The NS Q&A: Susan Hill on North Korea, Tony Benn and Say Yes to the Dress

The award-winning novelist and publisher answers our questions.

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The second of a series where we invite our favourite writers, thinkers, politicians or cultural figures to share their passions, pet hates and predictions.

What’s your earliest memory?
The clearest one is of walking beside my father through snow in the bitter winter of 1947. I was five. I stepped into a pile of snow and disappeared to my shoulders in a massive drift. Nowadays, someone would have taken a photograph on their phone.

Who are your heroes?
Winston Churchill was my childhood hero because he was my mother’s. The Conservatives had their party conference in Scarborough, and she took me to the Grand Hotel to see him. He did the “V for Victory” sign and everyone cheered. My hero now is the Queen. Or Giles Fraser: I admire his honesty and principles, even though he is wrong about practically everything.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
Either Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill or Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent – both wonderfully imagined books that I wish I had written and know I never could. But almost every time I read a novel, I want to have written it.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Apart from Churchill, and perhaps strangely for a Conservative: Tony Benn. I admire men and women who live by what they preach and are never hypocritical. And that was Benn.

What would be your Mastermind special subject
The English novel. Or horse racing.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
Given good health and good teeth, the 12th century near the Cistercians at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire – a place full of holiness and peace and good purpose.

What TV show could you not live without?
Say Yes to the Dress, an American show about brides choosing their dress, featuring a wonderful man called Randy, who is every girl’s best gay friend, confidant and supporter. It is totally addictive. I know several writers who watch it secretly. Now they can come out.

Who would paint your portrait?
Maggi Hambling – but it would be a sculpture.

What’s your theme tune?
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (for the line: “There may be trouble ahead . . .”).

What’s currently bugging you?
North Korea.

What single thing would make your life better?
Another 50 years of writing. Or a harmless pill that would make four stone of my weight vanish overnight.

When were you happiest?
Holding my babies the moment after they were born. Or right now. I am very happy right now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A failure. I am unemployable, and I have no other skills – though I make good pancakes.

Are we all doomed?
Yes. Probably in some way that it hasn’t occurred to us to worry about yet. But then again, I am a Christian . . .

“From the Heart” by Susan Hill is published by Chatto & Windus

The NS Q&A: Howard Jacobson

This article appears in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution