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'Fresh Air' Remembers Mystery Novelist Ruth Rendell


We're remembering British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, who died last Saturday in London at the age of 85. Rendell was interviewed twice by Terry Gross, first in 1989. Terry asked her to describe her best-known character, Reg Wexford.


RUTH RENDELL: Well, Wexford started off as a very conventional, tough cop and not a very original character because I had no idea I was writing a series, of course. I had no idea I'd created a series character. So he was really an amalgam of other people's detectives. When I found I was with him - stuck with him - he began to change because I didn't want to be stuck with this tough, rather unimaginative character. And he became more literate, more interesting, more sensitive, more imaginative, better read and so on. And I think he became more interesting in that way. And he's a popular man. I think people - men identify with him and women wish to marry him, or so they write letters to me and tell me they do. And people see him in relation to his children also. And I think those things have made him - it is as much in fact the soap opera aspect of Wexford that has made him popular as his abilities as a detective.


Now, Reg Wexford restores order as the chief inspector. But you write other novels in which the police don't really enter into it, they're not very important in where they figure in and they're novels more about pathology and about evil where order isn't restored because there are evil people or sick people or people who have strange psychopathic notions. Why did you write these novels in addition to the chief inspector novels?

RENDELL: I find that I get tired of writing one kind. I don't feel that I wanted to spend my whole writing life - which is my life - writing detective stories. I wanted to write something else that was a bit more interesting. I wrote - finally, I wrote one which was a breakthrough, called "The Face Of Trespass," of that kind. And I began to write more, and they were the kind of novels I much more enjoyed writing and that a lot of people began to like reading. And I found that it was something that I seemed to know something about.

GROSS: Well, how did you know something about psychopathology? I mean, where do you go to find out more? Do you go to textbooks? Do you go observe people?

RENDELL: Yes, you go to textbooks. You - I never go directly to life. I have never interviewed anybody in this way or met anybody like that. But you read - and I think that we all have these elements in us, so that if you know what you're looking for and you examine your own feelings, I think that the writer of this sort of book has to do a good deal of self-analysis. I'm sure I do. And I get into my characters and hope I understand how one would behave if one were like that.

GROSS: Do you get disturbed ever at what you find when you're introspecting and making connections between you and your characters?

RENDELL: Not anymore.


RENDELL: Yes, I think I did once but not anymore. I do find that I find it rather disquieting that there are such things, elements, because I believe I do understand why people commit horrible crimes without having the slightest wish to do so myself. And I don't think I ever can say, oh, you can't understand how anybody behaves like that. Or, you can't understand how can he do it? No, I can see why. Perhaps not very fortunately, but I can.

GROSS: Did it take you a while to admit that - that you could see why?



RENDELL: Why did it - why did it take me a while to admit it? Because if you admit these things in public, I find that people begin very quickly to associate you and identify with you. You know, she says she understands why some brute rapes a woman and kills her and disposes of the body - she must be like that herself. Of course it is not so, you are not. I think now I don't really care what people think of me in that sort of way, and I'm glad that I can understand it. It makes for better writing. It may make someone a more understanding person. I hope so.

GROSS: I want you to read a passage from your latest novel, which is called "The Bridesmaid." And this passage - there's a man and a woman who've fallen very much for each other, but she is very intense and kind of crazy. (Laughter). You can set this up in any further way that you'd like.

RENDELL: (Reading) He smiled at her and reached for her hand. She withdrew her hand and held the index finger up at him.

Some say that to live fully you have to have done four things. Do you know what they are? I'll tell you. Plant a tree. Write a poem. Make love with your own sex. And kill someone. The first two, well, the first three really, don't seem to have much in common with the last. Please don't laugh, Philip. You laugh too much. There are things that shouldn't be laughed at.

I wasn't laughing. I don't suppose I'll ever do any of those things you've said, so I hope that won't mean I haven't lived.

He looked at her, taking a deep pleasure in her face, her large clear eyes, the mouth that he could never tire of gazing at.

When I'm with you I think I'm really living, Senta.

It was an invitation to love but she ignored it. She said very quietly and with an intense, dramatic concentration,

I shall prove I love you by killing someone for you, and you must kill someone for me.

GROSS: An interesting bargain she tries to make there to prove their love. What kinds of opportunities did this challenge or bargain create for you as the novelist?

RENDELL: Well, it was the crux - it is the crux of the novel. I mean, it is what the novel is about. It's what - I suppose it created for me something else very much - an opportunity for something else that very much interests me. That is that about 90 percent of our lives is illusion, so - especially, I think, in a love affair. Philip, my protagonist here, lives in illusion. And this fosters more opportunities for illusion. He becomes pretty disillusioned later on, but this gives opportunities for so much confusion and hope and despair and wonder and simply mistakes. All of those things, they're all ingredients in my fiction - confusion, bewilderment, things going wrong.

BIANCULLI: Ruth Rendell speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. After a quick break, we'll hear from another of the author's interviews with Terry, this one from 2005. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli filling in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to our tribute to the late mystery novelist Ruth Rendell, who died last Saturday in London at the age of 85. In addition to her writing, Rendell also was a Labour Party member of the House of Lords. She was on FRESH AIR a second time in 2005 after the publication of her psychological thriller "13 Steps Down," which was inspired by the story of the British serial killer John Christie.


GROSS: One of the characters in your new novel, "13 Steps Down," he wants to be famous and one - he knows one option for being famous is to commit a murder. And there's a serial killer who he's been reading up on, you know, who achieved some measure of fame. Do you think that some people commit crime for the notoriety?

RENDELL: I'm afraid they do. I think we know they do. Everybody wants their fame. They long for it, and I think they don't much care how they get it - to attract attention to themselves. And that's what Mix wants to do. And he would rather, I suppose - or he thinks he would get it by being the escort and perhaps ultimately the husband of a very famous model. But failing that, he'd like it to come as a result of his killing someone, and then he can be like John Reginald Halliday Christie, his icon.

GROSS: How has fame affected your life, and what do you find most strange about being a famous writer?

RENDELL: Well, I think the thing with fame is that you like bits of it. You - if only you could select, which of course you can't do. You like some of the bits and you don't like the others, but you can't do that. You have to take the lot at once. I - I love being told by people that they enjoy my books, and I think that's really very nice. Of course, I haven't got a famous face so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RENDELL: Because I haven't been on television very much, so I'm not likely to be recognized in the street. I do occasionally - it's the name that attracts people. And, you know, I love it when I go back into my own country from being abroad and the immigration person will say welcome - look at my passport and say welcome back - or even when I come over here, for instance, having somebody recognize my name and then, you know, look at the picture in the passport and say oh, welcome to the United States, Miss Randall, or probably, Miss Rendell (laughter).

GROSS: So what are the bad parts of fame?

RENDELL: Perhaps not ever being able to get away from it. I have two names - two signatures and - because of being in the House of Lords. And when you go in there you get a title and a territory. So that was a great occasion for me to have - put my credit cards, except for one, into that new name. So that - I sign my American Express Ruth Rendell, but I sign the others Rendell of Babergh. And nobody knows who that is so that instead of going into a supermarket and having the checkout girl look up and say oh, is it really Ruth Rendell? And I don't get that and I like that, just to have that sort of occasional disguise.

GROSS: When you're in a supermarket, do people think it's beneath you that you're so well-known and, you know, your books are so famous that you shouldn't have to shop at a supermarket?

RENDELL: Yeah, they do. And I've - I get - that makes me furious. I went along to a bookshop to sign their stock in London and - as I usually I walk there. It may be a mile from where I live. And the bookseller came out and - saw me coming and said I thought you would come in a limo with an entourage. And that makes me furious.


RENDELL: I'm simply not like that. I do wish to maintain a certain amount of being an ordinary person.

GROSS: You've been writing crime novels for decades. Does it take a lot out of you to kill so many people?

RENDELL: Doesn't take anything out of me at all because I'm not doing it. Somebody else is doing it.

GROSS: (Laughter) But you're making them do it (laughter).

RENDELL: I'm making them do it, yes, but I'm doing a lot of other things as well, of course, in the book. I'm creating character and background and a narrative. And now, I never think of it like that. I never think of it in those terms.

GROSS: What are some of the...

RENDELL: I think I - maybe I would if I did really horribly bloody sort of detailed killings, but of course I don't.

GROSS: Ruth Rendell, thank you very much for talking with us.

RENDELL: I've enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Author Ruth Rendell speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. The internationally known mystery novelist died last Saturday in London at age 85. Her final novel, "Dark Corners," will be published in October. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Maggie," a new zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.