Sara Sheridan works in wide range of media and genres. She started writing full-time in 1997 and has had a book published every year since. Truth or Dare, her first novel, won a Scottish Library Award. In 2002 The Blessed and the Damned was shortlisted for a Saltire Award. More recently Sara has concentrated on historical fiction. In February 2011 Secret of the Sands will be released - set in the 1830s on the Arabian Peninsula, against the backdrop of the abolition of slavery. The following month her first picture book for children, I'm Me!, will also hit the shelves. Sara's website contains bonus material such as YouTube readings and author podcasts. You can follow her on Twitter as sarasheridan. Below she discusses T.C. Boyle's Water Music.
Sara Sheridan on Water Music by T.C. Boyle
My favourite book, and the reason why I decided to write historical fiction at all, is T.C. Boyle's Water Music. I've now bought it as a present for so many people that they are surprised in my local bookshop if it's not in the pile when I get to the till. I've banged on about it in the national press and even chose it as 'The book that changed my life' last year in the Scottish Book Trust's project of the same name. There aren't many stories I can read again and again (I'm not constituted towards re-reading as I have an annoyingly good memory for the form of words), but with T.C. Boyle and this story the prose is so rich that it bears a second, third, fourth reading and on. As a result Water Music is a permanent fixture on my bedside table, its complicated intensity anticipated like a good single malt or a rich, dark chocolate. I find it inspirational for two reasons.
Firstly, it's based on the real-life adventures of Mungo Park, who set out to find the source of the Niger on not one, but two occasions on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. He was the son of a Scottish tenant farmer with a king-sized spirit of adventure - exactly the kind of man who thrived in the burgeoning British Empire. We don't have those kinds of opportunities now that the whole world is mapped and package-holidayed. These days I'm not sure what people with Mungo's spirit of adventure do for kicks, but I can guarantee that it's not as ballsy as heading into the unmapped Interior of Africa with one black man as your guide and a lack of both equipment and communication that would have Sir Ranulph Fiennes turning back to base camp in tears.
Secondly, the quality of the writing makes my mouth water - Boyle is massively talented. Much of the story is in appalling taste, it's rambunctious and wild, but the upshot is that it bristles with life, which is what the tail-end of the Georgian era was all about. Few books bring history to life, and much of what is written about the upper classes is often rather mannered and romanticized, so when I opened the pages of Water Music I remember feeling a sense of delight and fascination that I normally only experience when reading private letters from the same period in the archive. I never fail to howl with politically-incorrect laughter at Mungo's long-suffering guide, Johnson, a freed slave who has cut short his comfortable Mandingo retirement because he wants a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I agonize over Ailie Anderson, Mungo's true love, and whether she will wait for him or choose, instead, Glegg the reliable country doctor. I cry when Mungo goes on his second, fatal mission despite promising Ailie he'll settle down. I gape at the indestructible Ned Rise, London ne'er do well extraordinaire, who ends up in Africa despite his best efforts, fails to cheat the gallows and survives because that is simply what Ned Rise does. Most importantly I disappear into the story, and I defy anyone with a sense of words not to.
At a crossroads in my career, having written contemporary, commercial fiction, I was ready for a change. This was the book that showed me that while there is a place in historical fiction for politics and period detail, there are also opportunities to sit and simmer in a world that doesn't exist any more; that a connection with history does not need to be dusty or worthy or romanticized, and that figures in the National Dictionary of Biography were vital in a very real sense. It reminds me that neither today nor 300 years ago is life for the faint-hearted. Water Music is a fantastic trip of a book and you can smell the history on its pages. I heard that T.C. Boyle can't believe that 20 years after the book's publication some girl in Scotland still won't stop going on about it. Like many people, that's why I read, though - to be inspired.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]