Shortlist Spotlight: Jane Harris

3rd May, 2018

Jane Harris, author of the wonderful Sugar Money, which is based on a little-known true story, answered some of our questions about her work for the second in our Shortlist Spotlight series.

Q: What do you think about being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction?  Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?

I’m genuinely delighted. Since my family live in Scotland and I grew up there, it’s a particular honour to be acknowledged by the judges of this prize. Also, I usually write about Scotland and one reason for embarking upon Sugar Money was to highlight the country’s involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade, so it feels somehow appropriate that the book has been included on the list.

As for whether I see myself as a historical novelist – that’s an interesting question. When I began to write fiction, I produced only contemporary short stories. Alas, it soon became clear that it’s hard to make a living out of publishing stories. However, I had no clue how to construct a full-length piece of fiction until I had an idea, to ‘cheat’ a bit, and create a series of linked stories all with a Scottish theme and try to pass them off as a novel. In the end, one of these tales – a story about a young Irish girl who meets a Robert Burns-style farmer-poet – kept growing and, ultimately, a much-changed version of that became my first novel, The Observations.

After The Observations, I’d imagined that I would return to contemporary fiction. But, as it happened, I soon became interested in the era of The Glasgow Boys at the turn of the 19th Century and that became the setting for Gillespie and I, my second novel. Then the idea for Sugar Money came to me halfway through writing Gillespie and I, with the result that I’ve ended up producing three historical novels in a row. I do love writing about the past but the research is time-consuming, as is the attention needed to ensure that the whole thing is historically accurate. Currently, I need a bit of a break from all that, so the novel I’m working on at the moment is contemporary. So, it’s complicated!

Q: How did the people and times you write about in this novel first lodge in your imagination?

Sugar Money is based on little-known true events that took place in the Windward Islands in 1765. I first encountered the story in a history book – Grenada, A History of Its People, by Caribbean historian Beverley Steele. The character at the centre of events – an enslaved man, identified only as ‘the mulatto’ in the original documents – intrigued me. His masters (French mendicant monks in Martinique) ordered him to undertake an impossible-seeming quest: to travel to Grenada and ‘repossess’ (in effect, steal) a large number of slaves that had once belonged to the monks, right from under the noses of their new English/Scottish owners. I became haunted by this enslaved man, by his bravery and dignity, and it seemed wrong to me that his story had become so little-known.

Of course, I was – and am – very aware of my white privilege and did ask various friends, writers of colour, if they thought I was crazy to tackle such a subject. They told me that yes, I probably was crazy – but as long as I did it well enough, it wouldn’t matter. So, that was the challenge; I knew I’d have to write a good book.

Q: What role does research have in your writing?  When does the fiction take over from the facts?

Research is crucial. It begins when I have the idea for a novel and carries on all the way through to the final draft, even to proof-stage. I’m one of those writers who likes to be as historically accurate as possible, so the research never ends. However, I’m also a great believer in ‘hiding’ the research. Your research notes shouldn’t be visible to the reader. If a fact isn’t relevant to the story then, really, it shouldn’t be in the book.

Even though The Observations is entirely a work of imagination, not based on true events, the period detail still has to be accurate. Gillespie and I is also a work of imagination, set in the art world of Scotland in the late 1880s, at the time of the International Exhibition, and so I had to undertake a good deal of research to get the detail of Glasgow and the art world right.

When it came to Sugar Money, research had a hand in steering the plot. These were real people, enslaved people, and I felt I owed it to them to stick closely to the facts. Having said that, there are great gaps in what is known about the true story behind the novel, with the result that I had a lot of inventing to do. With some of the people involved, all I had to go on was a list of slave names and it was from those names that I built their characters. For instance, I just knew that someone called Angelique Le Vieux had to be a force of nature. At other times, in terms of narrative, I had to piece together the plot by looking at the motivation of a character and analyzing what actually happened in real life e.g.: X happened and then Y happened – so why did the person involved make the decision to do Y? That’s often how the narrative grew. So, the facts often drove the fiction.

Q: Do you think that writing about the past is important for society?

Absolutely. Well-written, page-turning historical fiction can make the past more accessible. Historical novels can also provide a glimpse of events or of people on the margins of society that – for whatever reason – have been overlooked or forgotten. We learn from the past – or we should. There’s that famous George Santayana quote: ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Historical fiction can also comment on and illuminate contemporary society and events. For me, the initial motivating factor in writing Sugar Money was to tell the story of a real man who had been forgotten. However, as the novel progressed, I was also thinking of the millions of people who, even today, all around the world, exist in enslavement of one kind or another: in enforced marriage, child marriage, child labour, wage bondage, the sex trade and even in nail bars and car washes. Slavery is still with us, alas.