I am delighted today to be hosting a Q & A with SD Sykes, author of Plague Land and the Butcher Bird, as part of the official Butcher Bird blog tour..
Oswald de Lacy is growing up fast in his new position as Lord of Somershill Manor. The Black Death changed many things, and just as it took away his father and elder brothers, leaving Oswald to be recalled from the monastery where he expected to spend his life, so it has taken many of his villagers and servants. However, there is still the same amount of work to be done in the farms and fields, and the few people left to do it think they should be paid more - something the King himself has forbidden. Just as anger begins to spread, the story of the Butcher Bird takes flight. People claim to have witnessed a huge creature in the skies. A new-born baby is found impaled on a thorn bush. And then more children disappear. Convinced the bird is just a superstitious rumour, Oswald must discover what is really happening. He can expect no help from his snobbish mother and his scheming sister Clemence, who is determined to protect her own child, but happy to neglect her step-daughters. From the plague-ruined villages of Kent to the thief-infested streets of London and the luxurious bedchamber of a bewitching lady, Oswald's journey is full of danger, dark intrigue and shocking revelations.
Did you always want to be an author?
As soon as I could write, I was thinking up and scribbling down stories. My mum recently dug out a book that I’d written as a five or six year old. It’s called ‘Little Bear’s adventures in the Wood,’ and is the rather menacing story of a bear who disobeys his mother, wanders off into a forest and is then captured by a sinister man! Thankfully Little Bear escapes, but it seems that, even at that age, I was drawn to writing dark stories. I’ve written all my life. For me, it’s something that I can’t stop doing. Being published has been the icing on the cake.
If so did you always want to write historical fiction, or did you ever have a different genre in mind?
When I’m in a bookshop, I tend to head straight for the historical novels – particularly anything set in the middle ages. I’m particularly drawn to books about the everyday lives of people centuries ago. What did they wear? What were their homes like? What did they eat? I love that connection with the past. I knew I always wanted to write in this genre, but I do have some other, unfinished, novels that are more contemporary. However, these will remain forever hidden in a bottom drawer!
The plague and its aftermath are quite dark subjects to write about yet important in our history. When you are writing something dark or disturbing do you often find the need to escape?
The Black Death was indeed a very dark episode in our history. Half the population died – something that is almost unimaginable. But it’s not just the natural disasters of that age that can be disturbing. There was also incredible cruelty in society, and sometimes when I’m researching the fourteenth century, I am still astounded by it. For example, when reading about the implements of torture, I was sickened by the levels of imagination that went into the creation of these devices. Such sadism. A long walk was needed after that research session! When I’m writing about these subjects, I do hope to be disturbed – otherwise I’m just being glib with somebody else’s misery. I try to evoke the horrors of the age, but not to wallow in them. I also try to add pockets of humour into my books, to add some light against the shade.
Do you have a favourite author?
This is so, so difficult – but the author whose books I always have on pre-order is C. J Samson. He is the master of historical crime fiction. He writes with incredible detail and feeling about the Tudor age, and I love his detective Matthew Shardlake – a humane, intelligent but rather insecure and self-effacing character.
If you could have written any novel what would it be?
This might seem an obvious choice – but I would love to have written Wuthering Heights. For ten years I lived in the Pennines, close to those West Yorkshire moors that Emily Bronte evokes so brilliantly. Heathcliff is one of the great creations of literature. He’s strange and sinister – like the moors themselves.
Do you have any peculiar writing habits or quirks?
I suppose my only slightly peculiar quirk is this. I write my first draft between 9am and 1pm. Outside of that time, I’ll be researching, or thinking through a plot problem – but I don’t allow myself to add a single word to the draft itself. That way, when I sit down at my desk the next morning, I can’t wait to get started. The writing floods out.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler. I’m a great fan of Anne Tyler’s writing. Her books are so easy to read. You are quickly drawn into the story and the lives of the characters, and then suddenly you are bowled over by the true complexity and brilliance of her writing.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about how you write?
I recently read the Stephen King book ‘On Writing.’ He talks about stories being like fossils, that are waiting to be dug up and discovered. At first, this sounded like a fairly crazy idea – but the more I think about it, the more I think there’s something in it. As a writer, you have to work at a novel. Plotting. Researching. Characterization. But there is definitely another ingredient. Something indefinable. So, perhaps there really are ancient fossil-like stories, still waiting to be found? I like the thought that it’s possible.
Do you prefer an E-book or a physical book?
I read both – but have a preference for physical books. I have several books as an e-book and hard back. I read a lot at night, but have recently found that reading an e-book after a certain time can disturb my sleep. It’s something to do with the light of the screen, I guess? E-books are great for commuting and for holidays. But you can’t put an e-book on a bookcase. And I do love a bookcase of beautiful books.
Is there another novel on the cards? If so can you give anything away yet?
I’m currently writing the third in the Somershill series. In this novel Oswald, now 26, is travelling to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He and his mother are delayed in Venice, where Oswald becomes involved in a murder investigation that leads him into the dark and secretive world of political intrigue in the Venetian republic. It’s been a joy to research. Fourteenth century Venice was one of the largest cities in Europe, and the great trading centre of Mediterranean, where east met west. It was a magnet for fugitives and fortune seekers. Having thrown off the shackles of feudalism, it was a city of opportunities.
Is there any particular period in history that you would like to write about in the future?
If I were not writing historical fiction, then I would probably stick to the contemporary world. I just feel that no other age is calling to me in the same way as the fourteenth century. But, of course, I reserve the right to change my mind!
Are the De Lac
loosely based on real historical figures
or are they purely a work of fiction?
They are a work of fiction. But, if they bear any resemblance to anybody, then they are amalgams of people in my own family. Myself included. To give these characters a fourteenth century sensibility, I read the works of Chaucer, William Langland, Margery Kempe and Sir John Mandeville. But what I always find is this: that the human character remains fairly constant through history. We can be kind, cruel, ambitious, lazy, generous or jealous etc, no matter which age we have lived in.
Was there always the possibility of Oswald having a love interest, or did that come secondary to the plot?
I wanted to explore the character of an eighteen year old boy, and unsurprisingly, Oswald sometimes has love (or just sex) on his mind. Oswald falls in love with Mirabel in Plague Land mainly because she’s pretty, and there’s not a great deal more to it than that. This might seem a little shallow, but I think it’s entirely typical of many first relationships. Particularly for teenagers.
Would you ever base a novel on a real historical figure? If so, is there anyone in particular you have in mind?
On balance, I don’t think that I would. There’s a terrific duty on the writer to be true to this historical figure, and I think I might find this limiting. Instead, I prefer to draw my characters from my own imagination. But once again – never say never!
About the author:
SD Sykes lives in Kent with her family and various animals. She has done everything from professional dog-walking to co-founding her own successful business. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.
You can read my review of the Butcher Bird here.