A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Our very own Sarah Naughton’s second novel, THE BLOOD LIST, hit the shelves at the end of February this year – congratulations, Sarah! She’s here today to tell us a bit more about it.
Hi Sarah, it’s great to chat to you today! First of all, can you tell blog readers a bit more about THE BLOOD LIST?
It’s a thriller set in 1646, at the height of the witch fever that gripped England, and Matthew Hopkins, the notorious Witchfinder General, was stalking the country, killing innocent people by the hundreds. My hero, Barnaby Nightingale, leads an apparently charmed life, but his dubious beginnings – involving apparent abduction by fairies – come back to haunt him when the witch trials begin in earnest and his jealous brother sees a chance to get rid of his rival.
Your first novel, THE HANGED MAN RISES, was set in the Victorian era, while THE BLOOD LIST goes even further back, and is set the mid-1600s. What made you decide to set it in this time?
The changeling idea that features in the prologue of The Blood List came first. I’d been watching a TV programme about them, and couldn’t bear thinking about the fate of these poor babies we would now recognize as having a medical condition such as as autism, Downs, or cerebral palsy: that of being scalded to death, poisoned, or left in the forest to be torn to pieces by wild animals. I wanted to create a different narrative where such a child might possibly survive. But involvement with the ‘faerie realm’ would come to be seen as simply cavorting with demons, and in the 17th century this could get you killed: that felt like the beginning of a good story.
THE BLOOD LIST has some very gruesome scenes. What sort of research did you have to do into the darker aspects of 17th century life?
I did loads and loads of reading, and for the year or so it took to write the book I was a world authority on the subject. But after it was published all that knowledge simply flew out of my ear and vanished into the ether. Now I couldn’t even tell you what 17th century people had for breakfast. Oh, okay, I could. Porridge and Pop Tarts. I think.
Would you like to live in that era? Why (or why not)?
You must be joking. Healthcare was ludicrously grim (making regular use of powdered unicorn horn, the body parts of executed criminals, blood-letting and leeches). Skin complaints, fleas and intestinal parasites were endemic, smallpox and the plague were still cutting regular swathes through the populace, and any “cure” was usually as deadly, and possibly more unpleasant, than the disease itself. The poor (ie most of us) were uneducated and worn into the ground by manual labour. Women had few rights and spent most of their lives pregnant, but with child mortality running at 60% they’d have had to get used to burying their babies. Being a female who occasionally expresses an opinion I would probably have spent a lot of time in a scold’s bridle, on the ducking stool, or dangling from a scaffold. For all its faults I am extremely grateful to be a citizen of the western world in the 21st century. I wouldn’t mind going back in time, but only for a very brief visit, and armed with a face mask, carbolic soap and a good supply of antibiotics.
What surprised you most when you were writing the book?
My friend Evelyn is Nigerian, and she told me how prevalent a belief in witchcraft is in some parts of Africa even today. Witch camps in West Africa provide refuge for hundreds of thousands of poor women who have been rejected, and sometimes almost beaten to death, by their communities. Usually old, vulnerable and of little practical use to the village it becomes easy to pin on them any bad luck that befalls the villagers. The reasons given by their accusers are depressing echoes of those in 17th century court cases: a sick pig, a failed crop, a fever. Worse still are the muti killings to harvest bodyparts for “medicine”. It’s frightening and depressing that even in this apparently enlightened age people are still suffering the same senseless persecution as they did hundreds of years ago.
What was the hardest part to write?
I hated Abel and the vile Matthew Hopkins, and I got sick of the torture and squalor I had to inflict on my good characters. It had to be done – it was part of Barnaby’s progression as a character from an arrogant and shallow boy to the noble man he becomes – but I didn’t enjoy it. The bit I liked best was the trial.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I’m not sure any writer makes a conscious decision to ‘become’ one. It’s more of a primitive urge – like slapping a handprint on a cave wall – that you eventually learn to craft into something palatable. I think anyone who has ever been published has shared the same monomania: an inability to value any other achievement besides getting your name on a book cover. I’d have kept trying until my fingers were too gnarly to tap the computer keys.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
I’m easily distracted, so it usually consists of sharing cat videos on Facebook, tweeting whatever flimsy thought pops into my head (often food based), sweeping the kitchen floor (I hate getting crumbs stuck to my socks), YouTubing Weird Al Yancovic and perhaps a paragraph or so of whatever work in progress hasn’t yet ground to a halt.
What book (or books) do you wish you’d written, and why?
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, anything by Hilary Mantel, Patrick Ness and Margaret Atwood. If you’ve read them you don’t need to ask why.
More Weird Al Yancovic.
Sarah Naughton’s debut YA thriller, The Hanged Man Rises, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2013 and shortlisted for the Costa Book Prize. Her second YA novel, The Blood List, is also out now. After a degree in English Literature at UCL she worked as an advertising copywriter for ten years before leaving to have children. Now she mostly writes and sometimes sings nursery rhymes with toddlers at her local library. She lives in central London with her husband and two sons.