A personal memory of Reginald Hill from Julia Wisdom

By Julia Wisdom, HarperCollins

I was immensely privileged to be Reginald Hill’s editor for eighteen years.  He was erudite, versatile, witty, endlessly inventive and deeply humane – an elegant and profoundly intelligent writer who remained very much his own man.

The first book I published by him was Pictures of Perfection, a playful homage to Jane Austen, and the last was The Woodcutter, a compelling revenge tragedy described in The Times as ‘an outstanding novel of force and beauty’.  In between came a veritable feast of riches, the highlight being (for me) the extraordinary On Beulah Height, a magical novel which wove together past and present, music and tragedy, the loss of children with children’s fables, and passionately evoked landscape and vivid narrative voices, even Reg’s own, Yorkshire-set, lyrics to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. This was a book that moved me and, I suspect, many others to tears, and I’ll never forget how it felt to read that typescript for the first time.

We first met when I was a newly minted editor at Gollancz, making an early, tentative appearance at the Crime Writers’ Association’s Annual Conference.  The brilliant Bones and Silence, Reg’s Gold Dagger winning novel, had been my entry point to his work and I had rapidly read every other Dalziel and Pascoe story he’d written, becoming a complete addict in the process. So, as we stood around clutching drinks at that Conference, I think I simply gawped up at him (he was a tall man, I’m a small woman, something he enjoyed teasing me about later) and thought he looked rather formidable.

The next time we met, I had arrived at HarperCollins and had the good fortune to become his editor. I was taking him out for our introductory lunch and mistakenly thought I’d memorized the exact route to the restaurant. As I led him in increasingly panicky circles around the backstreets of Hammersmith, the refrain going through my head was: ‘He must think I’m an idiot.’  He, on the other hand, was thoroughly amused and happily cracked jokes about my orienteering skills. Not a promising start from my point of view, but illuminating as to Reg’s character: generous and kind-hearted, and with a broad streak of mischievous wit.

Soon, we’d forged a friendly working relationship. He’d come down to London for a boozy dinner once or twice a year – usually with some reluctance; he referred to it, in William Cobbett’s words, as ‘the Great Wen’. Indeed, winkling Reg out of his beloved Cumbria was never an easy business. Whether it was getting him to cross the Pennines for a one-to-one event with Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough, or to fly halfway across the world for a tour in Australia, many a publicist was left tearing her hair out… Whatever the event, though, he always brought an individual spin to it, didn’t use notes, and was never less than entertaining.

We did have discussions about what he’d write next and he occasionally bent an ear to what I said, but in all honesty he simply wrote what he wanted, refusing to be swayed by fashion and market demands. He was pleased that the BBC dramatized the Dalziel and Pascoe novels but was never influenced by their interpretation of his characters or the direction in which they took the stories. If he felt like writing one of his lighter-hearted Joe Sixsmith novels rather than a new Dalziel and Pascoe, then that’s what he’d do. Indeed the scope of his imagination was amazing and his work ran the gamut from science fiction to detective novel, via comedy, thriller and spy fiction. His own reading tastes were equally broad, and he was as  happy discussing Terry Pratchett (some of my favourite phone conversations with him were about the Disc World) as Dickens, Philip Pullman as Shakespeare.  During his last months he was getting stuck into the fantasy world of George R R Martin. A wonderful storyteller himself, he simply loved other such storytellers.

Editing him was a genuine pleasure.  He delighted in using words that had the reader (and his editor) reaching for a dictionary, and enjoyed ambushing me with quotations during our chats.  His knowledge of literature was encyclopaedic and he always used this to great effect in his writing. He was also a consummate plotter and creator of character. We occasionally had run-ins over the use of coincidence or sentiment, but he always had an inconvenient number of examples – often from Dickens – with which to head me off at the pass. It was very rare to find holes, inconsistencies or unresolved plotlines in a newly delivered script, anyway; they were always polished to an unusual degree. Reg brought a remarkable level of professionalism to the business, added to all his other virtues as a writer. And he was always writing something, which kept us all happy…

What else can I say?  His readers miss him. I miss him. A world in which I will never share another meal with Reg, have another conversation with him, read another new novel by him is a greyer one. But I take some comfort from the fact that he left behind a truly rich and varied body of work, which we can all revisit and each time take something new from the experience.

In summary: a wonderful writer and a lovely man.

2 thoughts on “A personal memory of Reginald Hill from Julia Wisdom

  1. That was a very fine tribute to Reg. Thank you. I was one of the friends in his walking group for more than 20 years .

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