Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Q&A with Sara Sheridan, Author of On Starlit Seas

Please join me in welcoming Sara Sheridan to Let Them Read Books! Sara is celebrating the release of her newest historical fiction novel, On Starlit Seas, and I recently had the chance to ask Sara a few questions about her heroine, real-life historical figure Maria Graham, her inspiration for the story, and how chocolate came to take center stage. Read on and grab your own copy of On Starlit Seas!

A breathless tale of adventure, love, and chocolate set at the height of the British Empire

Chocolate. Smuggling. Secrets and Lies. Brazil and London, 1824: charged with a mission by the Empress of Brazil, celebrated writer and the toast of Georgian London Maria Graham sets off for England with the Brazilian civil war at its height. Newly widowed and a woman traveling alone, the stakes are high and when she accepts roguish smuggler Captain James Henderson's offer of passage on his ship, she gets more than she bargains for . . .

Henderson is on a journey of his own, back to his childhood home in Covent Garden. Onboard Maria discovers both a dangerous secret concealed in a chocolate bar and an irresistible attraction to the mysterious captain. But falling in love with a smuggler is almost unthinkable for a woman of Maria's social standing. Though Henderson tries his utmost to abandon his life of crime and forge a new identity as a London gentleman, he is caught in a dangerous tangle with a deadly aristocratic smuggling ring. The only chance he has to save himself and prove worthy of Maria is to unmask the gang and break free from their clutches, but will it be enough?

Hi Sara! Welcome to Let Them Read Books!

I had never heard of Maria Graham until I saw your book. What a fascinating life she lived! How did you first discover her, and what inspired you to write a novel about her?

I’m a nerd! In Edinburgh where I live, the National Library has an archive of papers from the John Murray publishing house. The Murrays published Maria (along with most notable Georgians and early Victorians from Jane Austen to Lord Byron) and they hoarded notes, papers, letters, journals—everything that came through their hands. I was in the library one day when the archivist showed me Maria’s journal (or one of them). I was hooked. A lot of archive material is dull content, but Maria’s tone was immediately engaging—I loved her straight off!

Is Captain Henderson based on a real historical figure?

No. Not AT ALL. I made him up. Dishy, isn’t he?

What kind of research did you do for this story? Did you get to do any traveling? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

Most of the material was in the John Murray Archive and the rest was in the library. Maria wrote detailed descriptions of everywhere she went and also made sketches—she was a lifelong traveller—and those places aren’t as she described them any more so there was no point in visiting. I love this period—I’ve written two other books set at the same time, so I already had a working knowledge of what London was like in the early 19th century but Brazil was new to me. I love the research stage—it feels like a luxury.

How did chocolate come to play such an important role in the story? (It certainly plays an important role in my life!)

ME TOO. Well, Captain Henderson had to have an expertise and Brazil grows lots of chocolate so it was either chocolate or coffee, and I picked chocolate. Obviously I had to research the subject thoroughly! Interestingly chocolate was a drink in the period, and didn’t come in edible bars. It was also very strong compared to our chocolate now. I’m addicted to 80% dark chocolate cocoa as a result of writing this book. I have a local chocolatier, just down the road from where I live. She helped me a lot.

Which scene in the novel was the most fun to write?

For me, I loved that John Murray, Maria’s publisher was keen to defend her reputation. She had figured out how to measure earthquakes but wasn’t allowed to present her findings at the Royal Society in London. In the novel I wrote a scene with Murray taking on the society and fighting for Maria’s right to present her formula. It drips with sexism and snobbery and that was good material and fun to write. In real life, Charles Darwin stood up for her and in the end she did get to present her theory. Go Maria!

What do you hope readers come away with regarding Maria after finishing the novel?

I’m a feminist and one of the things that  I campaign about is that we don’t memorialise women. Female material is rare in the archive. In Edinburgh, where I live, we have more statues to animals than to women. Really. So one of the things I love writing about are amazing women—in fact, in every book I try to memorialise a woman I’ve found—someone whose achievements has been clouded or lost. If Maria was a man who’d figured out how to measure earthquakes and who’d travelled and written loads of books, many more people would have heard of her. We have incredible great great great grandmothers. We just didn’t learn about them in school.

What are you working on now?

More recently I’ve started a company that makes perfume to memorialise our sheroes and also make a stand against the way the beauty industry represents women. Our first scent was in UK Vogue in June—it’s in memory of the Jacobite women (who were amazing firebrands one and all—the real women who lived Outlander, I suppose). It’s here:

About the Author:

Sara Sheridan is the author of Brighton Belle, England Expects, and London Calling. She is a cultural commentator who appears regularly on television and radio. In 2014 she was named one of the Saltire Society's 365 Most Influential Scottish Women, past and present. To learn more about Sara and her books, visit her website.

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