An Interview with Sarah Singleton
Sarah Singleton is the author of Century,
a new gothic fantasy novel for children. Her previous Dark Fantasy novel
The Crow Maiden was short-listed for the 2003 William L. Crawford
Award, presented by the International Association for the Fantastic
in the Arts (IAFA). Sarah has an honours degree in English Literature
and Language. She is married and has two young daughters, and lives
in Wiltshire in the UK.
I interviewed her in April/May 2005, and started
by asking her about Century.
CB: Before writing
Century, did you have any plans to write for children? How did
it come about?
SS: I didn't set out to write a novel
for children. It happened almost by accident. Century started
out a couple of years ago as a short story for adults. I even got as
far as submitting this early version to a magazine. I'm not sure what
set me thinking it could be transformed into a children's novel. Perhaps
it was because the lead was a child, and the high
gothic style struck me as something that would have appealed to me when
I was young. Anyway, I set about rewriting it as a children's novel.
The story slowly changed. I sent a proposal to an agent but I had no
great expectations, and didn't much think about it after that. It was
a huge surprise when the first agent I sent it to -- Rosemary Canter
at PFD -- decided she wanted to take it on. I was absolutely delighted
In retrospect, perhaps writing for children was not such an accident.
My own two daughters, aged 10 and 13, are keen readers and over the
last few years I have been reading many of the novels they bring home
and developing a feel for contemporary children's writing, as well as
re-reading some of my favourites.
CB: At the centre of
the book are two sisters. Mercy, the older of the two, is your main
protagonist. What can you tell me about her? And what is the situation
she faces at the start of the book?
SS: I am very fond of Mercy. She is a
passionate, self-contained young person of 12, full of dreams, prone
to melancholy. At the opening of the novel she is caught in a peculiar
stasis -- reliving one day over and over again. Throughout the story
she learns a great deal about herself and her family, and we see her
self-belief and courage grow and grow. She wakes up from the long dream
of the past to become an autonomous, creative person.
CB: What age group
is the book intended for?
SS: That's quite a tricky question. In
theory it is a young adult novel -- aimed at the 12 plus age group and
this is where the novel can be found in most bookshops. However, I know
children younger than this, in the top year or so of primary school,
who are reading it keenly and a fair number of adults have read it and
enjoyed it too. I like to think a good novel will appeal to a wide readership
regardless of age. I love some of the current popular children's books
-- Skellig and Holes are two remarkable recent novels.
Your first novel, The Crow Maiden, was an adult fantasy and was
short-listed for the Crawford Award. Was it difficult to adjust to writing
SS: I didn't find it so. I endeavoured
to write clearly and think of my own children as the audience. But good
writing is good writing, whoever you are writing for. My editor did
suggest I make some elements less ambiguous -- I do like my adult stories
to have some ambiguity but perhaps this doesn't work so well for younger
readers. One astute reader of Century did point out to me that
the vocabulary gets more challenging as the novel progresses -- and
I was conscious this was the case when I was writing it. But one of
the delights of reading is coming across new and strange words and I
hope my younger readers will relish the challenge.
CB: Are there any books
you would point to as good examples of books for children? Or anything
that was a special inspiration?
SS: I've mentioned Holes and Skellig
as two children's books I have enjoyed recently. My children love Jacqueline
Wilson's gritty but warm tales of growing up in contemporary Britain
-- and I admire her accessibility and good humour. I am not a big fan
of the Harry Potter books or their many imitators, though of course
I applaud JKR for revitalising the children's fantasy scene. I did thoroughly
enjoy Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy and when a new Lemony
Snicket book comes out we are all fighting to read it first. Going back
in time to my own childhood reading, my favourite authors included Helen
Griffiths, Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Jack London and Diana
Wynne Jones -- writers I can still read today with great admiration
and pleasure. I also loved the short stories of Oscar Wilde, such as
The Young King and the Happy Prince, and my parents gave my sister and
I two volumes of beautiful illustrated folk and fairy tales I loved,
like the Twelve Dancing Princesses, with the jewelled forests underground,
and the Red Shoes, where the paintings stare at the girl as she walks
into church with the dangerous shoes on her feet. And when I was about
ten, I can remember my Dad and I reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
which made a deep impression. In the early years of secondary school
I discovered the reworkings of Greek myths by Leon Garfield and Edward
Blishen -- they were brilliant.
Inspiration for Century? I wanted to make it the book I would
have loved when I was 12. There are a few sources I can readily identify.
Foremost perhaps is Angela Carter's short story The Lady of the House
It is, to my mind, the most remarkable and beautiful vampire story
ever written, with the dark lady trapped in a family history, doomed
to wait in her empty house day after day. Elizabeth Goudge's novel The
Little White Horse is another one. It was a favourite novel when
I was about ten. It is very magical and strange, though it always left
me a little unsatisfied because it is a little saccharin, a bit twee.
I hoped to summon up a similar atmosphere of magic and beauty, but adding
grit and shadows, a more potent sense of foreboding. Other inspirations
include the classic children's book The Secret Garden. The house
on the front cover of Century, is, by coincidence, also used
in the stunning film version of this wonderful novel. And Sheridan LeFanu's
Uncle Silas -- the novel as well as the television series made
about 15 years ago with Peter O'Toole as the laudanum swigging aristocrat
in a decrepit mansion, and Jane Lapotaire as the tight-laced governess,
dancing in the graveyard in her black dress. Marvellous.
CB: In Century,
Mercy begins to realise that she is held in a kind of magical trap,
and begins to plot her escape. The story is set entirely within the
grounds of the one house. Was this constraint a help or a hindrance
in terms of sustaining the story for the whole novel?
SS: Actually it was a help. From the
outset I wanted the story to be contained within the house and grounds.
The sense of confinement and claustrophobia -- in time as well as space,
are classic elements of the gothic tale. And of course I could stuff
the story full of the archetypal images and symbols I love -- fields
of frost, old oil paintings, decaying dresses, dust and cobwebs.
CB: But it's not all
darkness and cobwebs. The book takes off in some surprising directions.
You let some sunlight in too.
SS: True -- there is, I hope, beauty
and life too -- but Mercy has to find them.
CB: The Crow Maiden
received rave reviews but it was a small-press publishing deal.
Century must be considered a step up in publishing terms. How
has that been for you?
SS: Absolutely fantastic. A dream come
true. I feel incredibly lucky. I've been writing pretty much all my
life and it's been a long journey. Simon & Schuster is a publisher of
considerable calibre and in terms of distribution and promotion, they
obviously have considerably more resources than a small press.
CB: The supposed benefit
of a small press publisher is that the author has greater creative freedom.
But the impression I have is that your experience with Simon & Schuster
has been a very happy one.
SS: Simon & Schuster have been great.
I worked very hard with my editor, Venetia Gosling, to get Century
into a shape we were both happy with. She is very experienced in the
field and had some sterling ideas.
CB: What's your writing
process, on a practical level? Do you have a particular place you go
to, to write? Do you write straight onto a computer, or with pen and
paper? Are you fairly resilient in being able to sit down and do the
work, or does it depend on your mood or other factors?
SS: In theory I write on Thursdays and
Fridays, when I am not caught up in my day job as a reporter for the
Wiltshire Gazette and Herald. In practice, it is much more haphazard
than that because looking after two busy children and running the household
take up a lot of this time too. I do have a little purple book I carry
around to jot any ideas in, and when the time comes I like to sit down
somewhere that isn't home (café, library) to scribble things
down in some sort of order and build up some kind of plot, even if it's
pretty hazy. Then I switch on my computer and start to write. It often
takes me an hour or so to get going, and once the writing is underway
I find the story goes off in its own way and I have to go back to my
original outline and recreate it. But that's good -- I like the way
stories -- and characters -- slowly reveal themselves.
I write for a living as a reporter and even in the newsroom often don't
feel in the mood to write. Obviously one doesn't have the defence of
artistic temperament in this kind of situation. You have deadlines and
pages to fill so you just have to buckle down and do it. This is also
true of fiction writing for me. I am pretty lazy and can find a million
excuses not to get around to doing it (even cleaning the bathroom can
seem a more attractive option) so having a deadline really does focus
my mind and gives me the adrenalin needed to shut everything else out
and immerse myself in the work. And it's worth it when you get there.
CB: What interests
you most when writing a novel or short story (or reading one, for that
matter). Is it character, plot or prose style? Or are they all equally
SS: Reading a novel, character and prose
style are the most important features for me. The books I enjoy sweep
me up and take me into their world. I love good writing, vivid descriptions,
patterns of words that create vivid places inside my imagination. Of
course plot is important too -- the ability to create a narrative --
but I can read novels with slight plots if the characters and writing
are engaging. One of my favourite writers is Tanith Lee. She is blessed
with an astonishing imagination and wit like a sabre. I only discovered
her relatively recently -- about the time I finished writing The
Crow Maiden -- but I adore her books.
And her writing just leaves me reeling. Sometimes her imagery is so
strange and acute I have to read her sentences time and again -- it
When I am writing, the plotting provides me the biggest challenges.
A young reader doesn't want to be bored -- they want a good story. With
Century, and even more so with my second children's novel, I
sat down and worked out the plot before I started the book. It was critical
for me to create the structure of the story in advance to make sure
the plot held up. Of course the original plan changes as the novel progresses
and it is a learning process. Hopefully the new book will show this!
CB: You're signed up
for another children's book. Will that be a similar style of book to
SS: The new book, which doesn't have
a title as yet, is set in Elizabethan times and concerns the fortunes
of a Catholic family living in an era of persecution by the Protestant
authorities. It tells the story of two girls -- one the daughter of
the family and the second, a fugitive from an earlier era of pagan persecution,
who both face a battle to keep their loved ones safe. It is also a fantasy
because as well as the very serious historical story, this alternative
England is visited by fairies, the Crow people.
In many ways this story continues on the themes started up in my first
novel, The Crow Maiden. And not just because of the prevalence
of crows! Research for the novel reminded me how dark and violent life
could be in Tudor times -- and the story has some dark elements.
CB: A number of your
fantasy short stories are historical rather than contemporary. Is there
any particular period that fascinates you?
SS: The Tudor period fascinates me. My
new children's novel is set in this era and I wrote a short story called
The Magpie, which is set in Elizabethan England. My science fiction
story The White Devil is also about this period of history, though reborn
in a possible future. I love the literature of this era -- Shakespeare
of course, also John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, and when I was growing
up relished the television dramas about Henry VIII and Elizabeth. It
was a time of dark and light, cruelty and brilliance.
I am also intrigued by the Victorians and Edwardians -- again probably
as a result of reading so much literature of the time. I love many Victorian
novels, all the classics, Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, Hardy
-- and also moving on to DH Lawrence (one of my lifelong favourite writers)
and EM Forster. They were brilliant writers and immerse you heart and
soul into a different world. There are a number of European writers
of the 19th century I also like, such as Grabinski, Prus, Zola, Flaubert,
Mirbeau. It would be foolish to generalise about such an array of writers,
but the novels of the 19th century seem to me to possess so much breadth,
colour and vitality, when compared to the sparse, ironic, self knowing,
wry novels fashionable in the contemporary literary scene.
CB: What about other
media. Are you influenced by films, art, architecture?
SS: That's a big question and of course
I am influenced by all three. One of my favourite artists is Kurt Jackson,
who lives in Cornwall and creates stunning impressionist pictures of
the sea and the land. His paintings are luminous, earthy and passionate,
imbued with the sense of the sacred while retaining the sense of soil
and cold water and sunlight. If you ever have a chance to see an exhibition
-- don't miss it. Although I'm no expert on architecture, it fascinates
me, and while I am a country girl at heart it is a keen pleasure to
visit cities where centuries of history are articulated through its
buildings -- its churches and grand halls as well as its tenements and
As for films... where do I start? To be brief, I love the work of David
Lean, particularly Great Expectations and Lawrence of Arabia,
which has long been a favourite. American Beauty was the first
film to make me cry, and recently I've enjoyed Wilde, starring
Stephen Fry, Troy and The Lord of the Rings. All these
things inspire, enlighten, and feed the imagination. And there is music
of course. I love violin music, folk, classical and gypsy. I like Bach
and Bartok, Dead Can Dance and Waterson Carthy, The Cure and New Model
Army. NMA particularly. And one Nick Cave album, the passionately romantic
The Boatman Calls.
CB: One of the things
I enjoy tremendously in your writing, is the way you mix absolutely
authentic, realistic elements on the one hand, and fantastical weirdness
on the other.
SS: Thank you. It is an aspect I enjoy
tremendously in other people's writing too -- such as Tanith Lee's When
The Lights Go Out, or the science fiction of Ian Watson where astonishing,
mind-bending ideas unfold in real, sensual, authentic settings. While
I enjoy some out-and-out science fiction and fantasy, on the whole I
prefer the mix of weirdness and realism I try to create in my own stories.
It just interests me more. Probably this reflects my own relationship
with reality -- a mixture of awe and anxiety. The universe is a very
strange, scary, beautiful place. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic
(a very gothic faith -- incense and candles and stained glass) and I
think it left me with a lingering fascination with myth and ritual.
CB: Are you interested
in writing about Catholicism directly? I think you may have done so
in a story or two.
SS: Although my parents are not authoritarian
Roman Catholics -- and probably fall into the cafeteria catholic category
so despised by our new pope -- right through my childhood and adolescence
I went to mass every week, attended confession, had a rosary, celebrated
Easter with the Stations of the Cross and so on. Inevitably it soaks
into you. Now, as an adult, I think it is a very cruel religion, but
that doesn't alter its fascination -- the saints and sinners, the colour
and passion. Catholicism plays an important role in my new children's
book and I have a feeling it's a subject that will never entirely fade
CB: You first came
to my attention as a result of short stories in Interzone magazine,
and with a novella called "In The Mirror" which feels like a kind of
companion piece to The Crow Maiden, and I was wondering which
came first and whether you would see them as connected at all.
SS: That is an interesting observation.
The Crow Maiden came first, In The Mirror about a year later,
I think. I hadn't noticed any connection between them but certainly
both inhabit the realm of the real and the strange you mentioned earlier.
CB: I'm interested
in the nature of the fantasy elements you bring into your stories. Mermaids,
faery, and ghosts have featured. But other fantasy staples are conspicuous
by their absence. No dragons, nothing overtly Arthurian, or Tolkienesque.
Is this a conscious choice, or just the way things have panned out so
SS: When I was in my teens I loved The
Lord of The Rings, and even more, The Silmarillion and older
histories of Middle Earth -- it was a new, beautiful world and resonated
with my love of landscape, magic, history. At that time I tried a few
other epic sword and sorcery fantasies, but even then they all seemed
like pale imitations. Tolkien had already done it. So I guess the epic
fantasy genre just doesn't interest me very much. I don't think I could
even read Tolkien any more. Having said that, I shall make an exception
for one epic fantasy I read last year, which was Tanith Lee's Cast
A Bright Shadow. I felt a small reluctance when I opened the first
page and saw weird names and magicians -- then I was sucked in. It is
such a wild, colourful, absurd novel -- a roller coaster testosterone
ride of men and male bonding, battle and power -- a bit like Troy
and Lord of The Rings in that respect.
There are fantasy writers I do like -- such as Robert Holdstock --
but quests and dragons? I think I'm unlikely to write one. Unless there
was a very strange take on the dragon.
CB: The Crow Maiden
was quite political in some ways. It concerned local politics, protestors
against the building of a new bypass road. Are you a political person?
SS: I am not a member of any political
party, though I was briefly a member of the Socialist Workers Party,
and the Green Party. I suppose I am political in the sense that I am
not entirely happy with the way the world is working and it could be
considered that protesting and lobbying against certain issues makes
me political, if not party political. I am very concerned about genetic
engineering, global warming, environmental degradation, and the fact
that about a quarter of the world's population doesn't have its basic
needs met -- and I have been involved with various organisations working
in these areas.
My job inevitably involves me deeply, if only in the role of witness,
in local politics. I attend more council meetings and talk to more local
politicians than most, and I do draw on this variously tedious, fascinating,
irritating and inspiring subject.
CB: What were you like
as a child? What was your family environment like?
SS: Golly! There's probably enough for
a novel about all childhoods. What was I like? Small, pale and quiet.
And pathologically slow at growing up. Horses, books and stories were
my passions. In lots of ways I had an idyllic childhood. I have a younger
sister and brother and we grew up in a small village in the Midlands
countryside (my parents still live there). My mother worked as a groom
for a local farmer and spent her winters outside in the cold and weather
cleaning out stables and looking after the horses, and we spent our
free time hanging out around the farm, in the barns and fields, helping
with the lambing, playing with calves. We even had lots of pet lambs.
It was a very tomboyish time of exploration, freedom, making dens, getting
lost and muddy. I was very happy -- and perhaps, more unusually, aware
I was happy. When I was eleven my parents actually bought us a pony,
and for the next six or seven years equestrian pursuits took up a lot
of my time. We weren't particularly well off, however, and having a
pony meant my sister and I spent our weekends mucking out other people's
horses, cleaning muddy tack and in the summer, knocking on doors offering
to clean cars in a bid to bring in funds.
For as long as I can remember I have loved landscapes -- even as a
child thinking there was magic to be found in hidden ponds and shadowy
woodland groves full of flowers. My parents have a couple of stories
I wrote when I was about five or six. Prince Hal and the Giant is one,
and also The Princess of the Brids (sic). Obviously the interest in
fantasy goes a long way back. When I was 12 I started my first full
length novel, a sort of Watership Down about horses, with a proto
science fiction element because all the humans had been killed by a
plague. It took me three long years to write -- an epic.
I didn't much enjoy secondary school. My real life, all the passion
and colour, were outside it. School wasn't terrible -- I wasn't bullied
or anything, and I did well enough. But until I reached the sixth form
it was mostly tedious -- something unpleasant to be endured. I kept
my head down, and my mouth shut, kept out of the way. One of the quiet,
nerdy, studious people who doesn't join the sports teams (except for
long distance running -- I could do that). While my fellow thirteen
year olds were obsessing about boys and make-up and fashion, I was still
playing horses on the school field with my one and only school soul-mate,
still my best friend, whose presence probably made school life much
more tolerable than it might otherwise have been.
CB: Do you still run?
SS: Not for the last six months -- but
I did a half marathon last year! Running and yoga are my exercises of
choice certainly. Running is a good way of clearing out bad moods.
CB: You mentioned you're
working as a journalist now, but I believe you did lots of strange jobs
when you were younger.
SS: I did do a number of weird jobs along
the way -- like many students and writers, I suspect. I worked in a
chocolate factory, with racehorses and show ponies, piped names on Easter
Eggs for Thorntons, as a chambermaid in Germany, and in a headlight
assembling factory. Then I became a trainee reporter. I'm not quite
sure why. Probably it seemed the next best thing to becoming a writer.
Once I'd qualified, after two years, I jacked in the job and travelled
to India and Nepal for three months. India had been a source of fascination
for a long time, and I longed to visit the country myself. It was not
a disappointment. Everyone says it is a country of contrasts, and that
is certainly the case. Deserts, jungles, cities running with monkeys,
peacocks perching in trees, flocks of parrots flying over marble castles.
I loved it. One day I shall go back.
CB: Where had the fascination
with India come from?
SS: Not sure I can pinpoint it precisely.
Books, television and films, probably. It seemed such a magical, beautiful
place. I do remember seeing, on tv, a woman in a vivid scarlet sari
walking though a desert and thinking, I want to go there.
CB: Do you see yourself
continuing to write both adult and children's fiction?
SS: Yes! I have ideas brewing for a third
children's novel, which I hope to start very soon. I also have an adult
novel I started a couple of years ago I would like to revisit and finish.
I hope I can continue to write for both audiences. A collection of my
short fiction should be published by Prime Books next year, and I have
a poem (my first published poem) in a new magazine called Jabberwocky,
coming out in the summer.
CB: Will the short
fiction collection include all your published short fiction to date?
SS: Yes -- including the novella In
CB: Thank you, Sarah.
SS: Thank you, Chris.
© Chris Butler 2005.
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