Novelist Rachel Billington falls for Sidmouth

Rachel Billington enchants Sidmouth audience with anecdotes of father - the Late Lord Longford

“I WRITE in bed, I always have. If you don’t get dressed you can’t do important things like water the flower beds.”

So says novelist Rachel Billington, second guest of Kennaway House’s Readers and Writers season, in Sidmouth on Friday.

Ninety heard how she grew up, one of eight children of Lord and Lady Longford, became a writer, her work with prisoners and about her recent novel, The Missing Boy.

Talking to Di Bowerman she said: “I write in bed when it is not nice weather and when it is nice I sit outside in the garden. I even play music, it takes up the slack in my mind. A blank wall is very bad for me.”

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Rachel, and her film director husband Kevin Billington, live near Sherbourne, Dorset, but it was their first visit to Sidmouth. They loved it and vow to return again.

Having written 20 novels, non-fiction books and children’s stories, does it get any easier?

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“No, because I am always challenging myself to do something really different. I am very easily bored.

“When I’ve finished a novel I’m thrilled that I’ve managed to pull it off, assuming I have, and then my mind keeps whirling about to do something pretty different, something that is grabbing me.

“I really write novels that excite myself, although I’m really aware of the reader. I want to be read. I want readers to enjoy it and get involved in it. I do want to have something new, I think I’ve got a restless nature, so that means there is nothing to fall back on each time you are starting afresh.”

Dialogue comes fairly naturally to her, as long as the characters are real to her, “otherwise they would be pointless and would be discarded”, but says she used to find structure difficult.

“Recently I’ve rather taken to thriller structures, which is rather a gripping way of holding your reader. So my last two novels have been rather like that. But then the one I am writing at the moment is utterly different, an historical novel, which I’ve never written before.”

Would you say being a novelist is a lonely occupation?

“Well probably not lonely. Obviously you are alone when you do it, which is what I like about it. I grew up in a very big family. My problem was trying to get time to myself. Now I have four children, so I don’t feel lonely at all when I’m writing, although I’m alone.

“Once you’ve started writing your novel and are peopling it with characters, of course your life is filled with their dramas and their lives, so you’re living within in your life you have created, which means you are anything but alone. Fiction takes you into a very full world.”

Rachel had just married Kevin when her first novel, All Things Nice, was published in 1968. Does he have any influence on what she writes, I asked.

“Kevin has not influenced what I write about, but… without his support I really wouldn’t have dared to be a novelist. It’s a very scary thing, you have to have a lot of determination and self-belief, which I certainly didn’t have.

So it was important he gave me that and because he was a film director, working in films, all my early influences were films. I used film techniques like cutting from characters. I did some writing for films he was making and I also wrote plays for TV, so I was influenced by his job really.”

Your sister is Lady Antonia Fraser and you have other siblings/relations who are writers. Is writing in your blood?

“We are really the first generation with so many writers, the men of father’s side were soldiers and sailors.

“We didn’t grow up as writers at all, we grew up in a family that was political. Both my parents stood for parliament and after my father was made a peer he was in cabinet. So the environment I grew up in wasn’t very cultural or artistic, though it was bookish. There were a lot of books around.

“In my case I was looking for a voice. If you grow up as part of a large amount of children no-one listens to you, they all talk away, so I think by writing you can have your own voice.

“We are very different kinds of writers, I’m the only one who writes fiction. I do write out short bits about each character, each chapter to begin with, but very seldom will I have an ending that comes out of what I’m writing.

“I never knew how The Missing Boy would end. I was terrified all the way though. The end comes out of the characters.”

Rachel describes writing her book Perfect Happiness, a sequel to Jane Austen’s Emma, as a “joyous experience.

“I think Jane Austen, who might have disapproved, was somewhere about saying go on, go for it. Of course if you pick up the characters of a great genius it’s daring because you might fall flat on your face. But I had grown up reading Jane Austen since I was 10.

“I did invent some of the characters. Reverend Dugobair Tidmarsh came in a dream rather oddly. I think it was Jane Austen whispering to me. I was so involved in that world…you get on to another level. It was such high tension and emotion. I’m quite proud of that book. It could have been a disaster. One of the things it taught me was the wonderful use of language in that period.”

How much did Lord Longford influence you with your work with prisoners and the Longford Trust*?

“As I grew up, there were always families of prisoners he was helping coming to see him. I didn’t particularly take it in and I didn’t think I was particularly interested.”

Rachel lived and worked in New York. It was later, when researching her book Bodily Harm, about a young man who attacks a stranger and goes to prison, that she visited prison for the first time.

“I went to my father and he suggested I go and talk to New Bridge, which is a befriending charity for prisoners. Eric McGraw, then director, felt very deeply it was the lack of communication for people shut up, which was causing a lot of the problems.”

Eric started Inside Time a newspaper for prisoners, and, after he left New Bridge, Rachel became more involved and now writes a monthly column.

“The influence my father had was to make me feel you have to do something to help people who are less lucky than yourself. In his case he chose people who had done dreadful things, but he felt this didn’t mean they should be outcasts and that they should be rehabilitated and helped. I certainly picked that up from him.”

Lord Longford was criticised for his association with Moors murderer Myra Hindley.

“My father worked on a Christian principal - you hate the sin and love the sinner. So however bad, disgusting or unbelievably awful, he still believed that person had a soul and was capable of change and repentance.

“He was a very strong Catholic, he’d converted to Catholicism. He felt every single person had that capability and that, he believed, was the Christian message from the New Testament. I don’t think he believed in terms like pure evil or monsters, that wasn’t how he saw things. I think Myra is a very difficult case. Eric was right. You can’t just put people into prison and expect they are going to come out and not commit more crimes. Sixty five percent go straight back in again.”

*The Longford Trust gives scholarships to young men and women who want to carry on post-grad education.

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