INTERVIEW / No room for healing: Peter Stanford talks to Rachel Billington about her latest novel, set inside one of Britain's prisons

RACHEL BILLINGTON'S father is very keen on her new novel. It's more than just paternal pride. The subject matter has a special appeal for that tireless prison campaigner, Lord Longford.

Much of Bodily Harm (Macmillan pounds 14.99) is set inside a jail and one of its two narrators, Pat, is a mentally ill offender, sentenced for an unprovoked knife attack on a young woman he had never met before. The novel's picture of life inside Britain's penal institutions is disturbing and wholly believable, exposing a violent, amoral environment where the dictates of punishment leave little time for notions of healing or reform.

Prisons and prisoners have always been a part of Rachel Billington's life. One of her earliest memories is of the parents of Christopher Craig visiting her family home in the 1950s to appeal for her father's help, following their son's conviction for killing a policeman.

Yet until she began work on Bodily Harm, penal reform wasn't a subject that interested her: 'Although I was always aware of that other world, heard it talked about, I think if anything I developed a thick skin. Although I encourage everyone to do it now, I'm ashamed to admit that I was never even curious enough to visit a prison.'

Before condemning herself, she might plead mitigating circumstances. She had others things to keep her busy - marriage to the film and theatre director Kevin Billington, two sons, two daughters, 11 novels, children's books, radio and television plays, newspaper columns. But when she got the idea for her latest book, after reading of a similar case in America, she joined her father on his travels around Britain's jails - he has been a prison visitor since the 1930s and at 86 still goes on a weekly basis. The family crusade has become infectious. Rachel Billington now acts as a consultant to Inside Time, a national newspaper for prisoners set up with her help last year.

One of the most compelling aspects of Bodily Harm - told in rotating first-person narratives by the attacker and his victim - is its insight into the mind of a psychopath, the mental contortions he performs to avoid addressing the horror of his crime.

Rachel Billington skilfully brings out the parallels between the mental agonies of both central characters. Though they both go back to 'normal' life, their madness remains dormant, set to erupt in a second encounter.

'I was helped by meeting and talking to people in prison,' says the author, while refusing to attribute too much to a cocktail of fact and fiction. 'Some of my novels like Theo and Matilda have been historical, covering several generations, and of course I've had to look back at what was happening then. But in general I don't spend ages researching. I always think it's very hard not to let it show through when you write.' She is equally wary of novels with a strong autobiographical flavour. 'That's always struck me as like writing a diary.'

Indeed there are few parallels for the casual observer to draw between the bleak landscapes and maladjusted characters of Bodily Harm and its author - elegant, tanned, articulate, disturbed only by the arrival home from school of her children. Even the sound of a malfunctioning doorbell that rings at regular intervals, untouched by human hand, fails to dispel her calm and serenity.

She finds the writing of novels 'a privilege' - 'you have endless words to play with. And you're alone.' It's not, of course, all plain sailing. 'The beginning of this novel was very easy. I had that in my head after reading about the American case. But the unfolding was very difficult. I didn't know whether the ending was going to be like a good old horror movie, or offer a glimmer of hope.' She opted for the latter.

For someone so poised, who gives the appearance of being able to deal with every situation, there is a surprising self-doubt in Rachel Billington. Once her books are written, 'I can hardly bear to look at them again because all I can see is the errors.' Her works sell well, especially in America, but defy categorisation. Some, such as The Big Dipper and The Painted Devil, are short, sharp and contemporary with an edge of satire. Others - like A Woman's Age - are historical yarns. This strange mix, made all the more baffling by the psycho-thriller elements in Bodily Harm, has meant that Rachel Billington's work has never been fashionable. 'The only prize I ever won was in 1951 for handwriting.'

Yet there are common threads. 'I like to take regular situations and ordinary people, then allow something extraordinary to happen to them. In the past I have dealt with love out of nowhere. In Bodily Harm it is violence out of nowhere.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own