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Author Interviews

Author Interview: S.J. Bolton

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

S.J. Bolton is one of my favorite recent discoveries—both Jamie and I read her newest book, Awakening, and were knocked out by it; when the book club read her first novel, Sacrifice, everyone loved it, not always the reaction to every book we read. Sacrifice is packed full of folklore, a great setting, a incredible central character and a wild plot, but Bolton's narrative skills and wonderful writing push the book along so much so that it's difficult to put down. I had the very unusual experience of getting to the middle of a book and not knowing what was going to happen next. This is a very original and skillful writer. She was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Q: OK, weird question first. You write incredibly evocatively about animals—there's an indelible scene in each book involving them. I'm thinking of the Shetland pony herd scene in Sacrifice and the snake swarm scene in Awakening. Was this merely in the service of the plot or is there a special interest?
A: Gosh, never been asked this before. Have had to think about it for awhile and have come to the conclusion that the horses in Sacrifice and the snakes in Awakening were there, first and foremost, to serve the plot. Horses don't play a great part in my life—family members keep them, my husband and son both ride well, but I'm rather nervous of them. I do love them though—the combination of strength, speed and physical beauty is a powerful one for me—and this love must have driven the way I write about them. In the beginning of the book, when Tora is grieving over Jamie's death, she talks about the night her boyfriend dumped her and she wept on Jamie's nose. This is a true story—I did it myself one night, with my sister's horse, Bee. My husband says Bee was probably asleep (men!) but I believe to this day that he sensed my need for comfort and was prepared to offer it. Jamie, one of the equine stars of Sacrifice, is a real horse. He belongs to my mother-in-law and is her favourite of many. Mine too, actually. When I was still brave enough to ride he was always the one sweet enough to carry me. I'm not sure my mum-in-law approved of me killing off her darling, but perhaps one day she'll realize I may just have immortalized him!

As for snakes, I had no strong feelings at all when I started Awakening but quickly became fascinated. Again, the combination of beauty and strength, not to mention immense killing power, is what draws me to them. I loved learning all about them and writing about them. Now, when I give talks to readers groups, I take a small corn snake with me. He is the sweetest, prettiest creature but it's amazing how many people are terrified of him.

What I do have, is a fascination with the British countryside. This, as much as anything, drives my stories and British animals are certainly a part of this.

Q: In both books the central character is really fabulous. Both women are shaded, complex, and have interesting quirks. I liked that both women were experts in their fields, and that their expertise, personalities, or both, were off-putting to other people. An intentional message about capable women, or just the way the characters happened to evolve?
A: I never plan my characters. Never. When I start out, I have a very general picture in my head of their age, occupation, appearance, family situation and so on but that's it. They form themselves as the story progresses, in their reaction to events and in the way they interact with each other. I'm always pleased when people like Tora and Clara but I think it's fairly easy, when you write in the first person, to make a direct connection with the reader. There is almost a relationship from the outset. The one is telling the other a story, whispering in the ear, if you like. My third book is written in the third person and has three central characters: a young woman psychiatrist, a vicar, and a ten year old boy. It will be very interesting to see if people engage with them in the same way.

Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton

Q: In the first novel, Sacrifice, there's lots of folklore involved in the telling of the story and the solving of the mystery. How authentic is the folklore? And more specifically, how authentic are the parts about "Trows"? Can you talk both about that and a little about the research involved.

A: The folklore in Sacrifice is over 90% documented Shetland legend. There are many tales of trows on Shetland, mysterious little people who live alongside their human neighbors, interacting with them in numerous ways. Up until very recently, people on Shetland indulged in various rituals and customs to placate the trows and keep them on (their) side. The Kunal Trows, who inhabit the most northerly isle of Unst, are also part of documented Shetland legend. The legend states that the "stolen" human wife will give birth to a son, and then die. When I read this I became intrigued. I wanted to know how the wife died. In childbirth or was she murdered? Why did she have to die? The answers came to me very quickly and I was already thinking about whether the story would work as a modern crime novel.

Q: What do you feel you learned as a narrative storyteller from the first book to the second? I loved them both but I also thought the second book was tighter, more smoothly told and more focused.
A: I think Awakening, is technically, a much better book, and, if I'm right, it's because of what I learned writing the first. It's very easy to find fault with one's own work and, for me, Sacrifice has moments where the plot slows down and (has) scenes that are not directly connected to the action. With Awakening I tried very hard to maintain the pace and make every scene count.

Q: What kind of influences have you had as a writer and as a reader? As I read I thought about other writers—Marsh, Allingham, P.D. James—who incorporate bits of folklore into their books, so in a way you are a part of a tradition, but in another way you are a giant break from past tradition. Your writing reminds me more of Mo Hayder's (especially Pig Island) than any of those older ladies, though the influences may be the same.
A: I love and constantly re-read all the old classics—the works of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes. Not only are they often superb mystery stories with bags of atmosphere and suspense but they are also superbly and beautifully written.

I've been compared to Mo Hayder several times, which always rather puzzles me. She's an immensely talented writer but she and I are very different in that, in my books, while some pretty grim things happen, most of the violence takes place off the page. Mo, on the other hand, writes about the blood and its shedding in very graphic terms. I think mine are very gentle thrillers, in comparison.

The other writers you mention, I'm not especially familiar with (although I clearly recognize their importance within the genre). Two writers I would like to mention are Stephen King and Dan Brown. King because of his incredible imagination and his phenomenal gift with language and Brown because of the depth of his research and the complexity of his plots.

Q: Why choose the Shetlands as your setting? Was part of it the isolation of island life? I grew up on an island myself and can testify to the other-world quality of living on one.
A: The legend that inspired Sacrifice was specifically a Shetland legend and it simply never occurred to me that the novel could take place anywhere else. Once I got going, I realized how lucky I was to have stumbled upon the most perfect setting for a thriller. When the sun goes down on an island, there really is no escape. And with so few roads and so few people, there isn't even anywhere to hide.

The other fascination for me it that it is so much easier to believe in an isolated island society that takes the law into its own hands. It is far more credible that people behave in the way they do in Sacrifice than if the story were set in a large city.

Q: In the second book, Awakening, which uses snakes in the plot, was part of the fascination the taboo nature of snakes for most people? Or was there a prior fascination on your part?
A: Having decided that snakes would feature in Awakening, I wanted to use them to full effect. I wanted to find out as much as possible about them, not only how they live and hunt, but their history and their place in world mythology. Much of what I discovered was fascinating, and, without boring the reader too much (I hope) I wanted to use as much as I could in the book.

Q: As a corollary to the above question, how deadly are adders? They've been a staple of mystery books as far back at Patricia Wentworth (there's a scene in one of her books where the heroine's dog finds some groggy adders at the foot of her bed). They're a very specific British snake, correct?
A: Adders are not deadly, unless you are very young, very old, very weak or suffering from some condition that would affect your body's ability to fight the poison. The last person in Britain to die of an adder bite was a five year old child, thirty years ago.

That's not to say they should be dismissed as a threat. Although shy, they are sometimes startled and can act defensively. I make sure my son wears thick boots when we walk in fields near our home and I don't let him play near log-piles.

Actually adders can be found throughout northern Europe, even in the more northerly regions of Scandinavia, as they can live in relatively cold climates. I think they must be particularly associated with the UK because they are our only venomous snake.

Q: How did you come to write your first novel—were there other tries, stuck in a drawer somewhere? It's incredibly sophisticated and accomplished for a first book.
A: Thank you, but I did try other things first—romantic novels, children's stories, ghost stories. I think I was just waiting to find the right genre.

Q: And what's next for you?
A: My son goes back to school in a couple of days and I have to knuckle down and write book four. I've been researching it and planning it all summer and I can't put it off much longer. I find myself strangely nervous!

Thank you, Sharon!

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