Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Blog Tour Interview: Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time by Sylvia Nilsen

Please join me in welcoming author Sylvia Nilsen to Let Them Read Books! Sylvia is touring the blogosphere with her debut historical fiction novel, Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time, romance and intrigue set on a pilgrimage trail from England to Spain in the turbulent twelfth century. I worked with Sylvia in designing the cover of Pilgrim Footprints, and I'm happy to have her here today talking about the inspiration for her novel and what the Camino pilgrimage trail means to her. Read on for a chance to win a copy of Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time!

Hi Sylvia! Thanks for taking the time to appear on Let Them Read Books!

It is a pleasure.

You have devoted a good portion of your life to the Camino de Santiago. Can you tell us how the pilgrimage route became so important to you?

I first walked 800 km of the route known as the Camino Frances in northern Spain in 2002. I was very fit and walked long stages, completing the walk from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in 27 days. This meant walking an average of 30 km per day, although some days were a bit shorter and others much longer.

When I returned home, the Confraternity of St. James of South Africa, which had been established in Cape Town the year before, asked if I would be the local representative in my Province. At our first pilgrim get-together, 12 people came. They told dreamy-eyed stories of communal dinners in lamp light, having their feet washed at pilgrim blessings, and about places I honestly didn’t remember seeing! I was determined to go back, walk slower, and experience these special pilgrim places.

I have returned to the trail – and have done a few other routes – seven times in the last 12 years. I have served in pilgrim shelters, trained South African pilgrims to volunteer in pilgrim shelters, and started a small company that takes pilgrims on the Camino Frances. Writing about the Camino has consolidated all that I know and love about the Camino.

You've been writing nonfiction about the pilgrimage for some time. What inspired you to write a novel about it?

Actually, the idea for the novel came long before I decided to write a Camino planning handbook! When I was planning to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2002, I ordered a guidebook from England and a small metal brooch, a replica of a medieval Santiago pewter brooch in the shape of a scallop shell. The original was recovered from the banks of the River Thames during routine dredging in 1989. I saw the original brooch in the Medieval Gallery in the Museum of London in 2004 and was quite fascinated by it. How had such a precious, hard-earned item, bought in Santiago by a pilgrim from England, landed up in the river? The explanations that pilgrimage artefacts were discarded after the Reformation, or that the pilgrim’s family probably didn’t value the souvenir and threw it away, didn’t satisfy me. I decided that I could write a much better story about the brooch, the pilgrim who made the long, hazardous pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, and how the brooch ended up in the river.

But you know what it’s like with novels – you have the seed of a story, you develop the characters, write the first draft and put it in a drawer. Every time I walked the Camino, I took the "book" out and started all over with it. It actually took another ten years to get the book published!

People from all walks of life traveled the route to the sacred shrine. How did you shape the characters that make the pilgrimage in your novel?

I knew from the start that the story would be set in the late 12th century, as this was the hey-day of Christian pilgrimage in Europe. I also knew that the main characters would be English, so I had to choose a family from a village in England, and I did this by researching villages in the Doomsday book. Once I’d chosen the village, it was easy to name the characters from the church-yard in that village.

Many people from England were sent on penitential pilgrimages, so I had to decide on a crime. The murder of Thomas Becket coincided perfectly with my time period. Choosing the brother of one of the knights who killed Thomas Becket as one of the main protagonists provided some tension in the story between the aristocracy and the lower class. My main protagonist is a young healer from the small village, and the love story in the book revolves around him and the niece of the aristocratic lord.

Your novel is likely to be an introduction to the pilgrimage for many readers. What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

I hope that they can understand the mindset of pilgrims and pilgrimage in that era and that they accept  the integrity of the pilgrims who made long, dangerous journeys to shrines all over Europe in order to earn indulgences for the forgiveness of their sins and time off purgatory. Most of the population was illiterate, superstitious, and completely controlled by the church.

There has been a resurgence in the popularity of the old pilgrimage trails – especially to Santiago de Compostela. Paulo Coelho made it famous in his first book, The Pilgrimage. Shirley MacLaine wrote about revisiting her previous lives in The Camino – a Journey of the Spirit. Two years ago, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez made an Indie film called The Way based on a modern pilgrimage to the tomb of St James. There have been very few historical novels written about the pilgrimage to Santiago, and I hope Pilgrim Footprints will provide some understanding of the pilgrims in whose footsteps the modern pilgrim walks.

What are you working on now?

I have started a sequel to Pilgrim Footprints in which the prophecy of a French gypsy will come true. It is set in the 20th and 21st century.

Excellent news! And such inspiring answers!
Thanks, Syl!

This giveaway is closed and the winner has been selected.
Check my sidebar for more great giveaways!

And now for the

Enter for a shot at a paperback copy of Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time by leaving a comment on this post with your email address. That's it!

This giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada and ends at 11:59pm Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Winner will be selected at random. Good luck!

Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time is on a blog tour!


  1. Enjoyed this interview and now I'm anxious to read the book. I esp. like the connection to Thomas Becket. Sounds like a great novel. Thanks for the giveaway.

  2. Thanks for this captivating and fascinating novel feature. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  3. What a wonderful interview which gave me insight into the novel and the author. Many thanks. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  4. Fantastic interview. Am sad I couldn't be on this tour as the book sounds just marvelous -- a real place-as-character novel! I really just love how that brooch inspired a novel. I've long wanted to walk the Camino -- perhaps this novel will be my only opportunity to do so!

  5. This sounds like a great book! westmetromommy(at)gmail(dot)com

  6. Sounds like a great book and a very interesting interview.
    Don't count me in for the giveaway as I live overseas.

  7. Love the cover!

    lag110 at mchsi dot com

  8. Great interview! Sounds like a great book! Thanks for the chance

    king_nickolay @ yahoo . com

  9. Walking the pilgrimage route, several times and different ones too, really is great research for the story. The cover is so beautiful and the lighting on the arch gives the impression of an angel's wing beside the girl Thank you for the giveaway.


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