infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

An Interview with Sarah Singleton

by Chris Butler

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 Century by Sarah Singletonhigh 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 of course.

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.

The Crow Maiden by Sarah SingletonCB: 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 for children?

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 of Love

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 important?

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 is poetry.

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 Century?

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 dark places.

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 away.

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 far?

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 The Mirror.

CB: Thank you, Sarah.

SS: Thank you, Chris.

© Chris Butler 2005.

The Crow Maiden by Sarah Singleton Century by Sarah Singleton
Order Sarah Singleton's books online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
The Crow Maiden
from / from
Century from / from

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)