Monday, November 5, 2007

An interview with Sarah Bryant, author of "Sand Daughter"

I'm proud and honored to present my first interview with a female historical fiction writer -- the incomparable Sarah Bryant, author of several novels, including THE OTHER EDEN and the one I'm focusing on today: SAND DAUGHTER, set during the time of the Crusades. I happened upon Sarah purely by chance, as her books are to date not distributed widely in the US. The Historical Novel Society's magazine Solander had published a piece on a new publisher in England called SnowBooks and I went to the publisher site ( While there, I came upon a description of Sarah's novel:

It is the time of the Crusades. The Islamic world is divided and the Franks have captured the Holy Land. As the mighty Saladin struggles to unite the warring clans of Arabia against the invaders, Khalidah, a young Bedouin woman of no obvious importance, finds herself a pawn in a deadly plot involving her own feuding tribe and the powerful Templar Knights. Faced with certain death, she runs away with a man she barely knows, towards adventure and the echoes of a past that somehow connect her to the Jinn - the mysterious Afghan warriors who may hold the key to the coming battle for the Holy Land.

Of course, I had to read this book! I soon discovered that SAND DAUGHTER is far more than its description. This is a layered, nuanced and gorgeously written novel that presents a very different approach to the Crusades, featuring Muslim and Christian characters as they're swept up in the fervor and tumult of this time. It has been one of my favorite reading experiences this year: I literally couldn't stop reading (and thinking) about this book, and I decided I wanted to interview Sarah. She graciously accepted. Sarah was born in Brunswick, Maine, USA in 1973. After a childhood spent in Maine and Massachusetts, she attended Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. In 1996 she moved to Scotland to do an MLitt in creative writing at the University of St. Andrews, and ended up marrying a Scot and settling in the UK. She now lives with her husband and two children, two cats, one dog and half a Highland pony in the Scottish Borders. For more information on her past and upcoming publications, please visit her at:

1. First off, congratulations on the publication of SAND DAUGHTER. It is a marvelously different novel, and a daring one, offering an often neglected perspective of the much-trodden terrain of the Crusades. Though the novel has terrific insight into the Christian mind of the time, what inspired you to write about this particular era and to portray it primarily through Muslim eyes? How did you go about slipping into their spiritual world?
First, thanks so much for the kind words – I’m so glad you got all of that out of the novel! To answer your question, I’m afraid we have to go back to 9/11, or rather the immediate aftermath, when President Bush announced to the world that ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.’ I didn’t know much about the Crusades then, but I knew enough to be stunned that the most influential leader of the Western world would choose to invoke a regime of abject brutality, ethnic cleansing and religious suppression in rallying his people, no matter what wound we’d suffered. Yet America more or less allowed the comment to sink without a ripple. I remember thinking, Does no one realize that this man has just declared a holy war on Islam? That this attitude is in essence no different to bin Laden’s? That’s where ‘Sand Daughter’ began. It was clear (once I stopped yelling at the television) that the reason why Bush could get away with his comment is that we no longer have much of an understanding of what the Crusades were really about. We think of Templar Knights, St. George-like figures riding off to battle with white flags flying, and in our minds that’s enough to make them the good guys. We don’t think about who they were fighting, or why. They seem like obvious questions, and the obvious basis for a novel, yet a perfunctory look at amazon made it clear that there was almost no Crusade fiction written from the Arab point of view. So I decided to try, insofar as a WASP from Massachusetts can try, to begin to fill that gap. As for slipping into their spiritual world, I think (perhaps simplistically) that spiritual is spiritual, regardless of religion. The specifics might vary, but to people who believe, god is god. So it that way, evoking the Muslim spiritual life of the time wasn’t any more difficult than evoking battle scenes, or modes of travel, or, for that matter, the medieval European Christian view of the world.

2. Your novel features strong characters; the central figures are a strong-willed Bedouin girl who escapes the constraints of her tribe and ultimately becomes a warrior, and her childhood friend, who becomes the lover of the Sultan's son. As a writer, how did you slip into these very distinct P.O.V.s? In particular, did you find portraying the experiences of a gay man easy or challenging? Can you tell us about any methods you used to make these characters so realistic?
For me – and I suspect for most fiction authors – it’s impossible to write anything that isn’t to some degree autobiographical. That doesn’t mean that I write overtly about my own life; far from it. But if I can’t think and feel the way a central character would think and feel, if I can’t empathize with his or her experiences, then the novel will go nowhere. So, while Khalidah and I don’t have much in common on a topical level, scratch the surface and you’ll find that we’re both tenacious, horse-loving, independent-minded women who take ‘No’ as a challenge rather than an answer. And while I’ve never picked up a sword and ridden into battle, I’ve certainly been in the position of fighting for what I believe in. Likewise, I’m no more a gay man than I am a Muslim woman, but I have fallen surprisingly in love. Like spirituality, I believe that love is love no matter how you label it, and that was my approach to Bilal. He wasn’t a man in love with a man, he was a person in love with a person. Of course, it helped that medieval Muslim culture took a pretty tolerant view of homosexuality, as I hope the book makes clear. In fact, there was no Arabic word for ‘homosexual’ until the twentieth century, when the culture began to absorb more Western ideas. Bilal and Salim wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much to overcome as two modern Western gay men to gain acceptance. So, yes, Khalidah and Bilal were in some ways risky characters to write, but when it comes right down to it, writing them was no more audacious – or difficult – than writing a novel set in the twelfth century in the first place. As for how I made them realistic, first of all, thanks for saying so – that’s always my primary goal as a novelist! To answer the question: I tend to take a kind of a method acting approach to writing. That is, I immerse myself as much as possible in world I’m writing about. So aside from reading everything I could get my hands on that might help flesh out my characters, I watched movies, listened to music, looked at pictures, read contemporary poetry, journals and chronicles, asked for (and received) advice from lots of generous experts in related fields, even listened to Arabic language tapes in the car. When it came to the writing, in order to keep the narratives distinct, I did what I always do, which is write one character’s story from beginning to end, then write the other, and shuffle the chapters when they’re all finished.

3.Your novel takes place during the struggles of the Crusades, a fascinating but brutal era. How did you go about recreating this period of time for your reader?
This was probably the biggest challenge, because it’s so long ago, and there was no way to physically visit most of the places I was writing about. All of what I said above about ‘method writing’ applies here too, but in particular, the reading. There’s a fantastic book called ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’, which has wonderfully detailed accounts of the period, many of them first-hand. The Osprey books on military history were good, too. Probably the biggest help, though, was the contemporary chroniclers. The Muslim leaders of the time employed armies of scribes to record everything they did for posterity, which means that a thousand years later, we can look at not one but several detailed accounts of a battle or other major event. Priceless fodder for the historical novelist.

4. Historical fiction is often considered a predominantly female genre, with a larger percentage of women readers and writers. It seems that more and more these days, publishers believe women want historical novels that carry a strong romantic element, while men desire adventure and battle. SAND DAUGHTER does a formidable job of combining all these elements in a seamless narrative that features both intimate romantic moments, spiritual experiences, and harrowing battle scenes. Did you set out to create a novel that defied the current expectations of the popular historical novel, and if so, did you encounter difficulties during the process of publishing this book that you think might be attributed to its uniqueness? Lastly, did you find you or your publisher have to make any extra efforts in order to ensure this novel reached its intended audience?
As for setting out to write a novel that defied genre expectations, the simple answer is no. For one thing, I’ve only recently realized that I’m a historical novelist. After years of working (unsuccessfully, for the most part) in other genres, I seem to have found my groove here, but it was in no way by design. I’ve always written the novels I want to write, with no thought for what genre they might fit, or how they might be marketed, or indeed an ‘intended audience’. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant – it’s actually pig-headedness, and it’s meant I’ve had a long, hard struggle to find anyone who’d give my work the time of day. What you’ve said about ‘Sand Daughter’ could equally be said about everything I’ve ever written – and usually has been, many times, punctuated by a ‘Sorry, best of luck finding a publisher elsewhere.’ Then I found Snowbooks. I still can’t quite believe my good fortune, which is a roundabout way of saying that no, I had no difficulties in publishing this book other than finishing it on time. That’s been true of everything I’ve worked on for them. Whether they have problems marketing my books to a genre-obsessed world, I have no idea – you’d have to ask them. But since they’ve never yet mentioned the g-word, they seem to get my books into the big chains, and there’s been a steady trickle of rights deals, I’d have to say they’re doing okay despite my stubborn refusal to conform…which actually gives me hope for the future of book publishing!

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?
Not to sound flippant, but how can they not? By nature history begs comparison with the present, but there aren’t many likenesses as glaring as the Crusades and our current ‘War on Terror’. In that sense, Bush’s blunder is as accurate as Saddam Hussein comparing himself to Saladin. Wherever our loyalties lie, there’s no escaping the fact that, once again, the Christian west and the Muslim east have engaged in an ideological war with disastrous consequences. I’d like to think that our current conflict will end better than the original one, but for that to happen, we’re all going to need to learn tolerance. And in the end, that’s what ‘Sand Daughter’ is: one long plea for tolerance.

6. Please tell us about your next project.
It’s another historical novel, called ‘The One Unspoken’, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to ‘Sand Daughter’. It’s set in Louisiana and Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century, and it’s loosely tied to my first book, ‘The Other Eden’. But it bears little resemblance to that, either. This time, the main characters are the daughter of an impoverished white plantation owner, who wants to be a composer, and the son of a wealthy free black plantation owner, who wants to be a doctor. At its heart, it’s a book about how talent and ambition shape the lives of marginalized people in a restrictive society; but that makes it sound dry and preachy. In fact, it’s also about ghosts, voodoo curses, skeletons in family closets, tangled bloodlines, golden-hearted prostitutes, gin-swilling mediums, mad musical geniuses, body-snatching medical students, bloody Civil War battles and yes, a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Not much of a project, then… :)

7. Anything you would like to add for our readers?
If you’ve borne with me through this whole interview, thanks for letting me rant! And whatever you choose next, happy reading!

Thank you, Sarah. I for one am anxiously awaiting your next book! To my blog readers, please don't miss the chance to discover this amazingly young, talented writer. Sarah's books are easily purchased via, direct from her publisher, and by order at most bookstores.


Marg said...

Sounds really interesting! Thanks for the interview.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I ordered the book from A woman with a sword, battles, gay love, and the whole on the background of the crusades - what's not to love? :)

Not only did Bush declare a holy war, he did not get it that the Christians lost the crusades in the end. I had not been impressed by his intellect and education before, but that was the final blow.

C.W. Gortner said...

Thanks Marg and Gabriele! I'm glad you liked the interview. Sarah's book is terrific, and as you can see, she raises some provocative issues for thought.