I’m glad you enjoyed reading NEEDLE, Stephanie, and thanks again for the lovely review you posted on Layered Pages. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Bayeux Tapestry is something we take very much for granted in the UK. It’s like the wallpaper to our history, if you like. What originally made me sit up and take notice of it in a different way was a TV show hosted by Simon Schama, in which he described one famous image in the Tapestry, of a woman and child fleeing a burning house, as being the first image in western art of what war does to civilians. That was the starting point for my novel. It then began to take more concrete form when I discovered that, although very little is known for certain about the Tapestry (making it fertile ground for the fiction writer!), current thinking suggests it was made in England, by English embroiderers, but for a Norman patron. It seemed to me that this created interesting tensions for me to explore.
Were there any challenges in researching for your novel?
I studied medieval history at university, so the historical research wasn’t quite so much of a challenge as finding out about the mechanics of how the Tapestry was made. I can scarcely sew on a button, so learning about medieval embroidery (because Tapestry is a misnomer – the work is, in fact, an embroidery) was a steep learning curve for me! That said, researching the life of Odo was also problematic because he is quite a shadowy figure in history despite his high profile at the time of the Norman Conquest. There are no full-length biographies of him, and little of his correspondence survives, just one or two letters between him and Archbishop Lanfranc. We don’t even know for sure when he was born or where he grew up. In another way, however, this made him a perfect protagonist for the novel because it enabled me to invent far more freely than if he had been a better documented historical figure.
Were there any scenes you found more difficult to write than others?
Oh, the sex scenes! They are always the hardest for me. I recently heard an interview with John Banville, in which he described the difficulty of writing sex scenes as being the bridging of the gap between noble sentiments and absurd actions. I don’t think I could put it better myself. I’m relieved, and flattered, that readers have, on the whole, been kind about this aspect of the novel because, with a hero and heroine like Odo and Gytha, sex was clearly going to play a central role in their relationship, even though I struggled, at first, to force them into a more abstemious mould. On average, I think each sex scene took me about two weeks to write – and that was just the first draft! I guess they take about two minutes to read. Nor do I find that aspect of writing gets any easier with practice.
Did writing this story teach you anything and what is it?
Although published after SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA in the US, NEEDLE is my first novel, and in that respect, it taught me a lot about the need for resilience, patience and self-belief if you are to complete a novel successfully, and then find a publisher for it. I had no idea how tough both these things are until I embarked on the process!
Regarding the specific subject matter of this book, it served to remind me that we have been a multicultural society here in the UK for well over a thousand years. If only more medieval history was taught in our schools, perhaps people would be less anxious about and more welcoming of those who still come here from all the different corners of the world and contribute so much to making us who we are. That is one reason why I chose to write the book in a way which tries to be even-handed to both conquered and conquerors, acknowledging that both sides were traumatised by the experience, and both have contributed hugely to our language, culture, law, politics and social structure.
Who designed the book cover?
The US edition cover was designed in-house, I believe, by my publishers. I think it’s gorgeous and am absolutely delighted with it.
Who is your publisher?
Sourcebooks Landmark, who also published SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA.
What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel or about writing in general?
As I have indicated in an earlier reply, I think the biggest challenge of writing a novel is the time it takes. Each of my novels has taken me, on average, three years to complete, from beginning the background reading and planning to having a final draft I think is good enough to be shared with readers. This knowledge makes getting started quite a difficult and nerve-wracking experience. I do rather envy writers I know who can complete a book in months rather than years. I’m afraid I rarely write in the white heat of inspiration but creep along at a snail’s pace, groping in the dark and hoping I find the right way. A tutor on my creative writing MA course once said, ‘Only write a novel if everything else fails,’ a sentiment with which I am in total accord! Writing novels is incredibly difficult. On the other hand, there is great reward and excitement to be had from engaging with readers who always find things in your work you didn’t know were there and thus give your book a kind of life of its own which is so much more than you can give it yourself as the author.
Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
I’m not sure I really believe in writer’s block. Writing is my job. Do lawyers or nurses or refuse collectors get blocked? No. So why should professional writers be any different? Of course, it’s not always easy to gear oneself up for the imaginative effort involved in novel writing, but if that’s the case, I generally find I have some other kind of writing to do, or writing-related work such as teaching and mentoring other writers. For the imaginative work, I do think one has to be attuned to one’s emotional and mental state, even one’s physical health, in order to be prepared for the obstacles these things can throw up. One has to be aware that on a good day one might write a thousand words or more, but on a less good day it might be just a sentence.
That said, I know some writers do experience blocks in a very real sense, so perhaps I’ve just been lucky so far!
What is your next book project?
I have a contemporary thriller in the pipeline, and have just begun work on a companion piece to it. Although the new book will be more of a love story than a thriller, they have in common the fact that both are about people whose identity is different to the one they were born with and how this affects their lives. Both are also set on the east coast of England, the new one near Whitby, where Dracula landed of course!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Well, if everything has failed and you find you have no option, you need patience, resilience and bloody-mindedness if you are going to keep going and succeed. You also need to be able to divide yourself into the writer, working in private, possibly not washing or even getting dressed for days, and the public persona who has to get out there, don the killer heels and lipstick, and sell her wares. In this regard, I find it helps to think of myself as a small marketing company set up to sell the novels of Sarah Bower. That way I can put some psychological distance between myself as writer and myself as a public figure. The business side of writing is assuming more and more importance for most of us as the publishing industry fragments and fewer and fewer novelists can expect to be published via the traditional route, by a big publishing house with a team of editors and marketing staff to put behind the book. We are increasingly having to become our own editors, proof readers and salespeople.
What is your favourite quote?
Oh dear, this is a difficult one, there are so many good ones and I have so many different favourites. So let’s go with the quote from Olive Schreiner’sFrom Man to Man which I use as an epigraph to THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD: ‘Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?’
Sarah Bower is a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. She is a regular contributor to the Historical Novels Reviewhistoricalnovelsociety.org/magazines/ , Ink, Sweat and Tearswww.inksweatandtears.co.uk/, andWords With Jamwww.wordswithjam.co.uk/. She works as a mentor to other writers, and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is now based in her role as co-ordinator of the mentorship scheme for literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation.
Sarah is the author of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA (originally published in the UK as THE BOOK OF LOVE) Her work has been published in eight countries. She lives in Suffolk, in Eastern England.
Sarah tweets @SarahBower and you also may find her on Facebook.
Thank you Sarah for the pleasure of an interview! It was an honor!
Thank you, Stephanie, for asking me. It’s been a pleasure to answer your questions.