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Ruth Rendell Is Back with '13 Steps Down'

Mystery writer Ruth Rendell is known both for her more traditional Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford mysteries and for dark psychological thrillers. Her new book, 13 Steps Down, falls into the latter category.


Other segments from the episode on October 12, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 12, 2005: Interview with Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis; Interview with Ruth Rendell; Review of the album “One kiss can lead to another."


DATE October 12, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Ruth Rendell discusses the process of writing her

My guest Ruth Rendell has written more than 60 books and has sold more than 20
million copies worldwide. Her first novel, published in 1964, introduced the
character Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, who she continues to
write about. She also writes psychological thrillers. Her darkest books are
written under her pen name, Barbara Vine. Rendell was born in 1930. Since
1997, she's been a member of the House of Lords. If you know her work, you're
probably thinking, `Isn't her name pronounced Rendell (pronounced ren-DELL)?'
Well, that's what I thought, too, until she corrected me. Ruth Rendell's
latest novel is a psychological thriller called "13 Steps Down." It's
inspired by the story of the British serial killer John Christie.

One of the characters in your new novel, "13 Steps Down," he wants to be
famous, and 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

Lady RUTH RENDELL (Author, "13 Steps Down"): 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. You 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?

Lady RUTH: Well, I think the thing with fame is that you like bits of it. 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 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 I
haven't been on television very much. 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, you know, look at the picture in the passport and say, `Oh,
welcome to the United States, Ms. Rendell,' or probably Ms. Rendell
(pronounced ren-DELL). (Laughs)

GROSS: So what are the bad parts of fame?

Lady RUTH: 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?

Lady RUTH: Yeah, they do. And I've--I get--that makes me furious. I went
along to a bookshop, to Simon & Stock(ph) in London, and as I usually--I walk
there. It was maybe 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.


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

GROSS: Ruth Rendell is my guest, and her new novel is called "13 Steps Down."

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

Lady RUTH: Doesn't take anything out of me at all, because, of course, I'm
not doing it; somebody else is doing it.

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

Lady RUTH: 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, no, I never think of it like that. I never think of it in
those terms.

GROSS: What are some of the...

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

GROSS: What are some of the most disturbing things you've witnessed in your

Lady RUTH: Oh, dear, I don't know. Well, I did witness something in this
country once. I don't know whether it was disturbing, but it was sort of
exciting and shocking. And actually I was in Philadelphia, and I was with
some friends, and we were walking along a street. And a guy came along in a
car, and he was being pursued by police in a car. And he ran this car into
a lamppost or something, and it shot open--the door shot open, he jumped out
and rushed off down the street and fired a gun. And the police followed him,
all firing guns. And of course, I--England was a great deal more law-abiding
then than it is now, and I'd never seen anything like that. And it was both a
shock and actually very exciting.

GROSS: So did you take cover, or did you just stand there watching the scene
as it unfolded?

Lady RUTH: Yes, but we were quite a long way away from it, but--it moved away
from us.

GROSS: Do you think that the characters that interest your or the stories
that you tell or the way that you tell them have changed as you've gotten

Lady RUTH: I haven't let them change, I hope. I think that they could. What
happens is that you have a tendency to write about your contemporaries or
people 10 years younger than yourself, and that must be resisted. So you
must have, without wanting to be formulaic--and I really do hope I'm not--is
to have a mix of ages of people. And there is this tendency to write about a
whole lot of people all over 60, and that won't do; people don't want to read
about them. And I suppose it won't be so interesting to write about them,

And another thing, of course, is keeping up with the way people's speech
patterns change and the words they use and, well, everything, the clothes they
wear, the cars they drive, the books they read, the music they listen to. And
I think it is--a writer must--it's a writer's duty to keep pace with those
things. When I say that I do, I make a big reservation and say I try to, but
I know ultimately it's a losing battle. I won't be able to do it.

GROSS: How...

Lady RUTH: That is, I won't be able to keep pace with that, those changes.

GROSS: There's a character in your latest novel who thinks, `The more I know
people, the more I like books.' Does that describe you at all?

Lady RUTH: No. No, I don't think--I think it does sometimes. It's the sort
of thing that you feel--or I would only feel if I felt very exasperated with
somebody or some people. But Gwendolyn feels it all the time. And when...

GROSS: And she's a person who wants to protect herself from both pain and
pleasure. She keeps the whole world at a distance.

Lady RUTH: Gwendolyn is very unlike...

GROSS: Yeah.

Lady RUTH: Gwendolyn is very unlike me.

GROSS: And how do you write about people who are very unlike you?

Lady RUTH: I don't know. I--well, of course, I'll have some idea of the
character in my mind, and what I will have is a background for the character,
a set of tastes and values, an appearance, a childhood, a background, a middle
life, relationships with other people. And when I have all that, I can put
myself into their shoes and then try to act the way somebody with that kind
of--those kinds of antecedents would act. That's the only way I think I can
describe it. That would be with any character, whether like me or not.

GROSS: When it comes to writing fiction, I know some people really kind of
struggle with plot and character, and other people, it just seems to come to
them; it's almost--you know, some people have described it like taking
dictation, you know, just kind of--it comes to you. Where do you fit in in
that scale?

Lady RUTH: Well, I think sometimes it comes to me, but it's both. Sometimes
it comes to me and sometimes I have to sort of work on it very hard. But I
don't find it easy, any of it. I find it quite hard, sometimes very hard.
And it certainly isn't ever, I think, like receiving dictation.

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

Lady RUTH: I've enjoyed it.

GROSS: Ruth Rendell's new novel is called "13 Steps Down."

Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new box set of obscure girl
group recordings. This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Rhino box set "One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group
Sounds, Lost & Found"

Led by Phil Spector's productions, the girl group sound became a hot ticket on
America's record charts in the first half of the 1960s. Now Rhino Records has
released a box set of mostly obscure girl group records called "One Kiss Can
Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost & Found." Rock historian Ed Ward
dared to listen to the whole thing to plumb the female psyche of 40 years ago.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: Every day I kiss my baby, just because it drives him
crazy. And I'll do most anything to make him feel just like a king, 'cause
when the boy's happy, the girl's happy, too.

ED WARD reporting:

Imagine being a young teen-age boy in the first half of the '60s, one who's
just realized that girls might actually be worth getting to know. Then
imagine that as research, this boy was handed the 120 songs that make up "One
Kiss Can Lead to Another," Rhino's amazing collection of girl group records.
What would he learn about girls?

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: You know, when the weather gets warm, we girls don't
like to sit around. We get the same things on our minds as you boys do.

(Singing) We get our bikinis, small as they come.

THE PIN-UPS: (Singing in unison) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yippety-yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Forget all our troubles, get out in the sun.

THE PIN-UPS: (Singing in unison) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yippety-yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Out with our boys now, turn on the sound.

THE PIN-UPS: (Singing in unison) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yippety-yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) What do we do now? We go looking around.

THE PIN-UPS: (Singing in unison) We go looking around.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) 'Cause we're looking for boys.

THE PIN-UPS: (Singing in unison) East side, west side, all over town.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Looking for boys.

WARD: The Pin-Ups from Brooklyn assure him that they've got the same goals he
does, which is reassuring. But once he's actually got a girl, it gets

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) They say he doesn't love me, but they don't
know. He makes me feel so happy when I'm feeling low. My friends just can't
seem to see that he means the world to me. And that is why I adore him.

THE ANGELS: (Singing in unison) He's everything, everything to me.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Oh, I adore him.

THE ANGELS: (Singing in unison) He's what a boy, what a boy should be.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Yes, I adore him.

THE ANGELS: (Singing in unison) Sometimes he hurts, yes, he hurts my pride.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Do anything for him.

THE ANGELS: (Singing in unison) But he's a boy and the boy is mine.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Yeah.

WARD: The Angels made it seem like the two of them can take on the world,
despite the doubts and misgivings of their friends. The Chiffons, on what's
considered one of the first psychedelic records, agree.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Nobody knows what's going on in my mind but
me. And I love him.

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing in unison) Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) And I love him.

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing in unison) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Everybody says I'm too young, but what do

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing in unison) ...know? No, no, no, no, no, no.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Nobody knows what's going on in my mind but
me. Nobody knows what's going on in my mind but me.

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing in unison) Nobody knows what's going on in my mind but
me. Nobody knows what's going on in my mind but me.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) And he loves me.

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing in unison) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

WARD: On the other hand, you have to be careful with girls. As The Whyte
Boots' "Nightmare" makes plain, they can be dangerous when they fight over
boys. The climax of the record sure has The Shangri-Las beat for drama.

(Soundbite of "Nightmare")

Unidentified Woman #4: `They're right,' I thought. She did take my Bobby
away. Putting me down, showing everybody his ring. Well, I thought I'd like
to scare her a little, but I never meant to hurt her or anything.

THE WHYTE BOOTS: (Singing in unison) You can beat her. You can win. Look at
her sneering. Better wipe off that grin. Get her, get her. Push her to the
ground. Get her, get her. Push her down.

(Soundbite of girls fighting)

Unidentified Woman #5: What happened?

WARD: And if he doesn't behave, he might be hearing this.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. DONNA LYNN: (Singing) Here I am, all alone and all dressed up to kill.
Yes, I'd much rather be with the girls than be with you. Here I am, with the
gang. I don't care where you are. Yes, I'd much rather be with the girls
than be with you.

WARD: What's remarkable about Donna Lynn's record there is how well it
translated. A lot of girl group classics were written or co-written by women
like Carole King or Ellie Greenwich, but this one was written by none other
than Keith Richards and his manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, as "I'd Much Rather
Be With the Boys" and rejected by the Stones as too pop.

The cumulative effect of the songs here would be enough to reduce our
hypothetical teen-ager to a neurotic mess, possibly as neurotic as the obscure
Dawn, who has a song here called "I'm Afraid They're All Talking About Me."
Either that, or he'd be worrying that his girlfriend might prefer another kind
of boy.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #6: (Singing) He'll be riding into town tonight, roaring
down the back streets 'cause he knows he's gotta keep that aside. There was
trouble on the road, and they're blaming him. Now he needs a place to hide
away, and, Daddy, you just gotta let him in. What a Hell's Angel. We'll be
driving out the door tonight. He's one of Hell's angels...

WARD: All of which brings home another point. Hard as it might be to be one
of these girls' boyfriends, being one of their parents could be much, much

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He reviewed "One Kiss Can Lead to Another:
Girl Group Sounds, Lost & Found" on Rhino.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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