The fourth in Historia’s series of interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown awards is with Laura Shepherd-Robinson. Her acclaimed novel, Blood & Sugar, is set in London and Deptford in the 18th century and is shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
History (along with English) was my favourite subject at school, but it was also a childhood passion at home. I recently came across my scrapbook on ancient Greece from when I was six, full of Greek and Roman myths and maps and family trees of the Gods. My second novel, Daughters of Night, though set in 18th century London, is themed around the story of the Oresteia. I think six-year-old Laura would be very happy to know how forty-two-year-old Laura is spending her time!
How did the initial idea for Blood and Sugar come about?
I wanted to write about slavery from the British end of the trade, because I think it’s part of our history we don’t talk about and confront enough. I hoped that doing so through the prism of a crime novel would bring that history to a wider audience – although by far the greatest crime in my novel is slavery itself.
The story was inspired by a real-life massacre on board a slave ship that I learned more about during my research. I was discussing the horror of it with my husband, and he responded with a sentence that made the plot of Blood & Sugar fall into place. The line made its way almost unchanged into the book, but I can’t say any more because it would ruin the plot.
The book is set in Deptford in the 18th century; what attracted you to that particular place and period?
I needed to set Blood & Sugar in a British slaving port and I considered my home town of Bristol. However, in the end I went for Deptford because of its proximity to London (it was then five miles downriver on the Thames). It meant my main character, who works for the War Office, could easily travel from the gritty port, with its whores and taverns and opium dens, to the seat of power in Whitehall and Mayfair’s drawing rooms where the profits of slavery were spent.
Is historical research a pleasure or a chore?
An absolute pleasure. I get so many plot ideas from the initial research phase, but I then force myself to put the books away and focus on story and character while I’m writing the first draft. Not least because I’d be forever tumbling down delightful rabbit holes of research and never get the damn book finished. But at the end, I allow myself the indulgence of going back to the books, both to check for accuracy and to polish the prose with all those little details that make historical fiction so compelling.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
The fact that chain for slaving ships was sold by the mile. And collars were made for four-year-old children. Those kind of small details that you read once, then stop and reread, and the full horror of our history really hits home.
From a political point of view (I used to work in politics), it was also fascinating reading about the powerful West India lobby, who defended the slave trade in parliament against those who sought its abolition.
What was your path to publication?
I did an MA in Creative Writing on which I wrote the first draft of Blood & Sugar. I found an agent pretty quickly, but then spent a year rewriting that first draft. I think being brutal in the edits and not rushing the book were key to what came next. When my agent submitted the book, we heard back from publishers very quickly. The book went to auction with several publishers, and I am very happy that I chose Mantle (Pan-Macmillan), as they have done a wonderful job publishing Blood & Sugar.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Be bold. Be ambitious. Write the book you want to write. But read and learn and be open to criticism. Keep working on your prose. Keep working on your edits. Try to be the best writer you can be.
Who are your favourite historical writers?
The book that first made me want to write a historical novel was An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I also LOVE Andrew Taylor, CJ Sansom, Antonia Hodgson and Abir Mukherjee. But our queen is Hilary Mantel. Her books are just incredible and so worthy of all the success they’ve had. I cannot wait for the final part of the Wolf Hall trilogy.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
The power of human emotion. For example, I had read a lot of very good non-fiction on the English Civil War. But it was only when I read An Instance of the Fingerpost that I felt I really understood the human passions that caused the religious divides and the turbulent politics of the time. Which is not to say that good non-fiction can’t explore emotion, but if you are seeing historical events through the eyes of a character you care about, it can be a very powerful way to empathise with that experience. Also, not everyone likes non-fiction, so it can bring history to a wider audience.
And finally, can you describe your book in five words?
Great evil, great love, murder. (FT crime reviewer Barry Forshaw called it “a novel of astonishing skill”, which were five very lovely words to read.)
Read A respectable trade in brutality: Blood & Sugar, Laura’s Historia feature about the shameful history behind her novel.
The HWA Crown Awards winners are announced on 6 November, 2019.
Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on (‘The Slave Ship’) by JMW Turner: via Wikimedia
The Royal George at Deptford Showing the Launch of The Cambridge (1757) by John Cleveley the Elder: via Wikimedia