Fiction Interviews

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with SD Sykes about Plague Land

Burial of plague victims - The Black Death
SD Sykes at the Plague Land launch
SD Sykes at the Plague Land launch

You mention on your blog that the Black Death made a significant social and economic impact on Europe; why do you think the Black Death makes a good background for a murder mystery?

The years following the Black Death did indeed cause a massive upheaval in English society, with an estimated halving in the size of the population. I do like the idea – often used in drama – of heaping chaos on top of chaos. So placing an inexperienced young man into a role for which he was unprepared; giving him a depleted workforce and a dysfunctional family to cope with; and then asking him to solve a murder, was just too tempting. The Black Death also sets a wonderfully macabre tone for the book – with its pall of death and despair. I love gothic fiction – so the horrors of boils and buboes, plague pits and then the aftermath of a ghostly, deserted world, was totally irresistible.

Are any of the characters based on real people from primary sources? How did you go about your research for this period?

Primary sources that reveal character in the 14th century are rather few and far between, so for this aspect of my research I mostly relied upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – with his large cast of ordinary people making their pilgrimage to the cathedral. It was written some thirty years after Plague Land is set, but illuminates ordinary life and ordinary opinions better than any other contemporary source. Other books I studied were The Travels of Sir John Mandeville – a description of this man’s journey across Europe and into Asia in the 1340s – a journey which he may, or may not have fully undertaken himself. It’s a text full of the most curious and fantastical descriptions – such as the land where people live purely on the smell of apples; or the island where men and women have the heads of dogs. But then, sometimes, a spike of truth works its way through his writing – such as the ‘great barns of Joseph’, that Mandeville describes in Cairo – edifices that could only have been the pyramids. Two other texts I should mention here are Piers the Ploughman by the cleric William Langland – in which he satirizes and condemns corruption in the Catholic church. The other is a book often heralded as the first ever autobiography ever – The Book of Margery Kempe – which recounts Margery’s life as a Christian mystic. This book proved to be a fascinating insight into the religious fervor of the age – as Margery saw it as her mission to forsake her old life as a wife and mother, dedicate her life to Christ and then to wail and preach her way through Europe. But it was also a frustrating text, from a researcher’s point of view anyway. Margery, who refers to herself as ‘this creature,’ will often tell you that she has travelled to a city, and just as you are willing her to describe and illustrate something of the world about her, she reverts to telling you about the wailing.

None of my characters are based upon real people. I’ve imagined them, based partly on the books mentioned above, and partly on conjecture. The only character who is, perhaps, a fish out of 14th century water is Oswald himself. His sensibilities are sometimes more 21st century – but this is deliberate. I wanted my protagonist to look at the fearful, superstitious world of the middle ages through more rational eyes – so that he could scrutinize, question and sometimes overturn their beliefs and dogmas.

Burial of plague victims - The Black Death
Burial of plague victims – The Black Death

Can you tell us a bit about Oswald in your follow up book, The Butcher Bird, and if you’re planning on a longer series with his character?

The Butcher Bird takes place only nine months after Plague Land – so Oswald is still coping with the trials of a post-plague world. He is only slightly older and only slightly wiser than he is in the first novel, but he has lost his reticence about stepping into his role as Lord Somershill. I would say this lack of reticence verges, at times, on over-confidence. He is reluctant to listen to advice, and lacks the maturity to change his mind – under the mistaken belief that this would somehow constitute a loss of face. In short, he still has a lot to learn.

I am indeed planning a longer series, as I would love to follow Oswald as he matures into a young man in the fascinating period of history that leads up to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. His growing reputation as an investigator will bring him into contact with a whole string of murders and murderers!

Plague mask
Plague mask

Did anything surprise you about medieval life during this period when you sat down to write Plague Land? What surprised you about the plague?

I am constantly surprised by the images in the margins of illuminated manuscripts… they are often so bizarre, irreverent or even just plain crude – not at all what you’d expect from such a supposedly devout age. I’m starting to wonder – and I do need to read more about this – if marginal art was a form of subterfuge, I might even say graffiti, or even defacement? Often the most sacred texts are surrounded by images that seem completely unrelated to the religious context – grotesque drolleries, monkeys spanking each other’s bottoms, rabbits fighting with bows and arrows, people exposing their buttocks. Could it be that these very expressive illustrations are a response to such a repressive society?

With regards to your question about the Plague, I was surprised by recent research which looked into the causes of such a high death toll across Europe. As a school child, I was taught the version of history that had black rats swarming through the streets, whilst boil-covered sufferers died in the thousands. But it has become increasingly clear that the black rat and their fleas alone could not have killed so many people, in so few months. For a start, the black rat was not established in the mid 14th century in England, and could not have travelled such distances, at such speed. In addition, the bubonic form of the Plague is not highly contagious. Research is now indicating that it was the pneumonic form of the same bacterial infection, Yersinia Pestis, that is likely to have caused the scale of the pandemic. Pneumonic plague infects the lungs rather than the lymphatic system (as the bubonic form does). Pneumonic plague was easily transmitted person to person by close contact and coughing; it could continue to infect during the winter months (when fleas were inactive due to lower temperatures;) and it was always fatal.

What other projects are you working on? 

My life! I’m not being flippant – but writing two novels in three years has been an all-consuming affair. When I’m not researching, writing or promoting my first novel – I try to relax, read other people’s books and just be a normal human being.

~Sandra Alvarez 

Click here to read our review of Plague Land

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