Back in September I was asked to write a profile of novelist Sara Sheridan for Solander, the magazine of The Historical Novel Society, and despite the fact that Sara was getting married later in the week we were due to meet and had a thousand things to see to before the big day, she very kindly gave me her time and we had an extremely stimulating conversation about her work. With the permission of the editor, and as it has now been published, here is that profile:
To spend an hour or two in the company of Sara Sheridan is, as Emily Dickinson has it, to “dwell in possibility”. Such is her energy and enthusiasm for her work as a novelist, her knowledge of history, and her clear vision of the projects she has in prospect, that hearing her talk is enough to inspire the listener and excite keen anticipation for her forthcoming books.
Her two historical novels published to date are the tip of the iceberg of her research, and have themselves led her down other highways and byways to ideas and subjects for several more books, all either at the planning stage or with the writing well in hand. But as we shall see, this is no dilettante-ish dipping in and out of different centuries or toying with unconnected themes; instead, Sara has a sharp focus as to the time period with which she wants to work and the windows through which she gives her readers a view of the past.
The Secret Mandarin (2009) and Secret of the Sands (2010) represent years of rigorous research in archives both physical and digital, general and specialist, but Sara’s gift is to take all that factual material and, like a master craftsman building a wall without mortar, judge by its shape and heft – its practical use or dramatic import - where each piece best fits into the overall construction of the novel. As a result, her books are striking for the strong foundational effect of their historical detail coupled with the soaring superstructure of character and plot which Sara achieves through her skillful handling of narrative drive.
‘Effortless’ as this may sound, Sara learned her trade by trial and error, putting in the writing miles, although she didn’t set out to become an author. After a degree in English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and jobs which were never going to turn into careers, Sara was looking for a new direction when a friend suggested she write a novel. For this avid reader who had always loved books, it sounded like a good - if risky - path to follow, the way marked clearly enough that she bravely gave up her then job and income and decided to devote a year to the project. The result of that dedication and self-discipline was Truth or Dare (1998), a contemporary novel which takes Northern Ireland’s Troubles as its setting. Sara’s bold move was vindicated firstly when she sold the book very quickly, and then when it reached the UK Top 50, was shortlisted for a Saltire Award and was voted into the Top 100 Scottish Books: a career was launched.
Her next book, Ma Polinski's Pockets (1999) also looked to the influence of the past on the present, being the story of the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose mother’s ghost comes to haunt her. After her third book The Pleasure Express (2000) set in Hong Kong at the time of the handover, but like her earlier ones, drawing on an important and extensive historical background, Sara turned her attention to full-scale historical research, and though the fruit of that was some time in ripening, The Secret Mandarin, written in between other commercial projects, was worth the wait. It’s the story of the botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune and specifically of his undercover journey through China in 1843, but it’s told from the point of view of Robert’s sister-in-law, Mary Penney, a former actress who has brought disgrace on the family by having an illegitimate child, and who is banished from London by the Fortunes in the hope that her exile will diminish the taint of scandal. When events take an unforeseen turn, Mary ends up accompanying her brother-in-law on his travels to collect plants and provide occupying British forces with intelligence, and the two undertake a long and arduous journey which will have surprising consequences.
While Robert Fortune’s mission to find tea plants - Camellia sinensis – and transport them from China to India for the Honourable East India Company is a matter of fact, his headstrong relation Mary is a construct of fiction. Sara cites Truman Capote’s coining ‘faction’ – a mixture of reality and fiction – in justification, and she freely admits that as a novelist she puts the needs of a good story first. “History is about emotion,” she says, “about using your imagination and filling in the gaps in an authentic way; but it’s much more flexible, more open to interpretation and subject to bias than we might initially think.” She’s out to tell a tale and to entertain, “lifting the curtain”, as she puts it, on what lives were like, and using a fictitious character “to filter [a real one] and make him palatable”. Sara is firmly of the opinion that writing the story with Fortune as its main protagonist would not have been nearly as successful – putting Mary at its heart, giving it her voice, makes the book a compulsive read, for she is an engaging character and her plight a very real and believable one.
In a note at the end of Secret of the Sands, Sara quotes Edith Wharton: “Slavish accuracy must necessarily reduce the novel to a piece of archaeological pedantry instead of a living image of the times”, but there is nothing dry and dusty about this book – other than the Arabian desert in which it is set – instead, it’s a rich and vibrant story where again a strong factual basis has been imaginatively and very successfully interpreted so that, like The Secret Mandarin, it’s an excellent piece of escapist fiction. Set in 1833, it follows a real figure, Lieutenant James Wellsted, whose posting with the British Navy to survey the coastline of the Arabian peninsula is, he hopes, a route to fame and fortune. As he submits an account of his travels to publisher John Murray in London, so events divert him from his planned course and he is sent into the interior on a mission to rescue two brother officers.
While back in Britain slavery has been abolished, here in Oman it is big business, and by a strange twist of fate, Wellsted finds himself the protector of Zena, an Abyssinian slave girl, and the travelling companion of the two ruthless men who captured her. What follows will be a test of loyalty, allegiance and ingenuity, and as in Sara’s previous novel, an adventure and romance played out in the harshest of conditions.
What draws the reader in is the book’s easy, unselfconscious style which incorporates that necessary mass of detail to ground every fact and establish completely plausible situations or to provide characters’ motivation, so it is a pleasingly complete book and a very good story indeed.
Both books were “research heavy”, with Sara’s passion for history – inspired by her school history teacher whom she still talks to from time to time over a cup of tea – fuelling her need to know all the facts, even though many points included in scenes as she writes them will later be fined down or done away with entirely in subsequent drafts. Political detail in particular may well be telescoped, she says, as it is the characters’ emotional ‘temperature’ and their predicaments about which the reader really cares, and the conditions and minutiae of their daily lives about which we want to know.
As to period, Sara is interested in the 1830s and ‘40s, partly because of the very sketchiness of resource material then. This was a time before the census as we know it, before photographs as such, pre-birth certificates, but archives yield facts which if carefully followed can lead to the fleshing out of a personality or the authentic reconstruction of an event, while the leeway afforded by the comparative absence of hard information allows the novelist to bring their own style and means of expression to something which did actually exist. One senses that for Sara the thrill of discovery is a major attraction of the historical novelist’s job, and the possibilities which open up to her from these finds are the source of that infectious energy and enthusiasm which she exudes.
“A writer’s job is to inspire people”, Sara says with conviction, and her books bear that out. Her handling of the dramatic form, of the business of story-telling, is such that she draws her readers in and holds them with her, capturing their imagination, and setting her books in the context of the British Empire – from the late Georgian/early Victorian period which saw the beginning of the empire and which she has used for The Secret Mandarin and Secret of the Sands to the 1950s and empire’s end in which she has set her next book, shows her particular focus and some of the issues on which she has a firm grasp; in this way, form and function combine to make a strong end product.
That forthcoming book, due out in June 2012, is Brighton Belle, the first in an evocative crime series set in the south coast town of Brighton in the 1950s and featuring Mirabelle Bevan, an ex-secret service employee who draws upon her wartime surveillance skills to uncover a major money-laundering scam involving Nazi gold. “Spilling the beans versus keeping them tightly canned!”, is how Sara describes the creative tension behind it. Then from austerity Britain, Sara will move back in time to Brazil and London in the 1820s, and beans of a different kind, with a novel about the chocolate industry deliciously entitled The Melting Point. Telling the story of how cocoa beans went from South America to Africa and thence to England, this book will feature Maria Graham or Callcott (1785-1842), travel writer and biographer of Poussin, another author published by the house of John Murray whose archive, in the care of the National Library of Scotland in Sara’s native Edinburgh, has proved a rich seam to be mined.
From the artefacts brought home by her antique dealer father when she was a child, to a chance mention of a dusty document found by an archivist today, it is these links to the past and their relationships to real people which inspire Sara and inform her writing, writing often done, she reveals, in bed with her laptop! To put herself in the right cultural environment for her work she will often read the fiction of her characters’ period, the novels they themselves might have had on their shelves, and as for her off-duty reading, she has the 1920s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries by Carola Dunn currently on the go, and credits T.C. Boyle’s Water Music for inspiring her to try her hand at historical fiction.
Sara’s involvement in numerous projects beyond her writing (she sits on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland, for example) means that as in that speculative early year, she has to be disciplined about making careful use of her time, but whatever her working methods, it’s her enthusiasm for her subject-matter and for the way in which she can lift that curtain to reveal the past and its people that spurs her on to do what she does, and that’s what her readers find so irresistible.