Interviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
In November 2007 I visited Aldeburgh, Suffolk on a beautiful sunny winter day and met up with Sarah Bower, author of Needle in the Blood. I love this book so much that it was a real thrill for me to meet the author and I bombarded her with questions and comments and here is the gist of our conversation.
ESL: First of all Sarah, and I am trying very hard not to gush here, I have to say that I simply loved Needle in the Blood, just in case you have not yet realised this...I became totally immersed in this book and was more or less incommunicado for two days while I read it and I wondered what initially gave you the idea of writing about the Bayeaux Tapestry.
SB: I was watching Simon Scharma's History of Britain on the TV and he showed a picture of a part of the Tapestry depicting a woman and child fleeing their burning home and said that this was probably the first record of the effect of war on the civilian population. This started me thinking in new ways about the Bayeaux Tapestry. I was about to begin my MA in creative writing at the time and this gave me the idea for the novel. And that is how it all started.
ESL: How long did it take you to write?
SB: Three years. I then had the job of finding a publisher but nobody was interested despite my agent's efforts. One publishing house told me they thought it was 'pompous'!
ESL: So, how did Snowbooks find you?
SB: Well, I found them. I was Editor of the Historical Review and I had been reviewing a book by one of Snowbook's authors, J D Landis, and I thought I would see if they were interested in Needle. So I sent an email to Emma with the first three chapters attached and within 12 hours she got back to me asking for the rest and within 48 hours she had said yes.
ESL: That must have been exciting...
SB: Oh it was, but of course I had done it by myself and not through my agent which I shouldn't have done but when I told her about it she was wonderful and very pleased for me.
ESL: Now the question that all us bloggers who have loved this book have been dying to ask. Did you have anyone in mind when you created the gorgeous Odo? I know the names of Alan Rickman and Martin Shaw have been bandied about, and then I thought perhaps Ralph Fiennes, but somehow none of them fit.
SB: I suppose I should put you all out of your misery! I adore Alan Rickman as much as anyone, but agree that he is not right for Odo. When I first started out to write about him I really had nobody in mind, but as he took shape, and remember he is a fighting man so he has to be tough and strong, the person who came in mind and who was then Odo for me was Russell Crowe. I think he has just the right combination of sex appeal and the sense he might be just a bit dangerous.
ESL: Oh, yes............
What I also found fascinating about Needle, apart from the main story, were the descriptions of the luxury in which Odo lived, the furs, the silks, the jewellery and the contrast between his life and that of the local peasants.
SB: Yes, of course but this is as much to do with prestige as anything else. The Church and State had to be seen to be powerful and great wealth demonstrated this. The Times recently published a list of the richest Britons of all time and Odo, believe it or not, was sixth on the list! Interestingly, all the top ten were men who had come to England with the Conqueror. Roman Abramoviich was about number 60.
ESL: When I first read Needle in the Blood I was reminded of my teen years when I read Katherine by Anya Seton and fell in love with John of Gaunt as described by the author and, though the story ends happily in that they married late in life, I always felt it had a muted ending with a rather melancholy feel about it. I felt the same at the end of Needle and though it was really the only way the affair between Odo and Gytha could possibly end, I wish in a way it could have been happier.
SB: Well it was always going to end in tears. First of all, Odo's enemies and his brother William would not tolerate Gytha's influence over him and, let's face it, Gytha was difficult to live with. She never did what he wanted and in the end would probably have driven him mad.
ESL: Now, though we all know the Bayeaux Tapestry, it really is an embroidered hanging and not a tapestry at all?
SB: The French word for a wall hanging is 'tapisserie' and so we have tended to call any wall hanging a tapestry, when really tapestry as we know it, is one of those canvassy affairs with needle and wool.
ESL: Can you let me know if Needle is going to be published in the States?
SB: I think it is next May but you had better check with Emma first!
ESL: I did and it is the end of April 2008.
SB: Lovely, thanks for telling me
ESL: When is the next book going to be published and what it is called?
SB: It's due in May 2008 and is called The Book of Love. Its hero is Cesare Borgia who I have always found fascinating
ESL: Bet you read Jean Plaidy when you were in your teens...
SB: Yes I did! And I got the bug then. My heroine is a Spanish Jewess expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the diaspora of 1492, who flees to Italy and becomes entangled in the lives of both Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.
The Borgia family are totally fascinating and not as they are generally portrayed. Lucrezia, for example, was not a poisoner but an educated cultured woman. She married three times, had five children and her last marriage to the Duke of Ferrara lasted seventeen years and he was devastated when she died. If you go to Ferrara and look at statutes and pictures of her there, she is fondly remembered for the sophistication of her court and her gallantry when the city was threatened by a Papal army during the War of the League of Cambrai.
ESL: Unlike the Jean Plaidy books and the Donizetti opera where she was portrayed as nothing but a poisoner...
SB: Exactly, and last year Sarah Bradford wrote a biography of her showing Lucrezia's true character, a wonderful book which I read as part of my research and would strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the facts - as well as my fiction of course!
ESL: Any ideas for a third?
SB: Oh yes, I am thinking of Juana, know as 'the mad' who was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella - Catherine of Aragon's sister - and who was married to Philip of Flanders, know as 'the Handsome'.
ESL: Jean Plaidy again...I remember reading her book about the mad Juana.
SB: Not sure that she ever was mad. She was just thought to be so because she was intelligent and knew her own mind and, again, well educated. She had the misfortune to fall in love with her husband and was unhappy as a result.
ESL: Now you teach Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Is this full or part time?
SB: No, it is part time and I also do some private mentoring. I try to keep it this way so that I have plenty of time for my writing. I am very pleased with the response to Needle in the Blood. It is selling well and I am just so delighted that it has been reviewed by so many wonderful bloggers so many thanks to you all.
I had a lovely time in Aldeburgh and deem it a great privilege to meet Sarah after I enjoyed her book so much. I did the 'groupie' bit and whipped out my copy for her to sign, which she duly did, and it is now residing on my shelf once more and though several friends of mine to whom I loan books have asked if they can borrow it, I have said, "No go and buy it." Let's hope they do as they are told.....
Needle in the Blood is published by Snowbooks in the UK.