First off, I would like to apologize to Sarah Bower for not posting this yesterday. Please help me welcome Sarah to Royal Reviews!
Tell us something about yourself, so that we can get to know you a bit better…
I am the author of two historical novels, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, which was published in the US last year. Although I’ve written all my life, and won my first short story prize at the age of nine, in a national schools competition here in the UK, I started writing professionally about ten years ago, after completing a master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
As well as writing myself, I also teach creative writing and mentor other novelists, and am involved in helping to run a mentoring scheme for literary translators. I am a regular reviewer for the Historical Novels Review.
I was born in Yorkshire but now live in the east of England, in Suffolk, with my husband, who is a lawyer, and an elderly golden retriever. We have two grown up sons – one a boxer and the other a medical student! – and two small grandsons.
When I’m not working – which isn’t often! – I like to garden, walk my dog and watch cricket. I love musical theatre, everything from Guys and Dolls to Don Giovanni and watching back-to-back re-runs of ER and The Wire.
Your novel, The Needle in the Blood, is out now—congrats! Could you tell us about it?
THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD is a love story set against the backdrop of the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066. It covers a ten year period immediately after the Conquest and looks at how the two sides learned to live together, through the manufacture of the most famous artifact of the period, the Bayeux Tapestry. Although known facts about the Tapestry are few and far between, many scholars believe its patron was Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the ambitious and charismatic half brother of William the Conqueror and one of the major architects of the Conquest. It also seems likely it was made in England, because England was the go-to place for up-market embroidery at that period. My novel therefore looks at the tensions between the patron and the English women compelled to work for him, and how the subject embroiders express their resistance through their work.
What inspired you to write The Needle in the Blood?
I was inspired by a line from a Simon Schama documentary on the history of Britain, in which he stated that this image from the Bayeux Tapestry of a woman and child fleeing a burning house was the first image in Western art of what war does to civilians.
Although I was familiar with the Tapestry, as everyone in England is from their school history, this made me look at it in a different way. I also began to think about how the act of conquest affects not just the conquered but also the conquerors and this gave me the seeds of the story.
How do you manage to find that perfect blend of history and fiction?
The key to this is, I think, always to remember that a historical novel is fiction first and history second. As with all fiction, the important thing is to create strong characters and a gripping story, and not to allow your research to bog down the narrative.
How much research went into this book?
Although I studied medieval history at university, my specialist period was somewhat later than the period of the Conquest, so when I began, I really only knew what we are all, in this country, taught in school. In addition, I can scarcely sew a button on, so had to start at the very beginning in finding out about how the Bayeux Tapestry was made – the materials used, the style of stitching, how it might have been designed and how a workshop might have been set up to cope with a work on such a huge scale (the finished article was more than 230 feet long, although it is now somewhat shorter as its final panel is missing, most likely rotted by sunlight or eaten by mice because of the way the work was stored when not on display).
However, I very quickly realized that most of what we think we know about this period, and the Tapestry (which is actually not a tapestry, but an embroidery) is speculative – which makes it a wonderful subject for fiction, of course! There is a great deal of scholarly work on the Tapestry, and you can find a list of the texts I consulted on the novel’s Facebook page. David J. Bernstein’s The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry was particularly helpful in directing my thinking about the intriguing marginal images in the Tapestry.
For Odo, by contrast, apart from the contemporary propaganda, there are some brief references in Orderic Vitalis, whom I quote in one of my epigraphs, and a scholarly paper written in the 1970s – and that is it. So he is pretty much entirely a figment of my imagination.
Apart from factual research, I also spent time trying to think my way into the medieval mindset. I looked at recipes, treatises on medicine and handbooks on housekeeping as well as continually reminding myself how dark and silent the medieval world must have been, without electricity or the internal combustion engine. I was greatly helped in this by a four day power cut while I was writing the book, by the end of which my house was every bit as dark and cold as a medieval home would have been!
What can readers expect next?
I am currently working on a contemporary novel called EROSION, set on the coast near where I live. It’s a psychological mystery about people who change their identities for one reason or another. It’s in the final editing stages at the moment, so watch this space…
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?
Firstly, I think that, in some ways, it is easier for new authors to get into print now because there are so many options outside the mainstream, traditional publishing houses. Self publishing and e-publishing give authors the option to take their work direct to market, and have also helped more small and specialist presses to come into business.
If, however, an author has her sights set on making a deal with a mainstream publisher, she will need to be patient, thick-skinned and bloody minded. The business is ferociously competitive and entirely unpredictable.
I would therefore also urge aspiring writers not to try to write for the market. Apart from anything else, conventional publishing moves so slowly that what was trending when you wrote your book will be yesterday’s, or even the day before yesterday’s, news by the time it arrives in bookstores.
The best advice I ever received was from the distinguished feminist writer, Michele Roberts, who once told me, ‘Only write a novel if everything else fails.’ Which, in the case of true novelists, it usually does.
The Bishop hired her for a simple job: embroider a tapestry. It is an enormous work, a cloth trophy of the conquest of England. But her skill with a needle and thread is legendary. It would be uncomplicated.
She plans to kill him as soon as she gets the chance. He and his brother, William the Conqueror, murdered her King and destroyed her world. Revenge, pure and clean. It would be simple.
But neither planned to fall desperately in love. As the two become hopelessly entangled, friends become enemies, enemies become lovers, and nothing in life—or the tapestry—is what it seems. An unlikely love story born of passion and intensity, crafted by critically acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Bower,The Needle in the Blood is a "story of love, war, and the tangled truth of England's birth."
I would like to thank Sarah Bower for this lovely Q&A.
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