Q & A with Scottish-based writer Sara Sheridan.
Before her book event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I caught up with writer Sara Sheridan, author of books for children and adults, Committee Member for the Society of Authors in Scotland and Board Member of writers’ collective, 26. Whether writing picture books, like the recently released I’m Me (Chicken House, 2011), adult fiction, like Truth or Dare (1998), or best-selling historical novels, like The Secret Mandarin (Avon), Sara’s research is meticulous. Here, she gives a fascinating insight into how she negotiates those troubling gaps which often open up between archival research and writing fiction.
Q: – Janette Both The Secret Mandarin and Secret of the Sands are based around real people caught up in extraordinary events. You drew on original documents and personal papers, such as, letters in the NLS and autobiographies, as well as history books. Often, though, what we read in history isn’t what we read in personal letters – there’s a lot we can never find out. How did you begin to conjure fiction from fact?
Q: – Sara That is absolutely my favourite part of the job! I’m particularly interested in the gaps in historical records or where (often unwittingly) there are clues to what was going on in a character’s life. So many early adventurers, explorers and military died on duty that they could be quite circumspect about what they would put in their papers in case their fellow officers read it, for example. But in an age before modern psychology you can pick up clues…. Or occasionally people give one story and you can see, quite clearly, that there is more than that behind it.
I maintain novelists are quite mad, or at least eccentric. Especially when we are writing. You know that moment, when you’re reading, and the story is absolutely real to you – more real than what’s around you? Well writers have to inhabit that space for months at a time. If you’re working on a thriller it can make you quite jumpy! In my case I’m sometimes startled by the accoutrements of modern life. So I read as many documents as I can, make copious notes and then try to inhabit that space, before television and cars, whenPariswas a week away and cholera and typhoid were real threats in theUK. The stories hang on a skeleton of the truth and then I fill in those tantalising gaps….
Q: – Janette Historical fiction tends to focus on male protagonists while female characters lend colour and sentiment – but your books are different. I’m fascinated by how you focus on the ‘minor’ female players in history and bring a different perspective to known events. Both The Secret Mandarin and Secret of the Sands are ‘about’ male historical figures, Robert Fortune and James Wellsted, but your focus shifts off-centre to two strong female protagonists: Mary Penney and Zena, the Abyssinian slave. Is it a deliberate strategy to pull women into history?
Q: – Sara Archive material tends to document mostly the rich, mostly men and mostly the well-connected. Sometimes (even in the British Library) I’ve been moved to tears, though, following the stories of those who weren’t rich or titled – people who pop up in the records (army pay records, ships’ logs or court proceedings). There were a lot of incredibly brave and interesting characters around and most of their stories are lost. Those are the ones that draw me in. And of course 50% of them are female! So I don’t set out to write specifically about women or about men, but they are both there (to different degrees) in the history and when it comes to bringing that story to life, it’s really important to write about both genders.
Mary Penney is fictional (although I used some accounts of actresses in London during the period to create her). She’s sparky and an ideal mistress, I suppose. Zena was absolutely real. Wellsted mentions her in his writing (in the most circumspect fashion…) so I realised he really fancied her! Later on, I was shocked to discover through Anti Slavery International, that women are still being trafficked into indentured labour in the way that Zena was (from Eastern Africa over to theArabian Peninsula). I now make an effort to highlight that whenever I can. My favourite female character though is Farida, the white slave turned wife – she’s from Co Cork and loves living in the harim!
Q: – Janette Like Sarah Waters and Matthew Pearl and other historical novelists your books include a note about the historical facts that the story is built around. Why do you feel you need to include this kind of information – does it lend authenticity to your fiction or is it to guide the reader?
Q: – Sara I just think it’s interesting to see the blend of fact and fiction so I try to give factual background if I can. Readers seem to enjoy it. Historical fiction is about spilling the beans so I can understand people liking to have a bit of grounding and see where the story has come from. Also (like the opening scene of Casablana) if you show people maps and put dates on things, it makes it all feel more real (even if, in my case, it’s a blend of fact and fiction.)
Q: – Janette Writers enjoy a love/hate relationship with book critics. Your books have generated mostly favourable reviews. How much attention do you give to book reviews? Do they change the way you write?
Q: – Sara Gosh! Imagine if you tried to plan a book around what you thought a reviewer would like! Actually, it would make a good story but I expect in real life it wouldn’t be terribly successful. What I do sits (sometimes uncomfortably) on the literary/commercial cusp so I’m never sure how it’s going to go with critics, but so far so good. I also love when readers post website reviews or blog posts about what they are reading. I think there is a place for formal criticism but also for real readers – some people are awfully snooty about that kind of thing, particularly at the moment when newspaper and magazine critics are only just coming to terms with the wider (more grassroots) opinions available on the internet and where they fit in with that. Also, sometimes I find newspapers critics have different tastes from mine. I read a review of something they hate, and know that I’ll love it!
I was given a grilling when my first novel Truth or Dare came out by a journalist from The Irish Times. I think that was my worst ever piece of coverage. She came on the phone to interview me and had an Agenda (capital AAA) The book was set inN Ireland and she was incredibly aggressive and clearly had her own issues with which she had not come to terms. In the end though it’s down to readers – they’re who you write for, not critics.
Q: – Janette You’re co-ordinating the Scottish element of year’s 26Treasures with the National Museum of Scotland. Can you tell us a little about your involvement and how it informs your writing?
Q: – Sara I have been a long time member of 26, the writers’ collective that organises these projects and I love its ethos. I first heard about 26 in 2005. I was concerned about the inherent snobbery I encountered in some fields of writing and also, more generally, in the press. I’ve always felt that good writing does not have to be literary – that copywriters, journalists, mainstream authors, ghostwriters, bloggers and advertising creatives have as much right to think of themselves as good writers as academics, poets or literary novelists. Recently I was invited to sit on the Board (sounds very posh, doesn’t it?) and help to organise some of the projects. This year’s 26Treasures is an extension of our project at the V&A London Design Festival last year. We’re taking 26 objects that tell the story of Scottish history and pairing them with 26 writers – everyone writes a 62 word card for display in the museum (like a traditional curatorial card) except, instead of facts and figures we’re going to have emotional responses, stories and original voices There is also a Welsh project (at the National Library of Wales) and a Northern Irish Project (at the Royal Ulster Museum). The pieces will hopefully bring the exhibits to life and give a completely different experience of them to museum visitors. We’re planning an array of exciting events so keep an eye out on the museum website for what’s coming up.
I’ve taken part in other 26 projects (I wrote about my support for the organisation in the Guardian: but this project chimes with me especially because I love history – it’s like a treasure chest full of letters, diaries, objects and, of course, most importantly, stories. So when the project came up, I jumped at the chance.