Author SD Sykes was one of the first students from our creative writing courses to see her work in print – when Hodder & Stoughton published her debut Plague Land in 2014. And she’ll be the first of our alumni to have their second book published, when the sequel, medieval-set thriller The Butcher Bird hits the shelves on 22 October. We asked her about the 14th-century world she lives in for much of the time, and how she creates it so authentically.
What can you tell us about the titular creature of your novel, The Butcher Bird? It’s a very striking image, the great bird impaling its prey on the thorns and appropriate to a book set in the Middle Ages, given how much they loved symbolic beasts.
I’ve always turned to the Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife for inspiration. Catalogued in my much-thumbed book is the red-backed shrike – a migratory bird that impales the nestlings of other birds onto thorns, making a larder. Because of this macabre habit, it was given the common name of ‘The Butcher Bird.’ I’ve always wanted the opportunity to use this image. I read a 14th century work called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, where Sir John recounts his journey around the world he probably didn’t make. The further he gets from Europe, the wilder are his claims. And yet Sir John’s contemporaries would not have laughed at this work, to them it was a factual travel guide. I’m fascinated by the willingness of the medieval psyche to accept that somewhere in the world there were people who hopped about on one enormous foot, and then used this same foot as a sunshade. Or that, on one faraway island, there was a tribe of people who lived only on the smell of an apple. Against this background, you can see that my invention of a giant butcher bird is not so far-fetched.
Which medieval attitudes do you think modern readers struggle with the most? How do you keep your characters sympathetic without making them anachronistic?
If we were transported back to the 14th century, I believe most of us would struggle with the role of the church at the centre of our lives. Having lived in our secular world, we would find it difficult to tolerate such control over the way we choose to live. In terms of setting a book in this deeply religious, often superstitious world, I deliberately set out to make my main character Oswald something of an anachronism. Despite being educated in a monastery, he is a sceptic, even a non-believer. There is some evidence of unbelief in this age, but it’s scanty. I’ve read other novels set during this period, and sometimes I’ve screamed out for a character in the book to start questioning the status quo. I decided to write Oswald as a 21st century voice, in a 14th century world. I wanted him to ask the questions we would ask, and share the scepticism that we would have, if we were living in those times.
Many people take Oswald to task during the course of The Butcher Bird, though he’s very young for such responsibility. Do you think he will go on to grow as a person?
At the start of Plague Land he was hiding behind his mother and didn’t want to answer the door! I think Oswald does grow during The Butcher Bird: at the end of the book he takes a courageous decision that puts his own position at risk. Having said that, I doubt Oswald will ever become a hero in the usual sense of the word, but perhaps his heroism is more realistic. It takes real courage to do something heroic when it doesn’t come naturally. I’m writing the third book in the series and in this book Oswald is twenty-six and much more battle-scarred and assertive. Yet he still retains those inner doubts and insecurities. I don’t think he will ever lose them completely – he will just get better at hiding them!
Oswald’s mother is a very interesting but also a very frustrating character. Do you think we’re meant to take Oswald’s view of her?
No, not entirely. We only see Mother through Oswald’s eyes, and he often portrays her as a figure of fun, but he’s nineteen, immature, and easily embarrassed or even disgusted by his Mother. I imagine him rolling his eyes a lot and counting to ten. In my opinion she deserves a little more tolerance and understanding from him. I hoped to portray a woman who’s adept at using silliness and a pretence at senility in order to manipulate people and get her own way. She’s inconstant, intolerant and often dislikeable but I think Oswald secretly holds her in high regard. It wasn’t easy to be a woman in 14th century England and she’s using the skills at her disposal to survive.
How do you fill in the blanks when you’re writing about topics on which very little material survives? Do you leave it all to your imagination or do you have other tricks too?
It’s mainly channelled imagination. For example, I couldn’t find a lot of information on the homes of the poor and ordinary people of England, as their lives were pretty much ignored by the poets and chroniclers of the age. So, I went to the Weald and Downland museum near Chichester and sat for about an hour in a reconstructed 13th hovel and just looked and listened. Logical deduction also plays a part. While researching my third novel, set in 14th century Venice, I discovered that they didn’t have chimneys. How could this work, particularly in the lower storeys of a three or four storey house? Despite exhaustive research, I was unable to find the answer until speaking to a medieval historian. I told her of my problem and we both deduced that the smoke from lower stories was channelled through a horizontal flue to an exterior wall at each level. When external chimneys were added in the 15th century, these same flues were then covered and the smoke was directed skyward.
If somebody dropped you in Medieval London as a time-tourist, where would you go apart from London Bridge?
I would head straight for London wall, and in particular to the gates that led out from the city and onto the major roads of England, most of which were Roman in origin. I’ve been to other walled cities such as York, Winchester and Chester – but it would be wonderful to see London in its full medieval glory. All we have left now are the names – from Ludgate in the west to Aldgate in the east.
You’ve talked about your experience doing scriptwriting before you turned novelist – do you have a filmic imagination? After all the research for your last book, do you picture Oswald’s world in your head as he moves through it?
I do have a filmic imagination. In fact, I would say I am something of a frustrated director. I try to use my writing like a camera, leading the reader through the scene, and pointing them where I want them to look. There is deliberately very little superfluous dialogue or descriptive prose in my writing. I try to be as tight as the plot of a film, sparse and story-centric. I like the modern-day thrillers of Jo Nesbo and Val McDermid. You don’t often see this in historical fiction, which can sometimes be embellished with a lot of detail. I’m a fan of this type of fiction too, but it’s not what I’m trying to write myself.
Oswald’s sister Clemence gives birth towards the beginning of the book. Where did you find out about the unsavoury medicines used by doctors at the time?
In the 14th century, it seems to me that you often survived illness in spite of the medical treatment you received – whether you visited a trained physician, a barber surgeon, the monastery hospital or just the village healer. You might be bled, have leeches attached to your skin, or be administered a vile potion of goodness knows what. This is a remedy for tonsilitis, as described by physician to the royal family, John of Gaddesdon: ‘Take a fat cat, flay it well and draw out the guts. Take the grease of a hedgehog, the fat of a bear, resins, fenugreek, safe, honeysuckly gum and virgin wax, and crumble this and stuff the cat with it. Then roast the cat and gather the dripping, and anoint the sufferer with it.’ I should add that Gaddesdon was responsible for the major reference work of the time, the Rosa Medicinae. When it came to describing Clemence’s post-natal treatment, I just let my imagination go mad. Thankfully physicians were not allowed at the birth itself (as they were all male) and childbirth was left to the skills and knowledge of the midwives.
Has anything about your writing methods changed between your first book in this series and the second?
Very little to be honest. Unlike many other debut authors, my first novel was not something I’d been working on for many years. I wrote Plague Land in about twelve months. This had a massive upside, because I had the experience of producing a second book quickly, something that your publisher likes! My way of working remains pretty unglamorous. I’m at my desk every morning with a plan, a pile of research and a daily word count target. I write my first draft in about six months, and then edit and rewrite for another six months.
Do you have any tips for aspiring authors who want to write a long way outside their own time period?
My main advice is not to become too tied up by your research. It’s important to get your facts straight, but you are writing a work of fiction. Ultimately your book will be judged on the quality of the story. I’ve been reading about the fourth crusade in 1202-04 AD, and I’ve discovered three very different explanations as to why the Venetian army ended up in Constantinople rather than in the Holy Land. Sometimes all the research in the world can’t give you the definitive answer. Where you have no reliable sources, or your sources are contradictory, use your imagination and judgement. But do so prudently! You want your anachronisms to be deliberate, not just stupid mistakes.
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