. Susan Hill’s many-faceted writing career is still flourishing in its sixth decade. She talks to Caroline Sanderson about the art of writer reinvention.

The career of a writer has always been an uncertain one. But with traditional sources of income in decline, never has it been as urgent to find serial ways to earn a living.  Consider then, the admirably sustained career of Susan Hill. Her first novel, The Enclosure was published in 1961, during her first year at university. Since then she has published over 50 books across many genres, and in both print and digital formats. She has won several prizes including the Whitbread Novel Award; the stage version of her novel The Woman in Black has been a fixture on the West End since 1988, and her 1970 novella, I’m the King of the Castle remains a set text in schools 45 years after its publication.

The impulse to write in different genres, Hill tells me, is a conscious one, rather than the result of expediency. “I don’t like being pigeon-holed. The moment people started pigeon-holing me as a crime writer, I stopped writing my Serailler novels…” (the eighth and final one, The Soul of Discretion has just come out in paperback). “I always want to challenge myself with something different each time which is one of the reasons I did crime, and also why I came back to writing ghost stories.”

The novella form has long been a favourite, as demonstrated by such Susan Hill classics as Strange Meeting and In the Springtime of the Year, as well as her recent ghost stories, The Small Hand and Dolly. “The longer short story and the novella are my ideal length. You have to be meticulous and pay attention to everything in short form fiction: there’s no hiding place. A good short story is ‘a little world made cunningly’ to quote John Donne, and I just love trying to do that.”

“A couple of weeks ago, a 14 year-old said to me: ‘could you put the whole text of I’m the King of the Castle up on the internet because it would be much easier to work from’.”

A couple of years ago, Hill was invited by Amazon to write short fiction for its Kindle Single format. “I hadn’t written short stories for quite a while and because Kindle Singles are properly edited in-house, I was happy to contribute on those terms. It’s very hard to sell an individual short story unless it’s very short: magazines tend to want 2,000 words, which is not my ideal length. Kindle Singles are 5,000 or more. So I wrote one, and it did incredibly well, and I’ve now done three more.”

Her most recent venture is her new children’s publisher, Little Barn Books. Its launch publication is Hill’s first children’s book for 8 years, the birth of her own granddaughter having provided part of the inspiration for her return to writing for younger readers. Billy-William Bigheart is the opening title in a new series aimed primarily at boys aged 7+. “What everybody says is: it’s hard to get boys to read, and to keep them reading. I wanted to write a book that was slightly jokey and not too serious, and then I thought of Billy-William.” Her series featuring The Kindest Boy in the World will chart the adventures of Billy-William and his friends from Jubilee Road. The books feature wonderfully quirky illustrations by Helen Lang, and free activity pages at the back. There will also be a free activity book giveaway for World Book Day in March 2016.

Hill first turned publisher when she founded Long Barn Books in 1997. “I wanted to find out how publishing worked. I think the whole business of making books is exciting and I thought: I want to see if I can do this. So I did, and I loved it, but it was the steepest learning curve I’d ever been on.” Chief among Long Barn’s successes is Counting My Chickens by Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire which has sold 92,000 copies, a remarkable number for what is a tiny independent. After a break to catch up with her own writing, Hill has recently relaunched Long Barn with the publication of Colouring In by Angela Huth. “She is just the sort of very good middlebrow novelist who is getting dropped by major publishing houses.”

As for publishing her own adult titles, Hill has done so only with books that had fallen out of print and which she felt could have another life. “When the rights revert because the publisher has decided there’s no more life in a book, often the publisher is absolutely right. And some of my books have definitely dated. But just occasionally, I’ve thought, I’d like to do that again.” One canny revival was her children’s poem Can It Be True? which provided the text for the BBC Radio 3 Carol Competition last year. To coincide, Hill republished the book in a small format illustrated edition to sit by the till, and it did ‘incredibly well’, she says. It’s a lesson on having a constant eye on one’s backlist, and on being commercially minded about one’s work. Hill is a subscriber to the retail sales data provided by Nielsen BookScan. “I like to find out exactly how many people are selling, rather than what we are told they are selling”, she says.

Hill credits her mother with bringing her up with a beady eye for the market. “She had a small factory making children’s clothes just after the war. Of course women didn’t really do that sort of thing then, but I just assumed they did. That’s why the business side of things has always interested me.”

“I do work hard – it’s my day job and it’s honest toil – but only because I enjoy it.  And I certainly don’t beat myself up about having to do it every day from 9 to 5. It’s no good being lofty.”

What advice does she have for writers struggling to make a living? “There’s often a sense of entitlement from those who write and want to write and that’s wrong. It’s a commercial operation and if people try your books and don’t like them, well I’m afraid that is the marketplace. Publishers are not charities, and people shouldn’t have an expectation of making a lot of money out of writing.” However she agrees that the infringement of copyright and writers not being paid for the use of their work is ‘a nightmare’. “A couple of weeks ago, a 14 year-old said to me: ‘could you put the whole text of I’m the King of the Castle up on the internet because it would be much easier to work from’. And I said, ‘well, you can do that, it’s available on Kindle’. And they said, ‘but you have to pay for that’. They just didn’t understand why I couldn’t put the book up there for nothing.” Whilst a firm supporter of copyright, Hill sees no reason why the term should be as long as 70 years after an author’s death. “It’s ridiculous. It should be for the author and the author’s immediate descendants, say 25-30 years.”

Unfailing prolific and hard-working, a sheer love of writing has remained a constant throughout Hill’s career. But she is also one of the least precious of writers. “I do work hard – it’s my day job and it’s honest toil – but only because I enjoy it.  And I certainly don’t beat myself up about having to do it every day from 9 to 5. It’s no good being lofty.”

Billy-William Bigheart is out now from Little Barn Books. Billy-William Bigheart and the Best Day’s Outing in the Whole World Ever, the second book in the series will be published next Spring.

For further information about these and other Susan Hill titles please see: