How did the knock on the head idea for Sybil lead into a brilliant description of the head trauma condition that was so well described?
Initially there wasn’t such an obvious cause for Sybil’s black-outs and sight problems, but then it occurred to me that a knock on the head might be a good way to begin things, from a dramatic point of view. The ice skating scene was actually the last scene I wrote, then I re-worked the story around it in later drafts.
There’s often eccentricity but wit and fun in history and those that work within it (Mary Beard is a huge star for me!) do you know anyone who works in a museum?
My brother in law works in one, mainly putting up and taking down exhibitions (though I hasten to say he isn’t the inspiration behind any characters in the novel!) I used to do some voluntary work years ago in the archives at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is where I got a little insight into cataloguing and preserving documents. I’m always interested to know what goes on behind the scenes in academia, which is why I chose to set the novel in an institute where everyone is so intent on studying very specific bits of prehistory.
I live in Sussex so was engaged with the fictional Winchelsea Hoard. Do you know the area yourself?
Yes, I know Sussex well as I grew up on the Kent-Sussex border. The beaches I knew best were all in Kent, though – Camber Sands, Dymchurch and Littlestone. I often revisit that part of England in my fiction – I still feel very connected to it even though I left when I was eighteen. I generally draw on childhood memories from the 70s and 80s. It feels like quite a different place these days.
Do you write any poetry?
I’ve tried to write poetry and years ago had a few not particularly good poems published here and there, but I realized quite early on that it wasn’t the right genre for me. I love reading poetry but my own attempts always came out too prose-y and matter-of-fact. I’m drawn to poems which have an element of mystery and the abstract about them, even when they’re reflecting on very ordinary objects and events. John Clare’s one of my favourites, and I also love Phillip Larkin, WH Auden, Eavan Boland, Fleur Adcock, Grace Nichols… I came across Grace Nichol’s ‘Picasso, I want my face back’ recently and thought it was amazing. Also Evan Boland’s ‘In Which the Ancient History I Learn is not My Own.’
I shall look out for other work by you and hope perhaps there is another novel in the pipeline? Or more about Sybil and the wonderful staff at the RIPS?
I think Sybil and RIPS are probably a one-off, but you never know… I’m working on a new novel at the moment, set more rurally and centering around a slightly older female protagonist. At the moment I’m trying to work out whether it should be in first person or third person – this is a first draft hang-up which I never seem to shake. The voice you choose is such a commitment and there are always things you have to leave behind!
Head here to read Philipa’s review of Ruth Thomas’ The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line