When Barbara Erskine’s debut Lady of Hay was published in 1986, it became an instant hit and went on to sell over three million copies worldwide. Thirty years on, Barbara’s novels have appeared in at least twenty-six languages, and continue to top the bestseller lists. This summer sees the publication of a new novel, Sleeper’s Castle, in which Barbara returns to Hay-on-Wye – a mouthwatering prospect for her devoted readership. Historia chats to Barbara about her remarkable career.
Thirty years on the bestseller list – congratulations! What changes have you seen in the publishing world over those three decades?
I’ve been lucky that my publishing career has continued on a reasonably smooth path. I’ve been with the same publisher, Harper Collins, for almost all that time, and I’ve had the same wonderful agent. So there haven’t been too many shocks to the system.
Of course publishing has changed with the advent of e-books, but the threat to traditional print publishing seems to have retreated. I have a Kindle and it’s useful when travelling, but e-readers are hopeless for research and there’s really no substitute for holding a physical book.
Sleeper’s Castle is set in the Welsh borders and echoes the structure of Lady of Hay, with two timelines – contemporary and 15th century. As the novels progress, timelines and characters become entwined. You were one of the pioneers of time-slip fiction – what attracts you to this structure?
It’s hard to believe now, but when I started writing Lady of Hay in the 1980s, historical fiction was often considered rather vapid. Introducing a contemporary thread meant I could create a feisty modern heroine, which gave me the chance to say what I wanted to say from a twentieth century perspective. My historical characters couldn’t be ‘feminist’ in the modern sense – like any writer of historical fiction, I’m ever-wary of anachronism. So the time-slip approach allowed me to explore the past and keep one foot in the present. I’ve since written only one purely historical novel, Child of the Phoenix. Happily the genre is once more highly respected, but the dual timeline approach continues to fascinate me.
Dreams and their power to transport are a key theme of Sleeper’s Castle. You’ve spoken of wanting to ‘dream yourself into the past’. Do you dream of characters or plot lines while you’re writing?
The strange thing is that I don’t tend to dream at all while I’m writing, yet between projects I do dream quite vividly.
Could it be that the subconscious mind is so busy while writing, it needs a rest during sleep?
That sounds very plausible to me. The act of writing can be quite dream-like; characters take over, as if one is being dictated to, and situations appear from nowhere as they do in dreams.
Your novels and short stories are full of ghosts. In Sleeper’s Castle you say: ‘Ghosts were memories, moments in the past which had caught in the fabric of a house like a moth in a spider’s web…’. I confess I’m a sceptic when it comes to the supernatural, but your novel had me thinking… Perhaps, as writers, this is what we’re all doing – summoning ghosts?
I think that’s true, and especially so for writers of historical fiction. We’re trying to recreate the past, to conjure long-dead characters and emotions. We begin with research and imagination, but during very intense periods of writing something beyond imagination seems to kick in. Characters come alive and take over: ghosts begin to stir.
And so writing a novel is a form of exorcism?
Yes! Once a story has taken hold, I can’t rest until it’s finished. I remember being in the kitchen when my children were small, with a frying pan in one hand and a pencil in the other. I just have to get the story down.
Finishing a novel is of course a relief. Writing is an exhausting business; one is not only doing the writing but living through everything with the characters. The day after I have pushed the send button and the ‘manuscript’ has gone I am hugely pleased, but don’t think I am alone in also feeling absolutely bereft. Hopefully the book has rounded off to a satisfactory conclusion so I am not left with a feeling of unfinished business, but nevertheless the characters have been part of me for so long it is hard to let go. On the plus side, almost at once a novel-shaped hole begins to appear in my imagination and the excitement of planning a new novel begins to build.
It was fascinating to read about the role of bards and seers in the 15th century. They travelled from household to household, telling stories, writing poetry, spreading gossip. The 15th century equivalent of Twitter?
In a sense, that’s true. Bards were extremely powerful people, protecting not just the memories of the past, but attempting to predict future events. They were like human libraries, with minds trained to remember an inordinate amount of information. Edward I banned bards, recognizing that knowledge was power. Of course this attempt at censorship ultimately failed: bards and seers went underground, and the tradition continued.
Written records eventually took over and the role of the bard diminished, but I do worry now that something terribly important could be lost if we rely solely on digital archives. It’s sad to think that today’s younger generation will never have a stash of letters or photographs in the loft.
The theme of jealousy links both narratives in Sleeper’s Castle. I’m especially intrigued by the bard Dafydd’s jealousy of his own daughter Catrin. What inspired this fictional relationship?
The relationship between Catrin and Dafydd emerged with the story – it wasn’t something I’d planned. Dafydd is jealous of Catrin’s talents as a poet, musician and seer. He expects her to serve him, to look after him in his old age, whereas she is beginning to long for a more independent life as a poet, and as a woman who is free to marry and have children of her own. Dafydd’s selfishness as a father is a primitive instinct – unfortunately it’s one which many women around the world will still recognise today.
After thirty years, has writing become easier or harder? Can you produce a novel in one draft?
I used to write everything by hand, then type it up myself, then pay a professional typist to type the final copy of my manuscripts. In the early days I would write two or three distinct drafts before that final stage of submitting the manuscript to my publisher. Now that I write on a computer, it’s hard to talk about drafts in the same way. I fiddle and fiddle as I go along, then read the whole story through and make any obvious changes. At this stage I send the manuscript to my editor for suggestions, before moving to a more technical edit when I read everything very slowly and methodically.
My research methods have definitely changed. I spent years researching Lady of Hay, going into the minutiae, but now I try not to get too bogged down in research. I do enough to immerse myself in the period, and then I start writing, in the knowledge that I can check facts at a later stage.
I could never, ever get bored of research though. I trained as a historian and I’ll always relish the opportunity to learn something new. Researching Sleeper’s Castle, it was quite shocking to discover the extent of the terrible oppression by the English against the Welsh over the centuries. It’s not something that seems to be taught in English schools!
You live in Hay-on-Wye, venue for one of the world’s most famous literary festivals. What’s your view on the recent controversy over payment (or rather non-payment) of writers asked to work at these festivals?
It was interesting to read Joanne Harris’s comments on this, and I think she’s right to speak out. There are so many festivals now, and writers are encouraged by their publishers to appear in public and boost their profiles. Of course it’s lovely to be invited to these events and to meet readers, yet for many writers, especially those starting out, it’s simply not viable to give up one, two, or even three days’ work (depending on travel distances and preparation time) for an unpaid festival appearance. This debate needed to be aired, and thankfully I think the situation is now improving.
You’ve published three short story collections as well as fourteen novels. What do you enjoy about the shorter form?
I tend to write short stories between novels. They’re like sorbet, cleansing the palate between larger helpings! I enjoy the challenge of short stories, the different pace and the scope for different scenarios but I suspect I’ll always want to move on to longer projects.
Can I ask what you’re currently working on?
Another novel, set this time in the 18th century, which is completely new territory for me. Compared to the 15th century, though, it all seems very modern!
Author photo by Karolina Webb.